Before Aaron Eckhart landed his breakout role as a scheming misogynist in 1997's In the Company of Men, he went four lean years without an acting gig. "If anybody tells me it's easy to be on a soap, I'll have to fight him," he says. "Because I couldn't get a soap, couldn't get a TV show, couldn't do anything."

Luckily, Eckhart caught a break from Men director Neil LaBute, an old college buddy from his days at Brigham Young University. But when the then-struggling actor excitedly shared news of being cast in the indie, he took offense at his agent's condescending reaction. Laughs Eckhart: "He said, 'That would be a nice exercise. Why don't you go down there and do it.' So I fired my agent. And ever since then, my life has been insane."

But in a good way, of course. A major coup for Eckhart was playing Julia Roberts's grease monkey beau in Erin Brockovich — a film whose box office chances he now admits having had his doubts about. "I knew [Julia] would be great in it, " he says, but "I didn't know if it was going to make money. I knew that Steven [Soderbergh] knows how to direct a film, [yet] I had no expectations of it being so great. I think Julia is going to win the Oscar. I'll put money on that."

Moviegoers familiar with his nasty turns in Men and Nurse Betty may be surprised by Eckhart's role in LaBute's upcoming Possession, which is based on a novel by A.S. Byatt. "I play my first romantic lead, which could be a laugh," he smirks. "It's Gwyneth [Paltrow] and me going out and discovering these things and falling in love, and talking sweet and all that kind of stuff."