In 2001, at 22, Josh Hartnett was supposed to become the next Leonardo DiCaprio or Matt Damon. His back-to-back roles in Michael Bay’s “Pearl Harbor” and Ridley Scott’s “Black Hawk Down” catapulted him onto the A-list. He graced magazine covers, the paparazzi stalked his personal life and directors pursued him for blockbusters and comic-book vehicles. But it was too much.
Instead of studio projects, Hartnett spent the rest of his 20s veering toward independent movies — such as “Wicker Park,” “Lucky Number Slevin” and “The Black Dahlia.” He turned down the role of Superman in Bryan Singer’s 2006 reboot (which starred Brandon Routh instead) and he was on Christopher Nolan’s short list to play Batman (before Christian Bale).
Then he seemed to fall off the public radar. In the last decade, he’s resurfaced here and there, in some short films and small indies. Hartnett co-starred in “Penny Dreadful,” the 2014 horror series that aired on Showtime for three seasons. And he took a break from acting to raise his two kids. Hartnett, now 41, seems to be making a gradual comeback, with more projects on the horizon, including Guy Ritchie’s upcoming drama “Cash Truck.” His latest role is in “Inherit the Viper” (now in theaters in limited release), a drama about a family grappling with the opioid crisis.
Hartnett spoke to Variety by phone from London, where he lives part time. “We have a place in the States, too, and we go back and forth,” Hartnett said. “My partner” — the actress Tamsin Egerton — “is English. When we started having children, she wanted to be near her family, so we’re here a lot of the time to make that happen.”
Can you tell me what appealed to you about “Inherit the Viper”?
We shot this two years ago. The world of opiate use and what has become known as the opiate crisis on the Eastern seaboard was relatively fresh. It was before it became a political talking point and before a lot of people were paying attention to it. The script, I felt, handled that very touchy subject in a smart way. I felt like, if you’re going to tell the story well, tell it in a small way — about a family — and leave the larger implications to the audience. In my opinion, it’s sort of a little poem.
Did your research include talking to people affected by opioids?
Yes. I did some research on my own, and we also had some people that we were able to talk to that had either dealt these drugs or had been addicts themselves. About the time that we started to film, the story really started to break in the national press. Suddenly, there were all these firsthand accounts, and there were lots of videos and things online that were absolutely horrible to watch, but necessary.
This was after the election?
Yeah. It was in the early stages of Trump’s presidency. You’re right to sort of point out the time period, because it became so political, this crisis. But when we first signed on, it was almost apolitical. It was a human crisis.
You play the older brother in a family affected by addiction and violence. Did the character stay with you after you finished filming?
I’m a father now, and I’ve taken on a lot of dark roles over the years. I try not to take too much of it home with me because things like this especially can be really taxing and not healthy to bring around young kids. But also, it’s just not my story. I put myself into the situation as best I can while doing the job and understand it as best I can, but in a way, my job is to portray the emotions of the situation as opposed to living them.
I’m just looking at your IMDb page. It looks like 2020 is going to be a bigger year for you, with a handful of movies coming out. What’s your process for choosing roles?
I read a lot of scripts. I actually really enjoy reading scripts because there are so few good, unique scripts out there. There are a lot of scripts that you can see just the edges of them have shifted a little bit to sort of make them feel new, but it’s just packaging really. When you find a script that approaches a story with fresh eyes, it’s exciting to me. And the more I read, the more those pop out to me.
This guy, Daniel Roby, wrote and directed a movie that’s now called “Target Number One.” It used to be called “Gut Instinct.” He originally sent me the script six years ago. Over the course of while he was trying to put the financing together, he kept calling me and saying, “Oh we’re going to get it going soon.” I just saw that movie a couple weeks ago and it’s phenomenal [Smaller] films, it’s always surprising to see them find their legs, and to me, that’s more satisfying than working on a big-budget thing that already has an audience built in. So yeah, I read a lot of scripts and then I find what I think is going to be the most satisfying from a gambler’s point of view.
How many scripts do you read?
I read a couple a week. It’s not an overwhelming number, but it is a fair amount. Luckily, I have other people that will read them and tell me if I’ve missed something.
