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From Exile And Back

Jackie Earle Haley, all but forgotten, now has Hollywood's attention.

January 31, 2007|Lisa Rosen | Special to The Times

JACKIE EARLE HALEY had been away from Hollywood nearly as long as he was in it. The actor, who got his start doing TV commercials at age 6, is best known as the motorcycle-riding tough kid in "The Bad News Bears" and the frustrated blue-collar townie Moocher in "Breaking Away."

But the good roles soon dried up, so Haley took a break -- for about 13 years. How times have changed. Now, the 45-year-old is celebrating his supporting actor nomination for his role as Ronnie J. McGorvey, the creepy sex offender who somehow still earns your sympathy in "Little Children." Director Todd Field and Tom Perrotta, who co-wrote the screenplay based on Perrotta's book, are nominated for best-adapted screenplay.

What was the audition process like?

When Todd got my audition tape he was considering me, but he told me, "The end is a little different, so I need to see it." So I flew to New York to audition. I had worked with Kate [Winslet] on "All The King's Men," so when Todd told her I was being considered, she was so supportive. She said, "If you have him come in and read, I'll come in and read with him." She came in and read my audition. They offered the part to me in the room.

How did you prepare for such a difficult role as Ronnie?

There's so many things that I had to do, but one of the main things was really focus on my own life and dig up a bunch of stuff and look at it. There's so much emotion going on with this guy. A lot of times when you prepare for a role, you focus on the character's thought process, so that it can drive the emotions. But this time, there was so much emotion I did it the other way. I focused on the pain and the loss, and the things in my life, so I could get to the emotional places I needed to go and hand them to Ronnie and have the emotions drive his thought process instead of the other way around.

Which scene was the most challenging for you to play?

Off the top of my head, every scene seemed to keep getting worse and worse, so really, every scene. It's such an actor's role, such a well-written role and well-written movie. If you're going to spend time practicing this craft and pouring out your heart and soul, to have such a well-written role to do it in is just unbelievable.

So many actors try to stay in character in set, did you isolate yourself to stay in character?

Each and every day and each and every scene is a little different for me, and sometimes I would stay a little bit more in Ronnie's mind frame and kind of isolate, sometimes I'd find that was what I needed to do today, and that was helpful. Sometimes isolating myself was cutting off my responsiveness, so I'd need to interact with the others. There's no one way -- what works one day, the opposite may work the next. It's a process of sticking your emotional toe in that day and seeing how it feels.

Have other offers started pouring in already?

Some have started to come in, and we're reading scripts, the activity's been amazing. For me, where I've been and what I've experienced in life, the fact that offers are coming in, I can't tell you how this feels. Three years ago it seemed impossible, the notion of trying to figure out how could I get back into acting, so today, my God, is that even possible? It just doesn't seem real.

What was it like working with Todd Field?

Incredible, every step of the way. First, you've got to start with "In the Bedroom." When you know your filmmaker made "In the Bedroom," then you read the adaptation he wrote with Tom, you're so blown away you figure there's no way you're going to get the part. Miraculously, you beat the impossible odds and get cast in the part. You've got this amazing filmmaker and this amazing script. It starts with these hour-long conversations with Todd and you realize you can absolutely put your faith and trust in this man, in terms of his vision about Ronnie and the whole movie. I don't think I could have been in any better hands. He's the real deal.

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