updated 04/30/2014 AT 11:00 AM ET
•originally published 04/30/2014 AT 2:00 PM ET
But instead of signing on to the long list of films being offered to him at the height of his success, Hartnett escaped from the spotlight and retreated back to his hometown – and old friends – in Minnesota.
“So I went back to Minnesota and got back together with my old friends – ended up getting back together with my high school girlfriend for a while – and I didn’t do any filming for 18 months.”
His decision to turn down defining roles – among them Spider-Man and Batman – didn’t sit well with his team, and Hartnett soon parted ways with his agents.
“I didn’t want to be labeled as Superman for the rest of my career,” he says. “I was maybe 22, but I saw the danger.”
Despite his hiatus, Hartnett wasn’t ready to say goodbye to Hollywood forever. He eventually returned to the movie industry and starred in as many as 10 independent films – only to realize the buzz he had once created had died down.
“None of them landed with an audience,” he says. “There were a lot of times – too many times – when people would come up to me and say, ‘Oh, I saw August on DVD,’ or ‘I saw Lucky Number Slevin on Showtime.’ They’d be like, ‘Such a good movie – what happened to it? Why didn’t it come out?’ ”
The actor decided to “take a different tack and try something else” by signing on to Penny Dreadful, a series about iconic monsters living in Victorian London. “When I see a role now, I’ve got to fight for it. It’s not bad. It’s actually more rewarding,” Hartnett says. “Depressing when something doesn’t go your way, but only for a minute.”
And if the superhero offers were to land in his lap once again, Hartnett is ready with an answer. “I’d say, ‘Let’s talk about how it would be done, see if we can get on the same page.’ Compromise doesn’t scare me anymore,” he says.