Shout-out to the pedestrians of downtown Manhattan for not bothering Haley Joel Osment with the Line. You know the one. The one about the dead people and seeing them. (I hesitate to even type it out because Osment is reluctant to utter it out loud, as though it were a Voldemort-level incantation.) You’d think someone who recognizes the still-baby-faced (though voluminously bearded) Osment would shout it out at him. But no, the pair of folks who clock the 29-year-old during our brief walk to a classy little restaurant in Soho were quite polite about it. The first asked for a photo, then immediately recanted before Osment could respond and merely wished him well. The second hit the nail on the head, lightly yelling, “I love you in Silicon Valley!” Osment smiled, presumably confident about that performance in the HBO hit, in which he plays a charming-but-sinister tech “It” boy. It’s the latest stage in a resurgent career that has included roles in Alpha House, Tusk, The Spoils of Babylon, and the British drama Oasis. Over steak tartare, tuna poke, and French fries, I caught up with Osment about his 25-year career, what he’s been up to while he’s been off the average person’s radar, how his most famous role might be in a video game where you never even see his face, and, of course, the Line.
Haley is an unusual name for a gent. What’s the story behind that?
My parents just pulled it out of a baby-name book! To this day, I have still not met another Haley who is a guy. I know Haley Dekle from the Dirty Projectors, who spells it the same way — a lot have I’s or Y’s in the middle — but I’ve never known a guy with that name. My parents were both born in Birmingham, Alabama, and come from large Catholic families with lots of Michaels, Marks, and Patricks, so they wanted to choose two names that I don’t think you could find anywhere else in the family tree: Haley and Joel.
What was home life like growing up? Was there talk of pursuing the arts?
Yeah — my dad ran a theater from the mid-to-late ’80s on Santa Monica Boulevard. I was really young when he was doing that, but I knew what his job was. My mom teaches sixth grade and also taught first grade at one point. She’s into dressing up and costumes and designing her own curriculum that way. She stayed home for about eight years with me and my sister when we were young before going back to teaching, so we had a lot of time with her. She taught us to read really early.
When my editor came to me with the idea of interviewing you, I think she was approaching it as a “where’s this guy been?” type of thing, but you were actually fresh in my mind because I saw your performance as the best friend in Kevin Smith’s Tusk, the movie where Justin Long gets tortured and surgically turned into a walrus. I was watching it and kind of lost it when you came on, like, Oh shit, is that Haley Joel Osment?
Oh really? Yeah, we had so much fun making it.
It’s an upsetting idea, and I was laughing because me and [co-star] Génesis [Rodríguez] got to run around with guns and [co-star] Johnny Depp and wear normal clothes — but Justin … That walrus suit, man! That was tough. You know the little bouncy ball with the handle you have as a kid? He was perched over that and they built the walrus body around him! It was a physical feat.
So that was in 2014. What else have you been up to? What’s your stock answer when people ask where you went?
There was this five- to six-year period when I was at school [at NYU] and I was not appearing in a lot of things. I did an indie film, I did a show on Broadway when I was in college that was not that successful, but going away to study was not a tough decision, because I always knew I wanted to go to college. And with my mom being a sixth-grade teacher, I was definitely going to college. Skipping it was out of the question. I always knew you can go to college at any point in your life, but there’s a unique opportunity when you’re 18, to go to a new city and have the opportunity, for me, to make sure this is what I wanted to do and focus in purely on the craft and not the business side of it. It ended up working out great. It does take some time to come back to L.A. and be in the conversation for those roles, but it was a price I was willing to pay.
How did you fall into the business in the first place?
It was pretty much an accident. I was at the Burbank Ikea, and it’s so weird that they’d do this because I think if you saw this now, you’d be like, “What?” But they had a casting table with two women taking Polaroids of all the kids who would come into the store. [Laughs.]
That’s kind of horrifying.
I guess our stranger-danger knowledge was poor in the early ’90s, as a society. [Waiter stops by to take order; Osment orders steak tartare and fries.] I love how they pressure you here into getting more stuff! “Come on? Is that all you’re gonna eat?”
