Josh Hartnett: 'I don't want to be a hero'

In both his film career and his private life, the actor Josh Hartnett likes to keep his feet on the ground, he tells Gill Pringle
Click to follow

Josh Hartnett could be one of Hollywood's wealthiest young stars today had he only agreed to don Superman's cape or Spider-Man's costume – roles that the 29-year-old actor chose to bypass. With a foresight often lacking in this business, Hartnett refused to be seduced by easy dollars, clearly paying heed to Spider-Man's famous quote: "This is my gift. It is my curse."

"I never wanted to play a superhero like that. It just wasn't right for me," says the actor who had an early taste of fame with blockbusters Pearl Harbor and Black Hawk Down. "I feel like once you've become that sort of iconic character, people will always look at you that way. I want to play more different types of roles, and to be believable."

So instead of saving the world wearing a pair of tights, he has followed his heart in pursuing a variety of roles, many of which have been box-office bombs, such as Hollywood Homicide, Wicker Park, The Black Dahlia and the recent Resurrecting the Champ, co-starring Samuel L Jackson.

Hartnett has no regrets: "It's not why I'm doing this. It's always nice to make money. I'm not an idiot, and I understand that you can only survive in this business if you have a certain amount of cachet that comes from your movies making money. But if I can circumnavigate the whole superhero character catapulting me into that realm, then that's what I want to do," he insists.

With his 6ft 3in frame folded uncomfortably into an ornate chair in a New York hotel suite, when he speaks he has an insanely deep voice, which is quite startling given that he still bears the outward trappings of teen idol-dom: soft baby skin with a barely there goatee and a shy, boyish grin.

If wary of playing a superhero, then he was immediately intrigued by the character of reluctant hero Sheriff Eben as described in Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith's groundbreaking vampire comic book, 30 Days of Night, now brought to the screen by British director David Slade.

"It was funny and scary, a simple story but pure. Vampires are interesting in the way that they kill to survive. Also, the idea of immortality is intriguing to us mortals," he says.

At 20 years old, Hartnett quit his job selling souvenir pencils at Minnesota's Mall of America after a local talent agent saw him in a local stage production and whisked him off to Los Angeles, where he had nearly 50 auditions in three weeks. Rejected for roles in The Thin Red Line and The Talented Mr Ripley, he was cast as Michael Fitzgerald in a short-lived US television remake of British hit series Cracker at the same time as picking up the role of Jamie Lee Curtis's son in the 1998 teen slasher flick Halloween: H20: 20 Years Later.

Delivering on his early promise, he cemented his reputation as The Virgin Suicides' lusty high-school hunk, as Here on Earth's spurned boyfriend, and as traitorous Hugo (Iago) in Othello prep school remake O, as well as struggling against extraterrestrial high-school teachers in The Faculty.

In the early days of his career, he kept a healthy distance from Los Angeles, remaining in his Minnesota hometown with childhood sweetheart Ellen Fenster. "I realise a lot of people have been labelled tomorrow's star or the next big thing," he said then. "But if you start believing any of that, I think that's the first sign you're in trouble."

But the couple parted ways four years ago, and today Hartnett spends more time in his New York condo than his rambling Minnesota mansion. However, he still likes to view himself as an industry outsider, drawing the line at the clichéd Hollywood celebrity lifestyle: "I think it takes a lot out of young actors when you live in a place where people focus on your work all the time and it defines you. And if things start to not go so well you start doubting yourself as a human being. I saw that it was not going to be easy for me to separate my work from my person if I didn't take a few steps away from Hollywood. I like to fly under the radar. I try, anyway.

"I don't want to get sucked up in the madness. Flitting around from club to club and girl to girl is no way to live."

If Hartnett maintains he's still a simple boy at heart, then he has sophisticated tastes in women, recently dating pop singer Rihanna, supermodel Helena Christensen and actress Penelope Cruz. Prior to that he enjoyed a year-long romance with Black Dahlia co-star Scarlett Johansson, as well as a rumoured fling with Kirsten Dunst.

But ask him if he isn't just another Hollywood party boy, and he takes the moral high ground: "No, not necessarily. But I can be. I think it's good to have a balance in your life, and be able to do everything. I'm not afraid of people but I also don't like to spend a lot of time around strangers in a bar. I don't want that to be my life."

There was little opportunity for carousing on the New Zealand set of 30 Days of Night, which was shot entirely at night over five weeks. "I'm semi-nocturnal anyway so I didn't mind. If I could pick my own hours, they'd be noon till 4am, so it wasn't a problem for me. Like a vampire, I slept during the day," he says.

"It was great to see the direction taken by David [Slade] and how he wanted the vampires to be primal and scary. He didn't want them to recite Baudelaire. He wanted them, like Coppola's Dracula – played by Gary Oldman – to be very scary, dangerous and frightening. No sexy vampires like with Tom Cruise in Interview with the Vampire.

"I also liked the curious appearance of these vampires and how they look at humans as subjects they are observing before killing them. Humans in this movie are food and a study case for these vampires. This film brings audiences to a world they wouldn't be able to visit in their regular lives. It was a chance for me to do something I hadn't done before and something I won't maybe have another chance to do."

Having enjoyed success with intriguing performances in Sin City and Lucky Number Slevin, Hartnett is determined to continue challenging himself regardless of the size of his pay packet. "I'm never content and I always try to work hard to perfect my act. I want to grow constantly. When you work with great directors this is when you can grow. For a long time I was terrified of looking like an idiot on the big screen but now I don't worry about this as much as I worry about whether my character needs work for the audience to believe my performance. I'm driven by fear, I guess."

As he approaches his 30th birthday next year, he has started to notice some personal changes: "I think I'm calming down. Which is good. I'm starting to care less about what people think of me and care more about just what I want to do from day to day. It's amazing how – and this is going to sound ridiculous – but it's amazing how when a year becomes less and less of a fraction of your life. And it goes so much quicker, the more you mean to try and hold on to it and enjoy the moments. It's all just kind of moving at a faster and faster pace.

"And I'm looking forward to finding someone in my life that I can be truly happy with and relate to on all levels. But right now I'm not really searching for that, although I like knowing it's out there sometime later. I've had my heart broken, and it's not fun. But I'd rather have my heart broken than break someone else's heart."

Ask if he remains on friendly terms with his exes, he grins: "Yeah, of course. I try to remain friendly with my exes. Absolutely. If it's possible. I mean, if they're not completely psychotic."

'30 Days of Night' opens on 1 November