For a long time, actor Josh Hartnett has had this love-him or hate-him thing going on with moviegoers–just mention Hartnett’s name to anyone you know if you don’t believe us–but in the last few years, you have to give the guy props for taking chances with more varied roles like in last year’s Lucky Number Slevin and Brian De Palma’s The Black Dahlia. He continues this progression in his maturing career with Rod Lurie’s new drama Resurrecting the Champ, a movie in which Hartnett plays sports reporter Erik Kernan, who gets a huge career break when he discovers that a homeless man, played by Samuel L. Jackson, is actually a long-lost boxing champion. Although Hartnett’s part might seem at first like a secondary role, it’s actually one that allows Hartnett to give one of the strongest performances of his career, playing a man trying to live up to his father’s reputation while connecting with his young son and getting the boy to look up to him.
The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this past January already with indie distributor The Yari Group in place to release it, but ComingSoon spoke to Hartnett during a day doing press before heading to Hong Kong. (More on that below.)
ComingSoon.net: Is this one of those projects that’s been floating around for a long time?
Josh Hartnett: Yeah, actually Rod came to me to be in the film about four years ago, and it was supposed to be me and Morgan Freeman originally, which is funny, because Sam Jackson was supposed to be in “Lucky Number Slevin” then he dropped out and Morgan came in. This is years ago, and it was a different script altogether. It was someone else’s script and then Rod has for the last few years been rewriting it and rewriting it and developed it into this story, which is more specifically about fathers and sons than it was about the actual article.
CS: So would you say that having four more years might have been good for you to mature a bit and do a few other things?
Hartnett: Yeah, the character got older, too. Erik was supposed to be 26 years old and now he’s 30 or close to 30, 29, somewhere in there.
CS: Obviously, the script was changing when you came on board, but had Rod already been on board those four years ago?
Hartnett: I wasn’t on board actually. We thought about doing it and then it went away for a while. I think Rod wanted to develop it with someone else for a while and then he came back to me last year. I’d been working on other things. They had finished the script. He had been developing it and it changed a lot from the initial draft to this draft, but the script was pretty well intact when we started shooting. We shot it last summer.
CS: What was the main appeal about the project or the character that made you want to do it finally?
Hartnett: I thought it was a good story, which you rarely find in films. There’s always a gimmick and I think that this film is just a solid dramatic story. It seemed clear to me that it felt like something that could really happen and about real people, and it had an element of sensationalism, as all stories must, but it wasn’t unrealistic, and I dunno, I was just charmed by it.
CS: Your ex-wife (played by Kathryn Morris) is quite a bit older than you in the movie, though.
Hartnett: Yeah, she is. She was a grad student or a T.A. when I was a freshman and she was doing what you’re not supposed to do, sleep with the students.
CS: And not using protection when doing so
Hartnett: Yeah (laughs) so many things wrong with this scenario.
CS: I know the original idea was based on J.R. Moehringer’s acclaimed L.A. Times article. Was it just about a homeless man who claimed to be a boxer or were other parts of the movie based on that feature story?
Hartnett: Yeah, you should really read the article. You can get it online, and it’s a relatively quick read. J. R. caught it though just at the last minute before they went to print and then the rewritten article became what is “Resurrecting the Champ” which is the big famous article.
CS: Are you a boxing fan yourself and were you into that aspect of the story?
Hartnett: Well, because when I was doing “Black Dahlia”, I had to box, so I spent a lot of time in the gym for that. Was training with a couple different trainers for seven months, which is overkill for that role, but once I started, I thought that was interesting and I kept on, so yeah, it kind of coincided. Now, I’m more of a boxing fan than I think I’ve ever been.
CS: Did you meet with any sports reporters to prepare for the movie?
Hartnett: Yeah, I met J.R. of course and hung out with him. Being in the journalism world for a little bit and meeting people in the journalism world, it became more apparent to me why Because I always had trouble with interviews and things, like people trying to get things out of me that I’m not so sure I want to talk about, but I understand the mechanism that’s at work there. I understand the way it’s high-pressure. It’s a difficult industry, and I of course knew that intellectually, but to be able to see it first-hand and to be able to talk to people that are involved on the opposing team in a way. (laughs)
CS: It’s interesting that you mention that, because while here at ComingSoon.net, we’re trying to talk to people about their movies, there are many reporters who just want to know about the people’s personal lives. Do you have any opinions about that?
Hartnett: Well, it seems like a lot of journalism is going the way of entertainment anyway, and you know what? You saw “Citizen Kane.” Way back when, they were talking about it, and it’s always been moving in that direction. It’s like you have to keep people interested, and that’s the fine line that we ride as well in the film business. What is fact and what is fiction and is it really important to be completely factual if it’s going to be dry and nobody’s going to want to see it. It’s that sort of thing but journalistic integrity I think, because in this day and age, so many people can go read blogs and read people’s opinions all the time, that it’s kind of important that newspapers and online newspapers and things that are supposed to have factual reputation, stick to that so that there’s a clear definition between news and opinion.
CS: Did you get involved in the world of Showtime Boxing at all for that scene in the movie?
Hartnett: Yeah, I didn’t even get a chance to meet those guys. When we filmed it, we were actually in Calgary, kind of a ways away from all the boxing hoopla in Vegas, but for the most part, that’s such a small section.
CS: Was the movie done fairly independently? It looks like it could be a big studio movie.
Hartnett: Yeah, Adam Kane the DP did a great job. There wasn’t a lot of money and there wasn’t a lot of time. We shot in 36 days, six days a week in six weeks. We were in and out, and in that amount, to make a film look this good There weren’t a lot of huge specialty shots. It was just about making a world that was believable and also elegantly lit, but there weren’t those big sweeping camera moves that take the whole day to set-up. It was relatively simple.
CS: Well, the newsroom scenes look like they could have been involved.
Hartnett: Yeah, they just had tracks set up everywhere and they just dropped the dolly on one of them and tracked around.
CS: You do a lot of scenes with Sam Jackson, whose character has a very big personality, so were there moments where you felt like his straight man and just had to let him do his thing?
Hartnett: Well, you know, Sam’s going to do his thing whether or not anybody lets him do it. He knows what he wants and he knows how to go about creating what he wants to create, so I have a tremendous respect for Sam as an actor. I think that he really killed it in this movie, but he works in a completely different way than I think I do. From what I can tell, he kind of works from the outside in. He puts on the make-up, puts on the clothes, gets the walk, gets the voice, and then the character kind of comes from there. It’s a different type of acting. For me, it’s a big emotional whatever that all comes from inside.
CS: What about working opposite some of the other actors? I thought your scenes with the kid playing your son were amazing. How are you able to get what you need out of someone like that who’s never acted to get what you need out of yourself?
Hartnett: You know, honestly, acting in film is remarkably independent. You’re doing your thing and someone else is doing their thing. With some of the scenes with the kid, he wasn’t even there, because he was bouncing around and he didn’t want to pay attention and have to say his lines again, so he’d go away and someone would read the lines off-camera and I would look at them.
CS: That’s pretty amazing, because when you see those scenes with the kid, I would think you would be affected by the look in the kid’s eyes as the audience is.
Hartnett: Yeah, well sometimes, we got some really good time but he was a kid, so the whole time I’d be playing with him and trying to keep him interested. He would be interested and he was a good little actor, but there were moments where it was just like a really emotional scene for me, and he started to get bored, and I’d be like, “Don’t worry about it. Go run around as long as you can give your side.” We didn’t want him to get stale.
CS: Is this the first time you’ve worked with kids on film?
Hartnett: I’ve never worked with a kid in this capacity, no, this was the first time.
CS: I don’t know where Rod found him, but he was pretty impressive.
Hartnett: He was up in Toronto I think. I think he’d done a few things before but he started to become an actor.
CS: How did you get into that head of playing a father since you don’t have any kids yourself? Do you have nephews?
Hartnett: I’m actually a lot older than my siblings. I’m the oldest and I grew up with some knowledge of that. I have a lot of friends with kids now and watched the way that they sink into that role. Some of them want to be a best friend to their sons, some of them want to be the disciplinarian. I just figured that this guy, I just played him as it was obviously written, which was sort of as a friendly type. He’s trying to garner as much affection from his kid, like hero worship, and he’s doing it in a messed-up way. I played Erik like he’s a young guy who hasn’t thought everything through yet, that he’s just being chased by the ghost of his father. He doesn’t really know how to interact with his own son, because he never had that interaction from the opposite perspective, so he’s making a lot of bad choices, but they’re understandable.
CS: It seems at times like your character is overcompensating (in a good way) to try to keep his family together rather than having the same thing happen that happened with his father.
Hartnett: Yeah, yeah, sort of, because he’s trying to keep everything together but he’s also taking all these shortcuts really. He’s not putting in long hours.
CS: For a while, you were doing all these big movies–”Black Hawk Down”, “Pearl Harbor”–but you seem to have settled into more character-driven dramas between this and “Black Dahlia.” Do you miss doing those huge epics?
