The "serious" super-heroics that earned the billion-dollar Dark Knight's Heath Ledger an Oscar (RIP, Joker) and repulsor-rayed Robert Downey Jr. back to stardom would never have been possible if Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' graphic novel masterwork, Watchmen, hadn't gotten there first — more than 20 years before, in fact. Operating in an alternate 1985, in which the Cold War threatens to erupt into nuclear Armageddon and Nixon is still president, Watchmen's outlawed "heroes" range from well-meaning but impotent to violently psychotic. The latter description pertains to the book's most popular character, the washed-up, but nonetheless determined vigilante Rorschach — portrayed in the film by former child actor Jackie Earle Haley, who you might remember as Kelly Leak, the cigarette-smoking, motorcycle-riding teen badass in Bad News Bears.
Glenn Romanelli, founder of the fansite watchmencomicmovie.com, has followed the production of Zack Snyder's (300) much-anticipated Watchmen from the beginning. Though Snyder's credentials or Matthew Goode's accent as übermensch ex-hero Ozymandias provoked staggering amounts of Internet bitching, the casting of Haley generated nothing but fanboy praise, adulation and high hopes for the adaptation that many decried as impossible. Romanelli credits this to Haley's acting pedigree — not just his recent Academy Award nod for Little Children, but reaching back to his 1976 breakout role.
"When Bad News Bears came out, everybody wanted to be Kelly," Romanelli says. "He was the cool kid; he was a badass. It's kind of cool that it's come full circle and [Haley's] playing Rorschach, one of the classic comic badasses. Rorschach could make Batman cry."
When I tell Haley this during our recent phone interview, he just laughs.
"I don't know what to say to that," he says. "I'm such a nice guy. I don't know how I end up playing the badass all the time."
Like his character in Bad News Bears, Haley's always been something of an acting underdog. He began his work in commercials at age 5, eventually guest-starring on The Partridge Family and Marcus Welby, M.D. Despite two Bears sequels and a sleeper hit with 1979's Breaking Away, the maturing Haley faced diminishing feature film opportunities in the '80s — his most significant role was opposite Tom Cruise in the 1983 teen-sex comedy Losin' It. Haley would work sporadically for the next 10 years, but eventually gave up acting and pursued odd jobs — pizza-delivery man, limo driver — until he settled down in Texas and found success directing TV commercials.
Then, in 2006, director Steve Zaillian unexpectedly cast Haley as the menacing Sugar Boy in his remake of All the King's Men, which was followed by his critically acclaimed portrayal of child-sex-offender Ronnie McGorvey in Little Children — and he's been back in the acting game — a quickly rising star, actually — since.
Watchmen enthusiasts have been fantasy-casting the film adaptation for more than 20 years, against a backdrop of false starts and scrapped productions; everybody from Edward Norton to Doug Hutchinson to Simon Pegg has been wishfully Photoshopped into Rorschach's blood-stained trench coat. But when Warner Bros. fast-tracked Snyder's production, Internet chatter suggesting Haley for the role grew loud enough that the actor — a self-admitted comic-book novice — took notice.
"I don't think I had ever read the book, but I'd seen the Rorschach character and stuff, and I was immediately fascinated and interested," Haley says. "And then when I heard Zack was doing it, I actually decided to kind of get all over it."
Getting "all over it" entailed putting together an audition tape, complete with a makeshift costume and Haley's first stab at Rorschach's iconic rasp. His zeal paid off: Soon after sending the tape, Haley was invited to the Watchmen production office, where Snyder equaled his enthusiasm. "We sat and talked — he was showing me his storyboards, and telling me about his vision," Haley says. "Boy, it was just super-exciting. And about a week later, he called me up and offered me the part. Needless to say, it was a super-thrilling moment."
Haley peppers his speech with earnest "boys" and "supers" — a complete 180 from the taciturn Rorschach (aka Walter Kovacs, aka grimness personified). Of all the Watchmen protagonists, Rorschach's backstory is the most tragic: The son of an abusive prostitute, young Kovacs suffers through a hellish childhood that prompts him to adopt a moral code in warped black-and-white. In addition to reading the script, Haley dove into the graphic novel as a way to get inside Rorschach's screwed-up psyche.
"I can have obsessive ways, you know — but nothing like this guy," Haley says. "It's almost this process of just kind of digging into his abyss. I think my own shit would come staring back out as well, but it seemed like I was more focused on him. ... There was so much complexity in his mother's behavior towards him, and so much bullshit behind it, that she would hide behind the gray and victimize her kid. I think that it just tweaked this guy to such a point that he became absolutely alone. If it weren't for being a masked adventurer, he'd have no purpose in life at all. If it wasn't for Nite Owl, he really would just be horribly alone."
Patrick Wilson, who co-starred with Haley in Little Children (though they had only one scene together and no lines), plays Rorschach's former crime-fighting partner, Nite Owl. "It was kind of neat, because when I got to the set, the only person I really knew and had worked with before, the only person who was a friend — at least at that time — was Patrick," Haley says. "That was kind of a cool little personal parallel to the character."
In the novel, mild-mannered Nite Owl plays foil to Rorschach's moral absolutism, and offers a chance for Rorschach to climb out of his self-created chasm. Though always an intense personality, Kovacs doesn't truly snap until he investigates a kidnapping, which leads him to child predator Gerald Grice — a perhaps darker version of Little Children's Ronnie. Rorschach is never the same after he leaves Grice's home, and filming the scene shook up Haley as well.
"The scene with Grice, the child molester — that one was just very unsettling. I've never done a scene in a flick that was just so unsettling, and I've done some pretty unsettling things," Haley says, carefully avoiding spoilers. "With that particular character, Rorschach had to, uh, do some things ... part of [the scene] we did with the actor, and then there's a life-size dummy that we do some of it with. And when I was doing this scene with that dummy, it was so real — and it kind of made me twitch a little."
Haley's no stranger to playing misanthropes and outcasts (in the upcoming Martin Scorsese film, Shutter Island, he plays — what else? — a criminally insane hospital patient), and delving into the psychology of Rorschach wasn't a problem. But what about the physical challenges of playing a street-fighting vigilante who spends most of his time with a giant sock over his face?
"On one hand, as an actor, you're kind of covering up your main tool," Haley says. "But at the same time ... when you don that mask, there's something kind of internally motivating about it. At a certain point you just throw on that outfit, and you're Rorschach."
The 47-year-old also had a "blast" working on Rorschach's many fight scenes and perfecting a style of movement for the character, benefiting from his black belt in Kenpo martial arts, which he began studying more than 10 years ago. "I'm kind of intermittently active," Haley says of his martial-arts skills.
Haley — who met his third wife, Amelia Cruz, in San Antonio, Texas, his home — is relatively active in that city's nightlife. In addition to his rising-star status, Haley owns and operates JEH Productions, a San Antonio-based studio that produces commercials and other media for area businesses. Even with his new status as an in-demand character actor, Haley remains committed to his directing gig.
"I've got some wonderful clients here [in San Antonio], and I love helping them with their commercial-production needs," Haley says. "It's been nice and centering for me, too, 'cause I'll disappear for months at a time, work on something, then come back and get re-centered."
Chuck Kerr is on staff at our sister paper, the San Antonio Current. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.