Josh Hartnett has yet to master English trains. He tells me this over an apologetic text, explaining why he’s running late to our interview. It’s impossible to be angry, though. The text is so polite and self-deprecating that either his brain chemistry has been altered by country life – he’s lived with his wife, actor Tamsin Egerton, and their three children in a village in Hampshire since 2020 – or he’s the most un-Hollywood actor alive. Which is surprising, since Hollywood did its best to get its claws into him 25 years ago. Whether playing a war hero in schmaltzy epic Pearl Harbor, or the embodiment of all-American teenage smarm in Sofia Coppola’s dreamy Virgin Suicides, Hartnett spent the new millennium as movie star Silly Putty – an icon-in-waiting, or Tom Cruise with training wheels on. It wasn’t his bag.
“I couldn’t operate on that plane,” the 44-year-old explains later over coffee, his sunglasses tucked into the top of his shirt, his face on the “sweet merciful Zeus” end of the handsome spectrum. “I think actors now have more of an expectation to promote themselves in a certain way, or understand who they are to the public and foster that. I’ve never been great at celebrity.” He pulls anxiously at his collar, almost to drive it home. “Promoting a movie? There’s not gonna be one person who says I’m great at that part. I’m not very good at creating an image.”
And yet this apparent shortcoming might just have made him a better actor. No longer burdened with industry expectations, he’s evolved into a performer of exciting depth and versatility. Guy Ritchie’s action comedy Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre, which streamed on Prime Video in April, cast him as an in-over-his-head himbo caught up in international espionage. In a standout episode of the new season of Charlie Brooker’s nightmarish anthology series Black Mirror, which arrives on Netflix next week, he is tasked with embodying a very retro-futurist kind of grief – playing both a lonely astronaut in space, and the synthetic Sixties family man he embodies on Earth when he goes to sleep.
Netflix, being notorious spoiler-phobes, has sent me a laundry list of plot points I can’t ask Hartnett about, and even banned me from using certain words to describe the tone of the episode. So, instead, we twiddle our thumbs and talk about dystopia. “I don’t think technology is inherently good or bad, but the way we use it can be very destructive,” he says, though he notably has no public social media presence. Between his Black Mirror episode and his Sky series The Fear Index from last year, in which he was stalked by an algorithm, he’s also become oddly magnetised to stories of tech run amok. “That’s sort of accidental,” he demures. “I don’t know if entertainment would want to be optimistic about artificial intelligence, from a storytelling standpoint. Like who wants to watch a kumbaya story about AI, you know?”
He says he was attracted to Black Mirror because Brooker’s work tends to be laced with satire. “I think if you’re going to give people a heavy dose of dystopia, you need some levity. Even if the darkness is front and centre in his shows, there’s always that element of ‘this is really funny’.” He hasn’t yet seen his Black Mirror episode, but recognised that levity in the script. There is a campy Manson Family pastiche and a body swap that requires Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul to do his best Josh Hartnett impression, so I can sort of see what he means – it’s morbidly amusing, a bit like when a clown dies.
Hartnett says his recent career, which some might describe as all over the shop, is the kind he had wanted from the start. “I have an artistic mind, and I want to follow things that are somehow just outside of my understanding,” he explains. “Does that necessarily make for a cohesive career in a movie star sense? No. But before the last few years I just had less of a chance to do it.”
I think I did call Harrison Ford ‘the bane of my existence’, but that was just because he was constantly ribbing me
It’s the curse of being an actor who’s really, really, ridiculously good-looking: you will be pushed as a leading man whether you like it or not. When he arrived in Los Angeles in 1997, at the insistence of a manager who spotted him acting in a play at home in Minnesota, Hartnett found work immediately. There was a short-lived US remake of Robbie Coltrane’s Cracker, followed by a Halloween sequel playing Jamie Lee Curtis’s son, then The Faculty, as a teen drug pusher warding off an alien invasion. Hartnett turned 20 on the set of The Virgin Suicides in 1999, with Sofia Coppola presenting him with a bottle of wine as a gift. Its label read: “Congratulations, you’re not a teen heartthrob anymore.” But that was wishful thinking. Hartnett was stuck in pin-up roles for longer than he wanted, his team pushing him as a tween idol via Pearl Harbor (2001), the Yorkshire-set hairdressing comedy Blow Dry (2001), and 40 Days and 40 Nights (2002), in which his character gave up sex for Lent. One magazine cover replaced the first half of his surname with a love-heart symbol. Another came plastered with words no aspiring serious actor wants to be associated with: “Free Josh Poster Inside!”
