Jackie Earle Haley was a teen star when he was 15 and a has-been by his 30s.
And then, suddenly, having ditched the business for 15 years, he once again finds himself a valued commodity – an Oscar nominee, co-star of a hot TV show, working with Scorsese, now taking on one of the best-known horror-movie characters in a remake of a huge horror hit.
Indeed, Haley says, he was standing on the red carpet the other night at the premiere of “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” in which he assumes the role of Freddy Krueger, a serial killer who stalks teens in their dreams. And for a moment, he had a deja-vu flash.
“I stepped back for a moment and thought, ‘How did I get back here?’” Haley, 48, says. “We pulled up at the premiere and it was surreal. How did I get here again? It’s awesome. It’s bizarre.”
As Freddy, the razor-fingered demon who haunts adolescent sleepers, Haley continues a chameleonic return that kicked off in 2006, when a phone call out of the blue plucked Haley out of San Antonio, Texas, where he’d moved to start a new life – and ignited the second half of his career.
He experienced “trepidations and excitement” about taking on Freddy Krueger: “But excitement overruled,” he says. “Look, one guy brilliantly owned this role and made it a cultural icon. It’s scary and exciting to step into his shoes. And what an honor it is to play Freddy.”
How do you improve on Wes Craven’s original film, which starred Robert Englund as Freddy? “It’s more a re-envisioning,” Haley says. “When I met with the director (Samuel Bayer), we both agreed that, over the years, the films had gotten more comedic and campy. Sam said, let’s go back to the original and make it more scary, more serious.”
Aside from enduring lengthy daily make-up sessions to get into the burn-victim visage of Freddy, Haley also had to cope with the razor-finger-glove appliances that Freddy wears – like nail extensions the size of small scythes.
“It’s tough to do anything with those on – like going to the bathroom, or holding a can of Coke,” he says.
When he wasn’t working on “Nightmare,” Haley was doing publicity for “Watchmen,” working with Martin Scorsese on “Shutter Island,” or filming weekly episodes of the Fox action-adventure series, “Human Target,” playing Guerrero, a slippery intelligence operative with a number of extra-legal skills.
As he spoke, Haley hadn’t heard whether “Human Target” would come back for a second season. But he was hopeful the series would be renewed.
“I like doing it – they do a great job with it,” says Haley, whose character is as adept at lock-picking as at computer-hacking. “I love the popcorn quality of it – that it’s a popcorn show but it works and it’s fun.”
A Los Angeles-area native, Haley began working steadily before he was a teen, first in series-TV work, then with a stand-out role in John Schlesinger’s “The Day of the Locust” (1975), when he was 14. At 15, he played one of the defining characters of his career – good-hearted juvenile delinquent Kelly Leak in “Bad News Bears” (1976), a role he repeated in two sequels. As Moocher – part of a quartet of pals in “Breaking Away,” a defining coming-of-age class/clash take (1979) – Haley seemed to have made the transition from child to teen star, on the verge of playing adult characters.
And then it all kind of faded away. After a short-lived TV series based on “Breaking Away,” Haley found himself taking guest-starring roles on other series, with no movie work coming his way. He eventually called it quits and moved to Texas, doing everything from cleaning swimming pools to running his own production company making commercials.
But writer-director Steve Zaillian thought of Haley for a role in his 2006 remake of “All the King’s Men,” which led directly to Haley being cast as a child molester who has just been released from prison in “Little Children.” The role earned him an Oscar nomination and won him a New York Film Critics Circle award.
Since then, Haley has been working almost nonstop, playing, as he puts it, “mostly unhinged characters – but I like to have a diversity in terms of my approach and do a little of everything.
“I quit completely for 15 years,” Haley says. “I had completely moved on. So I appreciate it more now. Aside from a deeper appreciation of my craft, there’s just a lot less taking it for granted.
“I’ve had three or four weeks off since last May. I’ve literally spent only two or three months at home in San Antonio since last April. I’m not complaining. It’s a great problem to have.”