The ''Thank You For Smoking'' actor talks about how this film could reignite his career

When the waiter at an empty Italian joint in New York’s meatpacking district deposits a pretty starter salad in front of Aaron Eckhart, the actor does something you don’t see too often in the celebrity-interview biz. He drops his big claw right down into the middle of his plate, mussing up the beets and mangling the endives until there’s dressing all over his fingers.

”I have a new appreciation,” he says, eyes on his dish, acting out the chef’s role, ”for how food’s arranged on the plate, what kind of plate they’re using, how clean it is, what the portions are, how the beets are sliced, where the walnuts are. Everything’s touched! Everything’s touched! The food is all touched! Everything!” he says admiringly, as he continues manhandling the salad for emphasis.

Eckhart keeps imparting kitchen know-how for a bit (”You pick up fish by the eyeballs!”), full of funny energy on the subject because he’s currently playing a chef opposite Catherine Zeta-Jones in a remake of the 2002 German romantic comedy Mostly Martha, now shooting in New York. But something about his foodie showmanship also calls to mind his rat-a-tat-tat work in Thank You for Smoking, a new political satire about a charming rascal of a tobacco lobbyist who motormouths through one virtuoso monologue after another. At work, his Nick Naylor is trying to outmaneuver a do-gooder senator (William H. Macy) who wants to put a skull and crossbones on all cigarette packs. The charming part? At home, he still wants to be a good dad to his kid (Cameron Bright). Flanked by an all-star cast that includes Maria Bello, Adam Brody, Katie Holmes, and Rob Lowe, he gives a performance that, hot off terrific festival buzz from Toronto and Sundance, has already upped his film stock more than any role since his stunning breakthrough as Chad, the male pig in Neil LaBute’s 1997 indie hit, In the Company of Men.

”The compliment I’m always getting from people about Aaron,” says Jason Reitman, Smoking‘s first-time feature writer-director (and filmmaker Ivan’s 28-year-old son), ”is that this is the movie they’ve been waiting for Aaron to make his entire career, since In the Company of Men — the film that shows he’s a movie star.”

When he finally stops fussing with his salad, and starts rapping about Smoking, Eckhart admits, ”I haven’t had a movie like this in a while, and I’m getting off on it. It’s turning me on that people are laughing, you know?”

The role marks a big turnaround for the 38-year-old actor, after a few years of poorly received stuff like Possession, Suspect Zero, Paycheck, and The Core. And he’s as pumped right now as his alter ego is throughout Smoking. ”Nick’s energy is forward — he’s not looking behind him,” explains Eckhart, as he points his hand straight out across the restaurant. ”Same as Chad. That’s what everybody responds to. I guess it’s a strength of mine, to tap into characters that are moving forward all the time. But if you look back on all my movies, they’ve been smaller parts with great directors, or they’ve been big movies that did what they did. All my other characters, they haven’t been that strong, and now that’s what I gotta look out for.”