“There’s no reliance on ‘the movie star’ like there was in the late 1990s or early 2000s,” he says. “Box office was paramount in business back then, and if you were someone they considered an asset in that sense, you were expected to do a certain thing. They were very precious about that, and there were a lot of people trying to keep me in a box.”
He also struggled with the attention that fame brought him, and stories written about him that were often untrue. Case in point: rumours that he clashed with Harrison Ford on the set of 2003’s Hollywood Homicide, an action comedy about two mismatched cops from very different generations. “Drama sold newspapers, especially back then,” he says. “But we actually got along really well. There were things that we disagreed about on set as far as [the script], and there was a lot of rewriting happening. But it was misinterpreted as ‘they don’t get along!’. It certainly wasn’t a set that was filled with tension. I think I did call him ‘the bane of my existence’ when we were on the press tour for that movie, but that was just because he was constantly ribbing me. And that’s just his way.”
Hollywood Homicide was also one of Hartnett’s last leading roles in a big studio movie. The received idea that he disappeared after that early onslaught of films – Brian De Palma’s The Black Dahlia and Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City also among them – isn’t entirely true, though, in that he’s never had any big gaps on his CV. There was Rain Man in the West End, a dozen or so indies, and for three years he led the supernatural drama series Penny Dreadful. Really, he just became someone not so much thrust upon the general public as someone the general public would have to seek out. He says that it was all very deliberate.
“Being famous is a full-time job, because every time you leave your house – and especially in that time – you were followed,” he recalls. “I had paparazzi chasing me, people approaching me. You weren’t allowed to really be yourself. There was no time for family or friends or any of that normal stuff. Plenty of actors have found that work-life balance, but I found it hard and I really sought it. People thought I was nuts. Like why not just kiss the brass ring?”
Or play a superhero. One of the most regurgitated bits of Josh Hartnett lore is that Hollywood really wanted him to put on a cape at the peak of his fame. He said no to Superman and only took a meeting about Batman because he was a fan of the director, a pale Englishman with a few celebrated indies to his name called Christopher Nolan.
“So here’s what happened,” Hartnett tells me, with the resigned air of a man who’s told this tale a million times. “Warner Bros wanted me to do one of their superhero films. Chris Nolan was directing one of their superhero films. I met him. I talked to him about it. It wasn’t something that was interesting to me at the time. I was on a different path to a lot of actors. And I was more interested in a film that Chris’s brother had written – The Prestige. I loved Chris as a filmmaker, and I really wanted to work with him, and I was hoping that if I was straight-up honest with him about not wanting to do the superhero movie, maybe I could do The Prestige…” Hartnett grimaces. Nolan didn’t bite. He went off and made Batman Begins with Christian Bale instead, then made The Prestige, a trippy period noir about rival magicians, with Bale, Hugh Jackman and David Bowie.
The funny thing, though, is that Hartnett did end up in many of those circles, acting with Bowie in an independent film a few years later (the stock market drama August). And Nolan? This summer he’ll release Oppenheimer, a whirring, cacophonous period drama-cum-horror movie about the making of the first atomic bomb. Its cast includes Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Florence Pugh, Robert Downey Jr and – in a nice full-circle moment – Hartnett, or the Batman that got away.
“The thing about genius filmmakers is that they’re always gonna be around, so I hoped at one point that we’d work together,” Hartnett says. “And, look, here we are. I feel really lucky that he still saw me as somebody he wanted to work with all these years later. I’m a big believer in things working out when they’re supposed to.”
The Oppenheimer set, Hartnett says, was “how filmmaking should be”. “Chris has certain rules: no one’s allowed a cell phone. No one comes in late. No one has an assistant. Everyone’s there as equals.” It was the finest distillation of something Hartnett was striving for all those years ago: there’s work, and there’s life, with a clear line drawn between the two. “That’s essential to me maintaining a healthy mind.”
He estimates that “90 per cent” of his life now revolves around his family, his main goal being the ability to exist as ordinarily as his job allows. “This,” he says, glancing at the bar we’re sitting in, “is a rarity, honestly. Coming up to the city and doing an interview is a rarity. Typically, I work on the films that I work on, and then I go home.”
And on that note, we say our goodbyes. The last I see of him he’s standing in a queue, just another London commuter waiting to pay for their coffee.
‘Black Mirror’ returns to Netflix on 15 June, and ‘Oppenheimer’ is in cinemas from 21 July