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We Talked to Josh Hartnett About 'Stranger Things' and Catholic School

The veteran actor opens up about being a father and meeting Harrison Ford.

by Josh Hartnett; as told to Larry Fitzmaurice
Oct 18 2017, 4:20pm

Momentum Pictures

In Early Works, we talk to artists young and old about the jobs and life experiences that led them to their current moment. Today, it's actor Josh Hartnett, whose latest film 6 Below: Miracle on the Mountain is out now in theaters and on VOD.

I grew up in St. Paul, which is probably quite a different place than what it is today. It was the 1970s and the early 80s, and you had a lot more leeway than kids do today. I remember being very unrestricted in my ability to travel around on my own and ride bikes wherever I wanted. It's a little nostalgic to look at that time period through the lens of Stranger Things, and what you see in there is very much how my young life felt—minus the Demogorgon.

My home life was simple, idyllic, and sort of suburban, even though I grew up in a city. I'm the oldest sibling by a long shot, and as a father, I can see that there's a different pressure that goes into being the oldest. I felt a certain amount of pressure to be a trailblazer—to lead by example, to try not to get angry at my little brothers and sisters because they needed to be protected. By the time my youngest brother—who is nine and a half years younger than me—was anywhere near the age where I could interact with him, I was already out the door.

We've all become much closer as adults, but they're all individuals. None of us do the same thing for a living, everybody's very opinionated in their own right, but our shared trait is that we all listen to each other quite well. We get together whenever we can and try to figure things out between one another and the world. I feel really lucky to have a good relationship with them, and to be able to keep that going into the future.

I went to Catholic school through my sophomore year of high school, and then I moved to a public arts school, which was blissful. My grandmother was very religious, but my parents and I weren't, so I was sent to Catholic school to appease my grandmother, who I love very much and was very close to. I stuck with it because all my friends were there, but going to mass and doing all those things felt hypocritical. After my sophomore year, I was feeling very adult, and I decided to make my own decision, which is that I wanted to be an artist—a painter, specifically. To be in a more artistic environment was very exciting for me.

I went to SUNY Purchase to study the performing arts, which I loved—but it was such a short period of time, only six months before I started getting acting jobs. But being near New York was incredible access for me at that time. From there, I auditioned for a couple of things, and within two weeks of auditions, everything just took off from there. It was quick, but it kicked off what became my life for the last 20 years.

Making Hollywood Homicide was a funny experience—and I hope the movie is still funny. I'd taken some time off from acting, wrote a script with my writing partner that we sold to Dreamworks, and moved back to Minnesota to spend some time with friends and family, and my agent called me and told me there was a chance I could work with Harrison Ford. He was a childhood hero, of course, so I went down to LA ,and we had bagels and coffee in Westwood. I couldn't speak—I was so enamored with Han Solo and Indiana Jones and all that. He said he wanted to do the film and that we were gonna do it together, so of course I decided to go back to LA and start making movies again.

Parenthood is such a massive change that it's hard to sum up, but the biggest thing that changes is your focus. No matter who you are and where you come from, there's a level of selfishness when you're young because there's no one else for you to look out for. When you have someone that you actually have to keep alive besides yourself, that piece of you that was so focused on your own survival moves over to them. A friend said this, and it really rang true to me: It's like letting someone else run around with your heart for a while. You work diligently to make sure that other person is looked after.

But how do you balance it with work? Work, for me, is simultaneously an expression of what I'd like to be doing and a means of making a living for my kids—a way to make sure that their lifestyle is going to be exciting and new. I couldn't imagine missing anything in their lives. Since my daughter was born, I've shot four films, and my kids haven't been able to come on set to only one of them. Everything else they've been there for, and they'll continue to be.