Aaron Eckhart, Getting into Character Shouldn’t Mean Betraying Bereaved Parents

By Suzanne Leigh

How far should Hollywood go when it comes to prepping for new roles? For the broodingly handsome actor Aaron Eckhart, it meant folding himself into a wheelchair, donning a wig and bandana to resemble a disheveled Vietnam vet and hitting on passersby in a disconcertingly upscale patch of Venice Boulevard in L.A.

That was for “Incarnate,” a low-budget horror movie that has not yet been released. His dedication might be revered. For “Rabbit Hole,” a 2010 movie in which he co-starred with Nicole Kidman as the father and mother of a 4-year-old who died in a car accident, Eckhart pushed the envelope much harder: he infiltrated a support group for grieving parents and shared a fictitious story about losing a son.

Eckhart, who has been lauded for his “standout, whip-smart” performance in the movie “Thank you for Smoking” and has been named one of People magazine’s “100 most beautiful people,” is congenial and self-effacing by all accounts, so it’s disappointing to learn that he felt it was OK to join a bereaved parents group by impersonating a grieving father and that recounting the ruse with Howard Stern* on his radio show was a hilarious experience for him.

“When you’re done with that [deception] did you turn to your group and say, ‘Come see Rabbit Hole’?” said Stern, to which Eckhart revealed that the true purpose of the visit was never disclosed. “Hey, is this a national show?” he asked. Yes and now these people will realize why you were there, Stern acknowledged, as both stars howled with laughter.

Sorry, I missed the joke –- and I’ll bet just about every other bereaved parent did, too.

Losing a child isn’t just bone achingly painful, it’s intensely isolating. Not because people don’t care -– they do –- but because there is nowhere for us to go and few safe places for us to express our grief. At work, we’re meant to be briskly professional; on social occasions we’re meant to smile and be gracious. Support groups for bereaved parents, if we’re lucky enough to find one that works for us (and pickings are thinner than slim), might be the single place where a bereaved parent can be true to their feelings, because nobody there has not lost a child. It’s where you don’t have to pretend that it’s just your contact lenses that are making you tear up, where you don’t cringe when someone asks brightly, “How are you?” — members know better than to ask — and where you discover that it’s OK for dads to cry. Eckhart invaded sacrosanct territory by pretending to be one of us — and then he laughed about it.

Eckhart could have taken the more convoluted but ethical route of asking his agent to find bereaved parents who would discuss their loss with him to help him get into character. That wouldn’t be too much of a stretch given that many bereaved parents love talking about their children, even with dazzling celebrities. But that might have been too time-consuming for a Hollywood A-lister. Suppose mom or dad wouldn’t stop talking about their late kid? Suppose they wanted his e-mail or phone number? Awkward.

I think you owe the participants of the support group that welcomed you and that you betrayed a letter of apology, Aaron Eckhart. Oh and a lot of us are active in raising money for causes related to the death of our children. So a donation might not hurt, either.

*Howard Stern with Aaron Eckhart. From 12:40 to 16:10.

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