Aaron Eckhart’s teenage obsessions: ‘Pink Floyd saved my life’

The Hollywood star recalls his childhood in San Jose, Sydney and Walton-on-Thames, falling for Grease and Macbeth – and his enduring love for The Young Ones

Rocky, Grease and Star Wars

I saw Rocky at the Century 21 theatre in San Jose, California, when I was 11 and your mom still had to take you to the movies. Everybody wanted to be a boxer; everybody ran up the stairs; everyone did the impression: “Adrian!” It’s still one of the greatest movies of all time. I recently spoke to Stallone on the phone and had to tell him: “Man, you changed every kid’s life.”

I must have seen Grease seven times. I knew all the songs. I wanted to be in Travolta’s gang and I was head-over-heels in love with Olivia Newton-John. Then Star Wars came out and punched a hole through my face. I loved the Stormtroopers and the bar with the weird aliens. Harrison Ford was a real movie star – just like Stallone in Rocky, Travolta in Grease and McQueen, Nicholson, Redford, Newman and Eastwood before them. They were so cool, understated and confident. We had real American heroes in the 70s.

You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown

The album cover for the original cast recording of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.
Loving it ... the album cover for the original cast recording of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Photograph: Records/Alamy

I was living the California dream in Cupertino: surfing, girls. My dad worked for a computer company, but wanted to see the world. One day, I came home from scout camp and he said: “Family meeting in the living room. We’re moving to England.” So we moved to Ripley, near Walton-on-Thames. It was a tough adjustment. It was the fall, so it rained. But before long I was skiing in Switzerland, playing sports around Europe and going into London every weekend. I said to my older brother: “We’re the luckiest guys in the world.”

I went to the American community school in Cobham, Surrey. I was on my way to rugby practice, aged 14, and there was a flyer on a post: “Auditioning for You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.” I’d never acted, but thought: “I’ll try out for that.” I was the only one who tried out for Charlie Brown – it was a small school – and I got the main part. I had seven singing solos and I loved it. My next play was The Cinderella Complex. That’s where I met my first girlfriend, this lovely Iranian girl called Maisoon, and thought: “Hey! This is all working out.”

British rock and heavy metal

London influenced me in a big way. I played a lot of soccer and rugby. I would go into London to see theatre at the Hippodrome and I went to every concert I possibly could. It was the 80s, but I didn’t jump on the bandwagon of Culture Club and Duran Duran. I was more into hard rock, so I went to see Judas Priest and Iron Maiden. My first ever concert was Foreigner, supported by the American rock band Gamma, at Wembley in 1982. I saw the Stones at Wembley. We had a piano at our house in Walton and our piano tuner knew Def Leppard, because he tuned their pianos. So I got all my Def Leppard vinyl signed, which was a big deal. Plus, the house that we lived in was rented out by Eric Clapton’s mother.

After London, we moved to Sydney. I went to school for one day and said: no way. So I did my school from correspondence and my mom was my teacher. I’ve never seen a diploma. I don’t even know if I’ve actually graduated high school. Then we moved to Hawaii, France and Switzerland. My parents eventually moved to Israel, Stockholm and Munich and I moved to New York to become an actor.

Dave Gilmour, Slash and Eddie Van Halen

Axl Rose and Slash of Guns N' Roses in Brazil in 1991.
‘Slash is speaking to you and complements Axl Rose with such humility’ ... Guns N’ Roses in 1991. Photograph: Kevin.Mazur/WireImage

Pink Floyd saved my life. They got me through girls and the rejection of my awkward teenage years. Only a couple of guys take the guitar to another level. I recorded Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii from TV on to VCR and would watch it over and over. I was transfixed by how David Gilmour matches his guitar playing to Roger Waters’ vocals. Slash transcends the guitar. His guitar playing in Guns N’ Roses is beyond riffs. He is speaking to you and complements Axl Rose with such humility. The same goes for Eddie Van Halen. Gilmour, Slash and Van Halen are my guitar heroes.

I was also trying to play guitar. I wanted to be a songwriter throughout all my teenage years, so all I did during my time in England was try to write songs and play guitar all day long. I was a decent songwriter, but my shyness and embarrassment eventually got the better of me. I just didn’t have the confidence to blossom and so turned to acting instead.

The Young Ones

Christopher Ryan, Rik Mayall, Adrian Edmondson and Nigel Planer in The Young Ones.
Totally out of the box ... Christopher Ryan, Rik Mayall, Adrian Edmondson and Nigel Planer in The Young Ones. Photograph: Everett Collection/Alamy

I arrived in England in the early 80s when there were still only three TV channels. I was used to watching Emmerdale Farm and Yes Minister. Then The Young Ones came on and just blew me away. I loved the irreverence. I loved that they share this house, but are all so different. I loved how they smack each other around. It would just flip from one thing to another. It was totally out of the box.

I’d watch it with my family or school friends and record it on our VCRs so that we could memorise the lines. Even today, 30 or 40 years later, I’ll see Vyv [Adrian Edmondson] or Neil [Nigel Planer] in something and think: “It’s Vyv!” or: “It’s Neil!” I can still quote the lines.

People in America know The Young Ones. It had a life here, too. We also got The Comic Strip Presents … with that guy [Alexei Sayle] who did that song about that car [Ullo John! Gotta New Motor?]. I particularly remember the episode Didn’t You Kill My Brother? where he plays the gangster twins.

Macbeth

Blood on his hands ... Joseph Millson as Macbeth in Shakespeare’s Globe’s 2013 production
Blood on his hands ... Joseph Millson as Macbeth in Shakespeare’s Globe’s 2013 production. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Acting is very cathartic. You’re always analysing yourself. People say: “What’s so hard about acting?” Most movies are about killing and betrayal. Look at Shakespeare. Shakespeare writes about everything that is bad in life. It takes a lot of soul searching to be an actor.

Macbeth was a huge play in my life. The idea of blood on your hands, betrayal, killing your friends for power and money … it’s still powerful. I see Macbeth in everything that’s going on today. People sell their souls. And I see Lady Macbeths everywhere, driving their husbands to commit murder and treason. You look at the wife and go: “She’s got blood on her hands.”

I’ve been on courses, but I’ve always been terrified of Shakespeare. Schools make Shakespeare too big and complicated. It’s the ultimate prize, especially as an American. I’m in awe of actors who have done Shakespeare, like Mel Gibson and Ralph Fiennes. I just wish Shakespeare hadn’t been built up with so much mustard on top so that I could try and fail.

• Aaron Eckhart’s latest film, Wander, is on digital platforms from 26 July

Contributor

As told to Rich Pelley

The GuardianTramp

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