You might say Josh Hartnett stumbled into acting. Sidelined from football after blowing out his knee in a game at age 15, the St. Paul high schooler landed a role as Huckleberry Finn in a local theater production—and it was goodbye jock, hello theater geek. “I was really, really worried about being cool back then,” says Hartnett, 22, “but I let it all go.”
No need to fret anymore. As pilot Danny Walker—the quiet best buddy to Ben Affleck‘s cocky flyboy in the critic-proof blockbuster Pearl Harbor—Hartnett is soaring from teen-flick heartthrob to full-throttle star. “He has exposed his name to people all over the world,” says Affleck, who has been there, done that, himself. “The guy will have beautiful women camped out on his front lawn for months.”
Costar William Lee Scott, who plays an Army Air Corps buddy, can see that happening. “Women definitely react to him,” says Scott. “The dude’s like 6’3″—a big, tall, strapping, good-looking movie star.” Not that it shows in his demeanor. Says Scott: “He’ll act surprised if people want his autograph. He’s real modest. I don’t know if he really believes he’s a star. It hasn’t fully settled in.”
Maybe because less than five years ago Hartnett was struggling for a foothold in Hollywood, where his trials included six fruitless auditions for a role on the teen TV drama Dawson’s Creek. Finally, in 1998, a part as Jamie Lee Curtis’s son in Halloween: H20 kicked off his movie career. But Hartnett, who won acclaim as a high school narcissist in 1999’s The Virgin Suicides, hesitated at first to enlist in Pearl Harbor. “I almost didn’t take the part,” he says. “I was going pretty well doing a lot of small movies, happy with having semianonymity. I wasn’t sure I wanted to have all that change.”
What persuaded him was a talk with his father, Daniel, a commercial-building manager in St. Paul. (After his parents divorced when he was a child, Hartnett lived with Daniel and stepmother Molly, a homemaker and artist.) “We had this great discussion while we were washing his car,” says Hartnett, the oldest of four children. “He reminded me that I said when I got into acting, I wanted to ride it as far as I could.” Four days of boot camp with a real drill sergeant at Hawaii’s Schofield Barracks made Hartnett briefly rue his decision. “We didn’t go on hikes, we went on treks,” he says. “The military would break me for sure.” Hartnett also boned up on Pearl Harbor history and met with survivors of the bombing so he could “play my character as true to life as possible. I mean, you always feel that way about a role, but here you got people who died for their country, people who are genuine heroes.”
Hartnett wasn’t much for hitting the books growing up in St. Paul, but he did stand out. “I remember thinking he was really cute,” says actress Rachael Leigh Cook, who was two years behind him at Minneapolis’s South High School. After graduating in 1996 Hartnett studied acting at the State University of New York at Purchase before being cut from the program his first year. Undaunted, he lit out for L.A., where he nabbed a role in the short-lived ABC crime drama Cracker and became a teen-movie staple in such films as 2000’s Here on Earth and the recent comedy Blow Dry, opposite old schoolmate Cook.
Despite the talk of women swooning, Hartnett—whose previous steadies include hometown sweetheart Kelly Lee Carlson, 24, and Coyote Ugly actress Izabella Miko, 20—will admit only to having a “sometime” girlfriend, who’s not in showbiz. Prospective rivals might have a hard time tracking him down. Hartnett has been so busy making movies, he says, “I don’t live anywhere now.” He is currently spending time in Morocco, where he’s back in uniform to shoot Black Hawk Down, based on the bestselling account of a disastrous Army firefight in Somalia. It is scheduled for release early next year—as is his romantic comedy 40 Days and 40 Nights. After that? Hartnett plans to take a break to travel in Africa and perhaps brush up on his hobby, oil painting. “It relaxes me because it’s just me and the canvas and there’s no right way or wrong way,” he explains. As for stardom, he says, “I’m going to ride this as long as I can and I like it. Fame is temporary, so sooner or later the plane is gonna land.”
Tim Ryan in Honolulu, Michael Fleeman in Los Angeles and Margaret Nelson in St. Paul