Josh Hartnett had it all, gave it up, and now he’s back in summer’s biggest TV series, Penny Dreadful. Here he talks to Marie Claire's Martha Hayes about his Hollywood vanishing act and the hot new show we can't stop talking about...
There was a moment in the late 90s when Josh Hartnett was Hollywood’s floppy-haired, dimple-cheeked golden boy, courted by every director from Ridley Scott to Sofia Coppola. He set teen hearts racing in The Virgin Suicides, The Faculty and Pearl Harbor, had Scarlett Johansson and Helena Christensen on his arm, regularly turned down the role of Superman and was voted, wait for it, PETA’s Sexiest Vegetarian Alive in 2003.
It seemed everyone wanted a piece of his royal ‘Hot-nett’, as he was then known, only he didn’t want to play ball. Quickly abandoning blockbusters for (often dubious) indie flicks, he continued to work steadily; but, by Tinseltown standards, he disappeared into oblivion.
Cut to 2014 and there’s much buzz about the major gothic horror TV series produced for Showtime/Sky Atlantic by Sam Mendes. Hartnett, now 35, stars in Penny Dreadful alongside Eva Green, Billie Piper and Rory Kinnear in what’s easily his most-talked-about role in a decade, as well as his first project for TV since he started out in short-lived US crime series Cracker (a remake of the British original starring Robbie Coltrane) in 1997.
It’s an intriguing comeback, and I’m equally taken aback when he calls me from LA for our interview. Back in the day, he would have been swarmed by minders, now there’s not even a publicist to connect the call, just a polite, particularly deep voice (a bit like John Hamm’s) that greets me with a friendly, ‘Hi, this is Josh Hartnett.’ As we talk, there’s a quiet reflection, a thoughtfulness about him, that makes me grateful to be interviewing him now rather than ten, even five years ago, when he had a chip on his shoulder the size of Pearl Harbor and seemed to wince his way through every press junket.
Still, I choose my words carefully. ‘You stepped away a little bit’ I suggest, not wanting to insinuate he was ever out of work, as that phrase often does, when Hartnett corrects me. ‘I stepped away quite a bit. I left Hollywood. As an 18- to 22-year-old I was incredibly lucky, working with some fantastic people, but after [2001 war drama] Black Hawk Down it was all too much for me and I decided I needed time to figure out what I was about. I was spending my entire life on film sets and the fame was daunting.’
He left Los Angeles in those heady, early days, preferring to divide his time between New York and Minnesota, where he was born. Even now, he returns with reluctance; he is currently only there for ‘meetings’. Hollywood has a habit of swallowing up its young stars and spitting them out again. Having avoided rehab and scandal by orchestrating his own escape from the limelight, it’s no wonder he views it as one of the best things he ever did.
‘I’m sorry if I disappointed people; it wasn’t intentional, but in the midst of the pressure of people wanting you to do these huge franchise films or chasing you around, there is no privacy. And that pressure cooker made me realise I needed a simpler life, so I went back to Minnesota. I missed the faster pace of this business and there were times it felt too isolated, but it was important for me to construct myself into a better human than when I was younger.’
Brought up largely by his father, a building manager and jazz musician, alongside his three half-siblings, he says, ‘My family says I was an existentialist from the age of 12.’ A natural worrier, he clearly wrestled with his fate. ‘When things became heavy in the industry I started to think about what I might be missing back home, what the possible pitfalls were of spending a life trying to be other people. How could I become more like the people that I grew up with?’
As a result he hasn’t always made the most popular decisions – passion projects such as 2006’s Black Dahlia with Scarlett Johansson or Resurrecting the Champ, opposite Samuel L Jackson in 2007, bombed at the box office – but while he was once defensive, Hartnett admits he’s now ‘more easy-going’ about what he wants to work on. ‘It’s actually more fun because you don’t feel a weight on your shoulders. I don’t know why I did that to myself. I guess it was just my age. We’re idealistic when we’re young.’
For someone who’s spent his career turning down franchises, doesn’t Penny Dreadful – a ‘psychological and highly erotic’ mini-series with the potential to run and run – seem like a huge commitment?
‘The business has changed dramatically, and you can’t avoid franchises or work in TV. Actors are going to follow great film-makers [into TV], and that’s what it was really about for me,’ he explains. ‘When you’re younger you try to define yourself separately to what people think of you, but now I’m 35 I don’t take people looking at me quite as seriously, so it’s much easier to take on something that is maybe more definitive.’
He says he’s ‘lost the fear’ of people coming up to him when he goes out: ‘I don’t feel like I need to hide any more. I used to think I needed to protect my anonymity, so I only went to places with my friends and ignored people I didn’t know. But that was a dead-end road because it’s pretty narcissistic. So I’ve gone in the other direction. My theory is if they get aggressive, I’m 6ft 3in and I’m not small. I would be much more afraid of being famous if I were shorter and more vulnerable.’
He is genuinely surprised that, when he spent six months in Ireland filming Penny Dreadful, ‘nobody tried to pick a fight with me,’ so maybe he’s still got some way to go in losing that fear and cynicism, which could be misinterpreted as arrogance and probably has in the past. He’s not on Twitter or Instagram – ‘I don’t know why I would; I still keep in contact with everybody regularly just by the old phone’ – and is happily unaware of sites dedicated to his relationship history. ‘That’s terrifying. That was probably an ex who was pissed off.’
He was portrayed as a bit of a cad, back in the day. ‘People portray you in all sorts of ways, but I don’t think that’s accurate. Define cad…’ Someone who, erm, gets around? ‘Well, I was never callous.’ Are you dating at the moment? ‘I’ve been with someone for a while.’ It’s rumoured to be Brit actress Tamsin Egerton, his co-star on forthcoming movie Singularity. He did, after all, once say, ‘It’s hard for me to work closely with a girl and not completely fall in love with her as a person.’
Hartnett won’t elaborate on that and our conversation comes to a close as he braces himself for his day of meetings – something he sounds more enthusiastic about than perhaps he once did. ‘It’s always interesting meeting directors; their perception of you shifts as they get a better idea of who you are. There are films that, unless you sit down and talk to someone about, they would never consider you for. For the first time in a long time I’m excited. I have Penny Dreadful to thank for that. Just being on set and the camaraderie you feel when you’re in collaboration with others – it’s something I’ve missed.’