By Emily Beirne // Photos courtesy of Hart and Chrissy Denton
From the high school stage to the small screen to the big screen, Hart Denton has starred in popular shows Riverdale and 13 Reasons Why and is about to make a big debut in the movie American Cherry, filmed in his home state of Arkansas. If you find this information a surprise, you’re probably not alone. He’s one of the most accomplished young actors to come through Arkansas in recent history, and most, unfortunately, have no idea of his fame or his roots. Nor, as his mom would proudly boast, his heart.
Born in Little Rock and raised in Conway, Hart has fond memories of growing up. His parents, Chrissy and Craig Denton, in the midst of law school and their 20s, were the first of their friend group to have a kid. As Hart puts it with a laugh, “They didn’t let that stop them from living their lives.” Hart recalls going to concerts with his parents and their friends at Juanita’s in Little Rock, hanging out like he was another one of the adults despite being on the earth for only three to four years, and becoming fully immersed in the artistic culture that would stick with him to this day. “They loved the arts. They loved music. They loved movies. They were very involved in anything artistic.”
The first major concert he attended, next to the Goo Goo Dolls, was a KISS concert in 1999. “There’s a video somewhere of me just dead asleep at this KISS concert in the fifth row,” Hart laughs. “There’s blasting pyrotechnics, gigantic flames that you can feel the heat of through the video, but I’m just dead asleep, could not care less.”
His outfit and makeup for the KISS concert are one of many Chrissy creations. Halloween was an important time of year in the Denton household as costumes were designed, faces painted, and cameras were always on. “She would plan weeks ahead and make the costumes herself,” Hart says. “One year, I was the Tin Man and every inch of my skin was covered in silver paint. My dad had put the camera on a tripod and let it run for hours while I’m getting makeup done, sitting completely still next to a mirror. You can see in the video how thrilled I am with the whole process. At one point in the video my mom says, ‘You’re doing so good in the makeup chair, you may be a little actor someday,’ and I’m four or five at this point, so it’s ironic.”
The mom, lawyer and costume designer herself laughs at this memory. “He was so unlike other kids his age,” Chrissy says fondly. “Any other child would be squirming or whining sitting in a chair that long, but no, he would look at himself in the mirror and say, ‘Wow, I look amazing,’ and just completely thrilled with all of it. One year, he was Lumiere from Beauty and the Beast. He held his arms up like a candelabra the entire night, never breaking character. This is how you know he’s meant to do what he’s doing. It’s always been in him.”
As the Denton family grew, the art didn’t stop. Costumes became matched or themed to correspond with one another, and each child grew up with the support of pursuing their interests. Modeling for the Dentons began as child shoots with Dillard’s and some other companies, and Hart stuck with it up until he left for college. “I’m not a momager at all; I never wanted to make my kids do something they didn’t want to do,” Chrissy explains. “Haze, Hart’s younger brother, for instance, told me one day that he didn’t want to model anymore, and I said, ‘OK, that’s perfectly fine.’ Hart though, I would tell him there’s a job at this place or that, and he’d say, ‘Let’s go.’”
High school can be a difficult time for students trying to figure out where they fit in and what they should be doing. Hart, having been raised in an artistic culture and genuinely interested in pursuing the arts, also found himself in the sports sector. Hart played a number of sports through the years from soccer to baseball to basketball — he enjoyed the competition. “I’m a competitive person, and sports allowed me to feed into that,” Hart says. “But when I was there playing sports for essentially myself, there were others who didn’t understand why I would want to be interested in other things, that I didn’t just want to do sports. That’s where I dealt with a bit of misunderstanding with me, and unfortunately, there weren’t many other kids who I could relate to. Nobody could understand why I would want to do sports and arts simultaneously, and I hope that culture changes.”
Chrissy says that Hart took a break from the arts due to students not being able to understand his passion. “There’s a gap in his mid-years where he was pretty much just this ‘normal’ teenager living in a box. He still walked to the beat of his own drum, his fashion was always a step ahead of the other kids, but most of his art was done in private,” she says.
Despite the pushback, there was always something different about him. His mother says that he had a focus and passion that other students didn’t have. Rather than staying out late and hanging out with friends, Hart was always writing music or doing something creative and productive. “I had a band in middle school and high school with some guys in Conway. We would play at small local places,” Hart says.
Chrissy sets up a scene with Hart sitting on a stool with a guitar, singing in a coffee shop. “He was cooler than other kids his age. He was doing something. He’s always doing something,” Chrissy says.
His first acting performance as a teenager was with Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre as Benjamin in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Chrissy recalls that a Benjamin had been cast, but something happened, and they called Hart to come audition. “This was the summer before his senior year of high school. He’d been in performances as a child, but it’d been a while since he’d been on a stage in this setting, as an actor, and he loved it,” Chrissy says. “AJ Spiridigliozzi, the high school drama teacher, was at the performance and saw something in Hart. He took a chance and reached out to Hart to audition for the high school musical. Hart auditioned and was cast as Link in Hairspray.” She refers to Hart as the local Hannah Montana as he tried to live a double life doing what everyone expected of him while at the same time doing what he wanted to do. “He set the tone in our house for the younger three kids. He always tells them to do what makes them happy and to not live by other people’s standards.”
Hart chose to attend Belmont University in Nashville, which he believes was the perfect stepping stone for his ultimate move to Los Angeles. “Nashville was amazing, I love Nashville,” Hart says. “It’s a bigger city than any found in Arkansas, so I was able to adjust and understand what it’s like living in the city.
At Belmont, he studied acting, finance and anything useful he could take with him to LA. “He really did plan it out perfectly for himself,” Chrissy laughs. “Looking at his transcript, it’s obvious he knew what he was doing and what his goal was.”
The Denton family is close, so Hart’s departure was difficult and bittersweet. “The day after we dropped him off at Belmont, I had to take my youngest to her first day of Kindergarten. It felt like someone had punched me in the stomach,” Chrissy says with emotion still present in her voice after all these years. “When we got home from work and school that day, Hart texted and told us to look in the linen closet. I kid you not, this boy had written each member of the family a two-page letter and made CDs with songs that reminded him of each person. That’s just who Hart is — that’s how thoughtful he’s always been. People don’t believe me that this 27-year-old has never talked back to me or had an attitude. He’s so genuine.”
In 2014, Hart decided to leave Nashville and make the big move to LA. His parents supported him fully, even if they didn’t want him so far away. “We always knew he’d go off and do big things, but we miss him,” Chrissy says, going on to add that his move was the hardest on his youngest sibling. “He and Gray are kindred spirits. They have the same drive, the same grit.”
Hart also misses his family immensely, but he knows that the move was right for him. “I needed to see a bigger part of the world and find more opportunities. I call my family every day and FaceTime them. They mean everything to me,” Hart says.
Going from Arkansas to Tennessee to California, Hart has experienced a lot of change, but one thing he always finds in open space. “As soon as I landed in LA and actually stepped out into the city, I was amazed by how open it was. It’s not like New York where you can’t see past any of the buildings, there’s a good blend of nature and city to feel comfortable,” Hart explains. He didn’t have a lot of money when he first arrived in the city. He found a job to get him by, lived in an apartment he describes as the size of a closet and found auditions where he could. He was in a show called Lethal Weapon for a few episodes, found a few modeling jobs and delivered for Postmates. He says that he learned to eat smart on only a few dollars a day and he managed for a while. “You can go out and explore anywhere if you’re willing to live frugally. You may have to sacrifice in certain areas and not live so glamorously, but it’s doable.”
Leading up to his big break, Hart found himself in a rut. “For two and a half years, I had been doing odd gigs here and there and picking up jobs where I could,” Hart says. “The year before I landed Riverdale, I was living out of my car. The day of the audition, it was a terrible day — weird things were happening and I just was not in a great mindset. I had gone to FedEx to print off the script, and my card declined. I had 50 cents in my account and couldn’t even print off a few pages. So I knew right then that I would have to memorize these pages verbatim. I went into the audition, blanked halfway through, started over and did it again. It just didn’t feel great at all. I went back to my car, delivered some Postmates for a while and felt like I was in a chaotic place. I needed to go home.” He flew back to Arkansas and regrouped for a few days. “I was at home deciding what I wanted to do, what wasn’t working, how to fix it, and then I got the call that I had the role. I flew back to LA that night, flew out to Vancouver the next day, and was there for the next eight or nine months.”
Chrissy remembers the day that Hart flew home after his audition, and she especially remembers the hug they shared. “He felt so thin, and I asked him if he was doing okay,” she says. “Just like I knew he would, he said with a reassuring smile, ‘I’m fine, mama. I’m doing good.’ We didn’t know that he had been living out of his car. He never wants anyone to worry about him. I just think about his determination to make it and to make it on his own; the courage he had in moving there by himself, figuring out how to survive and doing it all on his own. His grit and strength of character are what got him through it. The word ‘courage’ keeps coming to my mind when I think about how scared he must have felt at times, but he kept going. I just wish he would have told us that he was living in his car.” She finishes the latter statement with a motherly huff but then laughs at her son’s determination. “He’s always wanted to make his own way, and he did.”
Hart credits his upbringing for his ability to be on his own in an unfamiliar place. “My parents didn’t shelter me, I was pretty desensitized at an early age to what’s going on in the world,” Hart says. “They didn’t try to hide anything; if I had questions they would answer them. I can remember watching the news with them as a kid instead of watching cartoons. I’ve just always been aware.”
