Remember the early aughts when everyone was trying to figure out which of the crop of new heartthrobs was destined to be the next Brad Pitt or Leonardo DiCaprio? And what an embarrassment of riches, the hot actor class at the turn of the millennium including Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson, Ryan Phillippe and Orlando Bloom.
Then there was Josh Hartnett, who very much wanted to be excluded from that narrative.
Just 22 at the time, he was poised to follow up 1999's The Virgin Suicides with a turn in 2001's splashy war epic Pearl Harbor. A sure-to-be blockbuster with a $135 million budget and a cast that included Kate Beckinsale, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Ben Affleck, it was the type of film, Vanity Fair wrote in a 5,000-word opus, "that will virtually overnight make an international movie star out of a comparative unknown—who, in this case, would be Josh Hartnett, a kid whose dark good looks are of the type usually referred to as brooding, and whose eyes, though squinty, can read on film as having profoundly soulful depths."
The piece was filled with predictions about how the Minnesota native's life would change, from producer Jerry Bruckheimer saying he'll have "girls and people wanting his autograph running after him" to costar Affleck insisting, "Simply put, Josh will get very famous very quickly and runs the very real risk of becoming a sort of one-man embodiment of the Backstreet Boys to hormone-crazed 15-year-old girls from Minnetonka to Tarzana."
Even Beckinsale gushed that her counterpart was "earth-shatteringly handsome in a slightly surprised way—he can't quite believe when everyone is falling over him and teasing him about being so good-looking."
And Hartnett absolutely hated it.
"Oh, that was an awful piece," Hartnett, now a 42-year-old married dad of two living in Surrey, England, recently reflected to The Guardian. "Was there even a quote from me in it, or was it just everyone talking about how hot I was? People got a chip on their shoulder about me after that. They genuinely thought I'd been thrust on them. It was a very weird time."
Bristling at the lofty expectations it created, he said, "It's just that it happened at a time when I wasn't that famous, and it seemed to already be asking whether I should be or not. I felt like: 'Oh my God! I'm not the tallest poppy yet—don't cut me down!' I was being compared to Tom Cruise and Julia Roberts and that's insane. It was a set-up-to-fail moment."
Facing a fork in the road—take a stab at mega-fame and everything that includes or run, fast, in the opposite direction—he went with the latter.
He turned down the lead role in 2006's Superman Returns and avoided any other parts that would continue him down the path of magazine covers and persistent, trailing paparazzi. He made a series of indies and a life for himself across the pond with British actress Tamsin Egerton and their two children.
Though the actor noted to The Guardian that some saw his retreat as "someone who had bitten the hand that fed me," he simply wasn't interested in becoming this blockbuster-starring brand name guy. "I'm happy to be done with that era and to be making films that are more personal to me," explained Hartnett, taking part in the interview to talk up his new thriller Target Number One. "Directors are coming to me to play characters as opposed to versions of a hero I played in a movie once."
And he certainly wasn't the first—or the last—star to take a breather from the biz. IMDB is filled with well-known names that have defected from the Hollywood fraternity. Some have returned for guest appearances or gone on to even more high-profile parts (cough, Meghan Markle), but at one point or another they've all made the declaration that they're done. Here's what inspired them to explore new roles.