DETAILS: You've been doing a lot of indie movies these past 10 years. Why suddenly a Showtime series about 19th-century monsters—Penny Dreadful?
Josh Hartnett: I did, like, 10 independent films, but none of them landed with an audience. There were a lot of times—too many times—when people would come up to me and say, "Oh, I saw August on DVD" or "I saw Lucky Number Slevin on Showtime." They'd be like, "Such a good movie—what happened to it? Why didn't it come out?" So I figured I could continue to beat my head against the wall, or I could take a different tack and try something else.
DETAILS: You're 35 now, but in your twenties, you got offered pretty much everything. You turned down Superman Returns, and you were in talks to play almost every other superhero.
Josh Hartnett: Spider-Man was something we talked about. Batman was another one. But I somehow knew those roles had potential to define me, and I didn't want that. I didn't want to be labeled as Superman for the rest of my career. I was maybe 22, but I saw the danger.
DETAILS: Your agents must have been slitting their wrists.
Josh Hartnett: I didn't have those agents for much longer after that. There was a lot of infighting between my manager and agents, trying to figure out who to put the blame on. It got to the point where none of us were able to work together.
DETAILS: What would you say if Warner Bros. called you tomorrow and said, "Josh, we'd still love you to wear the cape. We've got a great new concept . . . "?
Josh Hartnett: I'd say, "Let's talk about how it would be done, see if we can get on the same page." Compromise doesn't scare me anymore.
DETAILS: At the height of your success, after Pearl Harbor and Black Hawk Down, you disappeared to Minnesota, where you grew up. Why?
Josh Hartnett: I was on the cover of every magazine. I couldn't really go anywhere. I didn't feel comfortable in my own skin. I was alone. I didn't trust anyone. So I went back to Minnesota and got back together with my old friends—ended up getting back together with my high-school girlfriend for a while—and I didn't do any filming for 18 months. I'm still finding my way through all that.
DETAILS: When you came to Hollywood at 18, you instantly started landing roles.
Josh Hartnett: Within two weeks. I didn't have to struggle as an actor, although I think that I've made up for it now. I still get offered films and TV roles, luckily, but years ago, if I saw a role I wanted, there was a good chance I could grab it. When I see a role now, I've got to fight for it. It's not bad. It's actually more rewarding. Depressing when something doesn't go your way, but only for a minute.
DETAILS: You were raised by your dad and stepmom. They were both sort of hippies, weren't they?
Josh Hartnett: My dad is a very specific type of hippie. He came from a scientific family. My great-uncle was a physicist at the University of Minnesota who was later involved in nasa's Gemini program. My dad went to school for economics and math, then decided to join a band, grow his hair long, and rebel against his family. He broke up with my mom and unshackled himself from what was defining him. It was an important lesson I learned at a young age. Thinking about it now, it explains some of the rebelliousness in my career.
DETAILS: You were pretty vocal about not eating meat back then, and peta even named you World's Sexiest Vegetarian. Are you still eating that way?
Josh Hartnett: I'm not a vegetarian anymore. I think I was just rebelling. I had a story that I'd told myself, but I don't know if it was the actual case: When I was 12 years old, I cut up a boneless breast of chicken and I thought I hit something like a tumor, and I decided, "I don't want to eat this anymore." That lasted 14 years, until I was 26.
DETAILS: You've been romantically linked in the tabloids to Penélope Cruz, Scarlett Johansson, Sienna Miller, and, most recently, the English model-actress Tamsin Egerton. Do you still get nervous asking a woman out?
Josh Hartnett: Of course! I get nervous. But for 10 years, every relationship I had was with somebody who was in the same business. I mean, who do you date in your twenties, you know?
DETAILS: How do you feel about the press giving you a reputation as a ladies' man?
Josh Hartnett: If you're a ladies' man, that's what you do with your life—always chasing. That's never been the case with me. I've always just wanted a relationship. Otherwise there's nothing. The scene can eat you up. It's eaten up enough of my life already.
DETAILS: If you could go back in time, what advice
would you give your younger self?
Josh Hartnett: I remember feeling like everybody was telling me what to do. But I would say, just keep doing it all and watch how interesting it becomes the more you get involved. But honestly, I don't know what I could tell that kid that he'd actually listen to.
Watch Hartnett in the trailer for Showtime's Penny Dreadful: