Dinner with the Haleys

When actor Jackie Earle Haley missed our interview appointment during the first weekend of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, it would have been easy enough for him to just go along with his publicist’s story that a blown plane connection caused the problem.

But the former child star has been through enough troubled times to have learned the value of facing the cold hard truth and accepting responsibility for your problems. So when he called a few days later, an hour before he was due to participate in a “Conversations With…,” he takes full blame for the mistake.

“I’m so sorry. I simply forget to look at the e-mails,” he says over his cell phone before inviting the reporter to join him and his wife, Amelia, for dinner at Joe’s. “With all that’s going on, I just put it aside.”

What’s “going on” for Haley is, of course, a well-deserved Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor for his role as a just-paroled sex criminal in “Little Children.” Haley likely won’t take home the Oscar (Eddie Murphy has laid claim to that honor, having swept virtually every pre-Academy Award prize, just as Helen Mirren, Forest Whitaker and Jennifer Hudson are thought to have locked up their acting categories). But it’s a safe bet he’ll still feel like the luckiest loser in the land when Oscar night is through.

That’s because before 2006, Haley hadn’t even acted on film in more than a decade. A teenage sensation back in 1976 when he portrayed the motorcycle-riding Kelly Leak in the “Bad News Bears” trilogy (including “The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training,” Montecito resident Paul Brickman’s screenwriting debut), Haley also played Moocher, one of the four blue-collar kids that anchored the classic coming-of-age movie “Breaking Away,” which was nominated for Best Picture of 1979.

But his status as a teen idol faded as the years rolled on. No longer the cute kid, Haley struggled to find appropriate roles, and quickly succumbed to such fare as an episode of “The Love Boat” and forgettable TV movies like “Miss Lonelyhearts,” plus the dismal early Tom Cruise vehicle “Losin’ It.” Soon enough, there were no parts at all.

“It’s a tough transition from child star to adult actor,” Haley says between bites of beef stew. “But I don’t think I helped my own cause. When I turned eighteen, I started to get bills. It’s scary when you don’t know where the next rent check is coming from. So the first B-movie job I took led to a ‘C’ job, and then it was downhill from there. The truth is, I ruined my own career.”

Desperate to stay connected to the movie biz any way he could, Haley took on menial jobs such as limo driver for his former colleagues, but the proximity was a trap, the memories too painful. Eventually he gave up acting altogether and moved to Texas to run his own TV commercial production company.

“My self-identity was attached to who I was when I was younger,” he explains. “When that celebrity took a dump, my self-image went with it. I had to get out of town to work through that turmoil. I looked at all that stuff, and got OK with just being Jackie and living inside my own skin.”

Fast-forward nearly a decade. Haley’s company is doing well, he’s settled in his new life, and just married and off on his honeymoon, when out of nowhere, director Steven Zaillian called to offer him the part of Willie Stark’s fiercely loyal bodyguard in last year’s remake of “All the King’s Men.” Then Todd Field cast him as the disturbing yet somehow sympathetic ex-offender in “Little Children.” Although it had been years since he had stepped in front of a camera, Haley knew he still had the chops.

“Several years earlier, I’d dropped in on a friend’s acting class just so I could remember what it was like and maybe be better at directing actors for commercials,” he says. “I did this scene after prepping for just thirty minutes. And I literally felt this bubbling sensation in my toes that came all the way up my body and flooded into my heart. It was a real cathartic experience. It was the craft of acting I was feeling. When I walked out of there I said, ‘Wow, I’m an actor.’ That didn’t mean I needed to be in the movies. But I realized that no matter what I do for a living, every once in a while I need to go do a scene, or perform in a two-man play, just something to keep that alive in me.”

That sense of longing permeates his portrayal of Ronnie in “Little Children.” Haley first tried to understand the role by researching sex offenders, but found he couldn’t find the connection. Then he looked within.

“He suffers such great loss, and pain and self-loathing and low self-esteem,” Haley says. “I went back in my own life and uncovered those things within myself, those periods of my life where I’d experienced that.”

Now, just two years after he thought he’d never see Hollywood again, Jackie Earl Haley is an Oscar nominee, although he still needs to pinch himself every once in a while to make sure it’s real.

“Amelia came running in the bedroom right after they announced it, and she’s in tears, crying ‘You got it. You got it.’ I broke down too, and we held each other for five minutes, just weeping in each other’s arms,” Haley remembers. “It was truly an overwhelming emotion to think it wasn’t that long ago that just the idea of acting professionally again seemed really impossible and now the Academy has actually nominated me.”

If it sounds like Haley isn’t bitter about the lost years, it’s only because he’s already processed that feeling.

“All those years, when I’d go to a movie, there’d be this little bitty pang inside,” he says, almost done with the meal. “I’d think, ‘I wish I could do that again.’ But I’m so grateful my life went the way it did, because there’s been so much growth and learning. If I’d been a successful actor all the way from age twelve, that would have put up a wall between me and the rest of the world. You’re sheltered when you’re so successful so early. How can you go out and play all these characters who are struggling when you have no idea what that feels like? Now, that toolbox is there whenever I need it.”

Meanwhile, with Haley back on the A-list, offers have been rolling in for future roles.

“I’m figuring out what I should do next,” he says, then stops, fork in mid-air. “Man, just to hear that coming out of my mouth – it seems so unbelievable.”