Rorschach Unmasked - Jackie Earle Haley Talks 'Watchmen'

His name is being lauded as an up-and-comer in the acting world. His peers love him, and awareness of his talent for creating realistic believable characters is spreading across casting agents’ rolodexes like wildfire.

For some, Jackie Earle Haley is an Academy Award-nominated actor for the 2006 film, Little Children where he played sex offender Ronnie McGorvey opposite Kate Winslet. For others he’s “Sugar Boy” from All the Kings Men, another recent role he won acclaim for. But this Black Belt martial artist who started acting as a young child is much more than that. He won fame early on playing Kelly Leak in the original Walter Matthau flick, The Bad News Bears in 1976. He even had guest-staring roles on Shazam and Planet of the Apes to add to his pop culture geek cred.

But the man who left the acting world for 13 years and reinvented himself as a director and producer of commercials in San Antonio, Texas is about to show the whole world once again just what he can do as an actor. Re-energized and excited, Haley was born to play Watchmen's Walter Kovacs, Rorschach, in a way fans only dreamed they’d be seeing on the big screen. It’s a role in fact that the avid sci-fi reader sought out with vigor.

[for Newsarama's first review of the film, click on the link]

Newsarama: Jackie, did you ever read comics as a kid or teenager at all?

Jackie Earle Haley: Not, really. I seldom did. I had friends that loved them in elementary school. I would pick them up and look at them. I would dig the pictures and stuff, but I have always been an incredibly slow reader and I think I always found difficulty with the pace. I’d get 3 or 4 pictures ahead and start to lose my place and have to go back and read real slow – wanted to look at the pictures more than I wanted to look at the words. For some reason I just never gravitated towards them. And when I did start to read, and I don’t know how I did this being such a slow reader, but I started getting into heavy sci-fi, the first book I ever read was The Mote in God’s Eye [by Larry Niven]. From there I’ve kind of been a big three sci-fi reader.

NRAMA: Big three?

JEH: Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clark. I’m bad at cataloguing; I’ve read a lot of others. I will tell you this, reading Watchmen was a complete eye-opener. The process of reading that, and being much older, I discovered the pacing was a little off for me, but only for a couple pages – and then I got completely sucked in. I just really turned into a major geek about it. I probably don’t know as much as other hardcore fans, but I’m really geeking out on this stuff.

Since then, I’ve read, and want to continue reading more of this stuff. I read V for Vendetta – again, first 3 or 4 pages a little pacing problem. But it’s just 3 pages. That thing sucked me in like you wouldn’t believe. I mean when I read Watchmen and reread it and reread it, I started to realize there was so much more when you look at things. I mean with just those two books, I thought, I gotta read more by this guy. He’s a genius and it’s so thought provoking. Especially now, with everything going on in the world – it’s almost scary thought provoking.

NRAMA: I agree. Watchmen is over 20 years old, and it’s oddly as relevant today as it was back then.

JEH: If not more so. I mean from a timing standpoint.

NRAMA: So in your opinion is Alan Moore certifiable or a certifiable genius.

JEH: I would go with the second. I think humanity finally proved him certifiably genius.

NRAMA: How long after you read the script for the film did you read the graphic novel?

JEH: I think I read portions of the graphic novel prior to reading the script, and then I read the script of course and it lead right back into the graphic novel. The script was a riveting read. At first I heard that people on the Internet were suggesting me for this role, around the time I started acting again four years ago. I had some friend that had the comic book and started familiarizing myself with it, but I wasn’t able to get a script and I heard the project wasn’t going to happen.

When I found out it was happening again, I got the new script, read it, got the book, and then my agent called and said let’s be proactive and get an audition tape in there. So that’s when I really started to plow into the book. I don’t think I was completely finished with it before my audition tape had to get out.

NRAMA: So you actually sought out the role?

JEH: Yes

NRAMA: So you were out of acting for a long while, working as director and producer, but you started acting a young kid. Is there any role that comes to mind that prepared you for a gritty character like Rorschach? What helped you bring this guy to light?

JEH: I think the light is a process. I mean when you look at Little Children, here’s someone who’s incredibly complex because of his self-centered needs [referring to his character Ronnie McGorvey].

I think a lot of times when you look at the human condition, there’s so much of that behind it. What’s so interesting about Rorschach is his recognition of that and his battle within himself – his need to know from a survival standpoint, and being a victim of such degrading behavior on his mother’s part. Just to survive, he needed to have the strength of black and white morality. And I think he tries to cut through that complexity that people hide behind in order to justify their self-centered behaviors.

NRAMA: The gray areas that people try and gloss over.

JEH: Exactly. His mom – she needed to put food on the table. Her behavior victimized him from a self-centered standpoint. She took the easiest road she could take, even though it was incredibly hard, really victimizing and ruining his life. His strong need to have that sense of black and white justice and what’s most interesting about him is, as much as he wants to perceive the world in that way – what’s right and what’s wrong – he too is a victim of the complexity and moral ambiguity of life.

NRAMA: Do you think stepping away from acting for all those years and then coming back – you’re older, wiser, and studied things from the other side of the camera – do you think that’s helped you more in a role like this?

JEH: I think that just in general it’s helpful. It’s really easy to say now, I’m back and I’m in this…cool as beans. But the fact of the matter is, if I had continued on very successfully as an actor, I would have lived a much more guarded life. I think when it started to fade away, I had to deal with it emotionally. I had to get right with myself.

