It's Not Just Josh Hartnett: Check Out the Other Stars Who Left Hollywood Behind

On the cusp of movie stardom, Josh Hartnett bailed on the Hollywood lifestyle nearly two decades ago. But he's not the only celebrity to take a break from the business.

By Sarah Grossbart Oct 28, 2020 7:00 AMTags
Related: Jim Carrey Talks Dealing With Dark Times & Leaving Hollywood

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."

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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."

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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. 

Meghan Markle

This felt like something of a no-brainer. If we had a shot to marry Prince Harry, dedicate our life to the philanthropic causes that matter most to us and gain access to the Queen's impressive collection of tiaras, bidding ta-ta to Tinseltown would feel like an okay sacrifice. Following in the path Grace Kelly took from Hollywood to the Palace of Monaco, Markle left behind her home in Toronto—and her breakout role on Suits—for a life in The Firm. Though, now that she and Harry have shed their senior roles, she's edging back into the business thanks to their new multi-year production deal with Netflix

Cameron Diaz

Having made upwards of 40 movies since her debut in 1994's The Mask, the actress was long overdue for a break when filming wrapped on 2014's Annie. "I just decided that I wanted different things out of my life," she recently explained to pal Gwyneth Paltrow of her ultimate act of self-care. "I had gone so hard for so long, working, making films and it's such a grind. When you're making a movie—it's a perfect excuse—they own you. You're there for 12 hours a day for months on end and you have no time for anything else."

And there was plenty more she'd like to explore, from writing (she followed up her 2013 New York Times best-seller The Body Book with 2016's The Longevity Book) to starting a family with husband Benji Madden. Six years on, she confessed to InStyle in 2019, "I don't miss performing. Right now I'm looking at the landscape of wellness and all that. But whatever I do, it has to be something I'm passionate about—sometime that just feels effortless."

Terrence Howard

There will be no encore for the actor now that he's finished his five-year run on Empire. When Extra asked the Oscar nominee about his future ahead of the musical drama series' sixth and final season, he responded, "Oh, I'm done with acting. I'm done pretending." His plan, he continued, was somewhat undefined: "I'm just focusing on bringing truth to the world."

Jack Gleeson

Once his time as King Joffrey came to a sudden, purple-faced end in 2014, the then-21-year-old told EW he was getting out of the game. "I've been acting since age 8," the Game of Thrones star explained of his decision. "I just stopped enjoying it as much as I used to."

No longer a child star, a bit of the magic had worn off. "Now there's the prospect of doing it for a living, whereas up until now it was always something I did for recreation with my friends, or in the summer for some fun," he continued. "I enjoyed it. When you make a living from something, it changes your relationship with it. It's not like I hate it, it's just not what I want to do." But after a six-year break, he may just be ready to resume his reign, joining the cast of BBC's upcoming series Out of Her Mind

Phoebe Cates

When Fast Times at Ridgemont High's dream girl (Jennifer Aniston took on her part in September's virtual table read) wed fellow actor Kevin Kline in 1989, they "agreed to alternate so that we're never working at the same time," he told Playboy of their plan to care for son Owen and daughter Greta (a singer who know goes by the stage name Frankie Cosmos). However, he continued, "whenever it's been her slot to work, Phoebe has chosen to stay with the children." Though she made a cameo in pal Jennifer Jason Leigh's 2001 indie The Anniversary Party, Cates devotes most of her time to operating her New York City boutique Blue Tree

Rick Moranis

At the height of his Ghostbusters and Honey, I... fame, the '80s star stepped away from filmmaking not long after his wife passed away from breast cancer in 1991 to focus on raising his kids Rachel and Mitchell. Though he hasn't had a live-action role since 1997, even passing on a cameo in Paul Feig's 2016 Ghostbusters remake, he's remained a treasured cultural icon, as evidenced by the outrage over reports that he'd been assaulted while walking in New York City Oct. 1. Thankfully there's good news for fans: he'll make his triumphant return alongside Josh Gad in the forthcoming Disney reboot Shrunk.

Leelee Sobieski

Once she wed fashion designer Adam Kimmel in 2010, the Never Been Kissed standout hinted that she was maybe kinda done with movies. "Ninety percent of acting roles involve so much sexual stuff with other people, and I don't want to do that," she explained to Vogue. "It's such a strange fire to play with, and our relationship is surely strong enough to handle it, but if you're going to walk through fire, there has to be something incredible on the other side."

Her decision was solidified after son Martin joined older sister Louisanna in 2014. "I don't do movie stuff anymore. I am totally an outsider! I … am just a mom and an outsider," she noted to Us Weekly at a 2016 event, explaining that she helps Kimmel with his business and paints on the side. "I am just focused on my kids. I think that's mainly why I stopped." 

Sean Connery

Unclear if it's quitting or simply retiring when you choose to stop acting at 75, but the legendary Scot has had no regrets about signing off in 2006. Though he admitted he was enticed by the chance to reprise his role as Indy's father in 2008's Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull ("If anything could have pulled me out of retirement, it would have been an Indiana Jones film," he said in a statement), in the end, he continued, "retirement is just too damned much fun."

Portia de Rossi

She'd done Ally McBeal. And Nip/Tuck. Then Arrested Development and finally Scandal when the Aussie realized that maybe she was ready to turn the dial. "I was approaching 45 and I just kind of…was wondering is there something that I could tackle now that I've never done before that would be really challenging and different," she explained on wife Ellen DeGeneres' eponymous talk show in 2018. "I kind of knew what acting would look like for me for the next 10, 20 years, so I decided to quit and start a business."

Her consumer-art company, General Public, already a work in progress, she had just one piece to finish. "I called Mitch Hurwitz, who's the creator of Arrested Development and I said, 'If there is a season 5, I won't be doing it because I quit acting. And he seemed really understanding and he totally got it. We had a great conversation, and then he wrote me into five episodes."

Daniel Day-Lewis

To be fair, once you've won three Academy Awards, what's left to accomplish? Shortly after receiving his sixth Oscar nod for his final film, 2017's Phantom Thread, the thespian had his rep issue a statement informing fans that he "will no longer be working as an actor. He is immensely grateful to all of his collaborators and audiences over the many years. This is a private decision and neither he nor his representatives will make any further comment on this subject."