It's rare that you hear the upside of a movie going into turnaround, but Josh Hartnett sounds relieved that his first chance to star in "The Black Dahlia" fell through.
"I was hired to play Bucky when I was much too young to play Bucky," says Hartnett of an earlier, David Fincher-directed version of the James Ellroy thriller. "I was 23, maybe I was just about to turn 23. So, I was really young. But, I recognized how great the material was and wanted to stick with it, so when the other director dropped out and Brian [DePalma] came on, there was a gap there of two years, where nothing was happening. When Brian came on, he hired me, just right off the bat."
In "The Black Dahlia," Hartnett plays Bucky Bleichert, a boxer-turned-cop who gets sucked into the murder of Elizabeth Short, a starlet whose nickname gives the film its title. Directed by DePalma, a master of cinematic obsession, "The Black Dahlia" parallels Bucky's obsession with Short and his obsession for two women (played by Scarlett Johansson and Hilary Swank). Fortunately, as an actor, Hartnett understands the sensation.
"There's a certain obsessive tendency in actors, as I think there is with anybody who has a job that has a finite amount of time," he ponders. "You have to complete it, and you have to complete it in a certain amount of time, so you ultimately think you're going to be relieved of this obsession at a certain point, and that justifies you really pouring yourself into it, heart and soul, much to the chagrin of anyone you know and love."
Hartnett particularly poured himself into the pugilistic side of his character.
"I spent way too much time, really, boxing for this," he chuckles. "I didn't need to, and I knew that I wasn't going to need to. I knew it was only going to be one scene in the film. But, Ellroy makes a direct correlation between the way that Bucky acts as a fighter and the way that he acts in his life. He's Mr. Ice in both, and the way that he takes apart an opponent is very similar to the way he takes apart the case. So, for me, when I got into the ring, I felt I was starting to really understand the character, so I spent seven months boxing, five days a week, four hours a day, like they were training me to actually have a fight."
But Hartnett's sacrifices weren't just physical. The vegetarian actor had to make some ethical sacrifices to make it through the lengthy "Black Dahlia" shoot in Bulgaria.
"I didn't smoke through all the training at all, and then, when I got to set and had to start smoking again, that just tore me apart, but I had to do it," says Hartnett, whose '40s-appropriate character is rarely without a cigarette. "You can see it in the movie. I look sallow. I look sick through a lot of the film because I was working 12 hours a day, going to the gym for as many hours as I can, and I actually started eating meat while I was there because the Bulgarian doctor didn't know what else to do with me. He said, 'You eat meat?' I said, 'No.' He said, 'Eat meat.'"
And then there was the added challenge of having to do love scenes with both Johansson and Swank. Hartnett handles the inevitable intrusive semi-journalistic inquiries with aplomb.
"They're both very good kissers," he says. "It was part of a day's work. Tough day at the office."
"The Black Dahlia" opens everywhere on Friday, Sept. 15.