Among the many, many jarring images in Kevin Smith’s new man-becomes-walrus horror opus Tusk, there is at least one that shouldn’t haunt your nightmares: Haley Joel Osment all grown up and podcasting. Like the majority of the planet — except maybe fans of IFC’s The Spoils of Babylon — you likely have an indelible mental image of Osment as a hauntingly adorable preteen telling Bruce Willis, “I see dead people.” But outside the Netflix queue, time marches on. While Osment was perhaps the defining child star at the turn of the millennium, he is now well into one of those second acts that F. Scott Fitzgerald told us American life doesn’t afford. Not only does Osment play Justin Long’s pod partner (who incidentally steals Long’s heart-stopping girlfriend, Genesis Rodriguez), he’s a Canadian Nazi in Smith’s next film, and he has a key role in the desperately anticipated — especially here at Grantland — Entourage movie.
But if anything will drive home the point that the movie times have changed, it’s sharing a round of mint juleps with Osment at an L.A. steakhouse swanky enough to deserve its own Dos Equis commercial. The former child star now eagerly dissects the Dodgers’ playoff chances with one breath and the changing business landscape of Hollywood with another, with plentiful loquacious asides that betray how, for him, normal meant growing up on a string of blockbuster movie sets. His face still retains the distinct outlines of his former persona but now there’s a much deeper voice and rampant intellectual curiosity. An infamously Internet-inspired riff on one of Smith’s notorious SModcasts, Tusk seems like the last film Osment the younger would ever have done. Still, it’s bizarrely compelling — part of the horror is how hard it is to look away from Walrus Justin Long — and the mad delight seems to be precisely what excites Osment these days. That and watching Johnny Depp ham it up as a looney tunes Quebecois detective opposite Michael Parks’s devious psychopath sailor.
After a while, the bourbon kicks in, and that indelible image of the young Haley Joel Osment slips away as I catch his mind wave, surfing along his digressions, musings, and anecdotes. What remains is an industry veteran who could be an Entourage character in his own right, adapting to the changing media landscape and perhaps uniquely suited to the brave new film world signified by movie likes Tusk.
Tusk is quite literally an insane film. But once I heard about what it was, there was no way I wasn’t going to go see it. How did you hook up with Kevin Smith and wind up doing this movie?
Well, a long time ago he had me in mind for something that didn’t end up being made, but I was one of the last people to get attached. I was out at dinner on a Sunday night in New York and I got this voicemail from my agent and manager and they were laughing on the phone, “Oh man, we have this movie for you.” It already had Justin attached, Genesis, Michael Parks, and then Johnny Depp’s name was in there. I was like, “I’m probably going to do this,” and I didn’t even know what it was about. I didn’t know the whole Walrus podcast story. And the way the script was originally ordered, you just had 50 pages of character development, so by the time you got “he’s turning him into a Walrus,” it was a genuine surprise for me! But the way he wrote it, you were willing to go with it. I mean, if this had been pitched to me as just “the walrus” movie, I’d be like, “I don’t know …”
Funny, that’s the draw now — it’s Kevin Smith’s “walrus” movie. But in its way, it’s a dementedly brilliant hook. But the film isn’t just bizarre in that way —
Yeah, in so many others! Like, the scene between Johnny and Michael … it’s like what the hell is happening with this movie.
That was its own brand of insane. I’d love to have been a fly on the wall watching those two shoot that scene. You weren’t there for that, were you?
I was there for that! I was shooting later in the day but I came early ’cause it’s Michael Parks and Johnny Depp doing a scene together. In the screening last night, I was pointing out to my girlfriend, “I’m standing right behind the shed.” Both me and Genesis were there, like “Let’s watch these two act!”
Did Kevin just let the camera roll while they went at it and not yell cut?
Pretty much. But they didn’t go off script, really.
Well, Kevin changes [the script] so much, you never know if that was something he came with on the day, or they just pushed it … but they definitely pushed it. The voice Michael did was something he invented on his own. And Johnny had asked Kevin, “Can I wear a prosthesis?” and Kevin’s like, “Sure, do whatever you want.” So [one day] he walked into the trailer and he just had that nose on and said, “Come closer — do you see the vein?” “Yeah.” “It looks like a penis, right? “Yeah, it does!” “… I always wanted a penis nose.”
And this whole time all he had to do was make a Kevin Smith film. I actually interviewed Kevin once before, it’s amazing how he can just talk and talk—
I went to his SModcast once in San Diego and it went till 4 a.m. in the morning.
Right, he can just go on and on! Is that at all how he directs?
