Comeback Kid

Gone Guy: The Return of Haley Joel Osment

He became the second youngest Oscar nominee ever for his turn in The Sixth Sense. And then he disappeared. The child-acting prodigy opens up about his “comeback.”

Daniel Zuchnik

Haley Joel Osment is crestfallen. It’s not because of his acting career; that’s doing just fine. Nor does it involve the deluge of stress (Rent! Ebola! Time Warner!) that is New York City livin’, which he’s weathered for the last eight years. This current bout of despondency concerns the Wu-Tang Clan.

Last month, Osment was all sorts of psyched up to check out the Staten Island rap collective’s much-ballyhooed “reunion show” at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. The last time he’d seen the Wu was at a tiny show in 2010 for about 100 people at the V.O.F. Milkbar in Amsterdam. And Osment, like any east coast hip-hop head, loves the Wu.

“They played for like… 17 minutes,” says Osment. “They played three songs, I went to the bathroom and came back, and the lights were on. It was mostly a Lil Kim concert, and some Bone Thugs-N-Harmony.” He sighs. “It’s OK though. I’ve had my fair share of Wu-Tang shows.”

In addition to the Wu-letdown, the Internet lost its collective marbles when tabloid sites ran photos of Osment dressed like a Nazi. He looked, well, grown up, with a fuller face and wider frame—an appearance that stood in contrast to that indelible one of an adorable, terrified child who, clenching a pink blanket and eyes welling with tears, whispers: I see dead people.

His performance as a mini-medium in The Sixth Sense, shot when he was just 10, earned Osment an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor, making him the second youngest nominee ever in the category. But that was fifteen years ago. Those recent pictures didn’t depict him pulling a Prince Harry; rather, they were set photos from the movie Yoga Hosers, Osment’s second collaboration in a row with filmmaker Kevin Smith. He’ll play an exaggerated version of Canadian Nazi Adrien Arcand in the gonzo satire opposite Johnny Depp and his and Smith’s daughters, who portray a pair of ass-kicking, evil-vanquishing teen yoga fanatics.

Osment laughs off the Internet reaction. “One challenge in this industry is that you adopt a certain look for a movie, and then people don’t get to see the movie for a year!”

Part of the reason for the shock and awe can be chalked up to Osment’s absence from the public consciousness. The last film most people probably remember of his was the underwhelming sexagenarian comedy Secondhand Lions back in 2003.

I meet Osment at a coffee shop in Greenwich Village for lunch. The precocious, ethereal child has grown into a cool, easygoing 26-year-old whose eyes light up when discussing the current state of Animal Collective or the culinary splendor of Sushi Nakazawa.

He is experiencing quite the resurgence of late. First there was his arc as a reporter on the Amazon series Alpha House last year, followed by a brief stint on the IFC spoof show The Spoils of Babylon. Then came his turn as a wiseass podcaster in Kevin Smith’s horror flick Tusk, which opened last month. His latest film is Isaac Feder’s romantic comedy Sex Ed, in theaters Nov. 7. Osment plays Ed, a 23-year-old who lands his first teaching gig as an instructor at an inner-city school for a class of very pubescent teens. Once he realizes that they haven’t received a lick of sexual education, thanks to the efforts of a local pastor who’s suppressed the program, he decides to school his hormonal adolescents in sex ed. The problem? Ed is a virgin with about as much real world experience as his pupils.

They shot the film in 20 days, which forced Osment—who’s in nearly every frame—to change his wardrobe in front of the camera on set. Since it was a micro-budget movie, the cast and crew stayed at the Ramada Inn by the parking lot of the Tampa International Airport. Besides the funny script, part of the reason Osment wanted to do the film was to highlight the need for sex ed in schools.

“Too many people don’t get sex ed,” says Osment. “I grew up in California, so we had sex ed. But a lot of my friends who went to all-girls high schools in California received the ‘abstinence-only, masturbation is wrong’-style of sex ed, which is crazy in the 21st century. The correlation between abstinence-only education and things like teen pregnancy, STDs, etc. is remarkably clear.”

