LOS ANGELES—Hollywood, home of so many comebacks both on- and off-screen, has a new Lazarus. But although Jackie Earle Haley never literally died, his figurative demise and return may be less appealing than most such stories. Elvis, Marilyn, and James Dean are no longer with us, but their legends live on. Even child stars who implode in public have infamy, but what of adolescent actors who can’t find film work as adults and then head to San Antonio and end up producing television commercials?
Haley’s ascension is more the stuff of miracles than of legend. He earned fame as the tough kid in 1976’s The Bad News Bears when he was 15, then costarred three years later in Breaking Away. By the late 1980s, he was barely hanging on. He left L.A. for Texas in 1993, taking odd jobs before becoming a senior executive with Shootz Productions, a TV commercial company. Life changed for him three years ago when Steve Zaillian, a Bad News Bears fan, brought him to New Orleans to work on All the King’s Men. One of the film’s stars, Kate Winslet, suggested him for the role of a pedophile in her film Little Children and he won an Oscar nomination. Now he costars in Watchmen, 300 director Zack Snyder’s Vancouver-shot movie about a vigilante named Rorschach (Haley) who assembles former superheroes to avenge the death of one of their own. The movie opens on March 6.
“It’s been incredible to have been a child star and watched that slowly drift away and to struggle for a few years and then to find my way in a new world,” he says in an L.A. hotel room. “It has all been a pinch-yourself experience, but I was absolutely flabbergasted when Zack called and offered me this part.”
Haley hadn’t read the mid-1980s graphic novel on which Watchmen is based, but after reading about Snyder’s involvement, he got a copy of the script and sent him a home video. “It was awful, technically,” Snyder says, “but I knew I had my Rorschach.” Haley says that he fell for the character and was determined to make the film the next step on his new career path.
“When I became aware of what the material meant to the [novel’s] fan base, I started getting sucked into it. It is an amazing piece of work, and he is the beloved psychopath of comicdom. So I recognized that it was something I really wanted to do, and the more I learned about him and the material it was just like, ”˜Wow, I have to do it.’ ”
Watch the trailer for Watchmen.
Although Haley’s next film is with Martin Scorsese, he says he doesn’t take anything for granted. “I can never tell if my fear is a deep-seated child-actor fear, so I always try to temper it and find the balance and not be overly freaked out. I realize that you never know when that other shoe will drop. It is a project-to-project deal, but right now I couldn’t be happier.”