Aaron Eckhart talks role with Tom Hanks in Clint Eastwood’s ‘Sully’

Aaron Eckhart has a recurring nightmare. It involves a plane crash. But he didn’t let that stop him when he had the chance to play co-pilot to Tom Hanks in “Sully,” the new film about legendary US Airways pilot Chesley Sullenberger. It opens Sept. 9.

Directed by Clint Eastwood, who Eckhart calls “the boss,” the film depicts “the Miracle on the Hudson” — that bleak day in January 2009, when Sullenberger (Hanks) and co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Eckhart) took off from LaGuardia Airport and immediately struck a flock of geese, knocking out both engines and forcing Sully to glide the disabled jet onto the Hudson River, saving all 155 lives on board. Sully became a national hero — but his career and reputation were soon on the line when he faced intense scrutiny from the National Transportation Safety Board.

Eckhart, 48, is known for solid, acclaimed performances in films like “In the Company of Men,” “Erin Brockovich” (opposite Julia Roberts) and “Rabbit Hole” (opposite Nicole Kidman). He spoke with Newsday contributor Joseph V. Amodio.

What’s it like being Tom Hanks’ co-pilot?

I was so impressed. Tom spent time with the real Capt. Sullenberger, who is so focused, disciplined, a master of what he does. Tom nailed him. There’s this scene when Sully is interrogated by the review board, and Sully gives this speech about how you can’t know what it was like unless you were up there. I said to Tom, “Wow, you went the other way with it.” Most actors would’ve gone big, pounding the table. But Tom is so restrained. I think Capt. Sullenberger will be proud.

When you met the real “Sully” — and co-pilot, Skiles — were they as you expected or did they surprise you in some way?

The thing that surprised me the most about Sully, Jeff, and all the pilots I’ve met, is that they’re all “This is business as usual — it’s what we train for.” Both Sully and Skiles said their hearts were beating out of their chests. But they had to fight that, and focus on the task at hand.

You’ve talked to other pilots?

One time on a flight, I went to the cockpit, introduced myself, told them about the film, and they let me in. They’re tossing around this story like it’s no big deal. [He laughs.] There’s a confidence among pilots that’s legendary. You can tell it by the mustaches.

Have you ever wanted to fly a plane yourself?

Actually, I’ve done a little flying, and resumed flight training for the movie.

What do you fly?

A Cessna 172 — a single prop. I have a ranch in Montana and thought it would be better to fly there than drive. Maybe it was a midnight crisis, or boredom — I don’t know. I like the rush of it, being up there in the wind, above it all. And the challenge of learning a new skill. I mean, I don’t want to die up there — I actually have recurring nightmares about falling from the sky.

So learning to fly was maybe a way to confront that?

Yeah . . . for some reason, I’ve always felt I was going to die in a plane wreck.

What’s it been like taking a flight since shooting the film?

I definitely feel more comfortable. These commercial planes are built to withstand the rigors of air travel. The pilots, too. I guess I’ve resigned myself — look, if this is it, then this is it. I’m not gonna worry about it.

You and Hanks had some time in a jet flight simulator. How’d you do?

We both crashed the plane. Many times. I laughed at him. He laughed at me. And “the boss” [Eastwood] was laughing at both of us. It’s not easy — these pilots are skilled. And the flight attendants.

You shot the plane scenes in an actual plane?

That was off the charts. They disassembled an A320 jet, flew it to California, and reassembled it at Universal Studios in L.A. We flooded it with water, had everybody out on the wings — and Tom running up and own the aisles. I was like — this is what Hollywood is all about.

Next up for you is “Bleed For This” — about a different kind of hero.

It’s another true-life story. Another remarkable character — the boxer Vinny Pazienza. The guy was a champ. He broke his neck, had screws in his head, but trained in his basement for a comeback. It’s great. I play his trainer.

Miles Teller plays “Paz.” I hear he’s intense.

Miles . . . . [He pauses.] We were in “Rabbit Hole” together. Miles was just getting out of school. It’s been interesting to watch the evolution of a new Hollywood star. He’s talented and . . . young. So the sky’s the limit.