Actor Jackie Earle Haley is yet another proof that F. Scott Fitzgerald was wrong about American lives not having second acts; Haley’s career has come in at least two phases, maybe three, depending on how you’re counting. As a child actor, he had a thriving career, starting on TV (in Wait Till Your Father Gets Home, then with guest appearances on the likes of The Partridge Family, The Waltons, and Marcus Welby, M.D.) and moving into film, most memorably as bad-boy Kelly Leak in the Bad News Bears films. Post-adolescence all but killed his acting career, which effectively ended in 1993, with the likes of Maniac Cop 3: Badge Of Silence; eventually, after struggling with low-level jobs and substance abuse, he found work as a director, launching his own agency to make commercials, infomercials, and corporate training videos. But in 2006, director Steven Zaillian sought him out for the role of Sugar Boy in the Sean Penn thriller All The King’s Men. The same year, he earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination and a slew of film-critics association awards for his role as haunted child molester Ronnie McGorvey in Little Children. And now he’s back on the screen in a starring role as psychotic masked vigilante Rorschach in Zack Snyder’s blockbuster-to-be Watchmen, based on Alan Moore’s classic graphic novel. The A.V. Club recently spoke to Haley about his careers, his commercials, and playing a maniac through a mask.
The A.V. Club: How do you go about preparing to play a character who’s going to be hidden under a mask and a bulky costume for most of his time onscreen?
Jackie Earle Haley: [Laughs.] Huh? [Laughs.] First, preparing for this guy, I didn’t even consider the mask. I think it first started with really gazing into the abyss of this guy, and looking at his incredibly victimized childhood. You know, his mother being a prostitute and an alcoholic and a drug addict, and the beatings that he took, and the fact that she was kind of going from john to john, and from man to man. He just seemed to be so low on the priority list that he slowly became tweaked to the point of no return. To where something had to give. And I think how he found his place in this world was through this black-and-white sense of justice.
AVC: So you were thinking about what’s under the mask, and never how people would see Rorschach from the outside, how you could bring him across through all these physical barriers?
JEH: I got there, but my initial preparation on him was just kind of looking at him. When we started getting to the mask part, it kind of scared me, because as an actor, your face is your main tool. And covering that up was kind of scary. But on the other hand, you’re playing Rorschach. You throw that mask on, you throw that fedora on, and the rest of the outfit, it’s incredibly motivating. And I think I just started to fully embrace that, with the knowledge—do the work internally, as you would with any part, and let the external part take care of itself. But still, as a storyteller and as an actor, you know you’re covered up, but you want to go to the monitors and check in on stuff. And every now and then, I’d—it didn’t happen a lot—but once in a while, I’d look and think, “Hmm, what’s going on internally isn’t coming through at all,” so I’d have to animate the outfit. [Laughs.]
AVC: You’ve talked a lot in interviews about building your character in Little Children by drawing on your own family relationships, by finding out what was important to him, and comparing it to what was important to you. Was there a similar process here?
JEH: You know, this one was a little bit different. I think I did some of that, but not to the same degree. There was just so much in this book, and this character is so fleshed-out, and his experience is so psychotic, I kind of glommed onto the statement of Dr. Long. Dr. Long got to know Rorschach by gazing into the abyss, and I had to gaze into the abyss of Rorschach for months. And I think if anything, instead of me finding myself in Rorschach, I think I was searching for and started to find some of Rorschach in me. I think playing this guy has made me a bit more cynical.
AVC: Was that a concern? A lot of people seem to think that Heath Ledger fell apart because he got too close to such an extreme character, that he internalized him too much and it disturbed him. Were you worried by that example at all?
JEH: Well… no. No, it didn’t concern me, but surprisingly, there’s a little more effect from it than I would’ve anticipated. And part of that is, in playing the part, I would isolate myself in my apartment and kind of zone out on the material and Rorschach’s past, and try to look at this world through the prism of a Rorschach-ian filter.
AVC: Were you familiar with Watchmen before the movie?
AVC: Various people have been planning to make Watchmen as a film for 20 years, and there was a long line of people slated to play each part. Was there competition for the role? Did you audition?
