Josh Hartnett, an actor whose heartthrob looks have been detailed in just about every piece written about him, makes quite the unsightly entrance in Penny Dreadful. Not as one of the classic horror figures at the center of the monster mash, but something equally jarring: a Wild West re-enactor donning an extravagantly hairy fake mustache (over a real one) and a flocculent curly wig.
"I just want to be taken seriously outside of my looks," the 35-year-old quipped, referring to the pause-worthy scene. "But really, it was an interesting thing. The show is so much about what people have hidden, and so for my character to be introduced on stage, in such an extravagant costume, made it all the more stirring."
Seventeen years after making his breakthrough in the short-lived ABC crime drama Cracker, Hartnett is returning to his television roots in Penny Dreadful. After coveting an under-the-radar existence by appearing in a string of indie films — no doubt contributing to Google's suggested search phrase "What happened to Josh Hartnett" when his name is entered — Penny Dreadful aims to put that question to rest. Hartnett is alive and well.
Since epitomizing the cool suburban teen in 1999's The Virgin Suicides and later the hero in Pearl Harbor, Hartnett racked up credits in teen fare and critical hits such as O and Black Hawk Down. But the careening journey from video store clerk to Hollywood It boy left him disillusioned.
"Basically, I grew and learned," he said. "For me, when people ask what happened to me, it's a little weird, because I have been working this whole time. And the thing is, I feel like I spent a lot of time doing work that was worthy and good, but it's a little frustrating when the stuff you care about isn't seen because it isn't high-profile."
Penny Dreadful has an enviable roster of talent behind the camera: playwright and screenwriter John Logan (Red, Skyfall) is the driving force, and Juan Antonio Bayona (The Orphanage) directs.
Hartnett wasn't lured by the intricate world concocted so much as he was seduced by Logan's pitch. In particular, "collaboration" and "partnership" caught his attention at their initial meeting.
"It was important to find an actor who you would believe was a man of action — a man who could use firearms and hold his own in a fight — but more importantly find an actor who behind their eyes had a certain amount of suffering," Logan said. "And a certain amount of lived-in intensity. That is Josh."
Hartnett's Ethan Chandler is enlisted by a seductive clairvoyant (Eva Green) to aid an African explorer, played by James Bond alum Timothy Dalton, who lost his daughter to malevolent creatures in London. But just don't call him the star.
"They've been advertising my face on the billboard, which is surprising," Hartnett said. "Really in the first few episodes, you won't see me that much ... and that's okay. Ethan is a slow burn. I like that."