Haley Joel Osment Returns
When he was four years old, Haley Joel Osment had his picture taken by a stranger as he and his mother walked through the front doors of IKEA. A few days later, his mother took a call from an advertising agency, which was offering her son the chance to audition for a role in a Pizza Hut television commercial. Within two years of that break, Osment had starred in the movie “Forrest Gump,” as Tom Hanks’s son, Forrest Junior. Within six, he’d been nominated for an Academy Award for his role as the numinous child in “The Sixth Sense,” popularizing the gloomy catchphrase “I see dead people.” Within eight years, he was working with Steven Spielberg on the late Stanley Kubrick’s one-time project “A.I.”
While Osment benefitted from circumstance (his parents lived in Los Angeles, where Osment’s father was a stage actor with Theater III, on Santa Monica Boulevard), he also had a preternatural poise. When he auditioned for the role of Cole Sear, in “The Sixth Sense,” the director M. Night Shyamalan had already watched scores of other children try out for the role. “It was like I had never heard the dialogue before,” Shyamalan said of Osment’s performance in an interview at the time. “He finished the scene and he was crying and I was crying. I could not believe it. I said: ‘Oh my God: Who are you?’ ”
Now twenty-six, Osment appears to have successfully navigated the obvious yet substantial perils of child stardom. Apart from a car accident at the age of eighteen, when he overturned his car while driving under the influence of alcohol (for which he was sentenced to sixty hours of rehabilitation, issued a fine, and put on three-year probation), Osment’s journey through adolescence into adulthood has been free of major indiscretion.
He remains a successful actor, even if the roles he has chosen since graduating from college at New York University have been deliberately unlike those of his youth. Osment plays a rotund Nazi in Kevin Smith’s forthcoming movie, “Yoga Hosers.” In “Sex Ed,” which comes out next week, Osment plays a newly qualified teacher in an inner-city school who is tasked with teaching his pupils about sex, despite a grim lack of experience in the area. Osment may not look like the typical, chiselled Hollywood star (uncharitable fans have described him as “unrecognizable” in comparison to his younger self), but he still has an undeniable humming presence behind his amiably slanting eyes—the same feature that marked him as a child talent.
For Osment, the safe arrival into adulthood is in part thanks to the stabilizing role of his family, as well as his agent of twenty years, Meredith Fine. “I think they worried a lot about what might happen to me along the way,” he told me. “Being the parent of a kid in the industry often causes people to question motivations. They wonder: ‘Are the parents being exploitative?’ ” Osment insists that his parents never made acting the focus of his childhood. “My audition with Tom Hanks for ‘Forrest Gump’ was memorable not because I was going to meet a Hollywood star but because we were due to go on a camping trip in South Carolina immediately afterwards. At that time the work was easy-going.”
Osment’s mother, a sixth-grade teacher, taught him and his younger sister (the actress Emily Osment) to read at a young age, a skill that Osment says allowed him to understand the context and meaning of scenes sooner than his contemporaries. “With my dad coming from a theatre tradition, there was a lot of preparation before auditions,” he said. “Not just in terms of saying the lines correctly but a process of entering into what it was all about. With ‘The Sixth Sense,’ my dad and I discussed how this was not so much a horror story as a story about communication. I understudied with my dad, in a sense. It made a huge difference.”
The Osment family’s low-pressure approach to Haley’s career was tested following the success of “The Sixth Sense.” “For the first time, I would be recognized in public and I encountered the whole new challenge of maintaining privacy,” Osment said. “It was a major change, although my parents probably shouldered that more than I did at that time. It was a great upheaval for us.” Even today, Osment uses “we” when discussing the decisions that he and his family made in those years, as though his career’s trajectory had been guided by a benign collective. “After that movie, for the first time really, we had to think about what smart choices we were going to make,” he said. “My parents, agent, and I increasingly had to work to avoid being attached to the wrong kinds of movies. It was a case of working with people you could trust.”
The problem was made simpler by a phone call from Spielberg, who invited Osment to work with him on “A.I.” “Steven made it easy for us,” Osment said. “We immediately had the sense that I was in the right hands and doing the right kind of work.”
Despite his full slate of film roles, both Osment and his parents always expected that he would go to college. “A film like ‘The Sixth Sense’ burns an image of who you are into people’s minds,” he said. “In the midst of that it can be difficult to know who you are, or who you are becoming. College seemed like a manageable next step, a place where I could figure that stuff out.”
That began at the Experimental Theatre Wing of the Tisch School of the Arts, at N.Y.U., which Osment attended when he was eighteen. “There isn’t a lot on the résumé from that time, but it was the biggest investment I’d made in acting to date,” he said. “It gave me a radically different set of ideas. I was working hard on my craft, just not in a way that was visible to the public.” While Osment was a familiar face to his peers (a joke among his classmates was: “‘How many E.T.W. kids does it take to screw in a light bulb?’ Answer: ‘I see dead people’ ”) he was able to shed the isolating aura of celebrity. “A lot of my peers were people who had more stage experience than me and who weren’t necessarily trying to break into Hollywood,” he said. “That diversity of career goals made things easier for relationships to grow.”
New York also gave him space to explore new roles. “There aren’t many roles for villainous kids,” he said. “I’m most well known for being a good kid and the moral center of the movie. So, in college, the most fun I had was to play as bad guys. It’s telling that most of my current roles are dark and nasty. It’s not about running away from what I did as a kid, but it’s a way to keep things fresh and challenging. It’s some of the most satisfying work I’ve done.”
Today, Osment is working to create his own scripts. “If you’re smart about budget and realistic about what people are into, you have more opportunity to create your own projects than ever before,” he said. Osment is particularly interested in the longer-form narratives of television and video games. (He has been a lead voice actor in Disney’s Kingdom Heartsvideo games series for more than a decade.) “It’s such a golden age for what we still call television,” he said. “The six-episode arc is fascinating. And a lot of people of our age have grown up with video game series such as Zelda and Final Fantasy which open you up to longer narrative arcs from a young age. It’s changing the way in which we tell stories.”
Osment, meanwhile, still harbors ambitions as an actor. “I was at dinner with Victor Garber last night and he said to me: ‘I have been working for so long that I don’t want to just do things for the hell of it; I just want to do something that seems original to me.’ That struck me. Of course, it’s a blessing to do any work. But I want to do things that feel original. It would be a disservice to the opportunities I had when I was younger to settle for the conventional.”
This article originally appeared on NewYorker.com.