Interview by Paul Fischer in Los AngelesNo longer the somewhat cute but hypnotic kid from The Sixth Sense and AI, Haley Joel Osment is now 15 with his voice broken, but the question is: Are audiences ready for this older and wiser adolescent? They'll soon find out with Osment return to the screen in Secondhand Lions, a comedy-drama about an isolated teenager who discovers unexpected love and friendship with two irascible uncles, played with devilish glee by Oscar winners Michael Caine and Robert Duvall. Osment spoke to PAUL FISCHER in Los Angeles.
Haley Joel Osment seems to have literally grown up before our eyes. From the moment we meet him in the new comedy/drama Secondhand Lions, Osment child-like demeanour has all but disappeared. The voice might now be deeper, but the now 15-year old remains as focussed as he was in his younger days. He remains unphased by his celebrity, and equally unconcerned as to his fans will react after they first hear him speak in the new film. "I think it'll sort of be a surprise, but I don't think it's going to weird people out but it's expected because it's been two years since my last film," the actor explains, while his ever present father is listening in the background.
Osment, who established himself as a child actor "seeing dead people" in The Sixth Sense, before reaffirming his talent in the likes of Pay it Forward and Spielberg's A.I, began to lose his voice after he was signed to play the isolated teenager in Secondhand Lions, in which he holds his own with the likes of legends Michael Caine and Robert Duvall. Osment says it wasn't especially difficult making the transition from the cute kid image that began years ago with Forrest Gump, to mature adolescent, "as it was finding the right path through this period. For me, choice is the most important thing because I'm going to be an adult actor pretty soon, so I've got to be choosing the right roles now so that by the time I get to that age, there will be wide options available, so I've got to keep my roles diverse."
In order to determine that, the actor says, "the story has got to be great, as was the story in Secondhand Lions, and the script has really got to come alive. Also, the character has to be the right age, as well as an original character in itself." Osment admits that finding the right role at this age, is a challenge, because "this period is always really hard for any actor to go because you're changing so quickly and roles aren't available for very long. If the script is written, it can sometimes take two years to be made. This film took 10 years from the writing of the script until it got made so that we're constantly growing and changing, therefore it's harder to find a role that's available right then. The right screenplay's got to be out there." Osment hasn't been on screen for two years, simply, he says, because "we were just looking for the right script and this one came along. The timing I think was really good because I was going through similar changes as Walter was at that time, so it was very convenient", including the change in his voice. "That was potentially a problem going into this film, being inconsistent with frequency levels and everything, but we ended up using it for the good of the character, to symbolize his change with these two uncles."
"Secondhand Lions" follows the comedic adventures of an introverted boy (Osment) left on the doorstep of a pair of reluctant, eccentric great-uncles (Caine and Duvall), whose exotic remembrances stir the boy's spirit and re-ignite the men's lives. Osment says he learned a lot working with his legendary co-stars. "They're such nice people, so very warm and personable characters, that on the set, it was thrilling to be there with him. It was amazing to be on the same stage, just to talk with these guys but their personality really made it easy to get to know them which in turn made it easy to do the movie. I drew on the experience I had knowing them in real life towards what Walter would react in a way that he would be at first taken aback by it, the outrageousness of their lifestyle and then he would learn how to deal with them and ended up benefiting from what they taught him," Osment explains.
The actor adds that the film's title has very deep significance. "It represents all the characters on that farm, which is a place where you have a herd of mutt dogs, a lion that's been cast off from the zoo and you have a pig that barely escaped going to the bacon factory plus this kid who's this pathetic cast-off with no convictions or desires and then there are these two old men who feel like they have outlived their time. It's all these people who have separately fallen out of who they should be, and together these three main characters teach each other that they still matter. Walter lets these two old men know that they still have something to live for and they in turn teach him how to be a man. They teach him how to count as a person and how to live life the right way."
When not trying to find the right script, Osment says that it remains important for him to live as normal life as possible. He won't be home-schooled, but attends a regular high school in Los Angeles. The actor says that in the years he has taken off from acting, "high school has been a big priority for me as always. Also, I've been running with a cross-country team that's been a big sports aspiration for me." Osment is also learning how to drive. "I got my permit two weeks ago and I'm in driver's Ed right now. It's going well with no wrecks yet," he adds laughingly. And the driving has kept him out of the dating arena. "It's that time, but there's nothing going on right now." Through all his fame, he made it clear at school that he was just your normal kid and wanted to keep it that way. "I think they got it from the start. All I had to do was be myself and it was up to them to get what it was all about and they did. They understood that it wasn't about the acting so much, but about how we related at school and everything. Acting is not a factor on campus, nor is it something that I'm doing there, so they just treat me like the person I am."
As an actor, Osment perceptions of acting have also changed as he has gotten older. "Every time I do a project, you learn new things and I think you appreciate acting more every time and have just really understood more about the details behind it, especially while working with Michael and Robert. Working with those guys, I really understood what they were doing a little bit more than had I done it a couple years ago. That is a credit to the films I've done before because I learned how to observe in the films before and now I'm absorbing information whenever I can. On top of the acting part, I really watched the technical part of filmmaking carefully this time. Jack Green, the cinematographer, allowed me to really watch how they were shooting this movie and I really got really involved in watching how they were executing the film which has always been really interesting to me."
Osment says he can now look back at his earlier films with a degree of objectivity. "I've been happy with the stuff I've done, but I can also see the level of progression in those movies. I feel that every film that I do, I'm bringing up the level of performance. Every actor should learn from their last performance and use it in their next one, which is how we're able to create a sense of reality around every character, because we learn what it's like to feel like one character, and we take the reality that we earned on one film and then add it to the next film. It's like we're starting with more information than we did last time." Osment returns to school in the fall and plans on taking another break from the camera "until another script comes along." Osment says that is unconcerned about being forgotten. "I don't think there's any fear of that. With acting, you can never count on there being work available; it's whatever's there. Someday, there may not be any work, but I guess that's not something I'm worried about. If I just keep doing the right roles, I think that won't be a problem."