'I didn't want to be considered the worst actor in the world': Josh Hartnett candidly revisits 'Pearl Harbor' 20 years later

“I can’t believe it’s been 20 years,” Josh Hartnett told Yahoo Entertainment recently (watch above) when reflecting on the experience of making Michael Bay’s much-hyped blockbuster Pearl Harbor, which opened in theaters May 25, 2001.

Today, however, the $140 million war epic feels incredibly specific to the era in which it was produced, a nine-figure original action film made without heavy reliance on digital effects and green screens, and on the cusp of Hollywood’s obsessive focus on franchises. (The year 2001, for perspective, saw the release of the first installments of Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, The Fast and the Furious, Shrek, Ocean’s Eleven and Spy Kids.)

That meant lots of practical explosions, lots of planes flying over, lots of Big Things happening. “The orchestration was so intense,” says Hartnett now of filming in Hawaii in close proximity to the real-life events of Dec. 7, 1941, when Japanese forces attacked the Pearl Harbor naval base in Honolulu.

“It was one of those big old-school epics, and a lot of it was happening practically. They just don’t make things exactly like that anymore. But it was fun.”

From left: Josh Hartnett, Kate Beckinsale and Ben Affleck gather together on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis Sunday, May 20, 2001, in preparation for the world premier of the film
Josh Hartnett, Kate Beckinsale and Ben Affleck on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis ahead of the world premiere of "Pearl Harbor" on May 20, 2001. In the background is the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. (Photo: Kevin Winter/Touchstone Pictures/Getty Images/Los Angeles)

Hartnett played 1st Lt. Danny Walker, a combat pilot who falls in love with the same military nurse (Kate Beckinsale’s Lt. Evelyn Johnson) as his lifelong best friend (Ben Affleck’s 1st Lt. Rafe McCawley).

Hartnett had quickly become a star and a heartthrob, thanks to roles in pre-millennium films like Halloween H20 (1998), The Faculty (1998) and The Virgin Suicides (1999), but still considered himself a neophyte performer. The actor says that led to a distinct type of pressure on a film that drew intense media scrutiny for its steep budget. (The Disney film’s proposed budget from Bay and producer Jerry Bruckheimer was north of $200 million) and obvious Titanic-esque aspirations in combining historical tragedy and romance.

“The fact that people were always ultimately going to hear about it, because it was such a big budget and so much was riding on it, financially, that took the pressure off trying to get it out there and trying to get people into the theater,” he says. “But it put a lot of pressure on the expectations for the actual film.

“I didn’t want to be considered the worst actor in the world,” adds Hartnett, who could be referencing the fact that along with Affleck and Beckinsale, he earned a “Worst Screen Couple” nomination from the Razzie Awards, emblematic of the chilly reception Pearl Harbor received from many critics. “I was still trying to figure out what I was doing as an actor. Because I had only done a few films and knew it was going to be worldwide. And I was going to be worldwide, suddenly. So the pressure was just to not screw it up.”

Pearl Harbor may not have become the Titanic of 2001 — it was still a box-office hit — but its shortcomings didn’t fall at the feet of the actors and certainly didn’t dampen the career of Hartnett, who was wooed to play superheroes like Batman and Superman.

It was the actor who decided to step away from blockbuster moviemaking, not vice versa, with Hartnett briefly leaving Hollywood for his home state of Minnesota and then relocating to London, where he’s focused on smaller-scale projects while raising three children.

Last month, Hartnett appeared in his highest-profile film in over a decade, the Jason Statham-starring crime thriller Wrath of Man.

“Right now I’m getting a lot of good offers, working with a lot of cool people,” he told us. “There’s a lot of good stuff coming so I can't turn down great roles. So my relationship [with acting] is just if there are interesting roles that are going to be challenging and get out there and people are going to see them, then I’m all for it."

Stream Pearl Harbor on Amazon.

Videos produced by Jen Kucsak and edited by John Santo

Watch Josh Hartnett talk about Wrath of Man and his current relationship with acting:

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