You know, it was not a film with a huge budget, so we shot very efficiently. He talks very openly about how smoking weed is part of his process, but he’s one of those people where he’s very efficient. He smokes and it’s not so much a diversion from the plot as layering stuff on top. Like the big Genesis monologue in the film was something where there was a small moment in the scene with us and Ralph Garman, where Ralph asks, “Do you think there’s some sort of sexual angle [to Justin Long’s disappearance], like an affair?” And we both feel guilty. Just from doing that, Kevin then says, “I want to do this thing where Genesis confesses her mixed feelings.”
He just wrote that on the fly?
Overnight. Then with Justin and my podcast scene, there was this whole scene we learned. Then he was like, “Something’s changed for me, I’m going to add new stuff” — and he came back with 20 pages of stuff! Now with a monologue, that’s doable. But a back-and-forth like that? We were sweating all day trying to get it done. And Kevin’s not a stickler; he’ll say, “Don’t worry about it.” But I want to worry about it. I want to get it right.
Do you go watch him do the podcast to study for the role?
I didn’t have time. I got the script a matter of weeks before they started shooting and they were already down in North Carolina. I had listened to his podcasts before, just not the Walrus and the Carpenter. The second day after Justin and I had gotten to know each other, we had to put together our podcast scene, so during that day it was just us messing around. We knew we had to get to a giggly place, so it was just us, saying, “Have you seen this funny video? Yeah, have you seen The Room?”
That freakish walrus suit: Did you try it on?
Nobody wanted to get near it. Justin was such a brave guy. I saw him walking around with just the head, it was creepy. It was cool. Genesis and I didn’t really see a lot of him in the suit, and then when we had our scenes, it was a shock.
Yes, that image will never leave my brain. Thank you, Kevin Smith.
And he’s said that! If it had been “Let’s turn a man into a horse,” you go, “meh.” But there’s something creepy about a walrus. It has anthropomorphic qualities.
Oddly, it stays with you in some ways more than The Human Centipede.
Luckily, we don’t have too many scatological references going on.
How was it working with Johnny Depp? His character is insane and it’s fun to watch him having fun. He should do that more often!
That’s what was so cool to see is that he is someone who has so much fun doing it. He tweaks every little aspect. In our scene, there were things that he did — he’s such a master — things that are picked up on camera that I missed sitting across from him. He had the fake belly and the beret and the nose …
Whenever someone finally tries to adapt Infinite Jest, he needs to play Marathe, the double-double agent Quebecois wheelchair assassin.
You think people are really going to do that, adapt Infinite Jest?
That’s a good idea; I never thought of that.
You got some pretty amazing roles right off the bat: Forrest Gump, The Sixth Sense, A.I.
I got very lucky, yeah.
People have all of these preconceived notions of what it means to be a child star, but I want to ask you, what was your subjective experience growing up as you made all these huge movies?
It became in an odd way, the most normal thing. Being on those film sets, run by people like Steven [Spielberg] and Night [Shyamalan]… Steven particularly had experience with young actors, so he had this instinct of trying to keep a family atmosphere. So, a lot of those things typically associated with kids who act — I had no familiarity with. It was like going to a normal high school. It was a legitimate job. We weren’t going out to parties and publicity as much as it was working on the script and doing all that. Sometimes people ask me, would you ever want to do something else? But a movie set is where I’m most comfortable now. It’s just the place I want to be.
But you also made a point of going off to college. Did that change your idea of what you wanted to do professionally? In fact, it seems like what you did as a child and what you’re doing now are two totally different careers.
That was a big part of it. You totally throw away all the momentum you have when you go and do something like that. It takes time to come back. The studios aren’t going to go to you and say “Welcome back!” after five years.
Glad you went to college!
Yeah [laughs] we want to see your college degree before we hire you! But that was where I was able to think clearly what I wanted out of it. And I studied theater, not film, which was cool because it was very different. It’s also interesting, because as I have had a better idea of the sort of work that I want to do, the world has changed so much since I started college.
The film industry’s definitely changed. It’s hard to imagine a movie making as much money as The Sixth Sense did without being based on a comic book.
And in 2006, maybe I was like “I won’t do a TV show,” but now TV is where it’s at. Like, I’m excited to be on an Amazon Prime show with a great cast!1 Even though the film industry has contracted and there are fewer films being made, if you have a realistic idea of what kind of money you can raise and you’re not doing a time travel movie with a thousand extras, it’s possible to make your own work now.
It’s funny, where you started on The Sixth Sense and what you’re doing now on Tusk says a lot about how the industry as a whole has changed. Those movies were from a bygone era, and in some ways Tusk points the way to the future.
