Starring as Ethan Chandler, a Victorian-era ladies’ man–gunslinger–werewolf on the sexy supernatural horror TV series Penny Dreadful, has won you new attention and acclaim. You first gained notice in the early 2000s as the It guy in a string of high-profile movies such as Pearl Harbor, Black Hawk Down and Hollywood Homicide. Do you buy into the conventional Hollywood wisdom that you sidetracked your career by turning down too many other big movies, including offers to play superheroes Batman, Superman and Spider-Man?
The intensity of my sudden fame was overwhelming for me, and in the middle of that, I felt I couldn’t trust any new person I met or their motives. I spent a lot of time back home in Minnesota with my friends and family. I did smaller movies, and I stopped working for a while. If I could go back and take with me my wisdom of today, I wish I’d been more resilient. I hope I wouldn’t be as panicked as I was. Maybe I’d have known that no matter what people try to take from you, you don’t have to give it to them. I’ve definitely grown a bit.
What is the blowback when you say no to big directors and projects?
I’ve definitely said no to some of the wrong people. I said no because I was tired and wanted to spend more time with my friends and family. That’s frowned upon in this industry. People don’t like being told no. I don’t like it. I learned my lesson when [writer-director] Christopher Nolan and I talked about Batman. I decided it wasn’t for me. Then he didn’t want to put me in The Prestige. They not only hired their Batman for it, they also hired my girlfriend at the time.
So Christian Bale and Scarlett Johansson got to make The Prestige, and Bale also got to make three Batman movies, all with Christopher Nolan. The same year The Prestige came out, you starred in both the little-seen, well-liked Lucky Number Slevin and the little-seen, much less well-liked The Black Dahlia, also with Johansson.
That’s when I realized relationships were formed in the fire of that first Batman film and I should have been part of the relationship with this guy Nolan, who I felt was incredibly cool and very talented. I was so focused on not being pigeonholed and so scared of being considered only one thing as an actor. I should have thought, Well, then, work harder, man. Watching Christian Bale go on to do so many other things has been just awesome. I mean, he’s been able to overcome that. Why couldn’t I see that at the time?
Did you find yourself sitting in movie theaters, watching, say, Christian Bale, Brandon Routh or Tobey Maguire in their Batman, Superman or Spider-Man flicks, thinking, This wouldn’t have been such a bad thing for me to do after all?
Yeah, I have, for sure. I know now that I wouldn’t turn something down just because it’s a superhero role. I was born in the era of Michael Keaton playing Batman. That is Batman to me. He’s awe-inspiring in that role—so quiet, like a ghost, and then every once in a while this incredible thing just pops up in him. It was such a cool performance, especially since he’d been known for such big, broad performances.
When you and Ben Affleck were co-starring in Pearl Harbor, could you possibly have imagined a universe in which he would be starring in a Superman movie?
In what universe does Ben Affleck win an Academy Award for a best picture he starred in and directed? I knew he had it in him to do whatever he wanted to do. Ben has always been the smartest guy, but he holds that in reserve for some reason.
Back when you were being hyped as the guy, did you or anyone close to you question whether you were rebelling against mainstream Hollywood just for the sake of rebelling?
That’s very much ingrained in me still. The point of it was not to accept social norms at face value. If I was going to be a living, breathing, cognizant human being, I always felt I should have lots of questions about my place and follow that thread. We all have those questions, but sometimes we feel unable to ask them or feel restricted in the questions we do ask. I never felt that pressure, luckily. The thing that scares me the most these days, though, is whether that has become too much of a habit for me. When someone says go left, I have to go right. I’m not actually accomplishing anything by doing that. That terrifies me, and I try to keep an eye on it.
What happens when you head off in wrong directions?
You can run down the wrong paths for a very long time and without guidance. A friend of mine who was going through a similar thing started meditating. At first I was like, “Why do you need a mantra?” But it has worked wonders for him. He’s just clearer. In the middle of the hubbub, being at the center of the business, I didn’t have that time. I wasn’t able to create that space for myself.
One theory about you is that you turned down work because you had no deep-seated desire to be rich. True?
I’ve had the viewpoint “You don’t need money to survive. We can all just help each other out.” That’s something ingrained in our family. My younger brother worked pretty much pro bono for a long time and just relied on trading stuff he needed with his Amish neighbors to make life bearable. He quit and now has more of what we’d call a normal path. I thought there was something to that notion, though, especially for actors and creative people. If we could just help one another and express ourselves, we’d all be happy. But then I think, Oh shit, there are bills to be paid, and I’d have to get a car that’s safe for my kid. I don’t have a kid yet, but that’s the idea coming into my head these days.
You once called fame “a blunt tool thrust into my hands when I was very young.” Did you wield that tool mostly on others or on yourself?
Fame can be a dangerous thing. It can destroy you. I used to put myself in positions where I spoke up when I probably should have been listening. When you’re young and have convictions, and fame suddenly gives you a microphone, you think, I’m going to tell everybody how it is. In 2004 I was running around stumping for John Kerry for president. I was supposed to give a speech in Iowa, and I hadn’t really done any research on Iowa. I spoke to a classroom full of kids who were raised by Republican parents, and I tried to explain why I was voting for Kerry. The kids’ questions were very in tune with a side of life I just hadn’t considered. It made me feel provincial and small that I hadn’t considered thoroughly the other take in America. I had to take a step back from doing that to figure out, Do I actually know what I’m talking about?
For years your name has been linked romantically with a number of beautiful actresses, such as Amanda Seyfried, and others with whom you’ve made films, such as Scarlett Johansson. For several years now you’ve reportedly been deeply involved with Tamsin Egerton, with whom you co-star in an as-yet unreleased time-travel movie, The Lovers. Overall, how has dating co-stars worked out for you?
