PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii (AP) -- Josh Hartnett sighs, shakes his head and laughs at yet another mention of that word.
"Heartthrob," he says. It won't sink in. "I'm not prepared at all. I just tend not to think about it."
But reminders of Hartnett's new status were everywhere ahead of the release Friday of the $135 million blockbuster "Pearl Harbor," in which he co-stars with Ben Affleck and Kate Beckinsale.
The boyishly handsome Minnesotan, who plays fictional Army fighter pilot Danny Walker, was pictured on a 30-foot-high promotional poster on the USS John C. Stennis aircraft carrier, where the movie premiered Monday.
"It's weird to see your face about as big as the rest of your body," he says. "But when it comes down to it, it's one of those things that I'll remember for a long time, so why not?"
Director Michael Bay says Hartnett almost didn't pass the audition.
"He was the first guy through the door, and I'm like, 'I could never hire the first guy through the door.' He was this grunge kid from Minnesota," Bay says. "As soon as I screen-tested him, I knew. I got so excited, I called (producer Jerry Bruckheimer) on the phone. I said, 'Jerry, this guy is awesome."'
The explosive epic is Hartnett's biggest film so far, by a long shot. At 22, his credits include last year's critically acclaimed drama "The Virgin Suicides," the teen romance "Here on Earth," the black comedy "Blow Dry" and his feature film debut, the 1998 horror flick "Halloween: H20."
In "Pearl Harbor," his character and Affleck's fall in love with the same nurse (Beckinsale) in the months leading up to the attack.
When Hartnett's agent called to tell him he was going to be offered a part in "Pearl Harbor," he turned to his father, Dan, for advice, driving across the Mississippi River from his home in Minneapolis to his parents' place in St. Paul.
"I didn't really want it to change my life all that much. I was living a pretty good life," Hartnett says. "Everybody says, 'What are you talking about? You're an actor! Of course you want to be big in things.' But that's not always true, because it can be a hindrance."
"We talked it out for about an hour while we washed the car," he says. "He's one of the more perceptive people I know. He said, 'Fame can be temporary. You can always quit and leave, and fame will go away faster than you could expect. But regret can be permanent. You might not want to face that."'
Hartnett began acting in high school after an injured knee knocked him off the football team and he auditioned for a play.
"It grabbed me more than I grabbed onto it," he says.
The oldest of four children, he attended State University of New York in Purchase for eight months before he was offered a role in the short-lived TV series "Cracker."
At first, Bay saw Hartnett in the role of Walker's brash pilot buddy, Rafe McCawley. But that role eventually went to Affleck, a veteran of the Bay-Bruckheimer blockbuster "Armageddon."
Hartnett says he wasn't disappointed.
"Danny's a little bit more thoughtful -- a little more my speed."
To prepare, he, Affleck and several other cast members went through an abbreviated Army boot camp at Schofield Barracks in north-central Oahu.
"We were there for about four or five days and it felt like seven, eight, nine years," he says. "They were supposed to break us down and then build us up again like they do in the Army. They didn't have time to build us back up. They broke us down and said, 'Go, make a movie. Have fun."'
"It helped me gain some respect for the people that actually go through it, because I'm from a pretty liberal background," says the actor, who will play a soldier again in his next project, "Black Hawk Down," another Bruckheimer production.
"I'm totally anti-war, and I didn't understand why anybody would be in the military. I went to this and I said, 'They work harder than most people I've ever met, so I respect that."'
Even more helpful in preparing was listening to firsthand accounts of Pearl Harbor veterans, Hartnett says. He was most struck by the fact that the men were three or four years younger than he is now when they went through the experience.
"I read a couple of books beforehand and they taught me nothing in comparison to these guys," he said. "You just watch them. You sit and talk to them. You look into their eyes, and they tell the story. It was everything that I needed to make this role. It came from them."
On the Net:
Movie Web site: www.pearlharbor.com
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