Osment’s childhood was, he insists, pretty normal. He went to public school until the 7th grade, and then attended Flintridge Preparatory School in La Cañada Flintridge, California. By that point, he’d already been nominated for the Oscar and starred as a robotic boy in Steven Spielberg’s (by way of Stanley Kubrick) futuristic saga A.I. Artificial Intelligence. He was paid a hefty $2 million for the role, and his poignant performance made Roger Ebert gush, “Osment, who is onscreen in almost every scene, is one of the best actors now working.”

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Last year, he ran into Spielberg at an event for the film Lincoln. The legendary filmmaker, who Osment views as a mentor and friend, approached him and said, “I love that the kids from my films go off to school, and come back,” referring to him and Dakota Fanning.

“So much of Steven’s career has been dedicated to seeing the world through the eyes of a child, so he was very caring when it came to the young people he worked with,” says Osment. “People hear the examples of kids who work when they’re young, have bad experiences, and then have a rough life after that, but a lot of it is just about the people around you. A lot of those kids who had problems in the ‘80s and ‘90s sounded like they were around exploitive, predatory people.”

Much of the reason for Osment’s absence from the public eye has been college. After Secondhand Lions, he focused his energy on finishing high school strong, taking four AP classes and a bevy of entrance exams. Eventually, he decided to put his multimillion dollar career on hold to attend the Experimental Theatre Workshop program at NYU Tisch, since it not only offered the city, but also the opportunity to take time off for projects if the need arose.

“People I’d worked with in movies were like, ‘Are you sure this is what you wanna do?’” says Osment. “My Mom would have strongly encouraged it even if I hadn’t been into it because she’s a teacher and is into education, but it’s just something I wanted to do. At the time, I intuitively knew that, from a social perspective, these are the years that you really make some of your closest friends. And I knew that I wanted to keep acting, so these are also the years that you meet a lot of people you’ll be collaborating with for a long time to come.”

ETW afforded Osment the opportunity to experience a different, more improv-heavy style of acting than he’d experienced on film sets, as well as a creative space to develop and conceptualize projects (he’d like to direct). Sam Shepard served as an advisor at ETW, and he’d often bump into Spike Lee grabbing bagels at the deli across the street, since they shared the same break. That two of his college pals, Sarah Sutherland and Alex Anfanger, are now experiencing success with the HBO series Veep and the upcoming Comedy Central show Big Time in Hollywood, FL, respectively, has him beaming with pride.

“It was really the right thing to do,” says Osment. “Running around with no direction is never good, and it was great to have something to keep myself focused on during a very tumultuous period in anyone’s life. So I basically went off for five years and wasn’t even trying to audition, so in Los Angeles you have to start from scratch again. But strangely enough, a lot of things started falling into place.”

In the film world, it was really Kevin Smith who brought Osment back into the fold with Tusk. Smith had felt very discouraged by his experience on the studio flick Cop Out, where he butted heads with—strangely enough—Osment’s Sixth Sense co-star Bruce Willis. His feud with Willis, which Smith has made no secret of, forced him to turn his back on the studios and stick to podcasting and creating low-budget horror flicks where he wielded total creative control. Tusk is the first film in a planned True North Trilogy that will also include the Canada-set horror-comedies Yoga Hosers and Moose Jaws, both of which star Osment as sleazeballs.

One role he’s very excited about is his turn in next summer’s Entourage movie, which he calls “crazy” and the “capstone” of his revival. He plays another “unsavory “ fella—the entitled son of Billy Bob Thornton’s character, both of whom serve as the film’s antagonists that make Ari’s life a living hell.

“Now that I’m in my mid-20’s and not going for teenage roles, the roles are frankly much more appealing,” says Osment. “You don’t get to play these gritty, unappealing guys when you’re in your teens.”

He pauses. “People enjoy a reintroduction like that. I’ve never been trying to dispel the notions people have about my early roles or erase that because I’m proud of those movies, but change is a fact of life, so I think there’s some fun to be had there.”