So you’re in the Ikea and somebody has a booth where they’re taking pictures.
Yeah, right by the play place in the little-kid area for them to go when the parents shop. They took a Polaroid and nobody thought anything of it until we got called to do a cattle call at one of those kids’ commercial things. We went, and from that audition, within a couple of weeks, I was doing a Pizza Hut commercial for Bigfoot pizzas, a promotional pizza they had. Just from that commercial, the casting director for Forrest Gump got in contact with us and I was reading with [director Robert] Zemeckis and Tom Hanks pretty soon after that. It all kind of snowballed from there.
And that all took place over the course of like, a year?
Probably less than that. If I’m remembering the dates correctly, it was end of ’92 and we were shooting Gump by summer ’93.
I know it’s a long time ago, but what was your thought process then? Were you thinking, “This is great?” or “This is terrifying?”
No, it’s always fun! Not terrifying or scary. It’s funny because — and it’s kind of true today in a lot of ways — the time you spend making these is relatively short. So I went to regular school throughout everything, all the way through high school, and ended up doing college and everything. We couldn’t have been shooting Gump for more than two weeks. I did some network comedies after that, and that was a really great, regimented schedule. It was mostly during the summer: You had three weeks on and a hiatus for a week, so you’re either going back and forth from school or just doing it in the summer. It was just a crazy world to be thrown into.
And though the world barely makes sense for anyone at that age, did you have the sense that you were living an unusual life?
I think so. When I was in elementary school, it wasn’t overwhelming or weird, but kids were aware of the movie and everything. I also got lucky because even when it got down to The Sixth Sense and I was in sixth grade, most of the people my age were too young to have seen it, so I was still having a relatively normal school experience. I think it helped overall because the audience for those movies was a little older, so it didn’t make my teenage years especially difficult.
So kids never went, “Oh, there goes Mr. Actor, he thinks he’s so much better than all of us?”
No! The kids were all really nice and there was no bullying.
Did you have a sense of why directors liked you, or why you stood out so much? Other than the fact that you were adorable, which you still are.
[Laughs.] Honestly, being prepared. Not just knowing the lines. My dad’s a smart guy and we’d talk about the characters and the script and everything, so being able to talk to them about the motivation behind the character and stuff like that was a big help. I just went into things with a bit more prep because I enjoyed learning those stories. A script like The Sixth Sense is fun to read: It’s so well-written and you get a vivid sense of what’s going to be onscreen.
How did your casting in The Sixth Sense come about?
That script was going around town and I think it was evident to pretty much anybody who read it that it was something special. When I read it, I’d never read anything like it before. It was probably pushing the subject matter and maturity of anything I’d read or seen. I think that’s one of the best examples of how lucky I was to be able to prepare with my dad. When we were rehearsing the scenes before I went to audition, he said, “Technically it’s a horror movie, but it’s not so much about the horror of death, but the fear of not being able to communicate with other people.”
Oh, good call.
He’s a smart guy! Having that going on beyond the scares and the startling moments, that pervading sense is what made the movie connect with a lot of people. I went into the audition with that, reading first with [producers] Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall, and then eventually with [M.] Night [Shyamalan].
There and elsewhere at the time, did people treat you like a kid or like an adult?
I got very lucky because I can’t think of any instances when there was a director or producers who were condescending in any way, or used tricks and manipulations to get me. I’d heard in the past of stuff like the boy in The Shining not knowing it was a horror movie, and there were ways to trick kids into doing things. That wasn’t the case with these directors. Another great thing is that those big studio movies gave us the luxury to meet with Night and the whole cast for weeks before we started shooting, talking at a leisurely pace about things, rehearsing scenes. We did it with A.I., too. The whole cast went to Steven [Spielberg]’s house in the Hamptons over the summer and had these long conversations, and rehearsed the physicality. When you have that kind of preparation, it makes such a big difference when you’re building the product.
