Life & Culture

What Happened to Josh Hartnett?

Though he owned the years between 2001 and 2003, the Pearl Harbour star has all but disappeared, writes Trey Taylor

There exists a world in which Josh Hartnett can produce the immaculate orgasm. As in, make it happen without physical contact. He did it once to Shannyn Sossamon’s character in 40 Days and 40 Nights, gently petting her naked torso with an orchid until she came. He had sworn off sex for a Jesus-in-the-desert dry spell, hence the floral display. Though that skill turned out to be apocryphal (I cannot personally verify), he reportedly leveraged his abilities in the bedroom early on in his career to become the pin-up of the early 2000s. I would say he inarguably owned the years between 2001 and 2003.

“Josh Hartnett could become a Hollywood legend,” read an item in the New York Post in 1998. He had yet to appear on the big screen and already the tabloids were haemorrhaging ink. “Spies on the sets of Halloween: H2O and the sci-fi thriller The Faculty (due Christmas) report the 20-year-old is quite the stud. He supposedly bedded both his H2O co-star Michelle Williams, of TV’s Dawson’s Creek, and the equally pulchritudinous Faculty babe Jordana Brewster, known for her role on As the World Turns. ‘Oh well,’ sighs Hartnett's rep, ‘I guess we’ve got to expect these sorts of rumours since he’s so young and good-looking.’”

In the same world where the Minnesotan rube could service women without lifting a finger, reports about a budding actor’s sexual proclivities were fair game – almost common – to squeeze into the pages of tabloids; and their publicists? They’d offer a shrug and an “Oh well” knowing that their client would likely be bringing in another $20,000 in the time it took them to exhale and hang up the phone. This was no longer Hollywood’s Golden Age, but a bit of gossip only helped to fan the flames of a young actor’s career prior to the #MeToo era. Not that Hartnett needed it.

So the rumours continued to circle the drain. “While his character may have lost Leelee Sobieski to Chris Klein in Here On Earth, and Julia Stiles to Mekhi Phifer in O, Josh has gotten cosy with both of those leading ladies off-screen,” reported teen magazine Twist in 2001. In February 2002, Teen People declared Josh Hartnett “the hottest new movie star on earth – and he couldn’t care less”. The ensuing article told of a story where, during a rehearsal for his high school musical, Guys and Dolls, Hartnett “planted one on his co-star that was so dizzying, it caused her to drop a piece of paper she was holding for the scene.”

Posters of his “Creation of Adam” eyebrows and cascading fringe had pride of place in many young girls’ and guys’ bedrooms. Fans mined his life for info. There was at least one Angelfire web page dedicated to Hartnett in his heyday, riddled with anodyne facts. “When Josh was little, he drew a goatee on his chin with a sharpie; His first car was a white Ford Taurus with a maroon driver side door; In high school he worked in a movie store called Mr. Movies.” Yes, but did you know he could make a girl’s legs shake by blowing into her panties?!

The more outsize his career became, the more Josh Hartnett wanted out. He got kicked out of acting school, then out of Hollywood. “Well, they didn’t really kick me out; they just said I could leave if I wanted to,” a 20-year-old Hartnett explained to Rolling Stone in 1999. When he was up for the role of Danny Walker in Pearl Harbor, he hemmed and hawed over his choice. Uncertain of how his career would go after appearing in a $130 million blockbuster, he consulted his father about whether or not to take the part. Daniel Hartnett reminded his son what the budding actor said when he endeavored to leave Minnesota: “I’m gonna see how far I can ride this thing.”

Hartnett liked comparing his views toward fame to driving. “If you’re getting on the freeway, you get to the place you want to a lot quicker, but you don’t see the surrounding area,” he once said. “I’ve taken the side streets pretty much my whole life, so hopefully that’ll keep working out.” Pearl Harbor was more or less the film that made him a global star.

He did a few more monolithic flicks – Black Hawk Down, Sin City, Lucky Number Slevin – then he all but disappeared. Many YouTube conspiracy theorists have pieced together the reasons why. It was a conscious choice. Directors thought he was difficult so stopped offering him roles (he turned down the chance to play Superman, then Spider-Man, then Batman). He wanted a break. He took a break. He was dropped by his agents.

No theory is particularly convincing, even when it comes from the horse’s mouth. (He avows that he moved away from Hollywood in 2001, after completing Black Hawk Down, to gain a “healthy perspective” on such an “unhealthy environment,” according to a 2017 interview with Huffington Post. He wanted to focus on more independent projects, citing he “didn’t feel like I was totally in control of my own destiny”.)

Some other hunks have vanished without a trace. Jonathan Taylor Thomas, the most objectively boring of all teenage crushes, left acting cold turkey at the volleying height of Home Improvement to study Philosophy and History at Harvard. “I never took the fame too seriously. It was a great period in my life, but it doesn’t define me. When I think back on the time, I look at it with a wink. I focus on the good moments I had, not that I was on a lot of magazine covers,” he told People with a decade and a half of real life in the rearview mirror.

Still others, like Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ryan Phillippe, have held rather steady to their flagging teen appeal. They’re now workaday actors that are talented and good and consistent and probably minted. I’m sure they still have fans who attend their movies. Then there are those 90s macho stalwarts like Freddie Prinze Jr... What ever happened to that guy? Ah yes, he married Buffy and authored a cookbook: Back to the Kitchen: 75 Delicious, Real Recipes (& True Stories) from a Food-Obsessed Actor.

Josh Hartnett is still around, still furrowing his Cro-Magnon brow in Showtime’s series Penny Dreadful, which wrapped after three seasons. He has four films slated for release in 2019. One is directed by James Franco. He has been dating actress Tamsin Egerton, 10 years his junior, since 2013. They have two children whose names are unknown – no word on whether they were the product of an immaculate conception. The couple enjoys a very private life together in England.

As magazine centrefolds curl off of walls or blanch in the sun, like this Steven Klein-shot image of Hartnett about to chug milk, for example, Hartnett and his peers are being replaced by a new generation of fame-hungry stars. It’s a new world out there. Ashton Kutcher seems to miss the fan interactions he had when he was at his peak. He has publicly given out his mobile number, stating that he misses “having a real connection with real people”. Today’s posters are not posters, but rather iPhone lockscreens: Timothée Chalamet, Adam Driver and Noah Centineo seem to be popular. And Josh Hartnett, 40, dodged the fusillade of camera flashbulbs and put his family first. Maybe he wanted to disappear. Who can blame him?