Hartnett: No, well I just did this movie “30 Days of Night” which is a little bit more of the action stuff. I like movies about people and movies with characters, that’s what I’m drawn to as a person who likes to create these characters within the story, but I like it all really. If I could switch from place to place and do all sorts of different things. I’ve been really lucky, and I think the big thing with this is that I really wanted to prove to myself and to a lot of people that this is something that I can do, that it’s not really about running and screaming.
CS: Well, that’s the thing, because when you’re in a big blockbuster, the actor ends up taking a backseat to the set pieces and the director’s vision.
Hartnett: It does. Yeah, yeah, the explosions are the drama.
CS: With that in mind, why did you want to do “30 Days of Night,” which is really a full-on horror/genre type movie?
Hartnett: Well, because it’s a vampire movie, because I think vampire movies are incredible, and I’ve always been fascinated with it. I read the comic book and loved it, and it’s not like it’s all just running and screaming. It’s quite a difficult character piece, because it’s all about trying to find your way and to get into a headspace where you can actually sacrifice yourself or someone you love. It was a good dramatic movie actually when it comes down to it, because there were so many scenes of people sitting in a room, huddling and starting to lose it because they’ve been hiding for so long. It was good. I liked it a lot and had a great time.
(You can read more with Hartnett on “30 Days of Night” at ShockTillYouDrop.com.)
CS: What else are you working on now?
Hartnett: We shot that last fall and this spring I shot a movie called “August” which I produced as well. It’s Amy Harris, Adam Scott, Rip Torn. David Bowie’s in it, and it’s a little New York film again about real people, so a small film that I produced.
CS: Is producing something you’re trying to get more into these days?
Hartnett: Yeah, I’m actually a producer on “Resurrecting the Champ” as well. Really what it comes down to is just wanting to have a little bit more control over the finished product. If you really don’t like the way something is going, being able to speak up and be heard. It seemed like the logical next step, but I dunno, as far as the actual job of producing day-in and day-out, I don’t think I could handle it. It’s too much logistics.
CS: So in this case, were you there in the script meetings and providing notes and all that?
Hartnett: Yeah, yeah. I do that a lot, like in “30 Days of Night,” we rewrote the whole thing before we went in, and the same thing on “August.” We spent a lot of time talking about the script. For me, depending on what the genre and the type of film it is, it’s always great to put your two cents in, if the director’s open to it, because this is still a director’s medium obviously.
CS: We talked a bit about the big movies vs. the more dramatic things. When you go to the movies yourself, do you have a preference whether you see blockbusters or smaller indie fare?
Hartnett: Well, if there’s an element that’s really interesting to me and new, like if a big blockbuster really satisfies, of course, but I wouldn’t just go see all the big movies because they’re big movies, like I usually hear from people that I trust whether they’re interesting or not. I’m not dogmatic about any of this. I’ll go to the (Landmark) Sunshine and see something there, then I’ll go up to Union Square and see something big there, so it doesn’t really matter. It’s just kind of whether I think the movie is going to be interesting.
CS: Are you able to watch movies without being jaded about what goes on behind the scenes and knowing how they do things?
Hartnett: Yeah, you know I watch it with an eye like I’m kind of dissecting it, but I still enjoy watching it. It’s just evolved from this purely visceral experience to something a little bit more intellectual.
CS: Are you watching them with thoughts of possibly directing something in the future?
Hartnett: Well, I’m directing a short film when I get back from Hong Kong. I just wrote the script and I’m probably just going to direct a couple of shorts and we’ll see eventually if a story comes along, maybe I’ll try and direct a film. I don’t even know if I’m going to be good or not. This will be my first test.
CS: What are you doing in Hong Kong?
Hartnett: I’m doing this movie called “I Come with the Rain.” It’s a Tran Anh Hung film, you know who he is? He did “The Scent of Green Papaya” and “Cyclo” and “Vertical Ray of the Sun.” He’s a genius. He’s one of the most poetic filmmakers out there, so we’re going to go and shoot this little film in Hong Kong that I play an American in Hong Kong with 2/3rds English, one third Cantonese, and it’s just going to be a wild, different kind of film. It’s actually a French production.
CS: Have you ever been there before?
Hartnett: No, I’ve never been there, no.
CS: Really? Not even with the premieres of some of your bigger movies?
Hartnett: Actually, China’s never been that big a market for American films. They get there, and in Hong Kong they obviously show a lot more but in mainland China, they don’t show a ton of American movies. It’s kind of an emerging market for American cinema.
Resurrecting the Champ opens nationwide on August 24, but check back next week for a very interesting interview with the film’s director, Rod Lurie.