Haley Joel makes B'way debut in `American Buffalo'

November 19, 2008 5:31:29 PM PST
Hollywood can be a tough place to navigate for child stars who outgrow their roles. Once in demand, they find more doors closed than opened as attention shifts to the next It Kid. Those less charmed than Natalie Portman and Shia LaBeouf, who've transitioned successfully into adult actors, grab whatever they can to stay in the industry's Rolodex; some leave show biz altogether, while others wind up on "True Hollywood Story."

Haley Joel Osment, who was an 11-year-old Oscar nominee for "The Sixth Sense," switched coasts: He enrolled at New York University's theater program to hone his craft two years ago. Now 20, he's making extra credit of sorts - and his Broadway debut - in a revival of David Mamet's "American Buffalo."

"I don't know if it's going to count credit-wise for anything, but certainly the experience is in line with what I went there to study," says a giggly Osment, who is taking a semester's leave from NYU.

Osment is one of three marquee names in the production, co-starring John Leguizamo and Cedric the Entertainer; they portray neighborhood losers planning a heist of rare coins that goes terribly awry.

Osment's role as Bobby - not the sharpest tool in the shed - requires the hyper-articulate actor to play dumb.

"It's a tough preparation because in many ways, it's emptying out things that you have coming in as an actor," says Osment in an interview at a restaurant near the Belasco Theatre, where "American Buffalo" is playing.

"He's a totally uneducated street kid who's lived his whole life sort of scrapping by day by day. So you know, you have to sort of get yourself into the mind-set of lowering yourself to that simplicity in that character, and having an understanding of his history and the abuse that he suffered," he says.

Osment, who began acting at age 4, is known for his roles as precocious, special children. He played Tom Hanks' son in "Forrest Gump," a robot boy in Steven Spielberg's "Artificial Intelligence: AI" and - most famously - a little kid who communicates with ghosts in M. Night Shyamalan's "The Sixth Sense."

Osment said the latter film's most quotable line: "I see dead people."

Does he hear that a lot on the street?

"Not too much anymore. Hopefully, they'll find a line from this play instead," he says.

"American Buffalo" producer Ben Sprecher selected Osment from a short list of potential Bobbys. Says Sprecher: "I thought of him because he was an actor who had been off the radar screen, had kind of committed himself to going back to school. ... And when his name came up, he was just such an out-of-the-box choice for us, we just took the chance."

Sprecher, surprised by the college student's self-discipline, calls Osment "a phenomenally gifted actor. He's instinctive, he's smart, he asks the right questions, he takes risks."

Some movie stars have struggled in front of a live audience. But Osment, whose other theater experience is limited to intensive college workshops, finds the transition from screen to stage invigorating - and an essential exercise in self-improvement.

"There's so much to learn about acting and performance in general. ... I mean, acting is a very complex art, and there are a lot more theories and methods and techniques to it than I think anybody would think. ... Some of our best respected film and stage performances come from people like (Marlon) Brando and everything, and they studied their entire lives," says Osment, whose past TV work include the sitcoms "Thunder Alley" and "The Jeff Foxworthy Show."

Born and raised in California, Osment has a sunny, laid-back demeanor. Yet he is also sharp and inquisitive, and can seemingly sound off on any topic. Name it - Dick Cheney, Facebook, the media, books he's read. He manages to seem old and young at the same time; his face has filled out, he's gotten a bit taller, but is still recognizable by his squinty blue eyes and toothy smile.

The actor is not skittish about addressing a touchy subject such as his DUI arrest in July 2006. After crashing his car into a mailbox near Los Angeles, he pleaded no contest to misdemeanor drunken driving and marijuana possession. His mug shot blasted to the far reaches of the Internet, and much to his dismay, he became lumped into the same train wreck category as Mel Gibson.

"That night was an example of being a foolish high schooler sort of screwing around before college starts," he says. "It's unfortunate that when those things happen, they just talk about Hollywood when really we have a national problem ... with all types of substances and types of dangerous behavior. ... You know, by treating it just as a Hollywood thing, we ignore the fact that ... it can happen to anybody."

At the same time, he says, it's the price he must pay for being well known. The worst thing about that incident is that he "betrayed his family's trust," says Osment, whose sister Emily Osment plays Miley Cyrus' best friend on "Hannah Montana."

He walked the red carpet for the recent Broadway opening of "Equus," starring Daniel Radcliffe, but says he's "never interested in the business of promoting myself. I really don't care if people know who I am or what's said about me. I'm just here to do a job."

He discussed his child-star experience with Radcliffe, who turned to an edgy theater role to shake off his "Harry Potter" image. "He's got it a lot tougher than I do, 'cause there's merchandise out there with him on it," Osment says, with a laugh.

He dreams of directing someday but says good film roles are scarce for actors in his age group.

"We have to be very deliberate and very careful about the choices that (we) make because there are some projects that I could have done," says Osment, whose last major film was 2003's "Secondhand Lions" opposite Michael Caine and Robert Duvall, who co-starred in the original Broadway production of "American Buffalo" in 1976.

He has since acted in the film "Home of the Giants," and co-stars with Olympia Dukakis in the upcoming indie "Montana Amazon."

"You always have to avoid working for the sake of putting yourself out there," Osment says. "I've been very happy with the way things have gone throughout my life, and I have my dad (actor Eugene Osment) to thank for this, because the standard has just been, `Is it a good story? Is it something that I care enough about doing to do? And is it the right type of character, too?"'


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