PASADENA, Calif. — If trouble isn't lurking around the corner, actor Josh Hartnett goes looking for it. It's a way of life for him, he says, as he unhinges his long legs and perches in a wing chair in a hotel.
"I'm a person who's drawn to struggle and I'm drawn to challenges, so if there's not a tough time in front of me, I'll try to find one," says the star of such projects as Black Hawk Down, Pearl Harbor and 30 Days of Night.
Hartnett, 35, quit drama school after six months, snagged his first TV series at 18 and has continued to juggle ambition with reason ever since.
"I feel like adversity breeds depth and growth," he says. "And I don't think you have to create it for yourself, but you can find it. I think that can lead to a more interesting experience, a more rewarding experience."
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There have been tough times, he says. "But I think a lot of them were because I seek out experiences that are different or challenging that leads me to that place."
He's heading for that place again with his role as an American sharpshooter helping fight supernatural forces in Victorian London in Showtime's drama Penny Dreadful. The show, premiering Sunday, also stars Eva Green, Timothy Dalton and Billie Piper.
It's Hartnett's first foray into cable television's dark recesses. Dreadful plummets viewers into the seamy side of society where some of literature's classic personas — Frankenstein, Dorian Gray, the Mummy — are re-imagined.
It's a new direction for Hartnett. "There were times where I thought, 'OK, I've done this and I've seen this side of the industry and seen what the potential is for my life in this realm — and probably not seeing it very clearly — but saw it from a certain perspective and said, 'This is not what I want right now. I want to try this other thing and see where that leads.'"
Hartnett enjoys stirring things up, always has, he says. "I like people to be at their ease, but I like people to look at things from a different perspective if possible. So I will argue a point. If the teacher told me to do something, I would ask them, 'Why is that necessary? It doesn't make any sense to me. Why are you trying to turn out somebody who's going to work in a factory? ... I'm not trying to learn how to work, what I'm trying to do is learn something valuable for my life.'"
Hartnett, who grew up with his dad and stepmother in Minneapolis, has quit cold a couple of times. The last time he and a partner wrote a screenplay and sold it to DreamWorks, where it's been "sitting on a very important shelf somewhere, I'm sure," he says, grinning.
But working as a performer leaves much up to chance, he says. "I'm starting to believe that life's absurd, more than anything else. It ends in tragedy. And control is an illusion. And that if you can find a way to appreciate the ebbs and flows and ups and downs for their direct value — which is the experience itself of being on that roller coaster — you'll be much more satisfied with your life. That's what I feel at this point."
He's not sure how he came to that conclusion. "Just trial and error over the years, feeling like I had control, watching it dissipate without much reason, or reasons that I could see. You can't teach someone perspective. You also can't teach someone to grow up. You also can't look at things directly from another person's perspective. I think that's what I enjoy about acting so much, you get a chance to get into another person's psyche a little bit and try to see it from their perspective."
Still, understanding another's point of view has been difficult for him, especially in relationships, he says. "You take on a relationship with someone you feel has great potential ... . Some of the times it just doesn't pan out. But seeking, trying to push through that — those have been the most trying parts of my life, I think."
At press time he was dating British actress Tamsin Egerton. "The idea of giving up control and the idea of control in a relationship is the most terrifying thing I've ever had to go through," he says, though he admits he's usually better off because of it.
"I've never had a good relationship that doesn't involve giving up that control. It only works for as long as you realize that you're going to be giving up so much more than you think they're giving up — both of you have to feel that way for it to really work."