Once upon a time, before skyscrapers, asphalt tracks, and screeching tires, there existed an untamed wilderness where the streets of Brooklyn now lie. It was the beacon of last March, on the rocks of the shore, we met with Hart Denton, 28-year-old actor and musician, unafraid of the brisk bite of winter’s chill. Photographer Emma Craft immortalizes the phantoms of breath that rise from the frozen streets as colourful checks and buoyant motifs, chosen by stylist Angel Emmanuel, call out against the snow.
Hart himself is a force of nature. Opposed to his breakout role as Chic - the dubious, manipulative, impostor-brother of Betty Cooper in teen drama Riverdale, or bully Dean Holbrook in Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, Hart couldn’t be further from these villainous characters. With his natural, authentic charm, there is more than meets the eye as the central storyboard of preparation for these characters hails a sign of Hart’s nature: "a lot of them are on the bad side and I'm not that way in real life," he says. "Before I got Riverdale, I was living out of my car, and didn't have any money at all - it was a really tough time in my life, but I was able to remember a lot of that when I played Chic and understand what it is to have nothing."
The surroundings are utterly disarming as we take a deep dive into Hart’s latest role as Finn Elliott in the upcoming American Cherry - a coming of age tale by Marcella Cytrynowicz - and his own journey from small-town Arkansas to Hollywood. Caught at the tail end, Hart reveals the secret of his persistence: a word that continuously hovered - like the snowflakes in the wind - over our conversation.
Let’s start with the most important question. How are you?
Horrible, I am going insane! I’m quarantining for a TV show and I can't leave this hotel room for 14 days. No, but really I’m good, doing well. Honestly, I'm never bored. I am always busy and have things to work on. Whether I’m reading or writing, or anything really, I’m always doing it with purpose. I also brought Guitar Hero, so I’ve been playing that, which is fun.
What were you up to before this?
I just did a two-month road trip. I drove over 12,000 miles in a big infinity loop of the states. It was a huge move but it was the best trip of my life. COVID-19 gave me that opportunity, so much stuff in LA is shut down and I had this chance to just go out there and be with my thoughts and myself.
Did you have a favourite place?
I love the Jedediah Smith national park, it's gorgeous. They have trees that are 300 feet tall and you can't really wrap your head around it until you're there. It felt like I was walking through Jurassic Park, and there were going to be dinosaurs that popped out! And when I was in Grand Teton National Park with my brother we ran up on some wolves, it was so surreal.
Were you scared?
I was in my car so I wasn't that scared. If I walked up on them I definitely would have been afraid, but they were so docile, showing no aggression at all. It blew my mind. I thought they would growl at us or try to attack, but they seemed really sad because they couldn't find their pack. That broke my heart.
Do you have any phobias?
I don't like spiders. I really don't like how they move, they're just really ominous and terrifying! When I was on this trip, I came upon some tarantulas at different points, and when I see one I'm like 'wow, that's beautiful.' It's the little tiny creepy ones, like black widows. They just look like Satan.
On the other side. What makes you happy?
Connecting with the earth. Nature makes me very happy. That primal connection is something that makes me feel content, at peace, joyful. Cities are nice, and they're cool and fun, but especially taking this trip, being out in the middle of nowhere, just with nature, you feel connected to the earth. As soon as I got off the highway, it felt like I was connected with all my ancestors - it felt like this is what they saw. And then when I started to see cities or asphalt I was like, man, I can't believe they just poured all of this hard cement onto all of these things that are alive, essentially suffocating it. And I guess there are positives to that - quicker transport and travel - but I can't help but feel sad when I see all that now after being so in touch with nature.
Did you have a pivotal moment when you realised that the arts was the path to take?
My parents, who are big fans of Elvis Presley, would take me to Memphis and show me around Graceland and take me to a bunch of blues bars. I was only four years old, but I would dance at these places and put out a hat and be busking. From that moment forward, I was always watching Elvis films and I just knew I wanted to make music and movies.
Your previous roles in Riverdale and 13 Reasons Why deal with quite heavy themes and characters. Have you ever felt like you dive too deep into the character and struggle to come back up for air?
My preparation was always to understand these people and not judge them although a lot of them are on the bad side. I'm not that way in real life so I don't relate to them at all. It would be easy for me to quickly condemn or judge but I wanted to take my time and figure out who these people were. As I played it throughout, especially with Riverdale, I always had in mind where this person came from, and there were a few similarities. Before I got the show, I was living out of my car and didn't have any money at all. It was a really tough time in my life but I was able to remember that when I played Chic and understand what it is to have nothing.
What kept you driving towards your dreams at that time when things were really hard?
Just a belief that there was something bigger and better on the other side, if I kept persevering, kept working, it was going to work out. And there was no doubt in my mind, it was just a matter of when. I was never second-guessing what I was doing or even contemplating giving up.
What would be your advice for somebody that is struggling with self-doubt?
Every human has some amount of self-doubt in them, whatever it is they're doing, but as long as you are putting your best foot forward that can minimise a lot of that doubt. It's when you're not doing enough that the doubt wins the battle. When you are doing everything, above and beyond and you're putting your entire heart into it, it crushes a lot of those doubtful thoughts.
How was it navigating the shift from a country town to Hollywood?
I was excited because I always dreamed of going somewhere grander, somewhere big, somewhere where my opportunities were endless. As I graduated high school I moved to Nashville, Tennessee, which was a great stepping stone to Los Angeles. Nashville was such a good pivotal part of that because if I had just gone to LA it might have been a little overwhelming even though I had wanted that for so long.
