Haley Joel Osment recently finished playing a Canadian Nazi. “It’s based on a real guy named Adrien Arcand, who was a Hitler admirer in the ’30s and ’40s,” the actor explains to us. It’s for the curiously named “Yoga Hosers,” the second in a planned trilogy of Canada-set films by Kevin Smith. The first, “Tusk,” featured the Oscar nominee as the friend of a guy (Justin Long) who’s turned into a walrus.
These aren’t the kinds of films one might have expected of the young, very serious star of “The Sixth Sense.” After “Secondhand Lions,” which teamed him with Michael Caine and Robert Duvall, he took some time off — nine years, as it happened. He’s since been popping up exclusively in supporting, sometimes small roles in small movies. He made his comeback as a flamboyantly gay friend in 2012’s “Sassypants.” He does a fair amount of comedies, including character in the upcoming “Entourage” movie he says is the farthest he’s ever played against type.
“For the last two years I’ve been getting a cool variety of characters,” Osment says. That’s one perk of not being a kid. “There aren’t a lot of bad guys who are 12. Every year I get older the opportunities broaden. I now get to play the weirder adult roles.”
That’s a great thing. “That’s what’s been fortunate about the roles I’ve gotten in the last couple years: They’re all over the place.”
He doesn’t have a huge role in “The World Made Straight,” a low-key drama set in 1970s North Carolina. He plays the friend of the main character (Jeremy Irvine), a rapscallion who does little but get drunk or high. “He’s just somebody who hangs out a gas station, throwing knives at a stump,” he says.
He talks about his method for playing someone from the South, from which much of his family hails. He says he likes to prowl the Internet for help with his research. “For finding that specific North Carolina accent, YouTube is invaluable. You can find people now or from the ’70s, when the movie takes place,” Osment explains.
Despite a long break from movies, Osment wasn’t kicking back. He did theater, including a brief stint on Broadway in a production of David Mamet’s “American Buffalo” opposite John Leguizamo and Cedric the Entertainer. And he spent four years studying theater at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts — this, again, with an Oscar nomination under his belt.
“I always had the attitude that there was a lot more for me to learn,” he says of going to school. “That’s what’s fun about acting: you learn throughout your entire career.” He studied experimental theater and even wrote and directed his own pieces — work he hopes to one day turn into movies, directed by him. “I know most people don’t want to hear actors say that,” he says, laughing.
Talking to Osment can be a touch surreal, not only because he’s far from the 11-year-old who Hoovered up awards aplenty, but because he comes off as a friendly, well-adjusted 20-something without the chip on the shoulder presumed to be attached to every former child star. He’s open about his old performances.
“I’m really proud of those films. They’re not films I’m trying to dispel from people’s minds,” he says. “It takes time for that to not be the overriding image people have of you. If people identify you with a younger version of yourself it takes time to change that.”
He says he carries over all he learned from his young performances. “I got really lucky working with those actors and directors,” Osment says. “Even when I was a kid they’d be very giving, making sure I was learning and getting along. They didn’t necessarily treat me like a kid. They were really open and generous about their processes.”
One older film that wasn’t as well-received off the bat, but which has always had its share of defenders (including this writer) is “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence,” the sci-fi epic directed by Steven Spielberg from a project started by Stanley Kubrick, in which he played a robotic boy. He remembers repeatedly visiting the Kubrick exhibit at LACMA. “I was surprised that there was an entire room of the conceptual drawings Kubrick made from the early ’90s — things Steven so faithfully carried out when he made the movie,” he says.
At the time some were harsh on the film, especially the third act, which jumped to the even more distant future. “A lot of people thought the third act was something Steven added. But it’s there in the conceptual drawings Stanley had done,” he says. “Some of the darker stuff people think is Kubrick’s, when it’s actually Steven’s, like the flesh fair. It was a neat collaboration because the two of them were focusing on things that people might not necessarily think they could do. Steven thought of it as a Stanley Kubrick production of a Steven Spielberg film.”
And it’s stayed with him: “As i’ve grown older my relastionship to the film — when you actually have life experience and aren’t just 12 — it’s continued to evolve for me.”