But even more important than those lessons, I had to go out there and learn to survive and do different kinds of jobs. Even in the corporate world, I had to learn about that and how it works. I had to live a life. And I think doing that for 15 years and really struggling and finding some success, and doing these things that we all do in life has probably given me a lot more fuel as a storyteller and as an actor. A lot more life to draw upon – make sense?

NRAMA: Absolutely. It definitely sounds like you used those experiences to give yourself a different perspective on life, as opposed to people who don’t have those opportunities to see the other side or go through that kind of struggle.

JEH: I’m sure everybody does it in a different kind of way – having to get there – it was a different kind of life. For me it’s a deeper kind of understanding for the characters I’m playing.

NRAMA: That’s interesting. Simple question: Was it strange to act with a mask on? You barely take the mask off in the film. Whether it’s muffling your voice or showing faceless expressions and that sort of thing, superhero movies take these things for granted, but as a serious actor, how do you adapt?

JEH: It’s tough and also scary. I like to approach things as I think as most actors do, internally and then you just hope that the outside part is kind of taking care of itself. But how people perceive you is through your face and what you’re emoting through it. So it’s kind of scary when you are working internally, and you put a sock on your head. I sort of approached it like that.

I discovered that most of the times it seemed to somehow conform, but sometimes in looking at the monitor you couldn’t see it all come through acting internally or externally no matter how big I tried to make it. We began to look at things differently asking others what they thought, while talking with Zack [Snyder]. We’d take stuff out and re-approach, and try again until we got the beginnings of filmmaking. You get to do all this big and small, and then you go a guy like Zack who gets in there and picks all the right stuff.

NRAMA: You hear all sorts of great things about what he’s doing and how faithful his vision is. Was it cool, weird, or interesting to see such a literal translation of a scene or specific shot taken directly from a Dave Gibbons drawing? Some of the scenes that they’ve shown us are literally ripped right off the page.

JEH: Zack had an amazing set of storyboards. The storyboards are incredibly faithful to the book. In that sense it’s true. We were all constantly referring back to the graphic novel. We’d look at a scene and go to the novel and sometimes finding a line to use. “What do you think of this one line? It adds mystery, yeah put it in there.” That’s why it was a neat process for me on several levels. Zack’s faithful approach was just contagious, but we never lost sight of the medium we were working in. Know what I mean?

NRAMA: The cast seems very tight even though you weren’t together on screen much. What moments from making the film stand out for you personally?

JEH: Well, there’s a great camaraderie with this cast, and I think that in part stems from the source material and the director. There was just something infectious about Zack’s love for the material, and also just how obviously brilliant the material is when you really get into it. We all had a kind of laugh together, and like you said, there are a lot of times that we aren’t necessarily all together on the set. That was kind of intermittent over the 6-month period of time, but we would all see each other and have meals and stuff. The nature of the group was wonderful.

Billy Crudup is just an awesome actor, I’d continually watch him work and think, wow the nuances – he’s just so there, in the moment. I remember a kind of a parallel between Rorschach and myself from the standpoint of when I got to the set, the only person I really knew was Patrick [Wilson who plays Night Owl II], and Rorschach’s only friend is a Night Owl. Matthew Goode is just a hysterical, a funny guy. I really enjoyed working with Jeffrey [Morgan] and was constantly busting his chops about the hours upon hours of makeup that he would have to endure. If my call was 7am, his was 3am. He was so funny, and I still bust his chops to this day.

Side note: I was in this film for Martin Scorsese called Shutter Island, and my guy’s got ridges and welts on his face. So I’m in the makeup chair for a measly 2 hours and I wrote him [Morgan] this letter, where I tell him “I really sympathize with what you had to go through compared to what I did.” Of course I ended it by saying, “but I’m not going to stop busting your chops!”

A true story about working with Billy: Throughout the filming he’s got dots on his face and blue lights all over him, and that slowly became real for me on the set. Suspend disbelief and that’s what Rorschach is working with. I remember working on this scene – I think it was the first scene of the picture. How do I say this? In the middle of his line of dialogue, he [Dr. Manhattan] needs to go somewhere – in his mind I guess – to go check on some experiment with atoms or whatever. We are standing there and he needs to go check on these in the middle of his dialogue. So I’m standing there and trying to work as Rorschach, and it’s a good thing I’ve got a sock on my head, because suddenly I stopped what I was doing and I was just amazed to watch this guy go somewhere inside his head, check on his experiment, and then come back and finish his line. I mean I did – I saw him go and come back, and it freaked me out. So that was a moment, some creative chops on Billy’s part. He had me, you know what I mean? I think he went somewhere and came back. How do you do that? Where’d he go? I’m not saying he walked away – this was all in his head!

NRAMA: How do you think the fans will react to the film being as vocal as they’ve been?

JEH: The film is amazing. Just knowing the script and Zack’s faithfulness and where a motion picture needs to be, I’m feeling really confident about it. Not from a ‘what I did’ standpoint, but from what Zack and his team did – his whole approach and everything we’ve seen. I think it’s going to live up to fan expectations, and people are going to find a really kind of interesting approach to comic books. I think it’s got this awesome entertainment element, an addiction element and also got some really thought provoking elements to put this on a different level than normal comic book films. I really hope it does for comic book movies what the original Watchmen comic books did for the comic book world. I think it’s a brave piece and people are going to respond and dig it. I’m totally sucked into it.

Marc Patten is a writer and marketer of all things pop-culture living in the greater New York City area of Southern Connecticut. He can be reached at Special thanks to Samantha Wicker all her assistance.


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