|Acting Older Than His Age
Haley Joel Osment, Already Big at the Box Office, Is Poised
for Another Growth Spurt
By Libby Copelan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 2, 2001; Page C01
Back when Haley Joel Osment was 11, just another aspiring kid actor with an elfin face
and a burdensome name, he got the role of a lifetime. A serious little boy, he'd showed up
at the audition in a suit and cried on cue. The film was "The Sixth Sense," and
the character was a boy terrorized by ghosts. Haley played it so well that -- sitting in
the darkened theater -- you almost worried for him. Who was this terrified child, and what
had the director done to him?
In fact, the child was only sort of a child. In terms of years, he was a minor, but by
other measures he was more like an intense little man. On the set, to conjure the sense of
trauma he needed for a certain frustrating scene, Haley threw himself against a stage wall
over and over, until he felt sufficiently shook up. In his next film, "Pay It
Forward," Haley asked the actress playing his mother, Helen Hunt, to forgo a stage
slap and really make contact. So he could feel the shock.
Haley Joel Osment is now 13, and his latest film, Steven Spielberg's "A.I.,"
will shoot his celebrity stock through the roof. At the New York premiere last week, a
photographer grumbles No more child leads! Too short to shoot! (Haley's only 4 feet 10.)
If you've only seen him on film, his red-carpet smiles look strange on that face. Yet he
is nothing like the haunted, hunted child he became famous for portraying two years ago
nor the needy, desperate android of "A.I." In person, Haley seems like the
smart, well-adjusted kid you wanted to date in high school, but he was way out of your
Except, again, Haley is 13. He hasn't even had a girlfriend yet. (He's in "just
seventh grade," he says. You tend to forget.)
Professionally, Haley Joel Osment is leading the newest generation of young actors,
many of whom do far more than dance and dimple à la Shirley Temple. Some observers
suggest Haley's role in "The Sixth Sense" was seminal for modern-day child
actors -- his performance showed a depth and complexity stunning for an 11-year-old.
(Doubtless, plenty of 11-year-olds weren't even allowed to see the film, which was rated
PG-13.) Haley was nominated for an Oscar for that role, and at least some critics have
suggested he should be nominated again for his latest effort. As a robot too human for his
own good, he nails pathos right on the head.
How? Well, this is the puzzle really. We imagine that adult actors benefit from life
experience. They use their past -- the death of a relative, say -- to summon grief for the
role of a widow. But what experience do children have? In the case of Haley, who is making
a name for himself playing anguished characters, what past has he to draw upon? In films
he is eerie, otherworldly, a ghost-seer or an android, his elfin face drawn gaunt in
fright. In person he is expansive and cheerful, if buffed by a life of celebrity and
sobered by a certain intensity. He has been called an old soul.
"The best actors, their sense of authenticity -- it's like they almost have a
moral obligation to be truthful," says Australian actress Frances O'Connor, who plays
the adoptive mother to Haley's David in "A.I." "I think Haley is just
innately truthful, and I think the camera picks that up."
The boy's answer?
"There's nothing too intense about what's happened to my life," says Haley,
who soberly wipes the scuff marks off his brown suede shoes. "It's all about being
able to imagine."
Thus, to prepare for the emotional scenes with his on-screen mother, some of them so
wrenching that Haley's real mother has difficulty watching them, the child crossed his
legs in a quiet spot off the movie set and concentrated. He practiced not blinking,
because David the robot does not blink. He practiced being wooden and stilted, and at the
same time oddly -- humanly -- needy.
Then he uncrossed his legs, stood up and went back on the set, where Spielberg was
waiting, and he became David. And in all the time that the cameras rolled on his pale,
eerie face, he never once blinked.
Haley's father is a theater and film actor; his mother is a sixth-grade teacher. Both
come from Alabama, and shortly after they married in the mid-'80s they moved out to L.A.,
where Eugene Osment helped start a theater company. With about $1,000 saved, Eugene
supplemented his struggling actor's salary with a courier job. The Osments bought a
starter home and had their first child.
Little Haley was a smart kid with a big vocabulary and a penchant for talking. Eugene
and Theresa gave their son a "good old-fashioned Southern upbringing,"
encouraged him to be well behaved and mature. Eugene took pains to avoid baby talk with
his infant son. "I always treated him older than his age . . . so that he learned
just a little quicker than others," he says.
As a toddler, Haley had a child's fascination with movies and with the pretend world
they offered. "I was Donald Duck for several months when I was 3," he says.
Certain videotapes he had his parents play over and over: "Winnie the Pooh and the
Blustery Day" and "The Little Mermaid." Watching TV, he'd get so close his
mother had to put a piece of red tape on the carpet. Sit behind the dot!
An only child before Emily, now 9, was born, Haley was also used to adult company. Even
as a toddler, he showed a seriousness that would mark him throughout childhood, make him
the sort of teenager who rises every morning at 6 -- even during summer vacation -- as
sleeping late feels like a waste of time. At a dinner party his parents held, the
3-year-old sat on a couch and chatted amiably with the big people. When asked what he
wanted to be when he grew up, the boy declared: "A paleontologist." He
pronounced it perfectly.
