Interview: Josh Hartnett Goes to Cartoonish Heights in ‘Bunraku’

By  · Published on September 2nd, 2011

Guy Moshe’s live-action cartoon, Bunraku, lives or dies by its cast. The poppy world Moshe created calls for a specific type of acting, and not an easy one. The film requires a sense of unrealistic cool. Josh Hartnett plays a silent, but suave cowboy, and he has to spout out some dialog you would never hear a normal human being say. With Lucky Number Slevin, The Black Dahlia, and his brief scene in Sin City, Hartnett’s done that style of acting before.

Here, he went about it differently.

Instead of worrying about finding a grounding, as Hartnett says below, he wanted to embrace the odder tonal aspects. It bridges on cheesiness. But when one’s acting against Woody Harrelson cracking jokes or Ron Perlman looking the way he does in the film, it’s understandable that Hartnett would want to fit in with that scenery-chewing gang.

Here’s what the actor had to say about getting heightened dialog off the page, the eccentric tone of Bunraku, and the support of working under a detailed auteur’s eye:

The world of Bunraku is a pretty unique one. When you got the script, did you get a sense of what Moshe was going for?

Actually, I got the script second. First, Guy came out to New York to show me a visual presentation, talk about his influences for the film, and then discuss the archetypes for these characters. After that, he let me read the script. I had been warned and guided into a state of complacency before reading the script. I knew the script was going to be really out there, so that helped a lot in getting a sense of what it was going to be like. I’m guessing if I read the script first, I’d say, “What is this? How the hell are they going to do this film? What are they talking about?” Obviously, it was incredibly ambitious.

So, the script was pretty spare in details?

The script wasn’t as detailed as he was in the presentation. There were explanations for fights in the script that were nonexistent, like, “Here’s a fight!” It didn’t explain much of anything. He got people involved directly, by letting them know what it was going to be and how the fights were going to unfold.

What’s that process like of taking stylized dialog off the page to naturally speaking it? Are there ever cases where it reads great, but when spoken, doesn’t work?

Some scripts read like an instruction manual [Laughs]. There’s not a lot of passion in some. Some are pretty simplistic about it, so that’s where the actors just have to figure out how to do it. In this particular instance, there were some incredibly wordy sequences. For me, I mostly play mute. I didn’t have to worry about that too much.

You’ve worked on films before that require heightened performances. Is it freeing going to those different tonal places, or is it tricky finding a sense of grounding?

In the past I was interested in grounding it, and finding the reality of a situation. Lately, I’ve been more interested in pushing it into more bizarre ways. I’m always looking for things that are totally different, because I get bored with the same old coming out week after week. I like film. I like to watch films. I just find myself watching Netflix, and thinking, you have to go back 20 or 30-years to find more interesting films more often than what’s in the theaters. As far as Sin City, Lucky Number Slevin, or The Black Dahlia goes, I was more sold on the writer-director combos, with what those guys were going to do with the material. In this film, I had to put all my faith in Guy. He had never done anything like this before, but he has incredible knowledge of film history. He referenced a lot of interesting places in film history. He gave me some films I was not all that familiar with. Like, Jean-Pierre Melville’s work. His take was I could use certain things from those films, take all these little things, and stitch them together. It was an interesting way of going about it.

Tonally, if one cast member wasn’t on the same page, the film could have easily fallen apart. Was Guy specific throughout the whole process when it came to the tone he was going for?

He was incredibly specific about what he wanted at every turn. Sometimes a director will hire who they think are the best for the job, and let them have it. Guy hired who he thought was right for the job, then he would tell everybody what they were doing was wrong. To his credit, he had a very thorough vision, and he pulled off what he wanted to achieve. I love someone like that who can make something he wants. I admire that he plowed through it, and did what he wanted in the face of a lot adversity. It was difficult getting this to the screen.

While promoting Resurrecting the Champ, you mentioned how acting is an “incredibly independent” process. For a film like Bunraku, is that still the case? I imagine you’d be playing more off of what other actors are doing, right?

The difference between film acting and stage acting ‐ not that I’m an incredibly versed stage actor, but I’ve been on stage a few times. For theater, you have to be incredibly aware of what everyone else is doing at every moment, because things will change. You want the experience to be organic. There’s never anybody playing exactly the same way day after day. It gets old, stale, and then there’s no life to it. In order to keep that inner-peace alive, you have to be shifting little things. It’s this big, organic mass of people. For film, you’re shooting one person on one day, and then another person another day for the same thing. You have to rely on what you hope they’re going to takeaway from what you’ve done.

I still think it’s incredibly independent. What’s great about working with a director that’s incredibly specific about what they want ‐ you have a partner in crime. You believe he’s going to steer everyone else in that same direction, so you just feel safe. You’ll try something that doesn’t feel right, and you’ll believe what he says is going to work. We were able to come up with new traits for the characters, which weren’t in the script. For example, the character is afraid of heights. The character had to have some levity, because he’s such a downer. Tonally, I was really proud of how the character turned out.

You’ve worked with some perfectionists before, like Ridley Scott. Working under a filmmaker that specific, do you ever feel confined? Can you still get freedom in that type of dynamic?

I only like working with perfectionists. If a person doesn’t have an opinion, then it’s much harder for me to give them what they want. Also, it’s much harder for me to argue what I want with someone that’s not sure about what they want. If you come to a director, and say, “This is the way I see it,” and they say that’s cool, then you come away positive. You have your confidence about how you’re going to go about a scene. Then you come back a day later, “Actually, I think the character is coming from a different place. I was rereading the script, and there was ‘this’ and ‘that’.” If the director again says, “Oh yeah, you’re right,” then you feel like they’re not even paying attention, or maybe they’re just afraid of you. All these things start to come to mind, and you don’t feel supported. I like to work with people who have definite opinions. I find myself having opinions. If the director has an opinion, then you can have a great dialog about where you want the character to go. Usually, everybody’s work gets heightened. Nobody can just sit up on a mountain and decree what every decision should be without the decisions becoming repetitive. I think it’s the directors who are opinionated that force you to stretch.

Bunraku is currently available on VOD and opens in limited release on September 30th.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.