Chrissy laughs when she hears that Hart used the word “desensitized.” “That’s the truest statement in the world. Craig and I didn’t want to keep anything from our kids or have them grow up not knowing a lot of things. This confuses a lot of people, but that’s what we thought was best for our kids. We wanted them to be strong in themselves, strong in their faith. We didn’t want them to live according to what other people said, but by what they knew.”
Hart’s relationship with his parents and siblings is special. Chrissy says that Hart has the oldest child syndrome in that he’s driven, but he also drives his siblings to be the best. “He’s always telling them to be themselves and be happy in what they’re doing. He’s a real motivator,” she laughs. Chrissy says that in turn, Hart also gets support from his siblings. “He’ll call our second oldest and say, ‘Hey, I need you,’ and she’ll drop everything to fly out to LA and be with him when he’s stressed. [The kids] each have their own passions, and he’s proud of all of them.”
Hart recently got a tattoo in honor of his mother. When she was pregnant with him and raising him, she was working 50-plus hours and going to law school, so he had the lady justice figure tattooed over his heart for her. “I didn’t know he was going to do that, and it’s so special. He’s always surprising me,” Chrissy says.
Hart’s two worlds collided when the movie American Cherry was filmed in Arkansas and he was cast as one of the leads. “The movie was originally set to be filmed in the Dominican Republic, but something changed, and we couldn’t film there anymore. Next thing I know, I’m being told that they found a place in Arkansas, of all places, to film the movie. I said to the director of the movie, who I was friends with, ‘Marcella, I’m from there. No one films movies in Arkansas.’ But we did. We were in Fayetteville shooting this movie, I lived in a loft above some train tracks for about a month and a half, and it was so surreal to be back in my home state and doing what I love.”
Hart’s family was able to drive up and watch him act for the first time since his theater days. “I loved having my family there with me. They had never seen me like this before, so it was great to finally be able to share that part of my life with them,” Hart says.
His mom has only good memories from this experience. “Everyone on the set was so nice. Any kind of sound can disrupt the recording, so while Hart was filming scenes in the woods where leaves can crunch, we got to watch him through a screen back at the set,” Chrissy says, and then laughs at a particular memory from that trip. “There are some shirtless scenes of Hart, and after the scene ended he would just walk around without his shirt on, which in Arkansas is completely normal — you see guys walking around without shirts all the time. But the other people on set not from Arkansas were like, ‘What are you doing? Put your shirt on!’ And he said, ‘Don’t worry about it, I’m from here, this is what we do.’”
American Cherry has won a few awards already and a trailer has been released for the movie, which is still listed as being in post-production. The movie was filmed a couple of years ago, so the official release has been long-awaited. “I’m excited for everyone to see it. The cinematography in it is beautiful,” Hart says.
Recently, Hart has channeled his early days of creating art and is now making music. He released a single titled “Inside Me” and released another song with best friend and Riverdale co-star KJ Apa called “Atmosphere.”
“I’ve found a healthy balance in my career. I thoroughly enjoy where I’m at right now with acting and my music,” Hart says. “I feel like I have the ability to do both, so I’m going to do both.”
He and Apa are completing a full album together that has rock influences.
Chrissy is thrilled that her son is happy where he is in life, as she says that’s all a mother can want. “I’m so excited for him and where he’s heading. I do, however, wish that Arkansas noticed him a bit more,” she says. Chrissy explains that through software, Hart can see demographics of where his listeners are from and which areas support him the most. “Florida is really high on the list of fans. We’ll be on vacation in Florida, and he’s always getting in and out of the pool to take pictures with fans. Arkansas, sadly, is pretty low. It’s just kind of sad that the state he’s from doesn’t really know him.”
Hart moved to LA around seven years ago, and most of the coverage on his career has been outside of the state. Publications like Teen Vogue, Icon, and countless other celebrity-centered magazines have covered the LA version of Denton, but not many people know his whole story. “I love my state, I love the people in it, but we can start supporting a wider range of people that are skilled and from the state,” Chrissy urges. “We tend to be oblivious to what’s going on outside, but there’s so much more to celebrate.”
Hart is supportive of anyone looking for opportunities to live out their passions. He used to be in that same position, writing music alone at his family home, performing in coffee shops and bowling alleys, and acting on a high school stage. He encourages anyone that wants to do something to just do it.
“Find whatever it is that you think about every day, that you wake up thinking about and you go to sleep thinking about. Find what eats up your mind all day long and you love doing. Don’t half-ass whatever it is that you find yourself obsessed with; be all in with it,” Hart says. “When it consumes you and it’s all you can think about, and it’s all you’re working toward and practicing towards, and putting time, effort, and energy into, it removes the fear of going anywhere alone because you believe in yourself. There’s not a wall blocking you from going, just doubt in yourself. You can make it happen, you can go anywhere you want. Just know the reason behind what you’re doing, and go.”