A boogeyman lurks at the edges of somnolent suburbia in Todd Field's "Little Children." More shadow than man and seldom glimpsed outdoors in the daylight, Ronnie J. McGorvey is the breathing incarnation of parents' nightmares. He once went to jail for exposing himself to a minor, and although the details remain murky -- above all to his neighbors, who spray-paint taunts on his sidewalk and do their best to chase him out of town -- his past transgression sets in motion undercurrents of fear and loathing that drive the narrative.
"When I was thinking about casting this role, nobody came to mind," Field said recently. "He's a mystery character, so I had to find an actor who would serve that mystery." His eventual pick was Jackie Earle Haley -- a 45-year-old former child actor best remembered for his teen rogue parts in '70s films "The Bad News Bears" and "Breaking Away." The choice came as a surprise -- above all to Haley, who had spent the last 13 years in San Antonio directing television infomercials and running a postproduction company.
Steven Zaillian triggered Haley's return to acting, turning to him for a memorable supporting role in "All the King's Men." Field's call followed. Both roles, but especially his unnervingly soft-spoken Ronnie in "Little Children," have unexpectedly relaunched Haley as a character actor.
His gaunt visage and frightened eyes summon Ronnie's paradox: a frightened man-child who lives alone with his adored mother but whose existence frightens every mother and child in town.
"I had to dig incredibly deep to find this guy," Haley says over the phone from his San Antonio home.
"It was emotionally draining. There are many things about Ronnie that I'll never understand -- but I can relate to his love for his mom. She's really all he has, and their love for each other is incredibly real."
The relationship helped the actor grasp this difficult part. "I found myself calling my own mom and basking in her special, forgiving kind of love," he adds. He also rehearsed furiously with a San Antonio actor friend for months leading up to the shoot and, once on the set, relied on advice from actor-turned-director Field to "shake off the rust" accumulated during his nonacting years.
Ronnie's frail, tentative mien and Chaplinesque shuffle mark an astonishing transition from the kinds of roles Haley inhabited on screen "a whole other lifetime ago," he says.
Idolized by regular pimply teens, his then-trademark antihero was slight, freckled and greasy-haired, equally equipped to sass a grown-up or woo a girl with a mere shrug. Haley looked terminally cool flipping open a lighter and kick-starting his motorcycle as juvie delinquent Kelly Leak in the original "Bears," but playing Moocher in 1979's "Breaking Away" is perhaps his crowning achievement from the era. His naturalistic performance as a working-class high school grad in a small Indiana college town simmered with unexploded frustration.
But once he left his teens, Haley's Hollywood career sputtered badly. After a decade's worth of increasingly ridiculous bit parts in B movies, he threw in the towel and skipped town in the early '90s. "I disappeared ... moved on. Got out of show business," he says.
He was honeymooning in France when, seemingly out of the blue, Zaillian sent word that he wanted Haley to play a quirky character called Sugar Boy in "All the King's Men. "I was flabbergasted," the actor says. "I had to ask him, 'What made you think of me?' And he said, 'Well, I just remembered you from your roles!' " "King's Men" star Sean Penn, with whom Haley appeared in a Broadway play in 1983, remembered him too and lobbied for him.
The initial break swiftly begat more opportunities. "Great words," Haley says, came back from Martin Scorsese, who saw his audition tape and swore he would have put him in his upcoming film "The Departed" had he not filled all the appropriate parts. Scorsese's casting director got on the case and put the actor in touch with Field. Haley has since acquired an agent and a manager. "It's amazing how many people came to my aid and helped push this thing along," he says.
Field marvels at Haley's enthusiasm on set: "He'd bring reams of paper -- ideas, questions -- every day," he says. "Never one word of complaint, but always -- 'What do you want me to do next?' You gotta love an actor who wears his heart on the sleeve and tells you, 'I'll go anywhere.' "
Haley, an L.A. native, got his start doing TV commercials at age 6. His father, Haven Earle Haley, was a radio show host turned actor. "He was never super successful at it but he certainly loved it," Haley says. "Tagging along with dad to acting classes definitely lit a fire under my little thespian butt."
The young actor made his on-screen debut at 11 in "The Outside Man," a French caper scripted by Luis Bunuel collaborator Jean-Claude Carriere, in which he found himself on the receiving end of a memorable double-slap from Jean-Louis Trintignant.