Oh yeah. Like, we had a month of rehearsal for Sixth Sense. Things that used to happen don’t happen anymore. One small thing with the industry going away from film — even Scorsese doesn’t shoot on film — there used to be a noise [from the camera] and it’s not there anymore. That used to be the thing that said “We’re on now.” Now, when you shoot certain shows, like for Comedy Central, you’re just using a DSLR. The whole system has changed. When we shot Entourage, they actually shot it on film, so the whir came back.
Speaking of Entourage, I know there’s a lot you can’t tell us, but what can you tell us? You play a villain, right?
Yes, I play a character. It’s not a cameo. It’s a whole plotline where Billy Bob Thornton and I are two outsiders to the Entourage world and we basically give Ari a lot of trouble: We’re like the money for something …
So you’re the money guys?
Yeah … I think that’s not overstepping the line. But it was cool because everyone’s so familiar with these characters. Going on that set really was like a bunch of old friends from high school. Doug Ellin is such a cool presence — there’s a real straightforward East Coast–ness to it. Those guys are East Coast guys and it was a really fun environment to be around, people who have fun with their jobs.
I feel like in order to make that show — that’s both fictional but captures a certain reality about the industry — you have to be straightforward.
Yeah, and it’s definitely influenced that reality.
Right, the way people started patterning the way they talk after Tarantino films when they first came out.
Yeah. And Kevin has done that to the culture, too, in a way.
Definitely, I knew people who’ve patterned their speech, inadvertently or not, after Kevin Smith.
One of your Grantland colleagues, Chuck Klosterman, had a great essay about the Unabomber and his manifesto where he said true freedom is having none of that influence from TV and movies. Chuck had this great point: If you try to imagine something that hasn’t happened to you, you’re not really imagining it, you’re putting in an image you’ve seen in television. Being part of this industry, it’s amazing how much we’ve penetrated global culture. I was in Togo with friends studying in West Africa and people knew the movie there.
The Sixth Sense?
Yeah. You think there are places where it doesn’t penetrate, but it really does.
Well, it made $672 million worldwide and that was back in 1999.
Yeah, the movies were like $5 back then.
I’m sure people come up to you and say, “I see dead people!” all the time.
Oh yeah. One time, I was in Dubai with a friend who’d grown up there — right around the opening of the Burj Khalifa. One night we went to this Lebanese bakery in the backstreets away from the glitzy part of Dubai. And one of the guys came out from behind the counter and he goes: “You are … Jodie Foster!” And I went, “Yes, nice to meet you.” He knew the category but just had a different name.
Oddly enough, I see how he got there.
Here’s one: I was at Dodger Stadium and they did movie quotes, and they had Yasiel Puig do the line. I didn’t even know he could speak English that well! Then they showed the scene and they had his head superimposed on me in bed. But the one that really stunned me was the one in Togo where the woman waved me down from her shop and knew who I was.
OK, can I ask you more about the Entourage movie? We’re obviously very excited for it.
And I know you may have to give a non-answer; just have fun dancing around the question, if so. First, does Ari Gold become CEO of Time Warner?
[Laughs.] Eh … I can’t go into that. I can tell you that Jeremy Piven is a big fan of Bulletproof coffee! He had a stand on set, that was cool. Ari’s plotline, and that’s the plotline I’m a part of … most of my stuff was with Jeremy and Billy Bob. Most of my work was just three guys in a room talking.
Remember how the series riffed on current events in Hollywood: Does the film kind of riff on the current state of Hollywood at all or take that into account?
Yeah. They take it into account. I believe [this is] the way Doug would put it: All the good kernels of pleasure from the show people want are in the movie, but it’s taken up to the scale of the movie. And I think it’s fair to say it takes into account the fact that the show started in 2004 and now it’s 2014.
All right, I can see you’re dancing! But anything else you can say?
There are zebras and ostriches in the movie. That’s a true statement.
You heard it here on Grantland first: There will be zebras.
[Laughs.] Right, when P.T. Anderson was on it, it was called There Will Be Zebra! … Oh, and I’ve heard Jerry Ferrara has seen it and he says it’s great. I can tell you we had a blast making it.
So, is that what you’re excited to do now, more villain-type characters? I mean, you’re playing that Canadian Nazi [in Smith’s next film].
Yeah. I wouldn’t call my character in Entourage a villain per se, but doing those sort of bad-egg characters, characters that are very much id. And in Spoils of Babylon I was an evil guy. Those characters are so fun. Aside from the age difference, when I was a kid, I was playing characters that were the moral center of the universe; it’s fun doing the opposite now.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.