When you were doing The Sixth Sense, did it occur to you at all that this was going to be a big deal for your career?
I don’t know. Honestly, we all knew it was going to be good. Right before it came out, I was at the press junket having lunch with Night and he said, “I think word of mouth will get us into the top three at some point in the next month. We’ll have good word of mouth and it’ll grow.” Nobody saw the huge run that it had coming. And even funnier, a lot of the time, people were saying the line that everybody knows from the movie, but nobody was like, “This is the tagline!” We didn’t see it as the tagline. There’s no highlight on it in the scene. It still amazes me that it’s on the AFI list of catchphrases next to Humphrey Bogart. Jesus! [Laughs.]
Did you do much rehearsing of your reading for that line, or was it just another line?
No rehearsing, not at all. I guess even at this age now — and I’d love to make my own films at some point — I like to think about the atmosphere on that set, where everybody really feels like a team and knows you have a good project and all you have to do is not get in its way and get along, and you have something special. Night was my age now when he wrote and directed that: He was 29. To be doing that with those producers, and Bruce [Willis], and the pressure of all that, he handled it so beautifully. And just in terms of performance, staying completely within the reality of the scene and not thinking, Oh, we have to hit this because this is going to be the signature line of the movie!
When did it become clear that the line was going to be a big deal?
Not immediately. I don’t even remember what the original tagline was, but at one point I started seeing posters that quoted the line and it almost felt jarring, but then I was like, “Oh, it kind of makes sense.” It really hit me the year after, when Tiger Woods did a Chrysler commercial where he rolled up in the car and rolled down the window and said the line and I was like, “Oh.” I was watching golf and I saw that! [Laughs.]
At what point did you start to become sick of it?
I don’t think I ever got to that point. That whole year, with the awards stuff and everything [Osment was nominated for best supporting actor at a number of awards ceremonies, including the Academy Awards, for his role in the film] was … not a blur, but so many different things. You have to travel as this unit with the other people who aren’t necessarily traveling together, but they’re with all the people who are nominated in your category. My category that year had Tom Cruise, Michael Caine, Michael Clarke Duncan, and Jude Law.
Not too bad!
Pretty awesome to be going to the luncheons with those guys. I got to work with Michael Caine two years after that on Secondhand Lions. Cruise called the house and talked to my parents for a long time.
Yeah! Just a nice, nice guy. And Jude, who I also worked with after [in A.I.] — that’s so crazy, I got to work with two of those guys, like, really soon after we made it. I’d never met Jude before the Oscars, but I’d just met with Spielberg to have the first talks about A.I. And at one point [during the award show], Jude Law came over to my seat and was like, “Hey, I hear we’re playing robots in a movie!” It was this secret we had.
So when you were doing the awards push, how did you process that at that age? Was it like a game to you?
I guess I had an early awareness of it, but I remember watching the Oscars when Forrest Gump won, so knowing that, you could go, “Oh, that happens to movies.” But by the time you get to the Oscars it’s the very end of the awards season. Most of the time, I would be more nervous about presenting things. You want to hit the right mark and not Adele Dazeem anything. I do remember, I was sitting in the aisle, and I jumped out of my seat when everybody stood up to applaud. I knocked the old seat rest off the thing and it hit Clint Eastwood in the next row. Hoo boy.
Not the actor you want to mess with.
You don’t want to draw down on Clint, yeah. [Laughs.]
So you do Sixth Sense, it becomes a cultural phenomenon, and then you do A.I., which was met with a more mixed response. For what it’s worth, I love it.
How did that role come about, and what were you told about your character?
That was maybe one of my favorites, if not my favorite thing I’ve done so far. It was such a long process. I met with Steven in ’99, trained to scuba dive in 2000 for all the underwater shots we did, then stayed with him and rehearsed over the summer. It was more than a year, the process of doing it. You got to spend a lot of time digging into the character. Characters have arcs, but he, like, transforms throughout that movie. He gets emotions for the first time and all that. Sustaining that performance over a year was a big challenge.
