More than twenty years ago, Josh Hartnett was one of the most in-demand actors in Hollywood and seemed poised for a career taking on leading man roles in big-budget movies. He first came to attention in 1997 for his role as Michael Fitzgerald in the television crime drama series Cracker.
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.”
In 2001, at 22, his meteoric rise continued and was supposed to become the next Leonardo DiCaprio or Matt Damon. Earning him top billings he then landed a role in the Michael Bay’s blockbuster Pearl Harbor, which earned more than $1 billion worldwide. He segued to Morocco where he starred in Black Hawk Down for director Ridley Scott, both movies catapulted him onto the A-list.
In 2002, the National Theater Owners awarded him with the ShoWest 2002 Male Star of Tomorrow Award.
But also Josh admitted that he wasn’t excited about the project Pearl Harbor, knowing that it would greatly increase his fame. He recalls: “I didn’t necessarily want things to change that much. I was happy with the amount of fame I had and the kind of roles I was getting. At the same time, I asked myself, ‘Am I just afraid that with Pearl Harbor I’m entering a new category of filmmaking that maybe I’m not ready for?’ I ultimately decided to do it because a rejection would have been out of fear. Then it defined me, which meant I was right to be afraid of it.”
Josh was one of Hollywood’s most sought-after stars at the turn of the century and was described by Michael Bay as “f****** huge,” although the star was uncomfortable with the hype. However, Josh clarifies to The Guardian newspaper: “Huge was never something I aspired to.”
Of course, there were these obligatory war dramas, Black Hawk Down and Pearl Harbor, but heading into the mid-2000s, Hartnett seemed to lean more into crime and thriller as a means of switching things up — and most likely an attempt to cast off his moniker as a teen fantasy idol. Hollywood Homicide, with Harrison Ford. Wicker Park, with Rose Byrne and Diane Kruger. The Black Dahlia, in which he starred opposite then-girlfriend Scarlett Johansson. And Lucky Number Slevin of course. Fifteen years after its theatrical release, the film is only known to cineastes, who praise it as a candidate for the “most underrated film of all time“. Josh starred in this gangster drama and the film was directed by Paul McGuigan, with whom he also collaborated on his last project, Wicker Park.
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. A months-long break from acting here, a decision to go on sabbatical there. And then a show called Penny Dreadful premiered on Showtime in 2014.
The title of the horror-drama created and largely written by John Logan refers to the cheap, sensational, and wildly popular serials published in the U.K. during the 19th-century — stories about detectives, notorious criminals, and supernatural creatures. Logan, however, made his series the backdrop to host reinterpretations of some of the most famous characters from classic horror literature, from Dracula to Dorian Gray to Frankenstein and the Creature to Jekyll and Hyde. Hartnett was cast to play Ethan Chandler (born Ethan Lawrence Talbot), an American sharpshooter and former cavalryman on the run from a mysterious past who crosses paths with the enigmatic Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) and her friend Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) as they investigate the disappearance of Malcolm’s daughter Mina in connection with a strange creature. From the moment Hartnett and Green are first on-screen together, their chemistry is instantaneous and undeniable — and the romance between their characters would serve as one of the show’s strongest undercurrents throughout its three-season run.
But the role on Penny Dreadful allowed Hartnett to display a level of talent that perhaps some audiences may not have even known he was capable of. As Ethan Chandler, he offers a brash and cocky exterior that, as we soon come to discover, cloaks the true vulnerability of the man — and the existence of the monster — deep within. Given his role within an already-impressive ensemble cast consisting of strong performers like Dalton, Billie Piper, and Rory Kinnear, he proves more than able to command the room with a keen perceptiveness, even if his character is merely listening to someone else speak. And yet Ethan is also not the classic Wolf-Man archetype, who shifts into a rabid extension of unchecked masculinity intent on destroying everything in its path.
The reason, ultimately, that Ethan Chandler turned out to be the role best-suited for Josh Hartnett — and at that point in his career, especially — was because it gave him the opportunity to dive into the full breadth of his capabilities as an actor. Gone was the young object of teenage infatuation; in its place was the rugged American cowboy who bore subtle resemblances to the Hollywood gunslingers of old, the conventional “tough guy” who wasn’t that tough at all on the inside. It was a part that enabled him to play both the ill-fated romantic hero who has to lose the girl to save the world and a twist on the classic movie monster, and all of the intricacies that come from merging the two halves into one complex character.
Well, that, and it gave all of us watching the absolute majesty of Hartnett aggressively taking off a bowler hat to expose his flowing locks of hair, thereby cementing his legacy of peak hotness within these three remarkable seasons of prestige television.
The fan-favorite show Penny Dreadful did not leave fans hanging with a cliffhanger that left fans wondering what happened to its canvas of richly drawn character, and instead had more of a rounded conclusion. When asked if he wished there were more seasons of Penny Dreadful, Josh Hartnett said:
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.
Josh Hartnett and (at least some of) the rest of the cast were ready to move on after those first three seasons, considering they weren’t all used to the long schedules that prestige cable shows can have. But at least Penny Dreadful did not end before everyone thought it was time for it to end. As Hartnett points out, the cast was comprised of a lot of film stars, and a television show is a totally different medium.
Hartnett went back to movies after Penny Dreadful, and starred in The Ottoman Lieutenant (2017) as Jude alongside Michiel Huisman (Game of Thrones) and Hera Hilmar. Also in 2017, he starred in the drama/comedy, Oh Lucy! and 6 Below. Hartnett wasn’t as active between 2017-2019, but eventually made a reappearance. He took a turn on Comedy Central’s Drunk History, where he previously played legendary actor Clark Gable in 2015, as Joaquim Neumann in season 6, episode 5, “Love”. Also in 2019, Hartnett starred in She’s Missing, Valley of the Gods, and Inherit the Viper.
As of 2020, Hartnett had several projects in various stages of development. He played Yates Forsythe in Paradise Lost, a Spectrum Original series and his first television role since his time on Penny Dreadful.
In 2020/2021 he worked with director Guy Ritchie in Wrath of Man, is also starring as a journalist in the upcoming Canadian crime drama Most Wanted and plays besides James Franco in The Long Home, which directed this movie.
Likewise, Josh Hartnett takes on the lead role in the Sky Original The Fear Index. The four-part fast-paced miniseries is based on the bestselling novel of the same name by Robert Harris. Hartnett will play Dr. Alex Hoffmann, an American ex-pat physicist, who creates an AI-driven system that exploits fear in the financial markets and operates at lightning speed to make big returns.
David Caffrey (The Alienist) directs the limited series, while The Fear Index is adapted by rising writer Caroline Bartleet and Broadchurch scribe Paul Andrew Williams.
Now 42, Hartnett lives far away from Hollywood in Surrey, England and is choosing roles that personally excite him. “I’m happy to be making films that are more personal to me,” Josh said. “Directors are coming to me to play characters as opposed to versions of a hero I played in a movie once.” And that’s why we love Josh Hartnett.