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Josh Hartnett on Becoming the Character Actor He Always Tried to Be

After a stratospheric rise to stardom in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, Josh Hartnett settled down. Since then, much has been made of his escape from Hollywood and the roles he was allegedly offered and turned down. Much less has been made of the good work he did in smaller fare around that same time. Films like Paul McGuigan’s Wicker Park, Rod Lurie’s Resurrecting The Champ, and Austin Chick’s August come to mind––all underrated pictures that deserve a larger audience. 

Over a decade later, Hartnett, now 42 years old (as of today, in fact), is more versatile than ever before. Following an impressive three-season run on the Showtime series Penny Dreadful and a slew of smaller films of wide-ranging genres, he now plays real-life journalist Victor Malarek in Daniel Roby’s Most Wanted. The film, arriving digitally this week, is based on the story of Alain Olivier and his illegal arrest in Thailand in the late 1980s. Hartnett’s character is crucial in exposing the corruption at the center of the law enforcement involved in the arrest, putting himself and his family in harm’s way as he digs deeper and deeper.  

The Film Stage spoke to Hartnett about his latest performance, the benefits of portraying a real-life reporter, his journey to becoming a bonafide character actor, and some hidden gems in his career that are worth checking out.

The Film Stage: It’s been a busy year for you. You had Inherit The Viper in January and the television show [Paradise Lost on Spectrum] a few months back, now Most Wanted. These are all very different roles, very different characters. It has been exciting watching your career become both lead roles and character actor performances. What’s that journey been like?

Josh Hartnett: Yeah, I guess… it’s been something I’ve tried to do throughout my career but it’s only now starting to take hold in the way that I’m being perceived in the industry. Directors are sending me more and more characters of different types. For a long time it was a struggle to find roles like this. Even though I started [out choosing] anything that was different from the mainstream-type, leading roles––I started in independent films with roles that were more character-y. So it’s been in my career the whole time, though it’s only just starting to be viewed that way. But it’s fun for me to jump around and work with passionate directors on pieces that they’re really passionate about and they’ve been allowing me to create different types of characters.

It’s interesting you bring up indie movies from earlier on in your career. Watching Most Wanted, in which you play an investigative reporter, it did remind me of Resurrecting The Champ, an underrated movie you made over a decade ago, which has a journalistic aspect to it as well. Although they’re very different roles, when you revisit the same space as an actor do you reflect on maybe what’s changed in your process or what you’ve learned along the way?

Oh, everything is different now in the way that I approach characters than it was twelve years ago. As a young actor, I relied a lot on instinct and the research that I did was a lot of reading and a lot of getting to know people surrounding either the profession the character was in or the event that the character was going through. But it was all basically built in through my own experience and I was young, you know? I didn’t have that much experience yet! And as I’ve gotten more mature I have found that my own instincts for a character are sometimes not as interesting as I’d like the character to be. And I have become much more methodical in my approach and break characters down in a different way than I did before. The signatures will still be there for every actor. You are in your body, you can’t change that. But it definitely is a different approach for me. 



In Most Wanted you’re playing a real-life person. How much of that in your preparation are you considering? It’s obviously not an imitation, right? But how much of that are you taking into your day-to-day?

A lot actually, because Victor [Malarek] was so available to me before the production and he was one of the big reasons why I wanted to do the film to begin with. I met with Daniel [Roby], the director, not long after he sent me the script and he told me why he thought I’d be good for it, but I was certain that there was more to it, because he was such a passionate guy. So obviously well-read on this subject and many subjects. And I felt like he had written something that was a distillation of a lot of events that he’d come across. But I wanted to know more about what this character was actually like at home, and luckily enough, he was like, ‘Well, why don’t you come up to Toronto and meet Victor?’ And so, I flew up––I was living in New York at the time – and we spent the day together. Victor showed me around The Globe and Mail [in Toronto]. I was able to meet former colleagues who had great stories about him. He took me to his old hangouts. We had lunch at his old favorite sandwich shop and I was able to talk to the owner of [the shop] about him. Then he took me to his house and I was able to meet his family.

And I started to view the character, not just as what I could learn on the page or what I could research, but he was fully three-dimensional standing in front of me. So my job was to square that idea of who he is with who he is on the page. And Daniel was dead-on in creating a really nice conflict because this was a time in Victor’s life where he was forced to think about something. He was always thinking about someone outside of himself, but he was compelled to do it. It was a calling, and he viewed himself as this crusader journalist and someone who would stop at nothing and feared nothing and all this stuff. But underneath that bravado was this actual fear. And the fear was that he would lose his family, that he would end up in a situation where they would be in harm’s way, but he didn’t recognize that yet. So he comes face-to-face with that in the first few minutes of the film. And I liked that this character has, for the first time in a long time, self-doubt about where he’s at and his place in the world, even though he’s in the middle of this very important story.

Definitely, there are a lot of different elements that work to make the character feel fully formed. It’s an unfortunately serendipitous, provocative time for this movie to come out, with everything going on in the world. It feels like the right time in the sense that it’s a movie about the idea of law enforcement and the potential abuses that can lend itself in that scenario.

