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*oh my josh!* articles
Teen People
February 2002

The Guy Can't Help It
By Robert Adele


You could say Josh Hartnett started his acting career on the football field. It wasn’t that he pretended to enjoy playing for St. Paul’s Cretin-Durham Hall high school team, or that he faked the resulting torn ligaments in his left knee. It’s just that if he hadn’t been sidelined for an extended period, he never would have found himself moping around the house with nothing to do. And therefore he probably wouldn’t have succumbed to the persistent nudging of his theater-loving aunt, who thought that her 16-year-old nephew might like to take a shot at getting up onstage. Until then, Josh’s only brush with acting was in a short film about a Dairy Queen robbery that he and some of his pals made. It had been a convincing performance, though: One alarmed neighbor who witnessed the shooting actually called the cops. “It’s a good thing we were taking a break and eating Dilly Bars,” Josh later said about the visit from the law enforcement. “If we’d had our fake yellow pistols in our hands, we probably would have all been goners.” Although being a theater geek didn’t immediately appeal to someone more accustomed to jock adulation, boredom soon made the idea more appetizing. So Josh, the son of real estate manager Daniel and stepson of homemaker and artist Molly, trudged over to the Youth Performance Company and tried out for the role of Huckleberry Finn in a production of Tom Sawyer - and got it. It may have helped that he felt he had something in common with the good-natured, rabble-rousing Huck: “I always wanted to get out [in the world] and see what was there,” he has said. “What defines me is wanderlust.” He got out, all right. Seven years later, at just 23, Josh has become a global movie star. His laserlike stare, brooding good looks and undeniable talent have transformed the 6’3” Midwesterner into one of the hottest heartthrobs in Hollywood. He’s appeared in everything from campy horror flicks (Halloween: H2O) to indie art house films (The Virgin Suicides) to the megabudget blockbuster that made him a magazine coverboy (Pearl Harbor). His latest film, Black Hawk Down, the true story of the disastrous 1993 Somalian firefight involving U.S. Soldiers (yes, Josh is back in uniform), should cement his leading-man status. His roles so far have tended toward the tortured and introspective, but in March, Josh can be seen exploring the not-as-easy-as-it-looks genre of light romantic comedy. The film’s title, 40 Days and 40 Nights, refers to just how long the actor’s romantically disillusioned character tries to swear off all sex – while his ex tries to tempt him back by turning him on. Almost an entire movie without a Josh kiss may sound like a cruel joke to his fans, but as always it will be worth the wait. After all, he’s been honing his, um, oral skills as far back as high school, when Josh, playing the suave gambler Sky Materson in rehearsals for the musical Guys and Dolls, planted one on his costar that was so dizzying, it caused her to drop a piece of paper she was holding for the scene. (The dropped paper became a bit in the show.) Recalls South High’s theater director at the time, Louise Bormann: “He was smooth. It was like, ‘Whoa! Here’s a kid I don’t need to coach!’” Josh had transferred to South High in Minneapolis for its expansive theater program. The large 2,000-student school put up four main-stage productions a year (actress Rachel Leigh Cook, Josh’s costar in last year’s little-seen Blow Dry, was two years behind him).Bormann remembers her lanky student as a natural right from the start: hardworking yet affecting an effortless grace, qualities perfectly suited for the department’s lavish musicals. “He had excellent instincts,” she says, citing his Bernardo, the combustible Puerto Rican leader of the Sharks in West Side Story. “It’s a challenging role, with the accent, the dancing, the singing, the fighting. He was exceptional. He has a wonderful voice, and he dances just beautifully. He did all these lifts, and just really moved.” When a local agent expressed an interest in the teenager, Josh decided there might be a career in acting after all. Never at the top of his class academically – “I think education is very important, but I didn’t want to do all that nonsense busywork,” he said recently – he nonetheless graduated from South High and got into the drama school at SUNY Purchase College in New York. But, following a vague disagreement with university officials (he has alluded to something about academic policies) during the first year, he lit out for Los Angeles. It was early 1997, and he gave himself two months to break into acting. It only took about a week. At the time, casting director Anne McCarthy and her partner were searching for the right young actor to play a high school student who had a volatile relationship with his father. “We had read every 18-year-old in town, and then [Josh] walked in and blew us away,” says McCarthy, who recalls being struck by his “great presence.” She adds: “He’s really intense and soft-spoken, and he’s got great energy. I brought him in for the director, and he was like, ‘Where has he been this whole time?’ I said, ‘Uh… Minnesota?’” That movie was never made, but suddenly the name “Josh Hartnett” was on everyone’s radar. Within two months he landed a role on the TV series, Cracker as the troubled son of the title character, a crime-solving psychologist. Although short-lived, the portrayal made a big impression on Hollywood’s star-makers – and on Josh’s father. Daniel and his second wife Molly, had basically raised Josh (his mother had moved to San Francisco after his parents divorced), and the father and son had a long history of butting heads. “After my dad watched Cracker, he said, ‘I’m sorry for whatever I did,’” Josh once told an interviewer. “I said, ‘You didn’t do anything – I was acting.’ My performance made him feel bad; he said he’d seen all those faces before.’” Let’s hope that his father was not so familiar with some of the looks Josh would employ in his first movies, the horror flicks Halloween: H2O and The Faculty. The fan base was now building, as were the comments about his unapologetic bedhead hairstyle. “When it’s shorter, I like to rub my head; it’s a source of comfort to me,” Josh has said. “It’s not the most flattering look in the world, but I like it.” (“I think it’s adorable,” argues McCarthy. “It’s so signature Josh.”) “He could do anything and look good,” says director Mark Piznarski, who would be the first to give Josh a romantic part, as Leelee Sobieski’s longtime beau and Chris Klein’s rival in the teenage love triangle, Here On Earth. Piznarski considers Josh one of the most “gifted” actors he’s worked with, a “throwback to guys like [Marlon] Brando and [James] Dean – the way they really internalize the difficulties and the pain a character is going through. He just comes off in such a wholesome, realistic way.” For Josh, a bonus of shooting Here On Earth was the opportunity to make a movie in a town only an hour away from Minneapolis/St. Paul. Members of his family came to visit (he’s the eldest of four, with two younger brothers and a sister), and he got to hang out with his old friends on his 21st birthday. In fact, although he was thrilled to be working steadily, Josh’s preference for a down-to-earth lifestyle was becoming hard to reconcile with his status as a quickly rising star. In 2000, critics praised Josh not only for Here On Earth but also for his role as a treacherous boyfriend in Sofia Coppola’s eerie film adaptation of the Jeffrey Eugenides novel The Virgin Suicides. The growing clamor for his talents was made abundantly clear when Piznarski got a call asking if he thought Josh was a good choice for a certain expensive three-hour epic about World War II, then in the planning stages. “You couldn’t do any better,” responded the director. Thus, Josh received the offer to star as all-American flyboy Danny Walker, opposite Ben Affleck and Kate Beckinsale, in Pearl Harbor. But Josh was in no hurry to achieve stardom. “If you’re getting on the freeway,” he once said, “you get to the place you want to a lot quicker, but you don’t see the surrounding area. I’ve taken the side streets pretty much my whole life, so hopefully that’ll keep working out.” He wrestled with whether to take the Pearl Harbor role, unsure about how the escalation in his fame would affect his life. So one day, while his dad was washing the car, Josh walked up and poured his heart out to him, explaining how the opportunity conflicted with the relatively humble goal he had started out with: to be able to go into the video store he used to work in, point to a box and say, “Look! That’s me!” Surely, he thought, the trappings of celebrity that would come with the Titanic-size Pearl Harbor would weigh him down. But Dad reminded his son of what he’d said when he left Minnesota to tackle acting: “I’m gonna see how far I can ride this thing.” The ride was still on; it had merely increased in momentum. Fame, he explained to Josh, was temporary. Regret lasted much longer – did he really want to risk lamenting the fact that he had not taken the chance? His father’s perceptive words were just what he needed to hear: Josh dug into the effects-laden, $135 million production and pulled out a stellar characterization of torn loyalties and innocent love. For Josh, a mix of roles is crucial, and last summer he got an opportunity to showcase a chilling portrayal in the grim, violent O, the updated version of Othello he had made two years earlier. “I’ve been lucky enough to play a couple of dirty characters… and that’s good because you don’t want everything to become sterile,” he said of his role as the villainous Iago counterpart, Hugo. “You don’t want to lose the messiness of life.” The messiness of Hollywood relationships, however, is another thing altogether. “It’s hard for me to work closely with a girl and not completely fall in love with her as a person,” he said recently about movie-set romances. Although he never talks about who he’s seeing, it’s been reported that exes include actress Monet Mazur and model Gisele Bundchen (but he denies rumors about O costar Julia Stiles). He has admitted to having an on-and-off girlfriend who, he’s thrilled to note, has no connection to his line of work. His career may still be on the fast track, but these days Josh is living his life in the slow lane, where he can take in the scenery at his own pace and spend more time with his friends and family. He moved back to Minnesota, where he doesn’t have to think about his career 24/7 (“not living in Los Angeles is a means of survival” he has said). You might catch him in his old stamping grounds, like the Youth Performance Company, where he still checks in to catch shows. Louise Bormann remembers the time when he stopped by to see her final play before she transferred to another teaching position. “He hugged me so many times, and he was so excited and wanted to tell me what he was doing,” recalls Bormann, her voice full of pride in her former student, whose success, she admits, sometimes makes her cry. For her, the story of Josh Hartnett has a well-deserved Hollywood ending: One of the good ones – hardworking, respectful, smart – makes it big. “It’s as thrilling as can be. I don’t think what’s happening to him has turned him into someone else. He’s just a great kid.”