What was the hardest scene to pull off for that? I’m assuming it was a scene where you had to scuba dive.
No, no, those were the most fun! I wish it was Jaws, when nothing worked and we could be on the Cape for months. The hardest was finding the right tone. I mean, there are emotionally devastating scenes like when Frances O’Connor leaves me in the forest, but those weren’t hard to get because the stakes are so high emotionally that I don’t think we had to try too many times to get there, the two of us. That’s always a good, paradoxical feeling, because you make yourself feel like crap and then immediately afterwards you go, “We got it!” It’s a weird, weird thing. The tough scene was after me and Jude see Doctor Know’s message and I want to press on, but he doesn’t want to go there, and my character gets angry at him for the first time. That was a really tough thing because it had to be exactly right. If I got too angry, it wouldn’t feel natural and I would be like a human being instead of someone who’s not quite there yet. I remember that being the biggest challenge. But I think we got it.
At the time, who was protecting you from child-star-curse situations? Family? Other people?
With the directors and producers I worked with, that instinct was definitely there. My parents were always on set and they very quickly had the right attitude towards it. We weren’t doing anything outside of the movie and press because I was going to school and doing normal kid stuff. My parents always emphasized school more than anything. My mom harbored hopes I’d go with my original job choice when I was a small kid and be a veterinarian. [Laughs.] I think she wanted that until my teenage years.
Having a child act in a movie is one thing, but then forcing them to do a fucking press tour, yeesh. How hard was it to do those?
They really looked after me. A huge improvement in the world today is that I much prefer having this long conversation with you than doing like, 70- to 90-second TV spots, which is the way it was for a while. Those days were long, but it would be for like one week, or one weekend of the year. I remember when we did Sixth Sense, we just cranked them all out, doing all domestic and international press. I guess it’s good practice because now I don’t dread the press tours. It’ll always be better than, “How was it making this movie? Who did pranks on set? What’s next?” The three questions!
Oy, the pranks question.
Somebody’s got to do a special on that, where that came from. Can we blame George Clooney and Matt Damon for their well-known pranks? “Everyone must have a story like that!” When we did upfronts for Spoils of Babylon, Tobey Maguire and Kristen Wiig were talking about that, and for the whole press tour we’d throw that at each other. “So, who pulled pranks?” “Who was the biggest jokester?” “What pranks did I pull on set?”
So you went off to school at NYU’s Experimental Theater Wing in the mid-aughts. What was your audition monologue?
I did the opening from The Libertine and some other one that is a little bit more obscure. I actually talked to Kevin Spacey about that and he suggested those two, so I used the ones he suggested and I got to talk to him about it.
Part of my interest in college was I wanted to go and get some experience with writing and creating work. At NYU’s ETW program, that was their signature thing. You do a lot of self-scripting in the later years, and in your final year, you can do an independent project. It’s pretty expansive what you can do. One guy invented a sport! But a lot of people do plays or performances, so I wrote and directed a one-act play, which I directed my friends in. I started to make work that hopefully I’ll be able to put in motion at some point in the future.
While you were at college, were people weird about the fact that you were who you were?
No. The cool thing about ETW is that people came from all walks of life, with different strengths and experiences. A lot of people were way more experienced. I had high-school stage experience, but some of them had way more. I also think I benefited a lot from the fact that we were just inching into the Facebook era. I had a flip phone until I was 25 and I didn’t use social media until that age, either.
Wait, sorry, you did high school theater while you were a movie star?
What were you in?
Probably the best one we did was The Laramie Project. We did it the year they published it, in our black box. That was a good production. We had fun with that one. I did some musicals. I was in Damn Yankees, Pippin, Jesus Christ Superstar, in which I played Judas.
Did you automatically get whatever part you wanted?
Oh no! There was age hierarchy, so on Jesus Christ Superstar, I was a senior. But in seventh and eighth grade, you’re in the chorus in some random role.
One thing I want to talk about is Kingdom Hearts, the video-game franchise you star in, in voice form. It’s been coming out with new installments since 2002, and it’s still going. In some ways, you could argue that’s your most famous role because it’s such a huge franchise.
