In the mere decade he’s been filling movie screens, 30-year-old actor Josh Hartnett has already worked in both mega-budget studio flicks (“Pearl Harbor,” “Hollywood Homicide”) and with auteurs like Sofia Coppola (“The Virgin Suicides”), Robert Rodriguez (“The Faculty,” “Sin City”) and Brian De Palma (“The Black Dahlia”). Maintaining his stance with one foot in Hollywood, the other currently leaning more heavily in Indiewood, Hartnett’s latest which he also co-produced is a time warp back to New York during the summer of 2001. Only marginally a pre-9/11 film, director Austin Chick’s “August” is an implosive study in hubris set against the backdrop of the dot-com economic meltdown. Hartnett plays Tom Sterling, a narcissistic millionaire CEO who is far more concerned with his materialistic rock star image than he is for Landshark, the sinking ship of a company that he began with his brother Joshua (Adam Scott). Hartnett chatted with me about the film, why he considers himself a gambler, and being intimidated by co-star David Bowie.
As a well-recognized actor, have you ever thrown your celebrity weight around to get your way, as Tom does?
No, I’ve never considered such things. [laughs] Of course, yeah. There are times, especially in New York, where the nightlife is run by the loudest voice in the room. There are so many celebrities here in their own right who are just local celebrities, and it’s hard to keep that status alive. But I don’t play that game. I’ve seen a lot of people who are like that, and that’s where the character Tom came from, as far as my understanding of him. There aren’t that many situations where I have to throw a tantrum. I’m not all that demanding, I don’t think. My family might think otherwise.
What Landshark actually does or produces is kept largely ambiguous in the film. Were there any challenges or concerns approaching a character who had so many blanks to be filled in?
It just makes my job a little bit more creative. I get to decide more myself what his job really is, what the company is, and how he thinks his own life will play out. For this script, the character was so well written that I had faith that I wasn’t going to look moronic up there. Leaving it ambiguous was the right choice, and I think it turned out well. In a way, it’s not all that important to let the audience know what the company does. The more ambiguous Tom’s pitch is, the more people seem to buy it.
Are you a tech geek in any way?
My abilities on the computer are limited pretty much to iTunes and YouTube. I check my email as much as anybody, but I’m more old-fashioned, in a certain sense. My interests are guitars, cars, and vacation. I’ve been playing guitar all my life. My dad was a professional guitarist, but I’m terrible, which lets me off the hook, so I just play for myself.
Speaking of musicians, David Bowie makes a wonderful cameo role in the film. Do you have any on-set anecdotes involving him, or for that matter, your co-star Rip Torn?
Rip’s a character — he said he’s worked on more films than any other American actor. I don’t know if that’s true, but he’s been around for a long time. We had a good relationship, and he was only on set for a few days, and David Bowie was only there for one day, so I didn’t really get to know either of them that well. But with Bowie, I was just awestruck when he was around. Right before Bowie came to set, I saw all his old videos, and that made me doubly intimidated by him when he got there.
Between Bowie, iTunes and your family of musicians, it’s probably fair to ask what you’re listening to these days.
Wolf Parade just came out with a new album, and I’ve got a huge musical infatuation with [vocalist-keyboardist-guitarist] Spencer Krug; I think he’s a genius. He has that band Sunset Rubdown, too, and Swan Lake. I’ve been really excited to hear the new album, so I’ve been listening to that a lot. My musical tastes go from Zeppelin to Bob Dylan to Kanye West and Lil’ Wayne. Anything modern and progressive.
What’s the biggest gamble you’ve ever taken?
Relying on the movie business to feed me was a pretty large gamble. I got lucky there. I’m kind of a gambler at heart. I take a lot of risks with my career and my life. I move around a lot, and I love my family and friends, but I do kind of keep moving and don’t spend a lot of time in one place. I traveled to China a little bit last year that was exciting, but I won’t [be traveling again until] the beginning of next year, because I’m doing this play in London, which is also a gamble.
You mean the Tom Cruise role in a “Rain Man” stage adaptation? I had no idea that project existed until this week.
It was just written into a play last year. They sent it to me, and I was thinking at first, why would I reprise a role that was done so well before? Why would I take on a theater piece based on a movie? But I read the script, and I couldn’t deny it was one of the richest characters I’ve ever read. I’ve been looking for a piece of theater to do, in London specifically. One of the producers who I’ve met with out there sent it to me and said, “I think this would be terrific for you.” I read it, loved it, we went out and found a director, another actor, and here we are.
What preconceived notions do you think people have about actors, acting, or even you as an actor?
The perception of me has hopefully changed over the years. At the beginning of my career, it was odd to me that people saw me so much as the heroic type. “Pearl Harbor” was one of those heroic characters, and that was the biggest movie I was in, but I try to experiment with different types of characters. My first film was Robert Rodriguez’s “The Faculty,” and I played the reluctant cool guy. In “The Virgin Suicides,” I played something that I thought was completely different, and worked my way up like any other actor in the industry. Then suddenly, there was this invitation put out to journalists to categorize me when I did “Pearl Harbor,” and that was obviously a huge publicity machine. I found myself at the center of it, and I’ve been labeled ever since.
I hope the work I’m doing is showing people that I’m a real actor and that I want to try different things. In general, I think actors are labeled as pampered and [not having] a lot of scruples. I know a lot of actors who are incredibly intelligent and care very much about all areas in life. They’re not just preening in the mirror all day long… but some are like that, too.
“August” is currently playing in New York and will be released in Los Angeles on July 18th.
[Photos: Josh Hartnett in “August,” First Look International, 2008]