It was not long, Eugene says, before "I was hit up by a number of my friends in
the industry who thought that he was quite articulate and would do well in
Eugene and Theresa tossed the idea of child acting back and forth, unsure if it was the
right thing. They put the idea on hold until one day when Theresa took her son, by then 4,
to check out a newly opened Ikea. At the store, she passed a talent scout who was looking
for would-be child actors. She filled out a name card with about as much investment as you
might have, say, in buying a Lotto ticket. By the end of the day, the agency had called to
invite Haley to an audition.
"You may get there and you may hate it," Eugene told Theresa, "or you
may get there and he may hate it, and perhaps we've answered our question."
When they got there, she hated it. The place was mayhem, packed with kids, and the wait
was interminable. Haley peered around with wonder: Such a noisy place! So many faces!
After nearly an hour, Theresa paged Eugene and said she was thinking of leaving.
Stay, urged Eugene. Maybe you'll come up next. So mother and son waited, and at last
Haley was called into a room with some other children and each kid was asked in turn,
What's the biggest thing you've ever seen? The other children gave brief, conventional
answers: a whale, a tall building.
Haley said: the IMAX theater.
How so? a tall person asked.
And Haley, who had been to an IMAX movie with his family, gave the dimensions of the
screen. The interviewers plucked him out of the crowd.
The commercial was for Pizza Hut "Bigfoot" pizza, and Haley's job was to say
one line. Something like, "Big is an understatement." He thought it was fun.
"It's still sort of amazing," says Haley now, a wizened professional looking
back on his first gig. "They call in several hundred kids -- and that was just in
that one place -- and then it ended up being me and this other kid being on camera for
just two seconds."
But those two seconds answered the all-important question. Haley enjoyed acting and
acting suited Haley. It seemed like playtime, like when Haley became Donald Duck.
"I just put on a mask and figured that was it," he says. "At a young
age, you can think that. But that sort of evolved into the form of creating characters, of
being characters that hadn't existed. It wasn't mimicry anymore."
In time, Eugene put his own career on hold and became his son's acting coach, training
the boy in the drama tradition he'd studied in college, accompanying him to shoots,
teaching him how behave during press junkets, and later, how to conduct interviews. He
remembers watching Haley on the set of the ABC sitcom "Thunder Alley," in which
the 6-year-old played Ed Asner's cute grandson. It seemed to Eugene that his son stole the
show. Look at him -- taking scene directions so well. Adding a touch of physical comedy.
Heck, the boy had an instinct.
Eugene says, "I knew that there was more going on here than just a cute kid with a
Cute, yes. But not classic cute. Not Culkin Clone. A singular face, not borrowed from
anyone else. Two short hyphens for eyebrows that raise like drawbridges above the nose,
giving that look of hesitation, or -- ramp them up -- of fear. Eyebrows that let him say,
"I see dead people," and be convincing about it. (Well, he must have seen
something. He looked so scared.) Below, his mother's eyes, with eyelids that droop at the
ends, forcing the blue into little slivers, a permanent squint. The nose is just a child's
blob, no shape yet. And below, the front teeth just a touch rabbity, which makes him look
like a real kid, like your neighbor's son, not some coveted star who gets his lips
Vaselined before photo shoots. A real kid. No hint -- till he speaks -- of the man trapped
There is a certain disconcerting habit movie stars have of referring to other famous
people by their first names, as if you, too, must have run lines with them, shared
backstage humor with them and given them a hug at the 2000 Oscars. The habit sounds even
stranger coming out of a child's mouth, perhaps because the more old-fashioned among us
haven't accepted that "Mister" long ago dropped out of standard child
So, when Haley Joel Osment, a terribly real kid who does not put on airs and whose feet
do not touch the floor when he sits, says "Jude's attitude was really something to
watch," your brain freezes. Jude? Ah, Jude Law. Haley's co-star in "A.I.,"
the fiercely handsome blond with finely molded cheekbones and brooding blue eyes, a
modern-day vision of a 19th-century rake, all easy charm and careless beauty, that Jude.
But this is the glittery, diamonds-and-cummerbunds set that Haley runs with. He has
done press tours in Tokyo four times. He is, years before his growth spurt, a full-on
celebrity. And the specter of Child Actors Past looms over his career. So many cautionary
tales. Macaulay Culkin, Tatum O'Neal, Linda Blair, River Phoenix, Drew Barrymore. Drug
abuse, dysfunctional families. A kid wakes up at 18 -- limbs long and face hardened, his
cuteness pilfered by puberty -- and realizes he peaked 10 years ago.
What if your best years are behind you -- before you're even out of your teens?
"I'd be walking around with blinders on if I told you, 'Oh, we never think that
way,' " says Eugene Osment. "That's why we keep him involved in other things,
too." That's why Eugene patrols a no-fly zone of sorts in his home: No talk about
work when they're having family time. That's why both parents encourage Haley's other
interests -- basketball, football, rock climbing -- and why they try to keep him humble.
That's why, during months when Haley wasn't on the set with a tutor, he learned seventh
grade the old-fashioned way, in school. (Though when he speaks of junior high, he seems
far too old for it. He says the smell of formaldehyde dissections clung to him like casino
smoke, and declares World War II "the last necessary war.")
So, what does Haley think about all this, the vagaries of celebrity, the vulnerability
of his age? In the smooth, take-it-or-leave-it fashion of an actor who has truly arrived,
he says, "Peaks -- you can't really measure stuff like that. I am a lot busier. But
we'll just keep looking for scripts, and every time we see a good script, that'll be
something that interests me."
And if not?
"If not," says the boy, "I go back to school."
© 2001 The Washington Post Company