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For Aaron Eckhart, the part of a handsome literary scholar who woos Gwyneth Paltrow in the new film Possession posed a problem only he could have. “It was strange for him to have to look in the mirror and be concerned about how his hair looked,” says director Neil LaBute, a longtime pal. “You could see him doing it and then looking around and checking if anybody was watching, because he felt stupid.”

No wonder. Since his breakout role as a cad who seduces and dumps a deaf woman for sport in 1997’s In the Company of Men, Eckhart, 34, has gone from scruffy, pony-tailed biker in Erin Brockovich to mullet-sporting philanderer in Nurse Betty. “He drops all his vanity at the door, which is rare,” says Hilary Swank, his costar in November’s sci-fi thriller The Core. “He really likes to dig in.” In other words, he’s been barely recognizable beneath all that bad grooming—and bad behavior. In Possession, though, “I get to be smart and sarcastic, and I get the girl,” he says. “It’s more me being me.”

What he lacks in modesty he makes up in charm. After all, it’s a rare man who can claim that Julia Roberts babysat his dog (a 7-year-old yellow Labrador named Dirty) and Paltrow taught him yoga. Still, Eckhart’s most serious relationship to date, his engagement to actress Emily Cline, ended in 1998. “I would love to get married. I would love to have kids,” he says. “But it just hasn’t happened yet.” Careerwise, his closest partnership is with director LaBute, an old friend from college who has cast him in each of his four films, including 1998’s Your Friends & Neighbors, for which Eckhart gained 48 lbs. “I ate candy bars, banana splits, Pop Tarts,” he says. Now back down to 170 lbs., the 6-ft. Eckhart boxes and runs to stay fit, when he’s not glued to the tube watching NASCAR racing in the three-bedroom country-style house he recently bought in Beverly Hills. “It feels good,” he says, “to finally have my own home.”

Growing up in L.A., Eckhart was a typical California kid: a Boy Scout who surfed and played soccer. But when he was 13, his father, James, 60, a computer company executive, and mother, Mary, 59, a children’s book author, moved their three sons to England for James’s work. “I freaked out!” says Eckhart. “I was finally getting girls. I had just gotten my first pair of Levi’s jeans. You know what I mean? I was finally cool.” After the culture shock wore off, Eckhart found his calling when he won the role of Charlie Brown in a school musical. “He sort of stepped out of himself when he was onstage,” says his mother.

His family moved again before his senior year, to Sydney, where Eckhart finished his coursework by correspondence. After that he took three years off to surf in Hawaii and ski in France. “I didn’t have a plan,” he says. “I was just hanging out.” Eventually he enrolled as a film major at Brigham Young University (he was raised as a Mormon), where he met LaBute, a drama Ph.D. student who cast him in the dark, edgy plays LaBute wrote and put on at the school. Three years after Eckhart graduated in 1994, it was LaBute who gave him his first movie break in the low-budget In the Company of Men, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. “Afterwards this woman came up to me and called me a bastard,” says Eckhart. “So I knew it was a big hit.”

The more gentle Possession is likely to have a different effect on women. But for now Eckhart, who is filming the upcoming thriller Suspect Zero in Albuquerque, has only one roommate: Dirty. “My life right now,” he says, “is my dog and my job. I know that one day the rest will follow.”

Julie K.L. Dam

Ulrica Wihlborg in Albuquerque