I think it’s a respectable way of going about it. I’ve met very important people in my life doing films. Sometimes that had consequences that were just awful for everybody involved. Some were fantastic all the way through. Everybody makes mistakes dating people they work with. They’re whom I’m attracted to because I share experiences with them and understand a bit about what they are and what they do. If I were able to go back in time, I don’t know if I could have done anything any different.
Movies you’ve made in the past decade— Resurrecting the Champ, 30 Days of Night, I Come With the Rain—have flown under the radar, but you’ve remained a paparazzi magnet. In 2007 the press and the internet carried rumors that you’d gotten a blow job from at least one of two women in the men’s room of a Lower East Side New York bar.
If something comes up that’s completely false, laughable or humiliating, I try not to spend any time on it. There are times when things come out and you just wish your mom didn’t read the papers. Or you hope the people who know you best know better than to believe it. It’s not to say I’ve been a saint, you know. But all that matters, I hope, is that that stuff doesn’t have any real effect on or dire consequences in my personal life with the people I love and care about.
You recently finished making the Western Wild Horses with James Franco. Did you and Franco compare notes on using social media to play with the public’s perception of you?
No, because he’s in the midst of doing something with his fame—there’s something still percolating there and I’m curious to see what the result is. Honestly, I don’t even know if I’d care to do that. It’s just so time-consuming, and I don’t know what you get back. Making that movie was great, though. Robert Duvall wrote, directed and stars in it. We were up in the mountains in Utah, riding horses. I play Duvall’s middle son, whom he just kind of passed over, and James plays the youngest son he loved so much, who turns out to be gay and to whom he did a lot of psychological damage. It’s the story of the youngest son’s return and the father coming to terms with the end of his life.
Speaking of fathers and sons, your father was a musician who played gigs with Al Green.
It was only a couple of times, but yeah. He played music all his life, but in the hubris of youth he thought he was going to be something. He was like, “Yeah, this guy Al Green’s coming to town and we’re playing with him a few times. Who cares?” Later on, though, he was like, “Holy shit.”
You have strong co-stars on Penny Dreadful, including Eva Green, Timothy Dalton, Billie Piper and Rory Kinnear, and the show is conceived and written by playwright John Logan, screenwriter of Skyfall and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Is there any fly in that ointment?
TV’s a new process for me. I probably should have guessed this, but the speed of shooting a two-hour film in five weeks is breakneck. When you finish, there’s no wrap party, no high-fiving. We did four of those two-hour films back-to-back last year, and this season it’s five. And we film in Dublin.
Not the worst location.
A good city to walk around in. We generally work in the mornings, though, and it’s cold there, and they don’t believe in central heating. The cold in Dublin is a different category of cold than I was used to growing up in Minnesota. When you’re cold in Dublin, you’re cold inside too, so it’s mostly finish work, go home and stoke the fire—which is kind of cool, actually. I’m generalizing, but the Irish have an underlying melancholy yet are very resilient, happy, jolly people.
The show features demons, ghouls and tormented characters such as the Ripper, Dorian Gray and Dr. Victor Frankenstein and his monstrous creation. It’s set in Victorian London circa 1891, and percolates with sexual stuff. Does playing a haunted character who shape-shifts into a werewolf make you consider what lycanthropic sex might be like?
I’ve thought of Ethan as a person with the same number and types of senses as I have, so his transformation into a werewolf is only a kind of fugue state. My thoughts on how he feels about sexuality, love and loss are more about him as a person than as a shape-shifter or an “other” kind of being. On the first episode of the show last season, we find him on a day when he very well could have killed himself. He’s woken up many times with blood on his hands. He thinks of himself as some kind of evil anomaly and is terrified of that. He covers it by seeming to be classically addicted to everything, to states of exultation. He’s haunted by his secrets. We all have those. A question that comes into play in this new season is whether we even need to be ashamed of those secrets. He opens up this season and becomes less blunt. There’s more sexual nuance this season. There’s also more levity and fun. There’s hope in Ethan for the first time.
How would Josh Hartnett have survived in the real 19th century London?
The options for a guy like me would have been much more limited back then. I wonder what I would have done for a living, or if I’d have gone to school, because there are so many questions of class when you talk about Victorian London. I don’t know if Josh Hartnett would have been born into an aristocratic family, but if he hadn’t, life would have been very short and filled with a lot of hard physical work.
What has most surprised you about doing Penny Dreadful?
John Logan being so very cool in allowing us to have a conversation about where the show might be going. He’s writing season three right now. We’ve continually stayed on top of what is attractive and not attractive to me about the things he’s come up with. One of the things that really interested me about playing this role was what it would be like to be part of an organic process as an actor, as opposed to just having it all cut-and-dried. Another thing is finding out how what we do affects people. That’s so alien to us while we’re in the process of doing it.
You mean you’ve learned that the show has a wide range of fans?
Yeah, we’re stumbling through sometimes, feeling good about it—just doing it. I didn’t know whether people would respond to the show, but it seems as though they are. And then suddenly Patti Smith came out to Dublin and watched us film for a day. It turns out she really likes the show and may even write some songs for it. Incredible.
So, to people who still want to ask that old question, “Whatever happened to Josh Hartnett?” what would you say?
I’m curious to see what people want of me in this business, if anything. I’m very happy with my personal life—we’re just kicking the can down the road, trying to make some sense of it. I’m very open these days about what I used to feel and what I used to take away from the business when I was young and kind of in the center of it all. I’m still trying to do similar kinds of things. Last year my favorite films were Birdman and Frank. Fellini’s 8½ is my favorite film. If at some point I can get away with doing something remotely as cool as those or anything Federico Fellini ever touched, I’ll be very happy.