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Josh Hartnett interview: "I was attracted to filmmakers who were taking risks"

Josh Hartnett, the star of Oh Lucy!, shares his love for indie films and the stories that America needs ahead of his visit to the Singapore International Film Festival

Remember a time when you couldn't escape seeing Josh Hartnett on a magazine cover? This was the late '90s and early 2000s, when you weren't embarrassed to listen to Nickelback and when it was socially acceptable to wear a Trucker cap. It was also a time when films such as The Virgin SuicidesBlack Hawk DownPearl Harbor and Wicker Park made you swoon for the heartthrob that was Hartnett. Lets face it: Everyone had a favourite Josh Hartnett film.

At the height of his career, the actor had worked with renowned directors such as Ridley Scott, Michael Bay and Brian De Palma. He starred opposite leading ladies like Kirsten Dunst, Kate Beckinsale, Scarlett Johansson and Diane Kruger, and was constantly on lists of the most beautiful and desirable men. Then you grew up — older and wiser perhaps — and moved on to Hollywood's newer princes. The likes of Ryan Gosling, Ryan Reynolds and Chris Hemsworth reigned supreme, while the actor your heart once went into overdrive for, faded into oblivion. But did he really? When Hartnett returned to television in 2014 to star in the horror drama Penny Dreadful, many saw it as a "comeback" after he "disappeared" from Hollywood.

But it wasn't like the actor had fallen off the face of the earth. Speaking to us over the phone from Los Angeles, the Hartnett on the line is now 39 years old and a father-of-two. He's been in independent films for the last 20 years — it's just that you haven't noticed. He's done four films for the last year and a half, steadily working with lesser-known filmmakers and choosing flicks that preferred festival recognition as opposed to international fare. Hartnett even turned down the role of Christopher Nolan's Batman. This route isn't surprising, given that his love for indie films stemmed from his childhood growing up in Minnesota.

"When I started in Hollywood, it wasn't my intention to become the most successful, richest actor in Hollywood," said Hartnett in his particularly deep voice that would have made my 14-year-old self very, very happy. "I wanted to work with certain types of directors and make certain types of films, and I've been able to do that."

Apart from working with directors in the big league, he's also had an aptitude for first-timers. In 1999, he starred in the cult hit The Virgin Suicides, which was director Sofia Coppola's first film. He also starred in Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung's first English language feature, I Come With The Rain. For his visit to the Singapore International Film Festival at the end of this month, he'll be representing Oh Lucy!, which is director Atsuko Hirayanagi's debut feature.

A road movie about a middle-aged Japanese woman (Shinobu Terajima) who develops a crush on her charming American English teacher (Hartnett) that sends her into an existential crisis, Oh Lucy! is based on Hirayanagi's short that premiered at Cannes Critics Week and won the second prize in Cinéfondation. In our conversation, Hartnett was candid about his love for ramen, passionate for the stories America needs to tell, and honest about a quarter-life crisis.

I understand that Atsuko Hirayanagi wanted you in Oh Lucy! and that you had a phone conversation with her that sealed the deal. What attracted you to the role?
I found her to be very sure-footed in what she wanted to do. There was not a hint of possessiveness over her work and yet she was very clear about what she wanted. I think it's a sign of a really talented director — someone who isn't afraid to listen to other people's opinions but then in the end, has a very clear idea of what they need and what they want. But I already wanted to do the film just from reading the script and seeing her short. The short's comedic timing and sense of drama was beautifully rendered. It kept me on a nice edge the whole time.

What's your approach like when it comes to talking to directors about prospective roles?
I typically ask a few questions like, "What do you think of the character?", and see if they agree with some of my interpretations of the character. If they don't, then "Why?", "Why don't they like what I'd like to do with the character?"

Atsuko mentioned that what attracted her to cast you was your "rebellion". You're this Hollywood kind of guy who's good-looking and talented, but you choose to be in indie films as of late. What do you make of that, this "rebellion" of sorts?
It definitely comes out in the work that I choose and in the way I carry myself. A lot of it isn't necessarily rebellion as much as it is me not just seeing things the way other people do. When I started in this industry, I was young and I wanted to be a part of films that were like the films I admired when I was a little bit younger.

What sort of films did you like? What was your film education like growing up?
I worked at a video store when I was 15 or 16 years old and I was able to take home as many videos as I wanted at the end of the night. I'd stay up all night watching VHS and I watched everything from the modern era of independent film and foreign films. I enjoyed going to a big movie theatre every once in a while, but it wasn't really what I was attracted to. I was attracted to more personal stories and filmmakers who were taking risks and pulling off different ways of approaching making film.

A lot of really good films came out in 1996, the year I graduated high school. One of my favourties from that year was Basquiat. 12 MonkeysThe Usual Suspects,Trainspotting...

