Why Mr Josh Hartnett Chose “Having A Life” Over The Hollywood Dream

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Why Mr Josh Hartnett Chose “Having A Life” Over The Hollywood Dream

Words by Mr Alex Bilmes | Photography by Mr Ben Weller | Styling by Mr Olie Arnold

21 January 2021

I would like it placed on the record that I did not, at any point during our interview, ask Mr Josh Hartnett about Superman. Maybe this was negligent on my part, but half an hour into our conversation I still hadn’t so much as mentioned the kiss-curled Kryptonian.

“You didn’t!” Mr Hartnett confirms, on a video call last December. “You didn’t, you didn’t, you didn’t. But I feel like I just have to mention it. Because every interviewer asks me about it. Why would I turn down the role of Superman?”

Since Mr Hartnett brought it up himself, the story goes that around 2002, the actor, then in his early twenties – he’s 42 now – was approached by Warner Bros to bring new life to one of its most valuable properties. The new Superman was to appear in a trilogy of films, the first of which was to be written by Mr JJ Abrams, who went on to reboot Star Trek and then Star Wars. Mr Hartnett’s fee for all three movies, according to industry gossip, would have been $100m.

“At the time, it was so obvious to me to turn it down,” says the actor in his measured Midwestern baritone. “I was being offered movies by the very top directors. And Superman was a risk. Yes, there was a lot of money involved, but I didn’t think that was the be-all and end-all.” He still doesn’t. “It’s become increasingly clear to me that money only takes you so far. I’ve seen a lot of people drown in their money.”

Pushed on why a successful actor in his prime wouldn’t want to be a huge movie star, he says, “I’ll give you an anecdotal answer. There was a time I was considered quite a commodity in the business and I wanted my character to chew gum in a scene. It was run up so many flagpoles and it was the subject of conversation for days and in the end, they decided just no. They had an idea of what they thought they could sell with me in it, or what the persona is that people wanted to see from me. And it didn’t involve chewing gum.”

It’s tempting to wonder what that decision meant for him. Being micromanaged must have been exasperating, but Mr Hartnett wasn’t just a hot leading man at the time, he was the hot leading man. Pearl Harbor (2001) had brought him together on screen with Mr Ben Affleck, who went on to take his own superhero franchise. Comparing their career trajectories and their personal histories is tempting, and we can each reach our own conclusions about which path was the more “successful”.

“I decided to have a life,” says Mr Hartnett. “To put that first. That was always my goal.” It’s a theme he returns to throughout the interview, the decision, as he sees it, to prioritise relationships with friends and family over those with industry powerbrokers. To emphasise personal values of honesty and integrity over those of me-first careerist Hollywood. “I didn’t want to be that person,” he insists. “And I’m never going to be that person.”

Mr Hartnett is speaking from the kitchen of his house on the Surrey-Sussex border, to the southwest of London, where he lives with his partner, the actor Ms Tamsin Egerton, of St Trinian’s fame, and their three small children, aged five, three and one, the last born at the end of 2019, just in time for the end of the world as we knew it.

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Behind him I can see French doors leading into a wooded garden, with colourful kids’ art taped to the windows. Mr Hartnett is wearing a navy crewneck sweatshirt and thick-rimmed specs that, rather like those of Superman’s alter ego Clark Kent, fail to distract from their owner’s otherworldly handsomeness. If anything, Mr Hartnett’s even better looking now, with a few characterful creases, than he was when he broke into movies as a puppyish teenager. The patchy beard, the grown-out lockdown buzzcut, the AirPods – none can quite dim the effect, even on a grey Thursday morning in mid-December.

Mr Hartnett and family have spent a good deal of time in England in recent years, close to Ms Egerton’s parents and the places where she grew up. Before the pandemic, they travelled frequently for work, with periods in London and Los Angeles, in which he took “a lot of time off to be a dad, first and foremost”. He is careful to acknowledge his good fortune, but raising three children under five, one of them a baby, during the plague year of 2020 was no walk in the park.

“We’ve been trying to keep them occupied as best we can, but [deep breath here] it’s a lot of work and it takes both of us all day and by the end of it all we want to do is reach for a bottle of wine and go to sleep.” After “that weird and wonderful few months in summer where time passed both incredibly quickly and as slow as molasses”, now he is into a rhythm. He runs, he writes, he hangs out with the kids.

He has not been idle professionally, either. As the world shut down in March 2020, Mr Hartnett was in the Dominican Republic, about to start filming Exterminate All The Brutes, a four-part series for HBO, written and directed by Mr Raoul Peck, maker of the acclaimed Mr James Baldwin documentary, I Am Not Your Negro.

“We were told on a Sunday that they were going to close the borders on the Monday, so either you stay and ride it out or you have to get out of here by tomorrow,” says Mr Hartnett. He flew to London via the US. Two months later, Mr Peck called to say he was going to shoot the series in France in July. “We shot that, completely isolated and bubbled and, in the meantime, another film [Ida Red] came up, so I went to Oklahoma and we shot that.”

