There are many sad and cautionary tales of child actors in Hollywood that enjoyed great success in their early careers, only to have it fizzle out as they aged, with no way back in.
For a while, Jackie Earle Haley appeared to be following the same path, but thanks to his enduring acting talent and an unexpected opportunity 16 years ago, he is now back and thriving in the movie industry. He’s worked with Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, been nominated for an Academy Award, and stepped into the shoes (or, rather, bladed work gloves) of one of the horror genre’s most iconic characters.
Haley was recently in the Cayman Islands filming ‘The Retirement Plan’, produced by Productivity Media and Darius Films, and starring Nicolas Cage, Ron Perlman, Ashley Greene, Ernie Hudson, Joel David Moore, Rick Fox, Lynn Whitfield and Cayman’s very own Grace Byers. The Cayman Compass spoke to him about the ups and downs of his career, the highlights of his stay here, and why he feels “incredibly fortunate and grateful” to be doing what he loves.
Haley first appeared in popular TV shows of the ’70s like ‘The Carol Burnett Show’, ‘The Partridge Family’ and ‘The Waltons’, before being cast in the role of Kelly Leak in ‘The Bad News Bears’, released in 1976. The film starred Walter Matthau and Tatum O’Neal, and was a certifiable hit with critics and at the box office. The comedy about a baseball team of young misfits, being coached by a lazy, beer-swilling, former minor league player, was popular with audiences of all ages, and the Kelly Leak character – a rebellious kid who rode Harley-Davidsons and played a mean game of ball – made Haley a teenage heartthrob and recognisable star. It looked as though his future success was assured.
“Acting and showbiz and storytelling were always part of my life,” Haley said, adding that his father had been in radio.
Two ‘Bad News Bears’ sequels followed, as well as the critically acclaimed 1979 film ‘Breaking Away’ with Haley as Moocher, one of the lead roles. There were also various TV appearances in-between, but then offers started to become sporadic and eventually dried up.
Haley admitted that having great success when he was very young, only to have it stripped away when he was in his late 20s, was difficult.
He found himself trying to get an agent at the age of 28, only for one to bluntly tell him that he should disappear until he was 40.
By the early 1990s, the agent’s advice became prophetic. The roles just weren’t there.
Rather than bemoan his situation, Haley decided to pivot to a different career. He moved to San Antonio, Texas, got into the production business, started a new company, and happily settled into a different life, still able to tap into his artistic creative side with TV commercials, web video and branded entertainment.
An unexpected offer
By 2004, things were going well for Haley, both in his professional and private life. His production company was busy and he was newly wed to Amelia Cruz. In fact, they were on their honeymoon in France when his business partner back home phoned to say that director and screenwriter Steven Zaillian had been calling, expressing interest in Haley for a part in an upcoming film.
Haley said he would call when he got back to the US – he’d had such calls before which had come to nothing, and he was on his honeymoon.
When he returned home, he made an audition tape and sent it to Zaillian.
“It was weird for me, as I hadn’t acted in a while,” Haley said.
Next thing he knew, he was being flown out to meet the director. Turned out Zaillian had remembered Haley’s work from 20 years previously and had put him on the short list for the role of Sugar Boy in ‘All the King’s Men’, a film based on the Pulitzer prize-winning novel of the same title by Robert Penn Warren.
In a remarkable coincidence, Zaillian had also called Sean Penn, the lead in the film, to ask who he saw playing Sugar Boy. “How about Jackie Earle Haley?” came the answer.
According to Zaillian, Haley’s audition tape was “spot on”. What with that and the endorsement from Penn, it looked like this was in the bag.
Zaillian leaned over the lunch table, and the actor prepared himself for the offer.
“‘I can’t hire you for this movie right now’, is what he said,” Haley recalled with a laugh.
Apparently the part had already been cast, due to the delays getting hold of Haley in the beginning.
“Steve then said, ‘I don’t know if I can work this out’,” Haley added. Thankfully, in the end, he could and did. A couple of weeks later, Haley got the offer and he was in.
The second act
On the strength of his role in ‘All the King’s Men’, Haley was asked to audition for a Todd Field drama, ‘Little Children’.
“I sent Todd an audition tape, and he invited me to come to New York to do the scene,” Haley said.
Kate Winslet, who had starred in ‘All the King’s Men’ and was already on board as the female lead in ‘Little Children’, offered to go to New York and read with him. After the audition, Field gave him the pivotal part of Ronald James McGorvey on the spot.
The film garnered great reviews, with critics lauding Haley’s work.
“… Haley’s boldly implosive performance will haunt your dreams,” said Rolling Stone, with The Guardian adding, “The most extraordinary performance is that of Jackie Earle Haley, who’s even more unprepossessing in appearance than Paul Giamatti, as Ronnie.”
Apparently, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences agreed. Haley got nominated for an Academy Award and was now firmly back in the spotlight.
Choice parts followed thereafter. He was Rorschach in the highly-anticipated film version of the ‘Watchmen’ graphic novel, then George Noyce in Scorsese’s ‘Shutter Island’, starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
In 2010, he took on the coveted mantle of Freddy Krueger for the ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ reboot.
Although he doesn’t have a particular genre preference, Haley admitted there is “something fun about playing unhinged characters”. He said taking over the role of Krueger from Robert Englund was “super scary and an honour”.
“I’m glad I did it,” Haley said, adding that at the beginning, it was seven hours in the makeup chair. They eventually managed to get it down to just under three hours.
Since then, the actor has added ‘RoboCop’, ‘London Has Fallen’, ‘The Dark Tower’, Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’ and ‘Alita: Battle Angel’ to his resume – among other projects – along with a recurring role as ‘The Terror’ in ‘The Tick’ TV series.
Haley was profuse in his praise when talking about filming in Cayman.
“The experience has been incredible on many fronts,” Haley said. “It’s brilliant that [the] producers and government saw the opportunity here.”
He was also impressed with how the Cayman government has been handling the COVID situation, including the strict quarantine period.
“[When we emerged from our room] and stepped out into the hotel, it was a rush,” he said.
“It was so amazing to step into a COVID-free world.”
He said that work of this nature elsewhere in the world comes with stringent rules. “People can’t really interact,” Haley said. “To get to come here and have it feel like 2018… like normal. We’ve been to great restaurants and no one is paranoid.
“It’s paradise. Beautiful beaches and beautiful water.”
He also talked about the fun of hanging out with the other cast members and going for meals together.
“We’ve been to Pappagallo, Grand Old House, Camana Bay… it reminded me of making movies 30 years ago. Our close proximity brought us together.”
Haley and his wife seek out local experiences wherever they go, and so their driver directed them to Welly’s Cool Spot where they had “unbelievable” curry chicken and plantain.
“I’ve been in fancy restaurants, and none of their plantains live up to Welly’s,” Haley enthused.
He said the view never got old from his room at the Kimpton Seafire, and near the end of his trip, he reacquainted himself with the joy of scuba diving.
“I took a refresher course at Divetech,” he said, “and on my first dive, I saw an octopus, turtle and stingray. I was an idiot for not doing it earlier.”
Haley managed to get a final dive in before leaving the island, and was fortunate enough to spend some of it in the company of sharks.
Having made friends while working in Cayman, he is hoping to return sometime.
“I would absolutely come back here and work here,” he said, when asked if he felt Cayman had a future as a filming location. “It’s a great place!”