Josh Hartnett in Penny Dreadful
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Credit: Showtime

Josh Hartnett achieves peak werewolf hotness in Penny Dreadful

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Oct 8, 2020, 6:00 PM EDT

What comes to mind when you think of the phrase "peak hotness"? In most cases, it seems to be a commonly agreed-upon moment when the Internet collectively looks at an actor who has reached the zenith of their attractiveness potential and says, "Ah yes, more of this, please." Regardless of personal preference, of the particular traits that make an individual more aesthetically appealing to some over others — there have been plenty of instances where we have all shed our respective differences and come together as a whole, unified in our thirst, to acknowledge that peak hotness has been achieved.

Of course, some actors peak at one distinctive point over the course of their career — Anson Mount, for example, started out as Britney Spears' swoony love interest in Crossroads, played a grimy soldier-type on Hell on Wheels, but it arguably wasn't until his latest turn as Captain Christopher Pike on Star Trek: Discovery and the later-announced spin-off Star Trek: Strange New Worlds that the Internet seemed to finally come to terms with his Space Daddy potential. Contrary to that, however, are the thirst objects who seem to peak several times over; Oscar Isaac gave us plenty to swoon over throughout his tenure as Poe Dameron in the Star Wars sequel trilogy, but when Isaac debuted major salt-and-pepper beard energy as Duke Leto Atreides in the upcoming Dune remake, it was clear he had achieved the rare multi-peak level of hotness with a look drastically different from his previous big-name character in genre.

Which brings us to Josh Hartnett.

Credit: Getty Images/NBC

The '90s were an era rife with teen heartthrobs. Actors like Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Freddie Prinze Jr., and Devon Sawa were responsible for a generation of millennial awakenings, posing for photoshoots that wound up in the pages of magazines like Tiger Beat, YM, and Seventeen — publications that catered exclusively to a young teen audience who were just a little too young for print mags aimed at their more adult counterparts. And Josh Hartnett's career kicked off right in the heyday of teenage girls who were carefully tearing out the glossy photoshoot pages from certain issues to tape their favorite and most swoonworthy faces to their bedroom ceiling or door. His first starring film roles, which premiered in 1998, were both horror movies — Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later, a sequel to the Halloween franchise (that has since been relegated to non-canonical status thanks to the release of 2018's Halloween reboot-quel), where he played the son of Jamie Lee Curtis' Laurie Strode, and The Faculty, a teen sci-fi horror flick written by Kevin Williamson and directed by Robert Rodriguez.

But even early on, Hartnett's career choices were distinguished from a lot of his peers floating in that same heartthrob sphere of the late nineties/early aughts. He might have been voted one of Teen People magazine's "21 Hottest Stars Under 21" in 1999, but while fellow actors like DiCaprio were starring as one-half of the titular star-crossed lovers in Baz Luhrmann's Technicolor reinterpretation of Romeo + Juliet, Hartnett opted for a modern twist on Othello instead, and instead of a love interest, playing main antagonist Hugo (or Iago) in the 2001 film O directed by Tim Blake Nelson. For every sentimental romantic drama on his early filmography — he warred against Chris Klein for a dying Leelee Sobieski's heart in Here on Earth — he was also cast in more melancholic and courageous films like writer-director Sofia Coppola's feature debut, a big-screen adaptation of The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides. He also famously turned down the role of Superman around the same time, citing his lack of enthusiasm about a multi-year commitment long before the Marvel Cinematic Universe was even a twinkle in Kevin Feige's eye.

Of course, there were the obligatory war dramas, the Black Hawk Downs and the Pearl Harbors, but heading into the mid-2000s, Hartnett seemed to lean more into crime and thriller as a means of switching things up — and most likely an attempt to cast off his moniker as a teen fantasy idol. Hollywood Homicide, with Harrison Ford. Wicker Park, with Rose Byrne and Diane Kruger. The Black Dahlia, in which he starred opposite then-girlfriend Scarlett Johansson. Lucky Number Slevin. Yet most of these were critically panned, as if the general consensus seemed to be that the actor who was once right there in the mix, was starting to stall out in search of the role that would allow him to shine the way he truly deserved. Chances are you might have trouble listing the title of a film Hartnett featured in beyond this point, and that says a lot all on its own — but from the sounds of things, it was always on his own terms. A months-long break from acting here, a decision to go on sabbatical there.

And then a show called Penny Dreadful premiered on Showtime in 2014.

The title of the horror-drama created and largely written by John Logan refers to the cheap, sensational, and wildly popular serials published in the U.K. during the 19th-century — stories about detectives, notorious criminals, and supernatural creatures. Logan, however, made his series the backdrop to host reinterpretations of some of the most famous characters from classic horror literature, from Dracula to Dorian Gray to Frankenstein and the Creature to Jekyll and Hyde. Hartnett was cast to play Ethan Chandler (born Ethan Lawrence Talbot), an American sharpshooter and former cavalryman on the run from a mysterious past who crosses paths with the enigmatic Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) and her friend Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) as they investigate the disappearance of Malcolm's daughter Mina in connection with a strange creature. From the moment Hartnett and Green are first on-screen together, their chemistry is instantaneous and undeniable — and the romance between their characters would serve as one of the show's strongest undercurrents throughout its three-season run.

But the role on Penny Dreadful allowed Hartnett to display a level of talent that perhaps some audiences may not have even known he was capable of. As Ethan Chandler, he offers a brash and cocky exterior that, as we soon come to discover, cloaks the true vulnerability of the man — and the existence of the monster — deep within. Given his role within an already-impressive ensemble cast consisting of strong performers like Dalton, Billie Piper, and Rory Kinnear, he proves more than able to command the room with a keen perceptiveness, even if his character is merely listening to someone else speak. And yet Ethan is also not the classic Wolf-Man archetype, who shifts into a rabid extension of unchecked masculinity intent on destroying everything in its path. When he spends a night on the town with Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) that culminates in him going to the immortal man's home, the subsequent catharsis of emotion he experiences at the sound of a beautiful piece of music, recalling the trauma of his past in the process, is enough to move him to tears before the two sleep together. His slow-burning romantic tension with Vanessa is an indication that he is far from the alpha male, but someone who refrains from initiating intimacy with her for fear of potentially deadly consequences. When she finally witnesses him in his shifted werewolf form, he instantly recognizes her familiar scent in spite of his bloodlust, choosing to flee from her rather than risk hurting her when he can't control his urges.

Credit: Showtime

The reason, ultimately, that Ethan Chandler turned out to be the role best-suited for Josh Hartnett — and at that point in his career, especially — was because it gave him the opportunity to dive into the full breadth of his capabilities as an actor. Gone was the young object of teenage infatuation; in its place was the rugged American cowboy who bore subtle resemblances to the Hollywood gunslingers of old, the conventional "tough guy" who wasn't that tough at all on the inside. It was a part that enabled him to play both the ill-fated romantic hero who has to lose the girl to save the world and a twist on the classic movie monster, and all of the intricacies that come from merging the two halves into one complex character.

Well, that, and it gave all of us watching the absolute majesty of Hartnett aggressively taking off a bowler hat to expose his flowing locks of hair, thereby cementing his legacy of peak hotness within these three remarkable seasons of prestige television.

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