Also last summer he took a call from Mr Guy Ritchie, who was shooting his latest crime caper, based on the 2004 French film Cash Truck, with Mr Jason Statham. An actor had dropped out and Mr Ritchie needed someone to step in at the last minute. Mr Hartnett delights in telling the story of how they came up with a character, “a loveable buffoon”, on the hoof.

During production for Ida Red, protests against mask-wearing and social distancing were at their peak. “The governor [of Oklahoma, Republican Mr Kevin Stitt] got Covid just before I arrived and he was saying it’s all a hoax,” says Mr Hartnett. “But our crew stayed bubbled and we were able to shoot the film in six weeks. “I think that’s the future for filmmaking for the time being. Shoot quickly, relatively cheaply, with a much smaller crew. The marketplace is entirely different, obviously, so it’ll probably end up with a streaming service. But who knows? It’s all in upheaval now.”

“I started to realise that I was a commodity that had to perform in a certain way in the marketplace or I was going to lose my career”

Mr Hartnett was born and raised far from the showbiz coasts in a “middle-class household” on the border of Minneapolis and St Paul, Minnesota. He was a high-school sports star, but at 16, he tore his anterior cruciate ligament and, for lack of anything better to do, auditioned for a production of The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer. He was cast as Huckleberry Finn, and he loved it. While at university in New York, he was signed by an agent who’d seen him perform in an amateur production. In LA, he landed two jobs in a matter of weeks. College had lasted all of six months.

For a decade from 1998, he was one of the brightest young stars in Hollywood, up there with Mr Affleck and Messrs Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon. He was Ms Jamie Lee Curtis’ son in Halloween H20, the star of teen horror The Faculty, a high-school heartthrob in Ms Sofia Coppola’s terrific debut, The Virgin Suicides. “I was working with fantastic people in progressively more expensive environments, making bigger and bigger films,” he says. He acted for Sir Ridley Scott in Black Hawk Down, for Mr Brian De Palma in The Black Dahlia and, less happily, for Mr Michael Bay in Pearl Harbor, the critical bomb from 2001.

At a certain point, something changed. “I started to realise that I had to perform in a certain way in the marketplace or I was going to lose my career,” says Mr Hartnett. “And I had never really thought of it as a career up until that point. I was basically very naïve.”

There is, he says, a corrosive aspect to above-the-title Hollywood stardom. “The guys who are on top are terrified that someone’s coming up behind them. If that’s your real ambition, to be on top all the time, you’re going to spend your whole life looking over your shoulder. I never wanted that. I want to do good work with people I like and spend my free time with people I care about.”

The implication being that it’s not possible to live in that way and maintain a position on the A-list. “I’m not going to speak for other people,” he says, choosing his words carefully, “but from what I’ve seen and experienced, a lot of people will find the most expeditious way to get from A to B. If that means losing a little bit of baggage, meaning your friends or your connection to your home, so be it. It’s going to be much easier if you just socialise with people who are in the industry, because they’re gonna hire you for the next job.

“A lot of people get caught in that trap, but I feel very strongly about friends I’ve known for a long time and my family. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t losing those relationships. Those people make me who I am. I put those concerns ahead of chasing a Hollywood dream.”

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Rather than live in LA, Mr Hartnett chose to settle down in Minneapolis. “People thought I was crazy for not chasing that brass ring a little harder,” he says, “but I felt completely comfortable being with the people I knew liked me before I was making films. I was still ambitious, certainly artistically, and I had a lot of great offers from a lot of terrific directors, and I pursued them, but a lot of those fell apart or just didn’t quite work out.”

For the past decade or so, Mr Hartnett has worked steadily, if not always famously, in solid genre flicks and under-the-radar arthouse pictures. He has found more high-profile roles on TV. For three seasons, he was the star of Penny Dreadful, an agreeably lurid supernatural drama in which Mr Hartnett’s gunslinger and his crew fight phantoms in Victorian London. More recently, he led a classy cast in Paradise Lost, a series about tangled family ties in the Deep South.

Are there projects he is particularly proud of? “There are, but the thing I am most proud of is that I’m a father of three and I have a good relationship with my partner and a great family life and I’m still able to do good work and, as I’ve got older, the characters have become more interesting.” Next up is The Fear Index, another four-part TV series, based on the bestselling novel by Mr Robert Harris. And another Mr Ritchie film. And his own ambitions to write and produce.

“I don’t know what the possibilities of my life could have been had I chosen different routes, but I will say that in giving in to the allure of Hollywood entirely, I know that I would not have a happy life,” he says. “I feel very strongly about that.”

Mr Alex Bilmes is Editor-in-chief of Esquire UK