SGIFF 2017: LOOKING FOR LUCY – JOSH HARTNETT INTERVIEW
Josh Hartnett tells inSing about his role in Atsuko Hirayanagi’s Oh, Lucy!
By Jedd Jong
Josh Hartnett’s face graced the bedroom walls of many a teenage girl in the late 90s-early 2000s: Hartnett’s career began with a leading role in the crime drama series Cracker. He then appeared in the teen-aimed horror films Halloween H20: 20 Years Later and The Faculty, and achieved stardom after starring in Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbour and Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, which were both released in 2001.
However, Hartnett was never quite comfortable with how he was packaged, and had always been intent on pursuing artistically-driven, less commercial projects. This was at odds with the studios’ desire to sell him as a teen heartthrob. Hartnett took a hiatus from acting to do a little soul-searching, returning to his hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota. Hartnett returned to the scene with a starring role in the British-American horror drama TV series Penny Dreadful, and has been focusing on independent film projects. Hartnett has worked with international film directors including Roland Joffé, Tran Ahn Hung, Robert Duvall and James Franco.
Hartnett stars opposite Shinobu Terajima in the comedy-drama Oh, Lucy!, written and directed by Atsuko Hirayanagi. The film is Hirayanagi’s feature film debut, and is based on the short film of the same name which she directed and which made the film festival rounds in 2014.
Hartnett plays John, an American working in Tokyo as an English teacher. Terajima plays Setsuko, a middle-aged Japanese woman who feels invigorated after attending John’s lessons. John’s unconventional methods include giving Setsuko a blonde wig and renaming her ‘Lucy’. Setsuko soon becomes attached to this persona, and develops a preoccupation with John. When John vanishes, Setsuko travels to California in search of him.
Oh, Lucy! Is being screened as a special presentation feature at the 28th Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF). Hartnett and director Hirayanagi will be in Singapore as special guests of the festival. Ahead of his trip here, Hartnett spoke exclusively to inSing on the phone from Los Angeles. He discussed making the film in Tokyo, the unique tone of the movie, his hopes for his career when he was a young actor, and passing on roles in major comic book films.
INSING: Tell us about John, your character in this film.
JOSH HARTNETT: John is a guy who’s escaping from a lot of stuff in his life. He’s living in Tokyo at the beginning of the film working as an English teacher, but he doesn’t speak much Japanese, so he’s not a very good English teacher. He has a policy that attracts certain types of people. He’s very tactile, very huggy, and he makes them speak English when they’re in the classroom. He attracts a few lonely people to class, one of which is the lead of the film whom he renames ‘Lucy’, and she becomes a little bit obsessed with him, and the story moves on from there.
Did you base John on any teachers or instructors you have had as a student?
I look at John and think he is trying his other to escape the responsibilities in his life, and he is doing anything he can to survive. He winds up in a situation, not really knowing how to teach in this way, and he’s a bit of a charlatan. I’ve live in New York for the last two years, where there’s no shortage of charlatans, and I now I’m in Los Angeles where they’re everywhere. I’ve seen a lot of people within this industry who prey on people who are getting started as actors. They represent themselves as acting coaches or voice coaches, some managers even – people that find a sort of Svengali approach to separating young people from their money, under the guise of helping them with their careers. I think that John has no qualms about doing that. I don’t think he’s particularly ambitious – he doesn’t necessarily want to hurt anyone, but he’s not against taking money from them for doing very little. I’ve come across a lot of people like John, but nobody in particular that makes this character who he is.
Andrew Barker, writing for Variety, called Oh Lucy! “a chocolate trifle with an arsenic core”. Do you agree with this description of the movie?
Yeah, in a sense. Chocolate with arsenic inside…there’s definitely a poison core to Lucy herself at the beginning of the film. But I think the film is incredibly honest about not only what this character is going through, but what can happen to a person who’s inverted their own expectations of life to fit in, [finding] themselves depressed and not knowing which way to turn. I do think that there’s a lot of comedy in the film, but it also is dramatic. That tone is difficult for a director to find, you don’t see a lot of films that ride that knife’s edge well. I think that Atsuko does this perfectly with this film.
Leading on from that, what was Atsuko Hirayanagi like as a director? Seeing as she also wrote the film and it is based on a short film that she made, I assume that her vision is very strong and pure.
Yes, that’s what attracted me to the project to begin with. She had a very clear vision for what she wanted to achieve, and looking at her short film, I was able to see what she wanted to achieve. To work with Atsuko is to work with someone who’s very open to your ideas, very interested in having conversations about your character or about the story. In the end, she knows the parameters of what she wants to achieve, and that to me is the perfect director, a director who will take the time to listen to tell you, and tell you either “you’re right on” or “no, that’s not what we’re looking for”. It just makes thing so much easier as an actor to come in and be clear about what you’re going to be doing.
What insight did you gain into Japanese culture and societal attitudes working on this film?
There are things that I already knew – I’ve been in Tokyo before doing press for movies that had come out there over the last 15-20 years. I had been around Tokyo before, but I’d never spent as much time there, and never as much time at my leisure, wandering around the city. I’d never been on a set in Japan before. The set was extraordinarily efficient, of course, but there was a sense of importance, a respect for the work that sometimes is missing from American films. It’s not necessarily that people don’t respect the work, it’s just that there’s a casual approach at times.
Like they’ve gotten used to it?
Maybe that’s it, maybe it’s just day-in day-out work, and in Tokyo there aren’t as many films being made in this way, so there was a real sense of importance that people were bringing to the set. To me, that was very exciting. It’s always exciting to be on a set where people feel like they’re a part of something special.
You starred in a very different film that incorporates elements of Japanese culture: Bunraku. How would you compare that experience with working on Oh, Lucy!
