Back in the late 90s and early 00s, Josh Hartnett's very name sent teen girls into a swoon. The actor had become one of the Young Hollywood Elite, with leading roles in blockbusters like Pearl Harbor and Black Hawk Down as well as teen faves The Faculty and 40 Days and 40 Nights. But not too deep below the surface were darker, more complex roles that for Hartnett spoke to the mark he wanted to leave on Tinseltown: Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides; O, a retelling of Shakespeare's Othello set within the courts of a high school basketball team; and now, the 41-year-old continues that pursuit with Inherit the Viper.
The film, out now, is a family drama set in an impoverished Ohio town where siblings Kip (Hartnett) and Josie (Margarita Levieva) sell opiates to friends and neighbors as a means of survival. Their trafficking, however, leads to several tragedies, and when one deal goes terribly wrong, Kip—who is expecting a child—is finally convinced that he needs to get out of the drug game. As it goes, escaping doesn't come easy, especially when his dealings ravaged many in his community.
Shot in 17 days on a shoestring budget ("You could make 100 of these films for any normal budget studio film," said Hartnett), the film—from director Anthony Jerjen and screenwriter Andrew Crabtree—tackles the realities of how America's catastrophic opioid crisis affects individual lives. Purdue Pharma, the makers of OxyContin, willfully withheld the drug's extremely addictive nature to doctors, and the Sackler family behind Purdue are finally facing legal ramifications for the massive health disaster to which their products contributed. A recent study found that Americans are now more likely to die from an opioid overdose than a car accident.
Inherit the Viper focuses on those at the very bottom of the food chain within the crisis; those whose lives and families are being ravaged by opioid addiction. The small town where Kip, Josie, and their little brother Boots (Owen Teague) live is struggling to stay afloat. As Hartnett put it, "When you're in a town that is devastated by addiction it is eerily quiet. It hollows out a community."
Hartnett spoke to VICE about the film's depiction of the opioid crisis; how this role is what he's always aimed for, despite being known as a teen dreamboat; and how his view of Hollywood evolved from frustration to acceptance.
VICE: Hi, Josh. What compelled you to be part of this movie and to tell this story?
Josh Hartnett: First off, I read the script and it was this issue of opioid addiction and the devastation that it was causing around the States. It was a big deal at the time, but relatively unexplored on a personal level, in national news anyway from what I had seen. It was a lot of talk about numbers and a lot of talk about community devastation, but I hadn't read a lot of first-hand accounts. When I read the script, it just shook me how this community in particular was so devastated, and that there were so many avenues for addiction. They weren't people you would think as prone to addictive tendencies. It was just average people who'd had a back surgery, or even something as simple as tweaking their knee, and were prescribed these opiates, then got stuck [on] them. They'd be looking for where they could get them when their prescriptions ran out—and they were being overprescribed anyway.
It's sort of this horrible perfect storm of how a drug can infiltrate and destroy a community. In this story, what I appreciated about it is that it was telling all of that, but it wasn't focused on that. The feeling that I took from reading the script was that of a horrible tragedy the entire community was going through, but I was invested in these few characters and their drama. I just thought this film was really worthy, even though we didn't have any money to make it and we didn't have any time to make it. We could do just enough to be effective and people could respond to it, and luckily, it turned out that way.
The film also tells a different side of the opioid crisis, of people who sell the drug as a means to survive financial hardship at the expense of their community. Why do you think it was important to highlight this perspective?
It was a way of telling this story without it being just a sermon. It's not just from the point of view of the victims necessarily. They're [all] victims in their own right. These people are trying to achieve something. My character is trying to save his brother from being in the middle of this horrible way of life for the rest of his life; if possible, save his sister as well. The decisions that these characters have to make are very human and very tragic.
You were obviously a big teen heartthrob back in the day. Looking back at the movies that you did in your younger years, however, they often had very dark tones and spoke to larger social issues—for instance, O and The Virgin Suicides. How do you this movie fits in the canon of the work you've done, and the kind of stories you want to tell?
[Inherit the Viper] is kind of a perfect encapsulation of the films that I like to be a part of. And yeah, you're right, I've been doing this type of film my whole career. People just tend to forget that. I did O which was, I think, a really faithful retelling of Othello in a high school. We made that film just before the shootings at Columbine, and it didn't come out for a while after because of [that]. It turned out to be prescient, but at the time, I thought it was not that far-fetched, and it turned out not to be, unfortunately. I did a little movie called Mozart and the Whale that kind of dealt with the real-life story of a man who has Asperger's and his wife who has Asperger's as well. I was always trying to do films that spoke to something larger than just entertainment. I think this is just a continuation of that for sure, and I'm just really happy that this was able to get made. When things like this work out really well—and I hope a lot of people see it—it's even more gratifying than when a big budget film hits the jackpot because you kind of already knew it was going to.
That must have been pretty frustrating for you, wanting to tell these kinds of stories, but having to deal with the Hollywood machine.
What was frustrating was I naïvely believed that I could bring in an audience that was interested in the other movies I was doing, a different audience. What I hoped would happen after I realized I wouldn't be able to take the audience that went to see Pearl Harbor to go and see Mozart and the Whale or O was that I would be able to establish myself in that world and be able to do more films like that, and become someone that people thought of as critically important. But that didn't work out, because people didn't like that I had done Pearl Harbor or Black Hawk Down. It's not frustrating to me anymore because I understand how things work, but when I was younger I was frustrated by it, for sure.
Inherit the Viper is one of surprisingly few films that depict the current opioid crisis. Do you feel there's an added responsibility there, tackling that issue since it's a real thing affecting people now?
One hundred percent. I wouldn't have wanted to do it if we had treated it lightly. I don't think the responsibility comes from it being one of the very few, but it comes from the subject matter itself. You can't tell a story like this without taking it seriously, and taking the tragedy behind it seriously.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.