- The Washington Times - Friday, October 20, 2000

NEW YORK CITY Haley Joel Osment made an enormous impression on moviegoers at age 11 as the haunted little boy of the supernatural thriller, "The Sixth Sense."

His encore attraction opens today: "Pay It Forward," a would-be inspirational tear-jerker about a Las Vegas schoolchild who tries to play matchmaker for a pair of troubled, lovelorn grown-ups. It's his extra-credit project in a social studies class.

One of the grown-ups is his alcoholic mother, played by Helen Hunt; the other is his teacher, played by Kevin Spacey, whose face shows the ravages of severe burns, suffered in his boyhood.

Although the precocious juvenile actor did not win the Academy Award as best supporting actor for "Sixth Sense," he presumably has the inside track for a second nomination if "Pay It Forward" also catches on and hasn't miscalculated its public by insisting on a grievous denouement.

Mr. Spacey won his second Oscar during the same ceremony attended by Haley Joel Osment. Miss Hunt, an Oscar winner for 1997's "As Good as It Gets," in which she also plays the struggling mother of a little boy, is returning to features after a sabbatical of almost three years. In fact, she's returning in force: "Pay It Forward" is one of four Helen Hunt movies scheduled to open before the end of the year.

During a recent press junket hosted by Warner Bros. at the Regency Hotel, the grown-up co-stars added their perspectives to the Haley Joel Osment phenomenon, an impressive sight at close quarters. The boy turns out to be delightfully voluble and articulate in person.

"When I read the script," Mr. Spacey recalls, "the only one attached to it was Haley. That was kind of instrumental for me. I thought there was an extraordinary idea in the material, but without someone who could embody the child with a combination of wisdom and innocence, I didn't think it could work.

"Helen joined us a little later, and I began to feel confident about exploring all the levels of these three characters.

"The next part was to wring out as much of the unwanted sentimentality what we referred to as 'the goo factor' from the script as we could.

"Sometimes it's better to let the audience supply emotions that can look overbearing if it's the actors who try to overdo them."

Asked if he adjusts his work methods around youngsters, Mr. Spacey readily acknowledges certain inhibitions.

"You're careful about how you allow yourself to swear out loud," he says. "That's just being respectful to his age and his family.

"Aside from admiring Haley's talent and what he's able to do on screen, what impresses you is this relationship with his parents.

"His father, Eugene, whose name we borrowed for my character, is on the set every day. They're incredibly close. Eugene's an actor himself, and they do an enormous amount of work at home. He's not a stage father. Haley is not being prompted while rehearsing or performing.

"I remember we were reading scenes one day, and Haley was kind of furrowing his brow about this one line. He kind of shook his head, closed the script and asked, 'Can I just say what I think the essence of the words are? They're getting in my way and I don't know why?' "

This moment indicated to Mr. Spacey that his young colleague might be way ahead of the game.

"I realized," he explains, "that I'm 41 and didn't know that the words could get in your way until I was about 25. How does he know? Because of an exceptional instinct.

"Helen has her own diligent way. I have mine. We pile through the scripts and try to figure out how to play the characters. Haley's doing the same thing. You don't have to suggest to him what he needs to do. He's already on an even footing in that sense."

Miss Hunt, the daughter of a director, began a professional acting career at the age of 9, lagging a bit behind Haley, who got his first gig, a Pizza Hut commercial, when he was 4.

"I hoped I wouldn't be dismissed when I was a kid," she recalls. "You're very vulnerable when you're young and have a brain that's already thinking like an actor.

"If adults disregard you, it can be crushing. Had anybody treated Haley like that, I would have ferociously run to his rescue but it wasn't necessary. Clearly, he's on a path that's fated.

"His family is making smart choices, and no one is pushing him into this. It's just smart to get close to him because his ideas are good and he's a wonderful actor."

Miss Hunt says her parents set simple ground rules for her professional aspirations: "If your grades are good and you're happy, you can do it." She says she has the impression that the Osments have a similar outlook.

"Are there downsides?" she asks. "Yes. I felt I missed some things. But you also gain. It's usually beyond that. You feel as if you're in the grip of something powerful. It must be similar for kids who are spontaneously drawn to a musical instrument.

"To get in the way of that calling is mistaken. To not let Haley act would be to deny his fate."

The subject of all this solicitude is accompanied by his father. There is a Mrs. Osment, a schoolteacher whose profession and second child, a daughter, tend to preclude movie and junket excursions. Whatever the practical side of the arrangement, Haley and Eugene Osment prove an amusing and reassuring team when meeting the press.

The diminutive Haley turned 12 in April and presumably is a year or so away from growth spurts and vocal changes that will compel him to weather an "awkward phase" as an acting instrument. The prospect of emerging as a reasonable facsimile of his dad doesn't look discouraging in the slightest.

Without seeming at all nervous around reporters, Haley does have a curious habit of rubbing the table and twisting his fingers into intricate knots. He also talks a fluent blue streak, prompting someone to ask if directors need to slow him down. The question itself prompts an obliging deceleration.

"Oh, I see," Haley replies. "It's really different if you're working. Or if you overheard me talking with my friends, all the vocabulary would go out the window.

"I'd be just a normal kid hanging out. I read a lot, though, and with the characters I play, I erase a lot of my own habits.

"We don't share the same vocabulary as a rule. I'm just doing their lines in their personalities. You pretend to have their mentality, and you react spontaneously to what they experience."

His father has a brief role in "Pay It Forward." When someone alludes to the scene, Mr. Osment finds it appropriate to join the conversation.

"You want to see the performance again?" he asks humorously and points an arm. That was it, to perfection.

Haley remarks that most of his dad's advice concerns "techniques, things I'll need to do on my own eventually, getting prepared for the adult roles I'll have to do."

His latest project is the new Steven Spielberg feature "AI," short for "Artificial Intelligence."

So he's committed to a lifelong career as an actor? "Yes, I will do it for a long time. But I'll probably have other jobs as well, like after I start college and all."

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide