In Kevin Smith’s twisted new horror film Tusk, Haley Joel Osment plays Teddy, the podcasting partner of Wallace (Justin Long), the somewhat narcissistic host of their “Not-See Party” show in which they make fun of things they find on the Internet. When Wallace goes off to Canada to track down a story, he tasks Teddy with watching over Wallace’s girlfriend Allison (Genesis Rodriguez), not knowing that Teddy is already on the case in more ways than one. But when Wallace disappears — taken captive by the crazed Howard Howe (Michael Parks), who wants to turn him into a human walrus — Teddy and Allison put aside everything else to find their friend.
Osment is 26 now and has worked steadily in movies and TV since he was six years old, but his big breakthrough came in 1999, of course, as the little boy who sees dead people in M. Night Shyamalan’s box office phenomenon, The Sixth Sense. That led to him working with Steven Spielberg in 2001’s A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, and Osment has kept busy ever since, navigating the tricky turf of transitioning from child to adult actor. He stopped along the way to get his degree in theater arts at NYU, but will soon be seen in four new films, the first of which is Tusk. We sat down to talk with Osment in Los Angeles recently about “the walrus movie,” working with Kevin Smith, The Sixth Sense and more.
Den of Geek: What was your reaction when you first saw this script?
Haley Joel Osment: What’s funny is that a lot of people have said, you know, “How do you say yes to a walrus movie?” and stuff like that. But it really wasn’t pitched that way or at all. I just got a call from my agent and manager saying we’ve got a script for you. I read it immediately and just before reading it, in the email I saw Kevin, Michael Parks, Johnny Depp, Justin Long, Genesis and so I was already primed to want to do it. And the way that it worked in the screenplay — he does a lot of time jumps in the movie but in the screenplay it went a little bit more strictly in chronological order where you just get to know the characters.
You can go through the podcasts seeing the relationship between Genesis and Justin and the emergent love triangle. So by the time we got to the crazy walrus stuff, you know, and you have the lead-up with Howe and his storytelling I was hooked. No part of me said, “Now hang on a minute, are people going to accept this?” Which I think maybe a smarter person might have done, but I pick scripts based on the strength of the characters and the dialogue and this certainly had that.
Was there more stuff in the screenplay for Teddy and that relationship with Wallace that got cut out?
It’s in the movie. It’s just that in the movie we follow Wallace in his travels and then we sort of leap back to Genesis. We leap back to me. And Kevin sort of plays with it more in the final cut which I think adds a little bit more suspense. But from an actor’s perspective you had the roadmap laid out for you very clearly which is kind of nice.
Teddy and Allison are really kind of the moral center of the movie in a way but they’re not exactly the most morally upstanding people either. What was your take on the characters and that relationship?
I don’t think that Teddy is conniving or tricky or trying to sneak in behind his friend’s back. I think the relationship between him and Allison sort of evolves naturally because Wallace treats him like a butler or something, to wait on his girlfriend while he’s out of town, and sort of doesn’t pay attention to her the way he used to in the beginning of the relationship. That creates the circumstance where it shouldn’t be that surprising that his girlfriend cheats on him. But they do have a lot of guilt and even though Teddy is complicit in how exploitative their podcast is, you know, Wallace is the alpha in that relationship and does the harshest stuff. But Teddy certainly has benefited from that podcast too so there’s sort of mixed feelings. No one is blameless for what they do.
Did you make up your own history for Teddy? Some actors like to write out their character’s biography.
I didn’t get too detailed into like what high school they went to together and everything but the backstory that was important for the two of them was just that they were two guys who wanted to come to Los Angeles and be comedy stars and struggled initially and then found success through podcasts which I think is a story that a lot of people can relate to, people who have successful podcasts. Maybe that wasn’t their first career choice. So they had this new sort of thing that sort of defines their careers and it wasn’t maybe what they had in mind and they react to it differently.
So Wallace becomes kind of this alpha guy who likes to sleep with groupie girls and treats people badly. And Teddy, who enjoys, I think, the craft of what they do, sort of recognizes that it’s gotten away and become a vanity project for Wallace.
When did you first see Justin in the walrus suit?
Luckily we kind of didn’t get a full on look at him ever. There’s one, you know, the big reveal when we see him — he’s sort of obscured and sort of hidden and everything. We saw pieces of the walrus costume, you know, all around set when we were doing that but I think it was nice that that part of the movie we didn’t watch him go through that and everything. That was sort of shot separately with him and Michael and everything so that it added a little bit more shock when our two storylines finally converge.
How is working with Kevin as a director? To the world at large he’s this outsized personality. But when it gets into the nitty gritty of filmmaking what is he like on a day to day level?
He has a team that he knows well and trusts, you know. Jason Mewes and everybody, his gang is around him, people that he’s been close to for a long time, so that adds a very comfortable atmosphere on the set. But yeah, he just is sort of a no-nonsense filmmaker. And I’d say that Tusk — and I’m just saying this because I think I’ve heard him say that he normally just likes to make movies with people talking in a room — we have that in here but it’s also got these very strong shot choices and camera movement and everything which he hasn’t done so much in the past. So I think that’s indicative of how much fun he was having and how inspired he is by this unlikely subject matter probably.
Is directing something you might want to do at some point?
Yeah, I did a bit in college. I went to the Experimental Theater Wing at NYU and wrote and directed a small amount of stuff there. But that was a really great experience because you get into self-scripting and my experience in making films and everything is that a script is written very linearly. You have a plot and you have a beginning, a middle and the end. And at the Experimental Theater Wing we did a lot of things of just sort of generating things based on characters that didn’t have a home yet or sort of working from the middle outwards. I came up with a lot of fun stuff there and will hopefully look for an opportunity to bring those two very different sort of ways of making work together at some point.
You graduated from NYU two years ago. How was that experience for you? Did people recognize you?
The irony of it was that moving to the biggest city in the country afforded far more anonymity and freedom than living in LA. And I think that I’m sort of now ruined for LA, you know — it’s easy to criticize the city when you go to New York and everything, and I enjoy being here and my family’s here. But you can blend in in New York a lot and working in the theater there with people who weren’t affected by what movies you’ve done in the past and everything — that was a lot of fun. And then another thing was that I had almost never worked with people my own age in making those films. I was usually the only kid or something. So spending four years with basically the same small group of people, working with those people at that time in your life was a lot of fun and I think a really significant experience for me.
Last month was the fifteenth anniversary of The Sixth Sense.
Yeah, August 6, yeah.
What are your thoughts on the film and the impact it had on your life?
I can’t imagine seeing it again because I saw it so many times. I can’t imagine a time where that’s what I would put into the DVD player or stream. But what I have seen of it since then — from my memory of it which is very strong — it’s still held up and people still enjoy and it had this crazy international lifespan with everybody which is just something to be proud of. What’s interesting is that as time has gone on, just in terms of that sort of premiere that it had and the numbers that it put up and what it did to the culture, that was the last period where that was really possible to have a secret like that (in a film), I think. Nowadays the end would be all over Twitter before we ever got to any movie theater. It really was a surprise to many people who saw it. So that’s kind of a cool thing to think. You can’t do it now. People are expecting it and anxious to ruin the surprise for people.
Let’s talk quickly about a few upcoming films you’re in, like Sex Ed. Is that coming out this year?
Yeah, that’s November 9, a limited release, but in several cities. We’re in, I think, Austin, Tampa, Phoenix, Los Angeles and New York. And then it’ll be streaming, you know, if not that day then soon after. That’s with Retta, Matt Walsh, Lorenza Izzo, Abby Elliott and Glen Powell. Just a really great cast. A sort of coming of age comedy. I play a teacher who’s out of work and wants to teach geometry and gets shunted over to teach sex ed to kids in detention. So the comedy comes through there. We won Best Narrative Feature at the Portland Film Festival, which was sort of amazing.
And The World Made Straight?
That’s with Jeremy Irvine, Noah Wyle, Minka Kelly and Steve Earle. That’s coming out probably early 2015. That’s based on the novel from 2006 and we play Appalachian hillbillies from the 1970s, like pot growers and everything. These guys living up in the mountains. So that was a fun one, yeah.
You also have a role in the Entourage movie, but you’re not playing yourself like a lot of actors have done for the series.
Yeah, I do not play myself. I’m a sort of a villainous character. Billy Bob Thornton plays my dad and we’re sort of making trouble for Ari as he’s trying to get on in his career and with Vince’s career. So a lot of it was just me, Jeremy and Billy Bob which was just work that I didn’t want to end. A lot of fun.
Tusk is out in theaters Friday, September 19.