Eckhart gained his first wide exposure as the pony-tailed biker who eventually wins the heart of a rough-around-the-edges legal crusader (Julia Roberts) in “Erin Brockovich” (2000). In his first full-blown romantic role, Eckhart exhibited an affable, easygoing nature and magnetic screen charisma; an appealing contrast to Roberts’ gruff, foul-mouthed exterior. Reuniting with LaBute, he delivered an amusing performance as a sleazy used-car salesman who neglects his sweet-natured spouse (Renee Zellweger) in “Nurse Betty” (2000). Sean Penn then tapped Eckhart to play a young detective partnered with a grizzled veteran (Jack Nicholson) on the verge of retirement in “The Pledge” (2001), before the actor reunited a fourth time with LaBute for “Possession” (2002). In LaBute’s first book-to-screen adaptation, he played an academic researcher attempting to reconstruct the relationship between two Victorian-era authors with a London-based expert (Gwyneth Paltrow), sparking a romance despite their apprehensions. Eckhart then portrayed a geophysicist who – along with Hilary Swank and Bruce Greenwood – tries to detonate a nuclear device in order to jumpstart the Earth’s electromagnetic forces and save the world from destruction in the low-thrills sci-fi action flick, “The Core” (2003).
Eckhart was gleefully provocative in “Thank You for Smoking” (2006), playing a lobbyist for Big Tobacco who spins and schemes his way through a maze of overzealous health advocates and opportunistic politicians while defending the rights of smokers. Eckhart’s brash performance in Jason Reitman’s satire earned big laughs at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, generating enough buzz for a good showing in its limited theatrical release. After an easily dismissed turn as a freewheeling chef working for a no-nonsense master (Catherine Zeta-Jones) with whom he falls in love in “No Reservations” (2007), Eckhart was cast to star in Alan Ball’s untitled directorial debut, “Towelhead,” an adaptation of Alicia Erian’s novel about a 13-year-old girl fending off sexual obsession by a bigoted Army reservist under the oppressive eye of her Lebanese father during the 1991 Gulf War. Meanwhile, Eckhart finally landed the big-budget role that could have finally etched his name on the A-list, playing Harvey Dent/Two Face in Christopher Nolan’s second Batman effort, “The Dark Knight” (2008).