You’re in London, right?
Yeah, and I was doing a lot of ADR today for “Paradise Lost” [an upcoming TV series for Spectrum Originals]. So I’ve been speaking for the last five hours, and not even in my own words. So now I’m using my own words. I forget how to do that.
How would you say the movie business has changed since you first started?
I think there’s a lot of content being made, but it’s not necessarily easy to find an audience. Also, I think it’s becoming more difficult to get the right talent together to make a small film and then push it over the finish line and have it be a film that people want to see.
Young voice: Daddy!
Hartnett: Sorry, my daughter’s in the room crying.
It’s OK! I’ll keep going, unless you need to go. Does theatrical distribution matter to you?
Hartnett: For me, it’s about whether or not people are going to see it. If it’s only seen 10 years later on a streamer and randomly by some kid in his dorm room and he talks to other kids who saw it from five years before that, it’s not the way I remember movies being when I grew up. I liked that feeling of walking out of a movie theater and being able to talk about it with a bunch of different people. I personally like when a film gets a release in a theater because then it has an immediate audience. But then, sometimes, on a streaming network, you can get a lot of good press and even more people will see it more quickly. So I don’t know.
I remember when “Pearl Harbor” came out, and the craziness around it — the magazine covers and the spotlight on you. Does that feel like that was from a whole other lifetime?
Do you know what’s funny? It felt removed from how my life was then. All those magazine covers and paparazzi and all that sort of stuff was not at all how I lived my life, and not at all who I thought myself to be. So I feel very much myself now, and I took steps to make my life not as crazy after that movie came out and was successful at it and have remained sort of outside of the fray. When I was younger, it was important to me to kind of figure out who I was, what I wanted for my life, how I wanted to create my life without so much scrutiny. I did that, and now I feel comfortable being who I am in the spotlight if I need to be.
What steps did you take?
Both steps to be a more creative actor and not feeling like I’m giving everything away to everyone all of the time in the press. I just took steps back at that time and have subsequently taken a lot of steps forward in a lot of different directions, and I think I feel much more comfortable being this type of actor that is able to take on a ton of different types of roles.
I saw an interview that you did a few years ago where you talked about turning down three big roles: Spider-Man (later played by Tobey Maguire), Batman (Christian Bale) and Superman (Brandon Routh). But I was a little confused by what happened. Had you actually auditioned for all three of those roles? Or did you just not want to be considered for them?
I didn’t turn down Spider-Man. I don’t know where that came from. I’d only turned down Superman as a straight-up offer. But I was, at that time of my career, where a lot of people were asking me to do those types of movies. I was having meetings with those directors and people were saying: “Would you be interested?” I talked to them about what they were doing and I ultimately decided I wasn’t, but that was a very privileged place for a young man to be in. I’m a little bit outside of the box and had the leverage to do that, and that’s the direction I chose.
Did you ever audition to play Batman or was that an offer?
No, Batman wasn’t an audition or an offer. It was a conversation with the director [Christopher Nolan]. I think there’s a lot of misinformation out there. When you say one thing one time about it, and now it gets blown up. But I don’t really care to tell that story over and over again.
Are you interested in directing?
I’m interested in creating, being a part of good films and playing interesting roles. I also have been writing over the years and would love to get some of those scripts made. I don’t know how those are going to come together exactly. Maybe as a producer. I’ve directed a few music videos and have thought about directing, but I don’t want to do that unless I really am passionate about the story I’m telling.
How many screenplays have you written?
I’ve written three over the last three years. I wrote a screenplay in 2002 that we went out with that was sort of contingent on me being in it, and I didn’t really want to be in it at the time. It was more just an experiment. But I got the bug and really wanted to get back to writing at some point. And then when I had my children, I took some time off from acting and had a lot of, after they go to bed, time for thinking. So I started writing a lot more. It’s really a great outlet.
You co-starred in the Showtime series “Penny Dreadful.” Did you wish there were more seasons?
I liked “Penny Dreadful.” I thought it was really well done, but I think it had run its course. Also, most of us had only worked on films before that, and I think we were all ready to go find other things to work on.