[Laughs] That’s entirely different. Bunraku was the brainchild of an Israeli writer director [Guy Moshe] who has a great affinity for Samurai films and for Westerns. His view of Japanese culture was cinematic. This film is maybe the opposite, in a way it’s trying to pull back the curtain for all of these characters about their misconceptions of what the other culture is like. Entirely different, from that point of view. Also, that film was so physical, and this film, I did almost nothing but smoke pot [laughs]. There was nothing physical about this film. Apples and oranges, for sure.
Starting out in Hollywood, it seemed like the studios wanted to package you as a teen heartthrob, but perhaps that wasn’t the image you wanted for yourself as an actor – you’ve spoken about being self-conscious after being on the cover of every magazine. What was it like re-evaluating your life and career after that period, and looking back now, what are your reflections on that time in your life?
In a way, I wish I hadn’t taken it so seriously, but I couldn’t have done anything else when I was that age. I was a very serious young man. I wanted to prove both to myself and to the directors and producers of Hollywood that I was an artist, and always wanted to be a part of artistic films. I also was always attracted to that when I was younger.
I worked in a video store when I was 15, 16 years old, and became a gigantic fan of independent cinema and foreign cinema. If I was going to have an opportunity to express myself in film and work with the types of directors I wanted to work with, I was going to take it. It wasn’t necessarily the career path that people within the industry wanted for me, because they wanted to me to fulfil the image they had set for me, which would make everybody some money.
I was always clear about what I wanted from the industry, and I had to be true to who I am. I couldn’t tell that young man anything about which way to go, because he was too strong-minded, and I’m sort of proud of myself for that.
There’s a difficulty as an actor in balancing big studio projects with independent films, is there a tendency to place actors in one box or the other?
In a way, yes. It’s somewhat more just what my expectations were of myself at that time. I didn’t necessarily think about that balance between the system, I was more about “how do I get to work with people like Tran Ahn Hung?” At the time, I really wanted to work with Wes Anderson, and I almost did a film with David Fincher and that film fell apart. To be able to work with these types of people was what I wanted all along. I spent some time talking to Julian Schnabel about working with him on a film. A lot of films didn’t quite come together the way I hoped they would, but I was always pursuing the films that I was interested in as a moviegoer and as a fan.
Following Penny Dreadful, will you be pursuing more arthouse films like Oh, Lucy!, are you planning to go after roles in studio movies, or a little bit of both?
Right now, I’m pretty much doing independent films. I’m reading everything that comes across my desk. I’ve done four independent films since we finished Penny Dreadful, and I’m about to start the fifth in 2 weeks. Then I might work on a play – John Malkovich and I worked on a film last year [Valley of the Gods] together and he asked me to do a play that he’s directing in London, I might do that.
In order to make a good living in this industry, you have to do something within the system. I’m not unaware of that, so I will try to find something that’s good within the system. I thought that Penny Dreadful was right smack dab in the middle of the Hollywood system, but it was also very interesting and way outside the box. I’ll try to find something else like that if I can.
That was John Logan’s wheelhouse, where he has done artistic, interesting stuff within a studio context.
Yeah, he does that quite well. If you can find someone to work with who can pull that off within the system, then that’s the perfect place to be.
You were offered several roles in comic book films, and you said you regretted passing on the role of Batman. What are your attitudes towards the genre, given how prevalent comic book and superhero movies are today?
At that stage in my career, I was being offered everything. I was, as I explained before, very focused on working with certain types of directors. I didn’t know Chris Nolan was going to be able to pull off that type of work in that film. I think the way that people interpret interviews is sometimes a little off-based. I don’t have enormous regrets about that, it was an off-hand comment. I wish I would’ve seen the forest for the trees at the time, having a relationship with a director, and I used him as an example. Sometimes, that’s a better choice than just worrying about the film itself. Sometimes, a great director can take a genre piece and elevate it, that’s all I’m saying. The way John Logan did Penny Dreadful, he elevated a horror genre piece to something that was special. I’m more aware of that now than I was at the time, and that’s all I’m saying.
You’ve been politically active. How has your activism been affected by the big changes in US politics over the last two years?
[Sighs] The bizarre thing in my life that’s occurred is that since the western world has lost its mind, I’ve been having children [laughs]. So my focus has become more internalised and focused on family while these big events have occurred. That being said, I’ve become very interested in how these current events will affect the future, for my kids’ sake. There’s a time for outrage, and there’s a time for expressing one’s hopes for change. We’ve gone through a cycle of both over the course of the last couple of years.
My girlfriend [Tamsin Egerton] is English, and we’ve spent time in England after Brexit. There’s a real long slump where people feel their country has been taken away from that, a lot of people in London felt that way. Then of course, the election here, a lot of people feel that way as well. It is important to remain engaged, and I feel like I am engaged, but we need to affect change within the system in a positive way, otherwise it won’t last.
As far as I can tell at this point, the best way forward is to keep doing what we’re doing, and continue to stymie Republican efforts to take away people’s rights, and hope that in the next couple of years, elections will swing things back towards sanity. You just have to remain focused on the end goal, which is just not letting people be persecuted in your country.
I absolutely agree. Before I let you go, have you been to Singapore?
I’ve only been to the airport in Singapore so far, but we are coming in for the premiere, so I’m looking forward to it.
What are your impressions of the country, and what have you heard about us so far?
Okay, so I have a lot of impressions that I know from people who’ve lived there. The producer Han [West] went to school there. Recently I watched a BBC show about extraordinary hotels, and a lot of that was based in Singapore, so I learned about the culture through that. I think I have a pretty interesting perspective, I have a lot of expectations for it, but I’m sure I’m way off base. It’s not a culture that I know enough about, I’ve just heard stories from people. I’m excited to come take a look.