Josh Hartnett is a Minnesota man through and through: that trademark balance of debonair, down-to-earth and self-deprecating. And he’ll be the first to tell you that. The 36-year-old actor got his start on a Minneapolis stage before catapulting to Hollywood stardom. In recent years, his life has been the fodder of popular media, prompting headlines like “What Ever Happened to Josh Hartnett?” and “Josh Hartnett’s Vanishing Act.” “This idea that has been created that I’m incredibly elusive — I’m not,” he tells Artful Living. “I’m pretty boring. There’s not much aside from my job that makes me unusual.”
But Hartnett’s story certainly is unusual — it’s the stuff of many a Hollywood hopeful’s dreams. At 15, the St. Paul native suffered a knee injury that left him sidelined from high-school football. His aunt subsequently encouraged him to consider drama. His first role? Huck Finn in the Youth Performance Company’s production of Tom Sawyer. Modeling gigs for Mervyns department store and Northwest Airlines quickly followed. By the time he graduated from Minneapolis’s South High School in 1996, he was ready to hit Hollywood. The then-18-year-old had landed gigs within two weeks of landing in Los Angeles, and he gained nearly instant heartthrob status. The actor’s early filmography reads like a study in teen culture: Halloween H20, The Faculty, The Virgin Suicides, Here on Earth. Rumor has it when he turned 20 on the set of The Virgin Suicides, director Sofia Coppola gave him a bottle of wine from father Francis Ford Coppola’s private cellar. “Congratulations, Josh,” she inscribed on the label. “Teen idol no more.” His meteoric rise continued, earning him top billings in the 2001 blockbusters Pearl Harbor and Black Hawk Down. That same year, he graced the cover of Vanity Fair, joining the elite ranks of stars photographed by the one, the only Annie Leibovitz.
Offers to play Batman, Superman and Spider-Man were on the table. By all accounts, Hartnett was living the Hollywood dream. And then, in a move that stunned many, he retreated to his Minneapolis home, an 1887 manse on Lake of the Isles. “When everybody knows your name, knows your business, the world gets very small very quickly,” he muses, alluding to the often unseen darker side of show business.
What drew him back to Minnesota? “Friends and family — people who have known me for a long time,” Hartnett recalls. “I wanted to be around people who loved and knew me intimately before it all.” He spent time painting, taking photos, writing short stories, getting back to his roots. He explored other options in the industry, as he puts it: writing, directing, producing.
But ultimately, the actor missed being on set. “There’s nothing quite like it,” he says. And he missed collaborating with creatives at the top of their game: “I’ve learned over the years that’s the most important aspect of onscreen storytelling,” he explains. Which is why Showtime’s gothic horror series Penny Dreadful is a natural fit, what with the talents of creator John Logan (Gladiator, The Aviator, Skyfall), executive producer Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition, Revolutionary Road), and an inspiring cast that includes Eva Green and Timothy Dalton.
Set in Victorian England, the television series weaves together the tales of classic horror icons, from Dr. Frankenstein to Dorian Gray to Dracula, to explore modern themes. Hartnett plays conning, gunslinging showman Ethan Chandler, who is recruited to help combat the evil forces lurking in London. The show’s title pays homage to the literary genre of the same name, cheap serial fiction popular in the 19th century that was as lurid as it was sensational. And the premium cable network’s first foray into the supernatural appears to be paying off: Liked by both critics and viewers, Penny Dreadful was renewed for a second season, which Hartnett is currently shooting on location in Dublin.
Any downtime is spend with his girlfriend of three years, British actress Tamsin Egerton. Fittingly, the twosome started dating after meeting on the set of The Lovers, which hits theaters this spring. They like to travel, hitting up locales from London to New York to Venice (“My girlfriend is obsessed with Italy,” he explains).
Hartnett’s ultimate destination? Home. “When I have time off, it’s kind of a vacation to come home,” he says, referring, of course, to Minnesota. On his Minneapolis must-do list: 112 Eatery. Bar La Grassa. Tilia. Lucia’s. The Bachelor Farmer (in fact, he and his sweetheart have been spotted at its annual Kräftskiva block party, much to fans’ delight). “It’s sounds like all I do is eat,” he laughs. “But I like to go out and have a meal with friends.” When asked what we might expect of him next, the actor becomes coy. “Nothing I can say,” he quickly remarks before going on to say that he’ll be heading to Los Angeles to star in a couple films, hopefully shooting another season of Penny Dreadful this summer and continuing to write a screenplay he plans to someday direct.
Hartnett certainly has grown up, it seems, since Vanity Fair put the then-22-year-old on its cover. He has a healthy relationship with Hollywood, if such a thing exists, acknowledging that “if you aren’t in the public consciousness, you aren’t in the Hollywood consciousness.” On the other hand, facets of this Minnesota man’s character have remained, perhaps grown even stronger: his private nature, his deep humility. Indeed, in that long ago cover story, he mused, “That’s the thing about real movie stars that I’ll never have. When real movie stars walk into a room, it’s all about them. They know it, and everybody else knows it. I like to fly under the radar. I try, anyway.”
Read this article as it appears in the magazine.