The Fear Index's Josh Hartnett is done talking about the past

The Fear Index spoilers follow, but they're pretty minor.

Josh Hartnett's career is defined by fear, but not in the way you might think.

"When I see something I'm afraid of, I usually am drawn to doing it," says Josh. "Even though the industry doesn't necessarily prize this, I've always been interested in experimentation, and seeing how far I can push things in a different direction."

This approach has led Hartnett to his latest project, which is rather aptly titled The Fear Index. Based on a techno-thriller written by Robert Harris, this adaptation follows Josh in the role of Dr Alex Hoffman, a tech genius who "experiences a waking nightmare of the worst 24 hours of his life," as Sky TV puts it.

On the surface, this might not seem hugely removed from the genre work that Hartnett has done before, but there's a lot more going on here than meets the eye, both in terms of this specific narrative, and also the difficulties that Josh faced off-camera too.

"It's always been a challenge to push myself into corners that I don't quite understand at the beginning of the process, trying to figure out what it's about that intrigues me," says Hartnett.

Of course, the novel itself was a big draw to this project. "What I found really amazing about this book is that, yes, it's a thriller; yes, it's steeped in the psychology of the character; and, yes, it's based on Frankenstein. But it seems like it's trying to investigate a time and place that is modern and current in a very historical sense."

"You get this overview of three different sections of modern life," Josh continues. "One is money, one is family, and one is science, and then, they overlap. I just thought the book was extraordinary."

There's a lot of ground to cover here, which is why initial attempts to make a film out of The Fear Index fell through. "There's just too much in the story to cut it to two hours." But a ten-episode series wouldn't have worked either.

To keep the book's breakneck pace intact, a decision was made to cover the story in just four episodes. "We definitely didn’t want to have any filler in there," says Josh. "There's no wasted time." Which can only be a plus, in theory, although this then created some new issues to contend with.

"Because it's divided into four hours, I think the pressure for David [Caffrey] and Nuala [O'Leary] and the other producers was to create something that will have that four-act arc where you leave people excited at the end, asking a bunch of questions of each episode, and then coming back, which is not inherently in the books."

Flashbacks from the book were also cut to help achieve this. "We wanted to be able to create the character relationships, and make them as real as possible without having to allude to how they met, and what they've gone through in the past."

On top of that, Josh tells us that budgetary restrictions inspired a few changes from the source material too. "So there are lots of changes that had to take place, but hopefully, none of them compromised the story. It is a fairly faithful depiction," Hartnett adds. "It's faithful in its intent."

That's good news for the millions of Robert Harris fans out there. But does Josh feel any pressure when it comes to these big fandom expectations? "I absolutely feel pressure to try to live up to the book. I mean, I was a fan of it before the show even existed."

Hartnett tells us that he's rarely "starstruck" by people, but he is by writers – "I find authors to be the most intriguing people in the world" – which means that he has a particularly "great reverence for the material" if it's based on a book.

"When I was able to meet Robert Harris, just over Zoom like this, I was a little… I was almost dumb. Like, I couldn't speak."

Photo credit: Sky
Photo credit: Sky

This reverence for both the author and his words is evident throughout our chat, and also in the tough filming process that Hartnett went through to even make this show happen.

When asked if he found it hard to unwind after shooting all day, Josh reveals that filming The Fear Index was almost as intense as his character's nightmare experience on screen. Well, not quite. But it was still a lot, by anyone's standards.

"I think we shot for about eight weeks. 10 weeks at the most," recalls Hartnett. "So we had to shoot, sometimes, seven or eight pages a day. I didn't have a personal life. I'd get up very early; I'd get in the car; I'd go to work; I'd start shooting; I'd come home; I'd eat some dinner; I'd work on my work for the next day; I'd go in and do it again.

"So we really didn't have time off over the course of filming this. There just wasn't anything to do. So there was no personal life. I didn't switch off much. We were fully engaged, almost the whole time."

Thankfully, everyone was in it together on set. "Behind the scenes, I loved working with these actors. Grég [Montel], Arsher [Ali], Leila [Farzad], they were all really professional, obviously, but just very intelligent, very smart, very kind people, and a lot of fun. We had to have some fun in the course of this intense filmmaking process.

"On Sundays, I would decompress with the other cast, because we couldn’t see anybody else due to lockdown. And we'd have a couple of glasses of wine, or some food, and would just discuss the show. There was a sense of us being in it together... we knew how much we had to do in such a short period of time, so we had to really bolster each other, and keep each other afloat."

But even with that support, Josh maintains that The Fear Index was "the hardest job" he's ever done, "based purely on the fact that it was so much work in a short period of time."

"It was very intense," Hartnett adds, "because this character is losing his mind, and we shot it out of order. I had to find a way to map the whole thing, and give myself an arc that made sense so that it works; so you believe that he's going through something in linear time."

When you take into account everything Josh has starred in – from those early slasher movies and big war-movie hits to the gothic horror of Penny Dreadful, not to mention his new Guy Ritchie film – it says a lot that The Fear Index is still his "hardest job" to date.

Photo credit: Sky
Photo credit: Sky

And given that Josh briefly removed himself from big-budget Hollywood back in the day, we couldn't help but wonder what he's doing to cope with the intensity of roles like this now in comparison. Before discussing the present, however, Hartnett wanted to clear some things up first:

"You know, I've answered these questions about leaving the industry. I left the industry for about 18 months to go back to Minnesota and spend some time with my friends and family, because I’ve been working since I was 18 years old. And I missed them.

"But I've talked about this so much that I feel like it's just lost its way. I've made some jokes about things because I've talked about it so much, that I've lost interest in the conversation myself. I've made some jokes, and those become headlines.

"It's all anybody seems to want to… they want to paint me with this brush. The internet seems to want to say that I had it all, and somehow I'm crazy to have left it or something. That's not exactly what happened.

"I've talked about it ad nauseam. So I feel like I'd rather focus on what's happening now, which I think is great, and just sort of leave that stuff. It's been 15 years I've been answering these questions. I feel like, at this point, it's out there. There's been a lot written about it."

Moving onto the present, Josh says, "For me, what's happening now is the most intriguing part of my life. I'm different now than I was when I was in my early 20s and teens. I'm in my 40s, and very happily in my 40s. I have a great family, and I'm working with some of the best directors in Hollywood."

"I'm just going to keep plugging away," adds Hartnett. "I feel very lucky to have worked in this industry for 25 years, and I've never had a point in it where I've been desperate, you know? It's very unusual and very lucky."

That's particularly impressive given some of the gambles that Josh has taken over the years. But thanks to this approach, this willingness to push past the fear, Hartnett has shaped a career to be proud of, and one that we're lucky to be a part of too, even if it's just by watching shows like The Fear Index through our fingers on the couch back home.

The Fear Index is available to watch on Sky Atlantic and NOW Thursday from 10 February.

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