Since exploding onto the scene in 1998, Josh Hartnett has been working hard to stretch his creative muscles and amplify his range. Hartnett stars alongside Woody Harrelson, Ron Perlman and Demi Moore in the fantasy/action epic, Bunraku, which tells the story of a group of outcasts who band together to take down a ruthless dictator in a world where guns have been outlawed. The Guy Moshe-directed film has been enjoying a run on the festival circuit over the course of the last year, and today it opens in theaters, giving us the opportunity to chat with the film's star.
Movies.com: Normally in an interview like this I’d start by asking what attracted you to the project. But given Bunraku’s wildly imaginative story and unique mix of styles and genres, I think the attraction is pretty obvious. Can you talk a little about your reactions when reading the script?
Josh Hartnett: Well you know, my introduction to this film was with Guy Moshe, the director, coming out to New York and telling me not to read the script. I had the script in hand and he told me, “Don’t read it until I’m able to talk to you.” So that was intriguing. He came out and showed me some visuals. We sat, had umpteen cups of coffee, and discussed what we like about film and where we wanted to go with this film in particular and what styles we wanted to bring to it before he would allow me to read the script because he thought it would really help the interpretation. Also he had some fight sequences he wanted me to see because in the script it just kind of said, “spectacular fight sequence takes place.”
So by the time I read the script I had a real understanding of what this was going to look like. I was drawn to the film mostly because of Guy’s enthusiasm and his utter believe in himself. He knew he was going to pull off something interesting and unique and he knew it was going to be artistic. He wasn’t trying to create a special effects-laden, over-the-top simple action film. He was trying to make a parable of sorts and saying something about the state of, not necessarily exactly our current predicament, but Guy comes from Israel, as I’m sure you know, and there’s a lot of war going on over there, a lot of fighting.
So that was sort of the piece that keeps coming back in the script that the world is all about Darwinism: about fighting, survival of the fittest. And sometimes the little guy can strike back. And it reminded me in a way of Star Wars because Star Wars also has characters that are a ragtag bunch of people coming and taking the power away from the evil forces that rule the universe. Then of course it was a chance for me to play and do something that I’d never done before. First off, I’ve never had a chance to do so many choreographed fight sequences. Also he’s not a very verbose character and that was fun for me to play something that was purely physical; almost mime in a way. For me it was just pure silliness and fun.
Movies.com: Speaking of those fight sequences, how much of your own stunt work did you do for this film? In particular, that fight scene with the “Mirror Drifter” character, as I call him, was intense. And I suppose it could have been movie magic, but it seemed like a lot of it was you.
Hartnett: It was 100% me, yeah.
Hartnett: There was nothing in the film that I didn’t do. We were shooting two different scenes at the same time every day pretty much. Guy was running back-and-forth between sets so there was no time to be there for the setups. So we’d shoot some sequence and then we’d half some sequence and then they’d need to setup different shots. So we’d go over to the other stage and we’d shoot some of this other sequence and then we’d go back-and-forth, back-and-forth. So the only time the double, who’s a great stunt guy and could have done everything and made it look like I was doing it, but he only filled in for me on a couple of punches from behind that I had already done.
So it wasn’t the physical stuff, it was like, “ok, we need to get a reverse on that and Josh can’t be in two places at once.” I mean I trained with these guys for a long time and that was the fun of this character was to get into the physical side of it. So yeah, everything you see on screen, with the possible exception of a couple of shots from behind, were all me.
Movies.com: Fantastic! And seriously, how much fun did you have playing that Drifter character? The guy’s a total badass.
Hartnett: It’s fun to play the badass, but what I liked about him, and what I wanted to bring to it, was just a little bit of vulnerability. You know, like he’s afraid of heights. You know it’s fun to play a total badass, but they never come across as realistic unless you can give them something that they….you have to give them their kryptonite. And because there were a lot of scenes on top of things that Guy had written, I was like, “why don’t we make it so that the Drifter, like, heights make him want to throw up?” He just can’t deal with them; everything else he’s fine with. That was the fun part for me. He’s a badass, but I also found it fun to play the physical comedy. I think he comes across pretty funny sometimes.
Movies.com: Absolutely, and yeah you do have to add that air of vulnerability. It’s sort of like, going back to something like Lucky Number Slevin: always, or not always but most of the time, having Slevin in a towel. Even though that character too is a badass, it’s a way to show that vulnerability. So it’s kind of a similar thing having the Drfter being afraid of heights.
Hartnett: Thank you for recognizing that about Slevin. That was something that was hard-fought. We had to convince some people that it was going to be funny. But if you’re trying to convince people that you’re not a threat in any way, shape, or form, what possibly could you do that would be more vulnerable than pretty much walking around naked throughout the whole film.
Movies.com: Exactly. So Bunraku is one of those rare movies that borrows little touches here and there from many different films, but in a way that’s wholly original and completely its own thing. You know, you already mentioned Star Wars, but were there any other films or classic film characters that informed your performance?
Hartnett: Oh, for sure. Jean-Pierre Melville made a few films with Alain Delon, Le Samourï and Le Circle Rouge, which both inspired the Drifter a bit. Then of course, there are the Sergio Leone westerns with Clint Eastwood, and some of the Kurosawa samurai films. It’s a mishmash of different references but that’s what I like about what Guy did with it. He understood that his approach was using all of these other ideas, but he wanted it to come across as something organic. In order to create this organic world, something he’d never seen before, he just decided to take away reality entirely.
This is some place that exists “East of the Atlantic” where the buildings are origami, and that’s why he chose the title in my opinion. Bunraku is a puppet show where the puppeteers are on stage moving life-sized puppets and they play out these human dramas, but with a lot of comedy and lot of melodrama. You’re never once unsure of whether or not this is reality; it is a parable, it’s outside of reality. So you’re kind of able to watch it with enthusiasm. I think that’s what Guy had figured out quite well; you’re never unsure of what this world is.
Movies.com: I’m glad you brought up Melville because I was going to ask you a question about that. You know Melville had this concept of his characters and their armor, which was so important to them. And since he made gangster films, the armor was usually comprised of things like fedoras and trench coats. And that seemed to be resonating in Bunraku, but I didn’t know if that was just because I had been watching a lot of Melville recently or if that was something intentional.
Hartnett: Absoultely! I mean, right down to his gloves. He has very little of his skin exposed, the Drifter-just the tips of his fingers and his face. It was like armor, and then of course the character doesn’t give away a lot so his personality is quite guarded as well.
Movies.com: Exactly. So Bunraku played last year’s Fantastic Fest, which is one of the premier genre film festivals in the country. You’re no stranger to genre films. You’ve got horror films, action films, and graphic novel adaptations under your belt. But you’ve also tackled Shakespeare and done plays in London’s West End. Do you feel more and home with genre films or are you more partial to straightforward drama?
Hartnett: You know, I’m partial to human drama, but I don’t think that any film has to be without its human drama. It doesn’t matter how far out into the genre world you go, the ones that are most interesting in the long run, the ones that stick with you, are the ones in which the characters come across as human. So the job is the same on all accounts. The challenge with a film like Bunraku is to take somebody who has no past and give him a past: give him pathos and make it recognizable. Also to make him, like I said before, somewhat vulnerable so that there’s someone that you can relate to in a way even though he’s obviously not your everyday kind of guy. For me, as I’m getting older, I’m finding that with characters that it doesn’t matter what the genre is, they have to be fully-realized. Otherwise, they’re not going to be that much fun to watch or you’re not going to go along for the ride with them. So the job becomes more and more similar, switching from genre to genre to genre almost doesn’t matter now.