Josh Hartnett Recalls the “Set-Up-to-Fail Moment” That Made Him Resent Hollywood

What do Julia Roberts, Tom Cruise and Vanity Fair have in common? They're all part of Josh Hartnett's story on why he decided to retreat from Hollywood at the height of his career.

By Lindsay Weinberg Oct 23, 2020 8:45 PMTags
Related: Best Moments From Iconic 2001 Film "Pearl Harbor": E! News Rewind

Twenty years ago, an over-the-top Vanity Fair story completely changed Josh Hartnett's views on Hollywood—and his own career.

The 22-year-old rising star had landed enviable roles in The Virgin SuicidesPearl Harbor and Black Hawk Down, but this 2001 magazine interview had him shuddering about his future.

Hartnett, now 42 and living with his wife Tamsin Egerton in Surrey, England, reflected on the moment that made him resentful toward Hollywood in an interview with The Guardian on Friday, Oct. 23.

"Oh, that was an awful piece," he said. "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."

He was shocked that he was being compared to Tom Cruise and Julia Roberts, saying, "That's insane. It was a set-up-to-fail moment."

Hartnett explained, "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!'"

Touchstone Pictures

The article vowed that Pearl Harbor (which co-stars Ben Affleck and Kate Beckinsale) "will virtually overnight make an international movie star out of a comparative unknown," AKA Hartnett. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer was quoted as saying, "It will change your life." It was a lot to live up to for the young star. 

The actor said that around that time, he began to plan his escape from the spotlight as Hollywood insiders changed their perception of him. 

"They looked at me as someone who had bitten the hand that fed me," Hartnett continued. "It wasn't that. I wasn't doing it to be recalcitrant or a rebel. People wanted to create a brand around me that was going to be accessible and well-liked, but I didn't respond to the idea of playing the same character over and over, so I branched out."

He retreated, trying to find smaller films to be a part of. "In the process, I burned my bridges at the studios because I wasn't participating," Hartnett said, noting that their goals "weren't the same."

Dave J Hogan/Dave J Hogan/Getty Images

He still went on to make a name for himself, appearing in the recent TV series Penny Dreadful, Paradise Lost and Die Hart. But he isn't as big of a household name today as promised by Vanity Fair.

In the past five years, Hartnett has welcomed two kids with his wife and still thinks back fondly to his time as a teen heartthrob. 

"It's a little bit heartbreaking to see all that time has passed," he added. "I was a child. I was 19. The Virgin Suicides felt like a group of friends all pulling together. I think I'm still looking for that experience whenever I make a film."

And in retrospect, The Black Dahlia star doesn't actually think the Vanity Fair story is as bad as he initially thought. He concluded, "It was actually an interesting look at the nature of fame. If only it wasn't about me."