You have 1.5 million on Instagram currently. How do you stay grounded?
There's a huge platform for me to express my thoughts on things or try to make even just a small change in the world, and I'm fortunate to have that size of a platform. But at the end of the day, it makes me no different than anyone else. I've always felt I have a great family and they've always kept me in check and made me just feel like Hart. Instagram doesn't make me feel any different than I felt when I was at home in Arkansas.
What has been the biggest challenge in your career?
I guess the beginning was the most challenging for sure when I was driving around doing Postmates and not knowing what I was going to eat next. That was definitely the most humbling time but it taught me to appreciate everything beyond that. The industry is difficult, and it's obviously tough - but the fact that I started in such a low place, all of this is incredible. Even when I don't have an audition for a few weeks, or I don't book something for a few months, it's never as tough as it was when I was starving.
On the flip side, what has been the proudest moment in your career?
I'm proud of it as a whole. I wouldn't say there's been one particular moment yet. There's so much I'm still striving for and I haven't let off the gas at all. So I would say that moment is still to come.
It's exciting, though, isn't it? Never being completely ready.
The future is both terrifying and exciting, but I embrace it.
Talking about the future, you are starring in a new movie, American Cherry, that is coming out soon.
I'm very excited about that one. It's definitely the most acting that I've done for one project. It's a wild film. It has a lot of edge and darkness to it. But a lot of love as well. It touches a lot on mental health, and how different people cope with it, and their process. I learned a lot from the film just from that. And my dear friend Marcella, who wrote and directed the movie, was a pure joy to work with. And also one of our producers, Hannah Griffis, was amazing to work with. It was cool to be back in Arkansas where my family lives, I was only two hours away from my family so they were able to come see me shoot on set for the first time.
The movie follows the journey of a teenage girl in a suburban town and her struggles to find her identity. Growing up in Arkansas yourself, what was your experience of the change from a child, to a teenager, and to adulthood?
I definitely relate to growing up in a small place with people who don't necessarily understand you. I loved the arts so much and that was a little bit taboo in my town, there wasn't a huge community for that. My mother would take me to the local college in the town and put me in the plays with college students, and being around them, I felt more accepted than I did with any of the kids my age. A lot of the kids my age just played sports, and it was fun but because I had that love of arts, there was something a little off about me to them. And I could always feel that.
What would your advice be to your teenage-self if you met that guy now?
Relax and trust the process. There were times that I did get a little ahead of myself and a little worried or concerned or stressed. A little bit of stress is good because it motivates you to work really hard but I wish I could go back and just say: 'hey, relax it's going to be okay. Just work hard.’
What is your favourite thing about Finn Elliott, your character in American Cherry?
His carefree spirit. He definitely has some demons that he fights with but he just flows throughout the film and goes wherever he wants to go. He doesn't have any rules. He just does whatever he wants - for good or bad. But there's something nice, that carefree sense of relief or sense of release from things that trap you.
Did you learn to relax more through the character?
It made me realise that my problems aren't as bad as this guy's, with some of the demons that he fights in his head. I saw how intense he can get with things and his anger problems. It definitely made me analyse a lot of my own demons and put things in check.
Do you have a favourite scene in the movie?
There are so many beautiful moments throughout this film, I don't even know if it's necessarily my scene that is my favourite one. There's a river scene which is beautiful.
Now I have to see it to spot it! But what do you think about the circumstances of the release?
I was really looking forward to going the festival route. The film was supposed to go to Sundance and I was always looking forward to that because I've never been to a film festival. I didn't want to go to one until I had a film in it. And then because of COVID-19, that all got put aside but I would rather it come out digitally than not come out at all.
What is one of the biggest positive lessons that you've learned from last year?
To appreciate the earth, for sure. When I left for my two-month road trip, everything was put in perspective. It was about meeting people in very small, obscure towns in the middle of nowhere. These people that live out in the middle of nowhere, the Earth is still the earth and they live off of the earth. It was really comforting to see that we don't need all of these things - it's fun to have all of these places to go to dinners, bars, clubs, and music venues - but these people are satisfied with just living off the earth.
You released your first single Inside Me last summer. Where do you draw the inspiration for your music?
I grew up loving Elvis. That was my first inspiration. And then it was Nirvana. I got my hands on the MTV Unplugged set that they did in '94 when I was very young, and I've watched it over and over and over as a kid. It's the type of tone that I wanted to have. 'Inside Me' was the first song that I felt lining up with those same sound waves and I was really excited to put that out and show what my head sounds like.
What can we expect from the music-related future?
I recently collaborated with an artist that I really like - but I can't say his name yet! And while I'm here in Canada, I'll be working with my buddy KJ APA on some music and our buddy Rob Rocco. The three of us met through Riverdale and we've recorded about 10 songs over the summer during quarantine together and we'll be recording more while I'm here.
It sounds like Spring is actually looking quite exciting for you! With all of this, what would you like your legacy to be?
My legacy? Oh gosh, I don't know. I am only 27. But you know, I hope I could make the transition easier for people who live in areas where maybe they're not supported, or they feel like no one is there for them. I hope to show that somewhere, there's someone like them and there are people who care about who that person is. And just because you're stuck in an area where people don't get you or understand you, doesn't mean you have to be there forever. And you just view it as a time that's temporary. I hope that I'm a beacon in that sense of getting out of situations that you don't necessarily love being born into.