Good News for Jackie Earle Haley

In case you forgot, that's Jackie Earle Haley at the far right--Kelly Leak, the player's playa. Has it really been 30 years?

For years it was a question that nagged at anyone who came of age with The Bad News Bears and Breaking Away: Whatever became of Jackie Earle Haley? No doubt, it nagged at Jackie Earle Haley as well, though less so as the years passed. His filmography, which begins when he was 11 years old (though he started acting when he was only 5), ends in 1993, when he was all of 32; there was the unholy trinity of Prophet of Evil: The Ervil LeBaron Story, Nemesis and Maniac Cop 3: Badge of Silence, and that was that.

Which is not to say he fell off the edge of the earth, or into a crack pipe, and into oblivion. Far from it. He's the rare child actor without tragic tales with which to entertain the True Hollywood Story vultures. Yeah, he took a few too many swigs off the bottle every now and then, but he also took the odd jobs in Los Angeles--the limo driver to the stars and their agents and their agents' kids, the furniture finisher, the security guard, the range-baller collecting golf balls to sell back for change. Anything to pay the rent. Then, one day, he decamped to San Antonio, where he started his own commercial production company and met his third wife. Life was good; nothing to complain about, not anymore.

For years, he resisted all inquiring comers wanting to know: Whatever became of Jackie Earle Haley? None of their damned business, he figured. Besides, nobody ever looks good in one of those where-have-you-gone stories; they reek of mold and failure and despair and yearning, the cologne sported by the has-been who wasn't ever gonna be again. Just as well he stayed away. It made his comeback in 2006 all the more special.

When he showed up on screen as bad men in both Steve Zallian's loathed All the King's Men (as Sean Penn's bodyguard Sugar Boy) and Todd Field's Little Children (as pedophile Ronnie) during their press premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival two months ago, you could feel the cynics surge with goodwill. There are just some guys you pull for--those actors you grew up watching and whose lines you wound up memorizing ("Does that turn you on? Harley-Davidson?") and whose careers you wish were more than forgotten footnotes. Jackie Earle Haley's one of those guys. He had one last gasp with 1983's Losin' It--the adios-virginity romp in which Tom Cruise starred just before Risky Business--before watching the career he had taken for granted slip away almost entirely. But now, as Tom Cruise's star fades a little, Haley's rises again; there's no reason to think he doesn't have a shot at a supporting-actor Oscar for Little Children. "It's that yin and yang, that check and balance, that ebb and glow," he says. "If Tom ebbs, I flow." Haley laughs and cracks a crooked grin.

He's in town today, up from San Antonio, working the publicity circuit before Little Children vanishes from theaters and Oscar voters' minds. After the jump, Haley--who might be one of the nicest guys you will ever meet--talks about the past, the present and a future that might yet include more movies from the guy whose feet were once too short to reach the pedals. --Robert Wilonsky

Where did the interest in directing commercials come from?

I think through necessity. When I was younger and the acting started to dry up, I became an adult and needed to pay rent. The good roles were starting to become pretty sparse, so in order to make rent, I needed to start accepting roles in D movies...

Hey, man, there's no shame in Maniac Cop 3.

You're the first person that's said that.

Hey, that franchise served Bruce Campbell quite well.

That's true. But what happened is I needed to make a decision at some point. It became clear that either I needed to start over in acting and just go back to square one and approach it as though I had just arrived in L.A. and focus all my energy on that, or to take all that focus and energy and put it somewhere else. It seemed to be a pretty clear decision to leave show business and go focus on trying to get into corporate communications and corporate video. Even as a kid I wanted to be a director, and that seemed to be a natural transition. It took me several years to get into it, but when I did I started doing corporate videos and infomercials, and that led to doing more of your branding type commercials. I found that to be the most satisfying of all of then. I like commercials because they're like mini-movies, so I can take what I learned from corporate communication and what I learned from motion-picture storytelling and combine the two. It works well.

There was that period where you were doing limo-driving and had some other gigs, as well. During that period were you waiting to see if the acting was going to pick back up?

For a while, yeah. I was unable to actually make a living as an actor, so I had to start finding other things to make my living. There was a period of time where I'd supplement my income by taking an acting gig, but I still needed to do things like driving limos or delivering pizzas or security guard. One of my favorites was range-balling.

That sounds...uh...explicit.

Actually, it's where you sneak onto the range at 1 a.m. with a big duffle bag and gather up all of the balls. You put them in the duffle bag and sneak off the driving range, and a week or two later you go back there or to a different driving range and go, "Hey, y'all want some golf balls?"

