Josh Hartnett has never seemed like the kind of guy who gave a crap about fame. He's an actor who truly cares about the craft, so should it be surprising that he's branching out from his established film career to television? No. Why would it? The small screen has become a haven for actors who are searching for quality work, so it seems the timing couldn't be more perfect for Hartnett, who's returned to TV 17 years later (he appeared on "Cracker: Mind Over Matter" from 1997 to 1999).
Hartnett plays the mysterious Ethan Chandler on Showtime's newest series "Penny Dreadful" (from creator, writer and executive producer John Logan). Ethan is a man with dark secrets and a troubling past who finds himself trapped in Victorian London. The actor recently spoke to reporters -- he talked about getting into character, working with the likes of Logan, Sam Mendes, Eva Green and Timothy Dalton, the fickle world of show business, and why fans won't see a "Penny Dreadful" blooper reel anytime soon.
HuffPost Canada TV: TV is hotter than ever before. How has the transition been from film to TV, and what has changed in TV since you appeared on "Cracker"?
Josh Hartnett: From my perspective, everything's changed in television. Beyond the fact that it's a different medium and maybe the quality's different than it was back then, it's also been so long that I'm a different person. Like, entirely different, in the way that I approach my work and my outlook on life, just everything. So I don't come to this with any prior knowledge of television, for the most part. I was 18 years old when I started working on "Cracker" and that's a lifetime ago, for me.
When I decided to do this, the only fear was that I would be working with people who didn't have the energy and clout to continue making good material over the course of a long period of time. You can pick the wrong people to work with and you can make a great couple of first shows, and then the quality will fall off dramatically because whoever created it is not able to handle a writers' room, they don't know how to really write for TV. But with John Logan, he's so well-respected within the industry as a screenwriter. He wrote all eight episodes as a single arc, and had a series of other ideas for the possible few subsequent seasons of the show, and was so clear about what he wanted. When I spoke to David Nevins, head of Showtime, he said John has picked up the concept of working in television faster than anyone he's ever worked with. It's because John is obviously an incredibly smart guy and a very strong writer to begin with. I felt like I was in good hands, even though I didn't know where the character was going to go, I knew that it would be someplace clever and worthy, and it would be fun to possibly collaborate with these guys over the course of many years.
Was it hard to get into Ethan's head?
The only difficult thing about getting into Ethan's head is that this is the first time in my career that I've been working without a back story or knowing where the character's going to go. The work that I do when I'm preparing for a character usually involves trying to decipher the deepest possible meaning from the writers' text of what the character could be going through. Where he comes from, what he desires, what he fears, all these things are important to me so that I have a clear understanding of who the guy is and how he's going to feel texturally on-screen. With this, when I spoke to John Logan about the character, he didn't quite know what the back story for Ethan was going to be. He had certain ideas, but we knew that it was going to become the fore story possibly by the end of Season 1 or the beginning of the Season 2. So I was left in a situation where I had to make something up [Laughs], which can be fun but it can also be terrifying.
I read that Timothy Dalton said "Penny Dreadful" is not a horror story, but it's a drama about human stories. What are your thoughts?
At its core, "Penny Dreadful" is about a few central characters that, in a way, become a family. All good drama is about families, really, and this show is no different. I think what Timothy was trying to say -- what I can interpret what he meant is -- that it's really about people and the way they interact, and not necessarily about just the thrills and chills. And that's what will hopefully make this show endure. If we want to make this show indelible and special to the audience so they will continue to follow us for a few years, potentially, we had to make sure that the characters were interesting and worth watching and their relationships were, at some deep level, relatable. As far as Ethan goes, I have a lot of questions about Ethan, after seeing the first two episodes. The way that it'll be presented is part of the fun. Spoiling the fun is not my business, so I don't want to give too much away.
Does he have weaknesses?
Oh, man, yeah. He has a lot of weaknesses. In the first episode, you're seeing a lot of his vices and weaknesses but you'll see many, many more. He's an incredibly flawed character.
Will there be a love story for your character?
There's potentially a lot of love stories in this show. But they're not going to be typical romances. There are going to be a lot of secrets and maybe a dark twist to some of these love stories as well. But, yeah, I think you'll see Ethan falling in love at some point.
What was it like to work with Eva Green and Timothy Dalton?
We're all from such different worlds. Eva is a person who generally keeps to herself and works hard in a certain way to bring a lot of dark characters to the screen. She has a certain appeal that is very specific, and I've seen her work over the years and I've always admired what she does. Timothy is a completely different sort of guy. He comes from a theatrical background and is in it to experiment and to see what we can pull off with the characters. He comes with that rich voice and that strength of presence and he wants to throw everything at the wall and see what sticks.