JEH: When I first heard about this, I read about it on the Internet. People were suggesting me for this role, and I think this might have been when Paul Greengrass had it. I remember looking into it a little bit. I had seen the characters, never read anything, but I had actually seen Rorschach somewhere. Not sure where, a friend’s book or something. But cut to a while later, I’m acting again, and I hear Zack’s doing this, and I dove in and started to read the material. Starting with the script, and then the book, and then I kind of went after the part, only to find out that it looked like they were going down more of a movie-star road. And that was kind of a bummer. And I remember at one point, I even called my agent, and he was like, “Dude, let it go, man. It’s gone, they’re going this other direction.” A couple months later, he called me up and he says, “Hey, it looks like they changed their mind. Or something happened, they’re not going down that road. I’m not sure what’s going on, but how about you do an audition tape and send it to Zack? Let’s not wait for them to ask.” So I got a bunch of friends together, I put together this little Halloween sort of Rorschach-ian costume and made this cheesy audition tape, and we sent it in to Zack. And a couple weeks later, he called me in for a meeting, and I went in and talked with him, and he showed me a storyboard of what he was thinking, and we talked about the character for a good hour or two, and we shook hands. And a couple weeks later, I got the call and he chose me. And was just thrilled out of my gourd.
AVC: In both this and Little Children, you’re playing a psychotic who’s specifically noted for being grubby and weedy and physically unattractive. Do you worry about getting typecast?
JEH: [Laughs.] I’m an actor, I worry about everything. You know, Ronnie and Rorschach are so different to me. I realize that you can draw some parallels, and I did. They’re both incredibly alone in this world. But they’re also opposites. Ronnie is compelled to victimize others for his own selfish and self-centric needs, and that is so opposite to what Rorschach is. That is absolutely what Rorschach fights against. I played this pedophile in Little Children, and in Watchmen, I kill that guy.
AVC: In Watchmen, you’re playing opposite your Little Children co-star Patrick Wilson again. Was that a coincidence, or did one of you have any effect on the other getting the role?
JEH: That was total coincidence, and I think—if I understand this right—when Zack saw Little Children, he saw Dan immediately in Patrick. And I can see that. Patrick looks like he walked right off the comic-book page. And I think Zack said the first time he thought about me for the role was when he saw me around the award shows. On the red carpet and stuff. Didn’t dawn on him when he was watching the movie.
AVC: What kind of a director is Zack Snyder with actors? Does he believe in rehearsals? Does he work closely with people building characters, or is he more hands off?
JEH: No, he’s very hands-on. Very thorough.
AVC: Did he sit down with you individually in preproduction and talk about the characters and how to build them?
JEH: Oh yeah. We shot and talked at length several times about what makes this guy tick. And then we would also do it in groups, like Patrick and I would have a meeting with Zack because of our characters’ relationship. And I think that Patrick had a few of those meetings, because he has a relationship with Malin [Akerman]’s character, know what I mean? So we’d have these meetings where we’d talk about the dynamics of these guys and their past, and what all this means to them now, and where they are, and all that stuff.
AVC: You mentioned that Patrick Wilson looks like he walked right off the page. Most of the film looks like it fell right off the page.
JEH: Isn’t that a trip?
AVC: It’s all very specific, with the lighting and composition and angles of the shots made to look exactly like the comic panels. Was there a lot of fiddling around with that on set? Was there a lot of “You’ve got to move an inch to the right and lift your hand a little more so it can be exactly like the reference panel?”
JEH: Sometimes. Not so much by the example that you’re making. It wasn’t like—that’s more of a question for Zack, but I don’t remember. I think we were all, every last one of us, compelled to reference the book in the morning. Before any scene you were going to do, you’d read the scene out of the book. And we were all looking for our own visual cues to do things similar to what was in the book. So a lot of what you’re saying was in there, but it wasn’t like this exercise of “This has to look exactly like the panel.” It’s more like an adaptation, but that’s a much better question for Zack.
AVC: Was it a different experience from other films you’ve done as an adult?
JEH: Gosh, yeah. It was thoroughly different.
AVC: In what ways?
JEH: Gosh, everything. I don’t even know where to—like what we first started talking about, doing a character who’s covered up through the whole movie, and geez, the scope of the film. And just the sheer love from the director, which was contagious through the cast and the entire crew. The sheer love of the source material. So it was like fans of the source material trying to make this and be responsible to the creators and the fans. Everything about it was just super-charged. It was all on 10. It was such an amazing experience. And that’s not to say that other films weren’t, but it was Watchmen. I don’t know what to say!
AVC: It’s mostly that you’ve spoken often in interviews about what an intense, visceral experience acting is for you. But you’ve never been on such a big-budget, effects-heavy, green-screen movie before. Some actors complain that they don’t get the same charge when the acting is so broken up into tiny scenes, and dependent on the tech.
JEH: You know, it was just so different. It’s kind of like apples and oranges. You’re right, some of it was choppy, but so much of it wasn’t. A lot of the actiony stuff would kind of get choppy, and even some of that scene with Bryce. [Spoiler warning: Bryce is a murderer whom Rorschach kills. —ed.] That, surprisingly, was filmed at two different times. We shot half of it one week, and I thought we were done with it, and then a week later, we were going back in. I’m like, “What are we doing?” And it’s like, “Oh, the dummy’s ready.” And there’s this dummy that looks just like the actor.
And we go back into that room, and that’s such a turning point for this character, so I’m dealing with all of it very—Rorschach’s emotional experience of crossing that line and deciding to forever become Rorschach and leave [his original identity] behind. It was so emotionally charged. For it to be broken up over time, yeah, it’s tough. But at the same time, when we did those moments, we took our time, and it didn’t seem broken-up when were doing it. And it was a trip, too, when we got back and it was time to do the rest of that scene with the dummy. It was freaky, because it was so lifelike. There was something about that… First off, the dummy looked real. Then I took off my glasses, and it looks even more real. Then I put on my hood, and I’m looking through a slight gauze, right? Even more real. Then I’m starting to wield the weapon. The dummy felt incredibly real, and you layer that in on top of emotionally what’s going on with the character, and it was just fucking freaky.
AVC: With your acting career taking off again, have you had to scale back your directing work?
JEH: A little bit, but I’ve still been able to, for the most part, be of service to my friends and clients in Texas that I’ve been working with for years. Whenever I’m available, I like to try to be available to them and help them with their projects.
AVC: Are you using your acting career at this point to expand into more directing work?
JEH: You know, at this point, my focus right now is acting, but I think at some point in time, I definitely want to do some directing, I’m just not sure when. But it’s not on my plate big-time right now, just because I’m busy, and I’m having such a great time.
AVC: Do you have any particular piece you’re particularly proud of having directed? One thing you’d point to as showcasing your vision as a director?
JEH: No, not at this point. I think I’ve got a lot of wonderfully talented, creative directors I’ve worked with in Texas, but the market we’re in, they kind of have to write to that. I think we’ve done some cool, simple spots. I was very comfortable in Texas, and getting ready to push out into national stuff, try to get to that national-type creative, and then I got sidetracked with this stuff. I think this stuff is sound, but it’s not like this crazy good national commercial stuff like Zack does, you know.
AVC: You’ve said your acting career got rebooted when Steve Zaillian sought you out of the blue for All The King’s Men. The Washington Post even said he spent two months trying to find you, because you were so far off the radar. Why, after all this time, did he specifically want you so badly for that role? What was in it that only you could give him?
JEH: You know, I’m not sure. I asked Steve that question when I flew out to meet him. And he was like, “Well, I remembered your work from 20-odd years ago, and I always felt there was something about it. I thought you might be right for this, and I wanted to see what you looked like now.” And then he said, on this bizarre side note, “And you know, I called Sean [Penn] and said, ‘Hey, who do you think of for Sugar Boy?’ And Sean said, ‘How about Jackie Earle Haley?’” And he’s like, “I just wrote his name on a short list yesterday.” And so it was bizarre that they both thought of me independently, and I had been gone for 20 years, or 15, or whatever it was.
AVC: Did you learn anything as a child actor that’s helped you as an adult actor, either in terms of performance or surviving in Hollywood?
JEH: Well, certainly as an actor. I don’t know what I could say specifically, except that everything I’ve learned as a kid of course must somehow play into what I do now. I think when everything kind of drifted away, I had to go out into the world and learn how to emotionally be okay with all that, which to me was a decades-long process. But also I happened to find my way in life, to find a living, to figure out what I wanted to be when I grow up. I think all of that now probably helps me. It probably gives me more life experience to draw from.