As is invariably the case with successful child actors, Haley Joel Osment is most recognized for his Oscar-nominated role, at age 11, in “The Sixth Sense.” So even though he is now a 20-year-old NYU student with the facial hair, deepened voice and appetite to match (devouring a basket of bread, a salad and steak frites in under an hour), it can be a bit mind-boggling to hear the boy who used to “see dead people” ruminating on heroin addiction, a topic he researched for his stage debut in the Broadway revival of David Mamet’s “American Buffalo,” now at the Belasco Theatre.
“It can’t be a character I’ve already played before,” insists Osment of his choice to play a junkie. “I’ve always had a certain standard for the scripts I choose.”
In addition to mastering Mamet’s famously difficult dialogue rhythm, Osment’s role as the junkie Bobby proved particularly tricky because he doesn’t possess a terribly high IQ. “Intellectually, this character does not compare with a lot of the characters I have played: He’s not nearly as self-aware,” admits the actor, whose résumé is stocked with child prodigies from films like “Artificial Intelligence: A.I.” and “Forrest Gump.” “When you’re dealing with a character like this, he doesn’t have many ways to express himself. He’s incredibly inarticulate — it makes it a big challenge.”
The son of an actor father and English teacher mother who grew up in Los Angeles, Osment has been in the business since he shot a Pizza Hut commercial at age four. He acted throughout his youth until he took a break from his career to focus on high school. He’s been studying theater at NYU since 2006.
It is an upbringing that has left the young actor preternaturally mature about his chosen profession. So much so that when asked about a DUI he incurred two years ago, he delivers a thoughtful response that would make Mom proud.
“That’s an example of when something happens and being in the business adds certain elements to it that wouldn’t be there otherwise, but in a way, it’s a good deterrent against me being reckless, which is what happened that night. I was lucky that I learned my lesson early,” explains Osment. “It’s unfortunate that, being in the public eye, it sets a bad example, which is one of the worst parts about it.”
“The only thing I wish hadn’t happened,” he continues, “has nothing to do with me specifically. It’s just that that happened at a time when the dialogue in this country was that Hollywood has a problem. And, yes, Hollywood does, because the entire country does…the dialogue needs to happen nationally, not just as a pejorative way of speaking about Hollywood. Because my experience in Hollywood wasn’t exposure to bad things: It was one of the healthiest and safest and best examples of a work environment that I’ve been around.”
And despite his academic commitments, Osment has no intention to abandon it. He has already shot “Montana Amazon,” a “surreal” indie film in which he stars opposite Olympia Dukakis as her sheltered grandson living removed from society. (“Another below-intelligence character,” he grins.) And he is hoping the Nazi-informant film “Truth & Reason” to which he is attached will begin production soon.
“For me, the biggest and only reason that you have exposure in the public eye is because of the work that you do, and that’s the focus for me,” he says. “Not doing things just to promote myself is really big and something my parents instilled in me: it’s work, it’s a job and it’s a wonderfully enjoyable job, but there has to be a sense of purpose.”