Josh Hartnett Says He's Glad He Took Time to 'Find Myself' After Early Stardom (Exclusive)

The actor's new movie, 'Most Wanted,' is in theaters and on demand on July 24.

Josh Hartnett is back -- but the truth is, he never went anywhere. "The story is that I'm some recluse or malcontent or something," Hartnett tells ET's Katie Krause. "But I never felt that way... I was never inactive, I was just doing other things."

Hartnett burst on the scene in the late '90s as a teen heartthrob and then bonafide leading man in films like Pearl Harbor, O, and Black Hawk Down. But after a few years, he explains, he took a step back from the blockbusters to reassess what kinds of parts he really wanted to be playing.

"I think when I was younger, I was fighting against a concept I had of myself within the industry, and I didn't feel like the movies that I wanted to do I was being offered -- and then the movies that I was being offered, I couldn't do those either because I wanted to maintain my integrity." 

"So I started to produce my own films and I did smaller independent projects," he adds. "People took that as me throwing away a career or something, but it wasn't that at all, in my opinion. It was me just sort of finding myself."

Now 41, Hartnett says he's proud of the time he took to find his voice and make his own decisions, "trying to make something of myself that wasn't just set up for me."

"I did take some time off, but I mostly took some time off to do other things, like raise my children," he adds. "I started to write a lot. I wrote a few scripts, wrote a few short music videos, and started producing."

"My relationship with Hollywood is what it has always been -- just me doing the thing that I want to do and try to make sure that I can do it. It's difficult to make movies in this industry if you're trying to make personal films. Luckily, I have been able to come in contact, especially recently, with a lot of filmmakers and people that are on board with hiring me to play the kind of roles I want to play. So I've been kind of lucky these days."

One of his most recent projects is Daniel Roby's Most Wanted, a crime thriller about the real-life story of a drug addict from Quebec who spent eight years in a Thai prison in the 1980s after he was set up in an espionage plot by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.

"I'm from Minnesota, I'm from basically Canada, and I never heard anything about this," Hartnett says of the story. "This is such an interesting story of corruption and an obviously horrible thing that a young man went through. It just didn't crack into the news in the States at all. I was amazed at that, but then I met with the director and his passion for it was was so evident and he's so full of energy."

In the film, Hartnett stars as Canadian journalist Victor Malarek, who is tasked with investigating the complicated story, and the actor was able to meet with his real-life counterpart in preparation for the role.

"I flew up to Toronto and Victor showed me around all his old haunts," he recalls. "He showed me his old desk at the Globe and Mail, he showed me a bunch of people that he used to work with, and brought me to his old house and showed me pictures of his kids. That really gave me a sense of who he was at this point of his life, and I was just about to have my first child, and was just immediately like, 'I have to play this guy.'"

That sense of in-person connection meant he took extra care with the role. "I've played a few real-life people, and that pressure is there because you want to be-- It's twofold: You want to be good to the person you're playing, but you don't want to be too good. You want to be honest," he admits. 

Hartnett says he received a "nice little note" from Malarek after he watched the film, but jokes, "We'll see what he thinks for real in his next book."

For now, the actor is prepping for his next project -- a Raoul Peck miniseries for HBO -- in Paris, and enjoying family time with his partner, Tamsin Egerton, and their three kids. "We're juggling a lot," he notes of life with three young children during quarantine, adding that he's appreciative of the fact that all of his kids are still too young for the stricter curriculum of home-schooling. "I feel lucky that we're able to just sort of enjoy our time together and not force them into these situations that are going to make the family dynamic sort of fall apart," he laughs.

And while his kids are still too young to appreciate most of his onscreen work, Hartnett admits he still has a soft spot for Pearl Harbor, which celebrates its 20th anniversary next year.

"What I loved about making the film is, we were in Hawaii making a historical, epic romance, and my grandfather and my great uncles were all World War II and I came fully prepared with all their letters and had all this sort of research into the time period," he recalls. "And then Michael Bay basically told me, 'What? Why are we talking about that? Go over here and run away from the explosion. Say your lines, dammit!' It was just, it was a different experience than what I expected it to be."

"I was young and naive, and now I get it a little bit more," he adds, though he admits being young and shooting in Hawaii wasn't a bad time at all. "We had a great time making the film. We were extraordinarily lucky making that film... All the actors were great, and yeah, I mean, it was an epic experience for sure."

Most Wanted is in theaters and on demand starting July 24.