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Josh Hartnett Had a Real Moment

Twenty years after his first major role, a look back at the brief peak of a handsome new-age rebel

Josh Hartnett Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“I was really, really worried about being cool back then, but I let it all go.” —Josh Hartnett, talking to People magazine in 2001 about transitioning from sports to theater in high school

There was a period—this was in the very late ’90s and the very early 2000s, give or take a year or two—when Josh Hartnett had a moment. A real moment. A moment that, and I understand that this is possibly (probably) too ultra-specific, but a moment that radiated with so much real heat and undeniable cool that I wanted nothing more than to be Josh Hartnett, and if not actually be Josh Hartnett, then at least be accidentally mistaken for him once or twice (which is far harder than it seems, I’ll have you know).

He checked off all of the normal boxes for somebody you’d want to be (as an 18- to 20-year-old boy angling toward eventually becoming a man, anyway): He was tall; he was fit; he was handsome in a way that always felt interesting; he was exactly the right amount of new-age rebel (which is to say he weaponized sarcasm and wit in a way that somehow made him even more charming, and if you’re looking for an example of the opposite of that then I’d point you toward Ethan Hawke in Reality Bites); and he had a look that, at least in theory, was easy to mimic. But there was something more there. And I don’t know if you’d call it a “vibe” or a specific type of “energy” or a rare brand of “sauce” or whatever, but it was definitely there, and it was definitely something.

It was the way he moved (always with purpose, but never with noise). And the way he slouched (it was like he was recoiling into himself because he knew if he let loose the full strength of his libido it would wobble the solar system). And the way his cheekbones framed his mouth like a renaissance painting. And the way his jawline looked like it filed its own income taxes. And the way his long sleeves always seemed to be covering his hands (it was always oddly romantic). And the way his hair was less a hairstyle and more a declaration of individuality (I very clearly remember trying to do my hair the way he had his in The Faculty and thinking I looked very cool all the way up until a cashier at Walmart one afternoon asked me if I was “sick or something”). And his eyes.

Whoa, mama, those eyes.

Eyes that said, “Be careful with me.”

Eyes that said, “I’ll be careful with you.”

Eyes that said, “You don’t have to be careful with me.”

Eyes that said, “And I’m not going to be careful with you.”

Eyes that said everything they needed to say, always, forever, every time, literally every single time, even in 40 Days and 40 Nights, a movie that, no joke, was about him trying to give up cumming for Lent, if you can even believe that.

The first movie Hartnett had a starring role in was Halloween H20: 20 Years Later. That was in 1998. (It celebrates its 20th anniversary this week, which is why we’re celebrating Josh Hartnett now.) Later that year, he was in The Faculty, easily the best movie he’s ever been in and also the most flawlessly he’s ever played a role.

(That first GIF is from Pearl Harbor, which we’ll talk about in a moment.)

(That second GIF is from The Faculty, which we’ll talk about right now.)

(A teacher is laying into him in front of everyone on the school’s courtyard.)

(Watch the way he holds his eyes closed until the last possible instant, at which he point he flips them open at her with enough attitude that you can very nearly hear it.)

(Let me tell you real quick about the actual movie: In The Faculty, Hartnett played an apathetic, so-condescending-it-was-charismatic fifth-year high school senior who ended up leading a group of other students as they battled aliens that were trying to take over their school.)

(It sounds ridiculous—and it was ridiculous—but it was also great and fun and perfectly perfect for Hartnett. He was built to play exactly that kind of role in exactly that kind of movie.)

(What I mean is: He was built to play a high-school-aged handsome outsider with a secret talent who didn’t know he was just waiting for an opportunity to be forced into heroism.)

(We saw a similar [albeit less enjoyable] version of it nine years later when he was in 30 Days of Night.)

(30 Days of Night was about vampires, and not about cumming, FYI.)

(I just didn’t want you to get 30 Days of Night confused with 40 Days and 40 Nights, is all.)

(Since we’re here: Do you know what the big difference for Hartnett was between The Faculty and 30 Days of Night? It’s simple. His age was the big difference. There’s this genre of videos on YouTube which explains why Hollywood won’t cast certain people in big movies anymore. There’s one for Wesley Snipes, and one for Jessica Alba, and one for John Cusack, and so on. There’s one for Josh Hartnett, too. In it, they point toward how Hartnett turning down offers to play Superman, Spider-Man, and Batman effectively ended his career as a prime-time movie star. And Hartnett alluded to that same idea in 2015 during an interview with The Guardian, saying specifically that he regretted turning down Christopher Nolan’s Batman role because he realized afterward that it would’ve led to him doing, if no other movies at all, then at least Nolan’s The Prestige, like what happened with Christian Bale. And I’m certain that’s all very true. But I might also add in there that Hartnett’s appeal as a megawatt star was a very age-dependent thing. Once he aged out of being able to play roles where the characters were under 21 or 22 years old, it just wasn’t quite the same anymore. Pulling your long sleeves down over your hands loses its lure after that, you know what I’m saying? At any rate …)

Following the release of The Faculty in 1998 through 2002, Hartnett was in, among other things, The Virgin Suicides in 1999 (there’s a scene in the movie when he walks down the hallway of a high school and all of the girls gawk over him, and the way they look at him does a very good job of explaining the allure of Young Josh Hartnett); Here on Earth in 2000 (it’s bad but Chris Klein has an all-world line in it when he says that Hartnett has a “lazy grin”); Blow Dry in 2001 (he plays a British man with a resolute sense of morality, insofar as hairdressing contests were concerned); Pearl Harbor in 2001 (the scene-for-scene hottest he ever was allowed to be in a movie); O in 2001 (a movie where at least four people die because Josh Hartnett’s character isn’t selected as the MVP of his high school basketball team); Black Hawk Down in 2001 (the best subgenre of movies is Josh Hartnett Dressing Like He’s In The Military); and the above-mentioned 40 Days and 40 Nights in 2002.

And he was a delight and a force in all of them.

Again: It was a moment. A real moment.