IT has taken more than two dozen films, but Aaron Eckhart has finally completed the move from hate figure to hero.

In his new movie, Olympus Has Fallen, the Dark Knight star plays US President Benjamin Asher, the man in charge of the White House when terrorists strike. Directed by Antoine Fuqua (Training Day), and with Morgan Freeman as House Speaker and Scotland's Gerard Butler as a secret service guard, Fuqua's film flies the stars and stripes so high it makes Yankee Doodle Dandy look a shade pinko.

Central to the tale is Eckhart, who once played the most loathed movie character in America, the misogynist Chad in the 1997 black comedy In The Company of Men. (Typical Chad joke: "What's the difference between a golf ball and a G-spot? I'll spend 20 minutes looking for a golf ball.")

"Oh my gosh, people hated me," says Eckhart, laughing. "Women hated me, guys loved me." Did he like or loathe the character?

"I never judged him. I just tried to be him. That's why I think it's so effective. Today the tendency would be for an actor to make fun of Chad so that they themselves didn't take the heat. I took a lot of heat for that movie. Still do."

President Asher should go some way to making up for that. Loving husband, devoted father, Mr President could only be more female-friendly if he was a dab hand with a blow-dryer as well. This, however, wasn't why Eckhart, 45, took the role. He had wanted to work with Fuqua since the director made detectives out of Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke, re-inventing the cop movie along the way. "Training Day was an insane film, it made a huge impression on me."

Fuqua says of Eckhart: "He's very presidential, and really handsome with that dimple". Eckhart does indeed have a Robert Redford/The Candidate look about him, not that he sees himself that way.

"I don't think I'm considered handsome. If you were to hire a handsome actor in Hollywood you'd hire someone like Ben Affleck."

What he and Butler, also a producer on the film, have is something different, he says. "I don't think either of us is a male model but we do exude a certain maleness that people like to see in a film like this."

He thought Butler's American accent was "first rate". An American accent is part of any actor's travel kit these days, he says.

"Australian actors are perfect with American characters. Daniel Day-Lewis has played the President, Batman is English." There is not so much traffic the other way, though. "The only one who can really do it is Gwyneth [Paltrow, his co-star in Possession]. She's pretty much English anyway, right? She spends so much time over here."

Eckhart, born in Cupertino, California, in 1968, spent time over here too when his parents, an IT executive and a children's author, moved to Surrey then he was young. Australia was next on the Eckhart family itinerary. Moving a lot wasn't the only thing that made him an actor, but it helped. "It certainly strengthened my imagination, that muscle. I'm sort of a solitary beast, a loner type of guy. I've had to use my imagination lot and make friends quickly in different areas."

After almost two decades in the business, Eckhart's CV included such films as Erin Brockovich, The Black Dahlia, Thank You for Smoking, and Nurse Betty. It was his performance as District Attorney Harvey Dent in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, however, that was the real calling card.

Working with Nolan showed him that while technology might have advanced to a point where special effects can show anything, doing things for real carries a certain power.

"Yes there was green screen but he was flipping trucks in the streets, he was bringing the helicopters in, everything was working, practical, so the audience got a richer experience for that. There's always room for a good old shoot 'em up. Human to human."

The film also gave Eckhart a chance to watch the late Heath Ledger in action as The Joker, a performance that called to mind an earlier Batman film.

"Heath did something that very few actors could do which was trump the untrumpable – Jack Nicholson. Nicholson is one of the greatest actors ever and Heath made The Joker his own."

The Dark Knight, which took a billion dollars at the global box office, was light years away from the time when Eckhart was an archetypal young actor in New York.

"I was going on what I thought was thousands of auditions, never got a job for four years. But I never lost confidence in myself; I just said everybody else is crazy. I didn't know how I was going to do it. I was 27 years of age. If I had been my friend I would have said 'You know, you might want to go to air conditioning school or something'. It worked out for me because of Neil."

That would be Neil LaBute. Eckhart met LaBute while the former was studying at Brigham Young University in Utah. After a successful theatrical run of In the Company of Men, LaBute asked him to play Chad in the film.

Eckhart thought it would be a minor arthouse hit. "I wasn't scared about any backlash because I didn't think the movie was going anywhere." But after a screening at Sundance the tale of two office drones who compete to date and dump a female colleague went on to become one of the most talked-about films of the year.

"I'm never concerned about what audiences will think of me. I'm concerned about what I think of me, but if I say yes to a part and he's just a malicious, misogynistic pig, then that's what I'm going to do." Ditto Thank You For Smoking, in which Eckhart played a lobbyist for the tobacco industry. As many an actor has found, it's nice to play nasty, and Eckhart is nice. He is happy, for instance, to talk about his Mormon upbringing and why he won't be going to see the satirical musical The Book of Mormon while he is in London.

"That's for other people. I don't need to go. They don't have the same history with the church as I do. My history is a very good one, it's a very wholesome one, it's all about family and love and togetherness. I don't want to go taint that with somebody else's view of it."

Eckhart will be seen next in I, Frankenstein, a novel take on Mary Shelley's tale that involves stick fighting. Eckhart plays Adam, the monster. "It's a crazy life," he laughs. "You can't make this stuff up, but they still do." What he is particularly keen to do is work with LaBute again. "We need to go out and make another movie, get back to what we do best. He writes it and I can say it. We're trying to work something out where we can go shock the world again."

Olympus Has Fallen opens in cinemas on April 17