So did you like the new Trainspotting?

I thought it was good. I felt it was an honest approach to following those characters down the line. It wasn't as affecting as the original was — like the shot of adrenaline into the theatre, like it really just knocked me back. You can really do something special with this. I was raised in the '90s, and at that time, film was really our cultural touchstone. What our friends always talked about, culturally, was through film and what sort of films we liked. You identify yourself by the sort of music you like but then on top of that, there were always these subgroups of people that like certain types of film and I think a lot of that is lost now. I identified with film and was very interested in it from a young age, naturally because of the form of entertainment that we all sort of partook as young people.

Josh Hartnett in Oh Lucy!
You've played characters written from true accounts in the past, but when it comes to approaching a fictional character like in Oh Lucy!, what was your homework like?
I looked at what he's doing there. Why is John in Japan? Why is he there and why is he teaching this class in this particular way? Well, he's looking for an escape that will hopefully give him some satisfaction that he wasn't gettting back home. He teaches the class in a sort of absurdist way, which is more about voice exercises and nothing to do with actually learning the language. Because he doesn't know how to speak Japanese. He has no business being an English teacher over there... just because he's tactile and handsome.

You spent three weeks shooting in Japan. First things first, what's your favourite Japanese dish?
I mean, ramen. I'm obsessed with ramen.

Me too! Do you always get the one with the shoyu sauce?
I like all kinds of ramen. Ive eaten a lot of ramen over the course of my life. I just like the fact that it's always a delicious warm fulfilling meal but there is so much variation available.

Having spent three weeks filming in Japan and being with a Japanese cast, how familiar are you with the culture now?
I've always felt like it's difficult to get to know the real culture in Tokyo. It's so far removed from my own. It's a totally different way of living. I always felt no matter what, I'd be an outsider. My very close friend whose brother moved to Japan has been there for years now, loves it and has more insight into the culture, but even he doesn't quite understand everything, being from something so far removed as Minnesota. My insights on the culture are very miniscule. But I always loved being there, something about it makes you feel more alive.

Josh Hartnett in Oh Lucy!

Oh Lucy! sees this woman in a mid-life crisis type of situation. What would your advice be for someone going through the same thing?
I don't know. I'e never been through a mid-life crisis. I'm not that old — 39!

Okay then, what about a quarter-life crisis? What was yours like?
Mine was mostly about trying to find meaning in my own life. I knew I was capable, I had good friends, a good girlfriend at the time, had made some money, and was working all the time. Everything was going pretty well. But I had a sort of philosophical freakout, in which I didn't really know whether or not what I was doing was actually what I was supposed to be doing.

It resolved itself by being practical. I realised that being indecisive was more detrimental to my life than just choosing a path and going with it. I'm not necessarily fated to do anything in particular. It's about what I do, not about what I believe I am inside that matters.

Which brings me to my next question. You were 18 when you landed your first gig and now at 39, what do you want out of your career and what's next?
I feel like it's just getting started. The aforementioned quarter life crisis took me on a path where I wasn't sure what I wanted from my career. I've been writing for the last couple years and I'm very interested in the craft of writing scripts. Maybe eventually direct something. But every actor wants to be a director so that's no big deal, but I'm curious to see how I can approach that. I have a lot more fun with the work I've been doing as an actor than I used to. Hopefully I'll be able to eventually make films I feel are special or important to me.

What kind of stories do you think are needed right now in this day and age, and are these the kind of stories you want to do in the future?
It brings up a whole question I'm actually dealing with — something that I've been writing. Does art affect the political arena? Does art affect the way people think or is art a parallel of history that goes along with politics and culture? If I made a movie tomorrow, will it nail down what this whole situation is about in America? Do I think it will affect change? I doubt it. The real change occurs in our day-to-day lives, getting involved in the political arena or in a social movement that can affect change. 

I'm not sure if art can affect that on a major scale or if art is more reflective of a culture. It's not like writers made people become anti-establishment in the '60s. It was reflective of a bunch of people who were already anti-establishment. It's a good touchstone for people to point to and be like, "I'm part of that". But I don't know if the films we're making now are going to have an effect on how we look back on this time and how we view our fight against the powers that be right now. You tell me, what do you think?

I think the undercurrent from the films I've seen recently is that there's still hope. In every movie I've seen so far, hope has been the unifying thing.

In the darkest times, that's the thing that pulls us through. This is a very dark time, it's a scary time. I think now is the time to be most hopeful. But now is the time when it's most difficult to be hopeful, but when we probably need it most. 

Oh Lucy! will be screened on 30 November at Marina Bay Sands as part of Singapore International Film Festival.Book tickets.

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