I tend to do a ton of research and come with a particular idea of where I want the character to go, but then also on the day, throw that all out and just go for broke and emotionally feel the scene with the other actors and see what happens. We're three very different types of actors. We're never overly comfortable in these relationships. I think sometimes the chemistry on screen can go a little dead when people are just overly familiar with each other's ways. And what's nice is we all have different approaches and I don't think we'll ever be exactly on the same page. It'll always keep the spark alive.
Do you have any memorable moments from the set that you can share?
When you're working on a show like this, where there's more than one decapitated head prosthetic sitting around, there's always going to be somebody making practical jokes. I was not prepared for the speed in which you have to shoot a television show like this. We've got a fantastically easy pace compared to a lot of TV because we've been afforded that by the people involved. But still. It's much, much faster than film. We're just working at a breakneck speed the whole time. So I kind of made a joke that we should make a fake blooper reel because we almost didn't have time to joke around on set. And nobody took me up on that. We tried a few things but there just wasn't time, plain and simple.
How does "Penny Dreadful" differ from the other horror shows on the air?
It's different people creating it. I think the show has some of the most high-quality people working in either film or television.. John Logan is no slouch when it comes to screenwriting and he's been nominated so many times for Academy Awards. And Sam Mendes working on his first television show, obviously these are great people that you want to collaborate with. Really, when it comes down to it, I know the show's a scary show, I know that a lot of it is about creeping out the audience, but for me as an actor and as a collaborator, it was just the chance to work with these people and tease out a character over a longer period of time. That's interesting to me.
Personally, I have a knee-jerk reaction in me that if someone tells me to go left, I go right. I like to buck the trend and do things differently. When John came to me with this character -- and there was really no story, no idea where it was going to go -- initially, that excited me. It was a new challenge for me to get comfortable with this thing going on for years, potentially. And slowly teasing the audience out into seeing who the character really is. That's just something really new for me and fun.
What attracts you to dark themes?
I think what attracts me to dark themes is similar to what attracts me to light themes. I love doing comedy as well, whenever I'm allowed to. It's the variation that makes my job so much fun. To be able to go from something that is so dark, like "I Come With the Rain," which is about the darkest movie I've ever seen let alone been in, to then do "Lucky Number Slevin" which is very lighthearted but with a dark twist to it. It's fun to be able to switch things up so I like doing it all, really.
Do you like to be scared?
Yeah. I think everybody does. Not to speak in platitudes, but yeah, I definitely like to be scared. My favourite movies as a kid were scary movies. Aside from adventure movies like "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones" and "Batman" -- I think I even like the dark aspects of the "Batman" world more when I was a kid than I liked the bright colours of the "Superman" world. I think we're drawn to the darkness because we don't see it every day. It belies some sort of internal dread, call it existential, or call it something else, that there is death lurking around the corner.
How difficult is it to do movies that aren't blockbusters and then get the jobs you want?
Very tricky. This business has become increasingly interested in the bottom line and from an actor's perspective, it's kind of funny because there's no single actor that I can think of that guarantees box office in whatever movie they're in. There are a lot of actors that have certain hits here and there, and then they have movies that don't hit with the public. I've always found it kind of frustrating and strange that so much of an actor's reputation, even as far as the work goes, is reliant on how well the movie plays over the first weekend of box office. But that's the way it is, that's the nature of it.
What I wanted to do, and what I've been able to do, is parlay some of that initial success in this industry, the monetary success, into a lot of projects that I was passionate about, really interesting pieces, and be able to go back and forth between films that have more box office potential and films that would probably be considered very difficult for people to go see in the theatres but they're not any less worthy. I think that's important to remember, that eventually somebody does see those films. I get more compliments on the films that I've done that have been smaller over the years, just walking down the street, than I do with the big blockbusters. That being said, there's a pressure to do big blockbusters to keep the other jobs coming in as well. You just have to be aware of both pressures to maintain integrity and to try to find films that people will want to see as well.
What are the most important things you've learned [over the last 17 years]?
I have learned and forgotten many important lessons about acting. It's one of the most subjective industries that there are. Things that appear good on screen are not always the things that are actually good. I've worked with some actors that get no credit for their film performances but are some of the best, most talented actors I've ever worked. And then there are actors that just know how to work the camera but they're not really actors, they're just kind of posers, and you can see their performances ringing in time and time again.
It's just a very confusing industry or craft to be a part of. It's all just circumstantial is what I'm saying. The things that I've learned have been thrown out many times. I've learned a lot, there are a lot of different theories on how to deliver the best performances and they've been dominated by one school of thought or another over the course of the last 100 years. These days, I wouldn't say there's one school of acting that is dominating. For me, it has always been about investigating a character to its fullest and trying to understand everything that a character would want to do. And that, I guess, is more of a writerly approach, but that's just how I do it.
"Penny Dreadful" airs Sundays at 9 p.m. PT on Movie Central in Western Canada and 10 p.m. ET on The Movie Network in Eastern Canada and Showtime in the U.S.