Josh Hartnett for “The Black Dahlia”

Smoldering yet humble young hunk Josh Hartnett takes on more serious fare with Universal’s “The Black Dahlia”, Brian DePalma’s take on the famous real-life unsolved murder of 22-year-old aspiring actress Elizabeth “Betty” Short in the 1940’s.

Hartnett portrays Ofcr. Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert, one of two detectives obsessed with solving the murder of Short, and Bleichert is forced to deal with some dark secrets about his partner as a result.

Recently Hartnett sat down to talk about the film with the press.

Question: CAN YOU TALK ABOUT MEETING SCARLETT? WAS IT AN INSTANT ATTRACTION FOR YOU, OR SOMETHING THAT DEVELOPED OVER WORKING TOGETHER?

Hartnett: I had an instant attraction to everybody on this film. I think that Scarlett, Hilary and Aaron are three of the most talented people I’ve ever worked with and working with talented people improves your work. For me, as far as being on set, I couldn’t ask for anything more. I loved working with these guys. Brian was the surrogate father, and we all got to run around and play games.

Question: AS AN ACTOR, CAN YOU IDENTIFY WITH THE IDEA OF BUCKY’S OBSESSION? AND, IS THAT SOMETHING YOU HAVE TO BE MORE WEARY OF?

Hartnett: Yeah. There’s a certain obsessive tendency in actors, as I think there is with anybody who has a job that has a finite amount of time. You have to complete it, and you have to complete it in a certain amount of time, so you ultimately think you’re going to be relieved of this obsession at a certain point, and that justifies you really pouring yourself into it, heart and soul, much to the chagrin of anyone you know and love.

Question: DO YOU NORMALLY SMOKE THAT MUCH?

Hartnett: No. No, I don’t. I was smoking two packs of Camel Straights a day, plus when I got off work, I would smoke another pack of Camel Lights. It actually made me quit smoking for a long time.

Question: HOW DID YOU GET THROUGH ALL YOUR TRAINING WHILE YOU WERE SMOKING THAT MUCH?

Hartnett: That was the hard part. I didn’t smoke through all the training at all, and then, when I got to set and had to start smoking again, that just tore me apart, but I had to do it. You can see it in the movie. I look sallow. I look sick through a lot of the film because I was working 12 hours a day, going to the gym for as many hours as I can, and I actually started eating meat while I was there because the Bulgarian doctor didn’t know what else to do with me. He said, “You eat meat?” I said, “No.” He said, “Eat meat.”

Question: BECAUSE YOU’RE A VEGETARIAN, RIGHT?

Hartnett: Yeah. I literally couldn’t walk anymore because I was so anemic.

Question: WAS IT HARD TO GIVE UP SMOKING AFTER FILMING?

Hartnett: Oh, yeah. But, it was necessary. I could see myself getting older. I could feel myself getting older. It was immediate because it was so much smoke.

Question: ANY SECRET TO QUITTING?

Hartnett: It hasn’t stuck completely so, no, I can’t give any advice.

Question: YOU WERE INVOLVED EARLY ON WITH THIS PICTURE. HOW DID YOU GET INVOLVED WITH THIS?

Hartnett: Brian came onto the film about 2 ½ or 3 years after I initially got involved. It was a different director at the time they hired me. It was the same producers, Art Linson and Moshe Diamant. But, I was hired to play Bucky when I was much too young to play Bucky. I was 23. Maybe I was just about to turn 23. So, I was really young. But, I recognized how great the material was and wanted to stick with it, so when the other director dropped out and Brian came on, there was a gap there of two years, where nothing was happening. When Brian came on, he hired me, just right off the bat. ‘Cause I was still attached, he signed on with me already attached, which was great. And then, I went and talked to him and he didn’t seem to have any interest in talking about the character or anything. We just sat down and had a cup of coffee and looked at each other and said, “This is going to be fun,” and told a couple jokes, and that was it. That’s how our relationship is. [Laughs] Our relationship has stayed around that depth, and I love him for that. He knows what he wants, he casts well, and once he’s cast the roles, unless there’s a specific role that needs manipulation… The character of the Dahlia — of Betty Short — wasn’t even in the script, really. That was all improv between him and Mia. When he wants to work with actors, that’s the way he does it, but this script was so tight, he didn’t have to improv with us and he just left us to our own devices. It was fun. We just had a good time together.

