Josh Hartnett for “O”

Thanks to a little movie called Pearl Harbor, Josh Hartnett, Hollywood’s most reluctant of stars, is bigger than ever. As for Josh, he still prefers to shun the limelight, living in Minnesota away from the Hollywood hoopla. His latest film ‘O’ finally releases this week, and as the film’s charismatic villain, it’s one of the actor’s crowning cinematic moments. Paul Fischer spoke to the young actor about stardom, Shakespeare and post-Pearl Harbor madness.

The last time I met Josh Hartnett he was still a relative unknown, talking about his role in Sofia Coppola’s Virgin Suicides. Even then he remain quiet and introspective, unwilling to bask in the Hollywood limelight. Nothing much has changed. “This is not my kind of town”, Hartnett muses. Sitting in a hotel room in Los Angeles’ Marina del Rey, Hartnett seems unphased by the extraordinary success he has enjoyed in recent months. Nor does he see his life in terms of success and failure. “I never really thought about it in terms of moving up a ladder, but more like a mountain, where you can take a whole lot of different paths. There’s different ways to go, and right now I feel very lucky because I’m allowed to do different types of movies than I could have gotten made in the past.”

Hartnett concedes that things are going really well right now “but the success is a little weird.” That ‘success’ to which he is referring has to do with the larger-than-life Pearl Harbor, yet he remains circumspect when discussing the higher level of celebrity that goes with his new found success. “It copes with itself pretty well”, Hartnett quietly explains. “By design, I was shooting a movie in Africa when Pearl Harbor came out, so we went through the press junket and I took off straight to Morocco, where I could walk down the street and I was just some ‘white guy’. So I managed to miss a lot of the hype in the first month and a half when the movie was out,” And more recently, Hartnett has been at home in Minnesota “putting together a house so I haven’t been out all that much.” So Hartnett doesn’t see all that much of the hype “except when I’m back here and I guess that’s ok,” he says, shrugging his soldiers.

Now Hartnett is back, briefly, to chat about the long-awaited ‘O’, which has taken some 2 years to finally get a release. A loose reworking of Shakespeare’s Othello, Hartnett plays the contemporary version of Iago, now Hugo Goulding, whose ferocious jealousy of basketball champ Odin James, the only black student in an exclusive private school, leads him to exact a well-plotted revenge. In the original play, Iago remains one of Shakespeare’s most chilling creations.

Although the villain of ‘O’ as well, Hartnett says there’s more an attempt at humanising the character this time around. “In this film, Hugo has a bit more motivation has than Iago had in Othello. In order to relate to him, I had to find good attributes, and then reason out the rest of it. I think part of the fun of playing this character, was that once you set the ball in motion, it kind of perpetuated itself. Things happen that are unexpected, which even surprises HIM and you can see that. But at the same time, we gave him a bit more motivation than Iago, in that he’s got a definite need for his father’s affection which he seems not to have had his entire life; he was never the star that his father wanted him to be.”

Unlike the effects-laden Pearl Harbor, Hartnett admits that this character was the one that “beat me down the most. Having to find jealousy and envy within yourself, and then magnify it, was tough. The good thing about him, was that he was so emotional, passionate and very intelligent. With that intelligence comes the ability to manipulate. So you find those things in you and end up thinking about it for the whole two and a half months we worked on it and it’s really hard to shake.” Asked if this was him most complicated character, Hartnett says that he tries “to make ALL of my characters as complicated as my OWN life or as anybody’s life surrounding me. We’ve all got so many things to think about at any given moment, to oversimplify is to make it uninteresting, and I try to make my characters interesting.”

Hartnett, who turned 23 in July, arrived in Hollywood in February 1997. But before Hollywood and after high school, Hartnett went to New York to study acting and then to L.A. to see if he could break into movies. He made his feature film debut in Halloween H2O and went on to small roles in The Faculty, Virgin Suicides and Town and Country. Now with leads in Pearl Harbor, ‘O’ and the upcoming Black Hawk Down and 40 Days and 40 Nights, Hartnett may be on a roll, but trying not to take the fame thing all that seriously. “It’s been quite a trajectory. I’ve been so lucky. I’m still not certain I comprehend completely what has happened and I certainly have no real grasp of what COULD happen.” Josh is still a Minnesota guy at heart.