LOS ANGELES – An energetic teenager bounded into a hoity-toity Hollywood restaurant and didn’t even look at the menu before blurting out that he was almost certain he just nailed an audition for a new “Halloween” movie, oblivious to the fact that he’s more of an unknown than the guy outside parking cars.
That was 16 years ago.
“I was a pretty cocky little kid,” said Josh Hartnett, taking a break from shooting “Penny Dreadful,” Showtime’s new psychological horror series. “Maybe that’s why people liked what I was doing at the time. I never felt I had to push that far. I thought if it was there emotionally, it would read on the screen. I think it worked.”
Did it ever. Within three years of scoring that horror flick, the St. Paul-raised actor was on everyone’s most-wanted list. In 2001 alone, he starred in six major releases, including “Black Hawk Down” and “Pearl Harbor.”
Then Hartnett pulled a disappearing act.
“There was a period right after ‘Black Hawk Down’ where I decided not to make films for 18 months,” said Hartnett, hanging out in a hotel suite earlier this year as Showtime’s president cooled his heels in the hallway, waiting to pay his respects. “The attention being paid to me was overwhelming.”
He’s been slow about getting back in the fast lane. He hasn’t starred in a significant motion picture since 2007’s “Resurrecting the Champ” with Samuel L. Jackson.
“It was a life strategy,” said Hartnett, who spent his downtime directing music videos, writing scripts and dabbling in design work. “There were times when nothing was quite right and I wasn’t intrigued by anything. I turned down a lot of stuff and time just kept marching on.”
“Penny,” which debuts Sunday, has the potential to re-ignite his career. He plays Ethan Chandler, a Bronco Billy-type performer who’s drifting across London in 1891 when he’s recruited by Victorian-age vampire hunters. Encounters with Dr. Frankenstein, Dorian Gray and other spooky creatures from historical fiction soon follow.
Creator John Logan cast Hartnett for the brooding nature that first made him a star.
“Quite honestly, he’s got great eyes,” said Logan, who wrote the screenplays for “Gladiator,” “The Aviator” and “Skyfall,” the most recent James Bond film. “He allows passion and intensity to come through his eyes. When he walks into a room, he represents handsome America.”
Eva Green, who plays a woman Chandler is hired to protect, also referenced the All-American persona in an interview. “We’re all playing uptight British people, and he comes in as the cowboy,” she said.
Hartnett has a harder time describing himself. Never much of a talker, at least to the press, he made several efforts to describe where he is as an actor before landing on a somewhat enigmatic answer.
“When I started off, I was very passionate about the details of what I was getting into and how it defined me,” he said. “As I get older, I’m less interested in how each job defines me and more interested in how they’re helping me grow and keep going in this world.”
There are other changes for Hartnett in his mid-30s. In the past, he has been heavily involved in supporting Democratic candidates, including Minneapolis’ new mayor, Betsy Hodges. Expect to see less of him on the campaign trail in the near future.
“I’m not sure celebrity endorsements help a politician,” he said. “I think the influence of actors is through the work they do rather than going out and stumping. I think it leaves candidates open for potshots.”
And then there’s the revelation that the Twin Cities may be losing one of its most recognizable residents.
Hartnett still spends at least three months a year in Minneapolis and even ran around the lakes a few times during this brutal winter. “I’m one of those crazy people who do it when it’s 40-below,” he said. “It hurts to catch your breath.”
But he isn’t sure how much longer he’ll keep his Midwest home. “Economically, it’s difficult to maintain multiple places to live,” he said. “It also diffuses the attention you can give to the place you’re at. As time goes on, I’m going to have to make some choices.”
As for his career, Hartnett hopes to find a solid movie to act in this summer and then direct one of his own scripts.
“I like the idea of putting something out there that I put together,” he said. “I haven’t done that yet.”
It’s just another indication that the onetime teen heartthrob is all grown up.