Question: ELLROY SEES THE CHARACTER OF BUCKY AS HIMSELF, IN A LOT OF WAYS. WAS THAT COMMUNICATED BETWEEN YOU AND HIM?

Hartnett: He didn’t tell me that until Venice, a week and a half ago. For me, I guess that’s a compliment, if he sees himself in what I did. But, it was kind of obvious that he had written from a personal perspective because it’s a first-person narrative and because he has said, many times, that this book was written in this way to exorcize the demons that were haunting him, due to his mother’s death. The Dahlia and his mother’s murder were inextricably linked for him, and so I assume that there was some sort of autobiographical tendency to the character. But, my job was just to take the work that was on the page ’cause if I tried to play James in this film, it would have been a wild film, man.

Question: THIS IS ONE OF THE BIGGEST HOLLYWOOD SCANDALS. WAS THERE A SENSE OF CREEPINESS AROUND ANY OF THIS ON THE SET?

Hartnett: We were in Bulgaria, so we didn’t have a lot of connection to the Los Angeles of the era. There’s a creepiness to any true story, in a way. Maybe creepiness isn’t the right word, but a responsibility that you feel, in a way. On this particular film, it’s a fictionalized account, so as Ellroy would say, we’re just trying to honor Betty Short and her death, but it’s not trying to figure anything out. It’s not trying to decipher it for anybody. It’s a story. We can’t catch the killer, unless this guy that recently came forward, who says that he did it, is really the killer, but there have been 1,000 such people.

Question: CAN YOU TALK ABOUT THE FIGHT SCENE? HOW MUCH DID YOU AND AARON GET INTO THE BOXING?

Hartnett: I spent way too much time, really, boxing for this. I didn’t need to, and I knew that I wasn’t going to need to. I knew it was only going to be one scene in the film. But, Ellroy makes a direct correlation between the way that Bucky acts as a fighter and the way that he acts in his life. He’s Mr. Ice in both, and the way that he takes apart an opponent is very similar to the way he takes apart the case. So, for me, when I got into the ring, I felt I was starting to really understand the character, so I spent seven months boxing, five days a week, four hours a day, like they were training me to actually have a fight. And then, I would run for an hour, every day. It was intense. My trainers were really into it. They were killing me. The first day of training, or maybe the first few days, they put me in the ring to try and spar, to just show me that it wasn’t going to be a cake walk. I think I made it less than a round before I was just passing out. You start to hyper-ventilate and you don’t know how to keep your cool and you don’t know how to start to pick apart your opponent. You don’t know how to defend yourself. By the end of it, I was going seven rounds with 30-second intervals for time off, which is equivalent in a normal bout of going a full 10-round fight, so I was tip-top. It all helped me understand the character because it was all about being able to take my time and pick my opponent apart and act decisively at the right moments, but not until then. Bucky’s a boxer, not a fighter, and that just gave me direct insight into the character.

Question: DID YOU GET ANY BOXING ADVICE FROM HILARY SWANK?

Hartnett: [Laughs] No. Apparently, somebody said somewhere that she challenged me to a fight [laughs], but I wouldn’t take her up on it. She looked pretty good in ‘Million Dollar Baby.’

Question: WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO KISS BOTH HILARY SWANK AND SCARLETT JOHANSSON?

Hartnett: They’re both very good kissers. It was part of a day’s work. Tough day at the office.

Question: WAS THERE SOME PHYSICAL CONTACT DURING THAT FIGHT SCENE?

Hartnett: Oh, we ended up accidentally hitting each other a couple times. Aaron got me, at that point, twice and that was a pain in the ass. I wanted to get him back. But, we survived it.