I'm Really Just a Regular Guy (but Don't Ask Me to Chill out); (1) in the Spotlight: Left, Josh Hartnett Found the Media Attention during His Relationship with Scarlett Johansson Hard to Handle (2) Rise to Fame: Above, Hartnett as Captain Danny Walker in Pearl Harbor; in Lucky Number Slevin with Morgan Freeman; Mobbed by Fans as He Tries to Leave the Apollo Theatre Last Night. Left, in Kennington This Week during Rehearsals for Rain Man

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I MEET Josh Hartnett, the 30-year-old Hollywood star of the blockbuster Pearl Harbor who made his debut on the West End stage this week, in a stark, airless rehearsal room in south London. The lights flash on and off at random and Hartnett, at 6ft 3in, folds himself uncomfortably into a plastic chair. He wears jeans, T-shirt and a beanie hat, and still has the heart-throb looks that got him spotted by a talent scout as a teenager. Yet despite more than a decade in the limelight he is supremely uncomfortable being scrutinised.

He says he hates the "fame game"; that he's just a regular guy; that he despises the trappings of celebrity - yet he's so hemmed in by publicists and minders that he gives every impression of believing himself to be really very famous. The West End producer Nica Burns sits next to him and occasionally answers questions for him. And boy, does he hate being asked about Heath Ledger, who was a friend. "I'm not even going to go there," he replies, unhappy, when I ask whether he misses him. Subsequent British interviewers, it turns out, are told not to mention Ledger as a result.

Why so defensive? He says he's had bad experiences with the press, and most often he implies during his year-long relationship with Scarlett Johansson, with whom he lived in New York. His silence on the subject of former girlfriends is absolute, and perhaps fair enough: he says he's been stalked by the US paparazzi and that even stepping outside his front door became difficult at one stage. "People have written wild things about me," he complains. "The trick so many people learn, and that I am reluctant to learn, is to be hurt and cover it up and pretend that everything is OK all the time when it's not.

"I don't like to act in my personal life. I like to be straightforward & Look, I started this very young, and I haven't had media training, so go figure." Hartnett is appearing in the stage adaptation of the 1988 tear-jerker Rain Man, a movie that won Oscars for Dustin Hoffman and director Barry Levinson, and popularised the concept of the autistic savant. He plays Charlie Babbitt, the Tom Cruise role; the manipulative, money-grabbing younger brother to the numerically gifted Raymond (played here by British actor Adam Godley). It's a bold project, partly because the film, essentially a road movie, looms so large in the cultural consciousness but also because Hartnett hasn't acted on stage for 12 years.

"I wanna stretch myself," he says languidly.

"Try new things. I get quite fed up being on a film set day after day, six days a week. It can get to be a grind. I want to have what I do always feel fresh and new, and [this play] does to me& I mean, a film adaptation is not necessarily my first choice for the first piece of theatre I've done in 12 years but the script was so impressive, and I wanted to show myself that I could do it still. Basically, I have a short attention span, so it'll be good for me to try and stay in one space, doing the same thing for four months." It was on stage at theatre school in New York that Hartnett was first noticed. A talent scout whisked him off to screen auditions in LA. He was 17 and very, very handsome in that mildly unruly fashion that often passes on American TV for proper teenage rebelliousness (he auditioned on several occasions for a part in Dawson's Creek, and I'm amazed he didn't get one).

For a while, however, Hartnett wasn't convinced that he even wanted to be an actor; and certainly not an actor hired primarily for his beauty in teen horror flicks such as Halloween H20, one of his first features. Yet a breakthrough role in Sofia Coppola's acclaimed The Virgin Suicides was followed by Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down; and then the epic Pearl Harbor the part (Captain Danny Walker) that was destined to propel him to Hollywood superstardom.

"I became popular very young," he says, with a huge sigh. …


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