Well, now you have two careers. How do you reconcile this successful commercial career with what I assume will be the second phase of your acting career?

I hope your assumption is correct. [He laughs.] I have no idea where this is leading... It's still really surreal to me that I am actually here chatting with you and that I actually did two movies. Part of it's real, and part of it's like, "Oh, my God, is this really happening? Am I really doing this again?" So many years of not acting and accepting, OK, that chapter's behind me, for it to come back and for Steve Zaillian to invite me back and give me the opportunity to work on All the King's Men, it was such an incredible break. And when Todd Field hired me to play Ronnie in Little Children, it was like a dream come true on steroids.

From what I heard, Sean Penn--with whom you had done a Broadway production called Slab Boys in 1983--and Steve Zaillian were thinking of you for the part of Sugar Boy at the same time. You were in the ether.

It was a trip. It was amazing. It was almost like I was destined to play that character. They couldn't find me. Steve was looking for me. He finally found me on my honeymoon in France. I came back and did an audition tape, which I hadn't done in years. I shook off the cobwebs and made the tape and sent it to Steve. He called me the next day and said, "Hey, could you come out here and have lunch with me?" And I went out there and I'm like, "Wow, man, what made you think of me?" And he said, "I remember your roles from 20 years ago, and there was something about you that stood out." He said he had even called Sean and asked him who he thought would be right for the part of Sugar Boy, and Sean said, "Jackie Earle Haley." Steve said he told Sean, "I just wrote his name down on the list yesterday."

Now I'm sitting with Steve and we're having this lunch and having this discussion, and, look, 15 years I haven't been doing this. I've pretty much given up all hope anything would ever come. So all of the sudden there's this amazing break. I'm having lunch with him and he's just about to go, "Would you like to do this part?" But then he goes, "I can't hire you. I've already cast this role. We couldn't find you. But, listen, I think I can work this out to where everyone's happy, but I'm not sure. I'll get back to you." They call me back a week later. They had worked it out and hired me. All of these weird little things, ya know? It could have been killed in some many ways, but it came to fruition, and I got to experience making this movie with Steve and all these wonderful actors. It was like going to movie-making college.

Did you feel like you had gotten rusty?

It was cool getting back. I hadn't done it in so long that I got together with some friends and started working the scene. I told myself, "Dude, you know how to do this. It doesn't matter if it's been a while. It's like riding a bike. Dig in there and let go of the inhibitions and get back in there." Since then I've done a bunch of auditions. It was like the planets aligned. The luck gods were shining on me. There was definitely a little cobweb stuff going on. As time goes on, I've been making it a point to get together with an acting friend of mine in Austin, and we get together quite often and do exercises and scene work, and the more I do it, the deeper meaning I can find in things. It's getting a handle on it again. It's an exciting craft--a difficult craft, but once it's in your system, if acting is part of who you are, it needs to be expressed every now and again. After doing these, I discovered, yeah, it's part of who I am.

Was All the King's Men sort of a stretching exercise? Because the part in Little Children is significantly more demanding.

It definitely was. It was helpful getting back into the process and warming up, if you will, and exercising those muscles. It was great that I was able to do that first and go on and play Ronnie, because I really have to say Ronnie is the most challenging character I have ever played. He's an incredibly troubled individual. He's got impulses, no doubt about it. He's a creepy, horrific, troubled guy who has these impulses--even though he hasn't acted on those impulses in the way he's been accused of.

You worked with great directors early in your career: Peter Yates on Breaking Away, Michael Ritchie on The Bad News Bears, even Curtis Hanson on Losin' It. How do those experiences compare to what you're going through now?

I'd have to say it's a richer experience now, and it's because of where I'm at in my life. I'm 45, and I'm much more mature than I was when I was 18. I think I'm finding that I am really appreciating the whole experience much more--certainly not taking it for granted. [He laughs.] Being on the set I am more concerned now with trying to do the best that I can with the craft. I am certain I was trying to do that I when I was younger, it's just I have so much more life experience to draw on now. And just from dealing with all the experiences and fears of being an actor, I am in a much different place in my life. My maturity now helps to temper those anxieties and fears. I feel like I am in a different place. I am enjoying it more. I don't know where it's leading. If I am lucky enough to do some more acting, I will give it my all, and if I am not lucky enough to continue acting, I will direct my all to commercials. I am just grateful I got the chance to come back.

Well, like you said, you've had other auditions. This can't end here, right?

I hope you're right.

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