There was this great moment when I did [John Logan’s play] Red [in Philadelphia] and we had a student field-trip performance. It was all sixth and seventh graders in the audience, and they did a Q&A afterwards. The play’s about Mark Rothko and painting, and every question was a variation of, “When is Kingdom Hearts 3 coming out?” I was like, “Wow, this game is really persistently popular!”
How’d you get the gig?
We first did it in 2001. I think they just offered it to me, and now we’ve done like eight various ones. I played the first two and then when I got to college, there was one year where I played a lot of Halo, and I was like, “I should not make this a habit.”
And the character gets older with you.
And then he gets younger! So around the second and the 2.5 one, I had to make sure I could make the voice go down to age 11, which is a challenge. But in the third one, we did Kingdom Hearts 2 in 2005, and I think it’s a 120-hour game. We did sessions for many months, and the first time I went in there, the Japanese producers brought in this big vision board with four timelines: “Your character goes in a portal back to the past, and there’s this other planet” … very complicated stuff. I like that it kind of subtly gets kids ready for very complex plot structures.
When did you decide you wanted to jump back into the screen game?
I was always ready to go back to doing it. I loved living in NYC and enjoyed doing theater. I was doing Red in Philadelphia. L.A. is a great city, but it’s really easy if you grow up there and then move to NYC to be like, “Oh, this is a real city! I’m going to be here all the time!” When I was doing Red my agent was like, “Can you please move back to L.A. for a time?” It’s so hard to be around for meetings and auditions and everything. I spent more time there starting in like, 2013, and that’s how Spoils and Alpha House happened and Entourage and everything, so since 2013, it’s been a pretty nice string of things.
Let’s talk about Silicon Valley. How did it come to be?
I auditioned for it last fall and didn’t know a lot about the character. The audition scene was just the coffee-bar scene with T.J. [Miller] and we have the brief exchange. I didn’t know until we got to the table read and I got the scripts for all the episodes that he would be a VR guy and he’d have all this stuff. This character’s dominant trait is he’s a guy who wants to feel good all the time, and when he doesn’t feel good it’s confusing and upsetting, so he has to find out how to start feeling good again. In the scene before he gets them to agree to his offer, he’s like, “I was feeling sad! And then I was feeling mad! And then I was feeling bad! And then I had a sandwich and I started feeling good again!” He’s living in the moment, so I zeroed in on that.
When did you start growing the beard? It’s perfect for the character.
It ended up working! I didn’t know if it would work for the character, but [Silicon Valley creator] Mike Judge was like, “Go with it.” It ended up going well with the Hawaiian shirts and flip-flops and all that.
When did you start the beard?
It started with Entourage two years ago. I’d shaved it since then, but on [the ITV series] Oasis I was a weed farmer in the future, so I thought, “Oh, this feels appropriate.” If Oasis goes on and we do more Silicon Valley, I’ll end up keeping it for the next year or so.
How much is script-based in Silicon Valley and how much is riffing?
It’s pretty scripted. Most of the riffing is just tags on the end. Everyone is great. Zach Woods took the cake for being the hardest not to crack up at, because that character is so innocent and he’d always say the darkest shit at the end. I hope the line made it in when Richard was like, “He got you pajamas!” and then Jared goes, “Once they have your clothes off, they can do anything.” He throws in the weirdest stuff at the end.
What do you want to do next?
I’ve had all these great opportunities to do these indie projects, and Spoils is a mini-series, but I’m really interested in getting on a show that runs for a couple of seasons and to dig into a character that way. Also, to provide a little bit more predictability to where in the world I’m gonna be. The last five years have been great because I’ve been working a lot, but it’s been like: Tampa, Charlotte, Dallas, Toronto, all these random places. It’s fun doing that, but to have something where half the year I’m in this city doing this thing actually frees you up to be more adventurous the rest of the year. I can focus on getting some of my stuff produced and just moving toward the future.
This interview has been edited and condensed.