Well, I will say that it’s sad that this event that took place in 1989 had as much relevance to Daniel when he picked it up in 2006, as it has to us now in 2020. Things just aren’t changing. What can you say about that? It’s why I think that this film, why I originally thought that this film, was so important to tell at the time that I first read it, which was five years ago. [It’s about] people who are speaking truth, journalists who are doing the research, and are working for an accredited newspaper, and are speaking to experts, and are creating full-fledged stories full of facts and are being undermined by people who are conspiracy theorists and quacks on the internet. That dilemma has been happening for such a long time and I felt like that was one reason why this was an important story to tell. And it’s only gotten worse, obviously, with the current administration and everything. So it’s unfortunate that it is such a universal issue and that it’s still happening now. It definitely is. I think it’s even more highlighted now, as you said.

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A movie like this, there’s obviously a lot of passion behind it, and it’s not the smallest movie but it’s not a blockbuster either. And, honestly, this question is an excuse to highlight August, which is a movie that I love from 2008. Are there any other small movies of yours that you would recommend? These kinds of movies that, like you say, you’ve been making for a long time. Even something like Stuck Between Stations. Standouts that you would say, “Hey, if you like Josh Hartnett, there’s this movie you might not know about…”

Hey, I really appreciate you, first of all, having seen August and then liking it because that was another labor of love. These projects, nobody’s doing them to make a living, really. We all go and everybody takes time and effort and works as groups to make something that wouldn’t exist if we didn’t take that time and effort. And so, this film was small and it was not as small as August, and definitely not as small as Stuck Between Stations, but small enough to be able to pull off an international production with three intertwining storylines and it was originally a 180-page script. A very complex piece of material. You know, Daniel really outdid himself pulling this together. And I know he had to give up his fees and it took a lot of sacrifice, on his part, to make this work. I’m super proud of the work that he did. And it’s the same thing with August [and director] Austin Chick.

And I always felt this way, and I’m feeling it more and more every day, that the most important part of my job is finding passionate filmmakers who are working on a project that they really feel strongly about. And that was Austin for August. And he brought me right along into that world and it had the weirdest circumstances of release. And it was similar to what happened with this movie O that I did where we shot O and then Columbine happened and the movie had to be delayed for a long time. Because no one wanted to see that situation that takes place in our film. And August was the same thing. We shot the film and then the crash of 2008 happened and our film was about the dot-com crash in New York a few years previous. So it happened at a time that’s serendipitous, and this film is sort of happening that way too. It’s bizarre. It was in the air or something.

Yeah. It’s true. That’s interesting, actually.

So the answer to your question is, recently, I think, Oh, Lucy! is one that I really loved that I’ve made recently. I felt very lucky that Atsuko [Hirayanagi] came to me at the beginning because I don’t know why she came to me. No one comes to me to make comedies. And now, more so I’m getting more comedies, which I’m excited about, but it was not something that was coming my way. And it was such a compelling film and she’s such a tremendous filmmaker. And there have been a few peppered in there over the years. So there’s some sad cases too, like Mozart and the Whale, which was a fantastic Norwegian director named Petter Næss, his English-language debut, and it was such a great film shoot. The film itself was really well-made. And then, the producers of it took it away from him and re-edited it and put on a crappy soundtrack and made it into something that it just wasn’t in its DNA. And that happened with a couple of other films of mine. A movie called I Come With The Rain, that Tran Anh Hung directed. Same thing, that was literally taken away from him in court by the producers. And they edited something together that didn’t work. So you run a risk when you make independent films that there will be some bad actor who you don’t know is in the wings waiting to…

To manipulate it.

yeah, manipulate it. But sometimes it really works out, like in this case, which I’m very proud of.

Well, hey, hopefully a couple of people seek out August and Oh Lucy! from this interview because those are worthwhile endeavors. I’ll end with just, what’s next for you? Obviously it’s a weird time for a “what’s next” question with everything going on.

Yeah, I finished a Guy Ritchie movie this [past] winter just before lockdown and it was such a great experience working with him. He works in a very independent fashion. He rewrites the dialogue on a moment-to-moment basis in order to shoot what his filter is saying that day is going to be funniest. That was wild because I have no idea what my character is going to be like in the final edit because only he knows what that movie is going to be like.

And then, I went to do this Raoul Peck, his next film after I Am Not Your Negro. And he has directed a documentary, it’s four-and-a-half hours long, and in it, he’s putting these narrative pieces and I’m the guy who’s in those narrative pieces. And we were just about to start filming into the Dominican Republic when we were sent home because they were going to close the borders. And then, we’ve spent four months in lockdown, and literally yesterday we were allowed to come to Paris to start back up but we’re only are shooting for a short time. Everybody’s isolating and doing the right thing and all the departments are isolated from each other, and we’ve all taken our tests. We’re going to try to finish it now, and so it could be out there because it’s a very important and timely piece as well. It’s about the history of Western genocide and filtered through Raoul’s personal perspective. So that’s what I’m doing right now.

Most Wanted arrives digitally on Friday, July 24.

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