LOS ANGELES — Jackie Earle Haley, the former child star now being applauded for his gallery of memorably dark characters, is finally getting a chance to lighten up. Haley costars in Fox’s “Human Target” as Guerrero, a mysterious hired hand always one step ahead of everyone around him, especially the bad guys.
It’s a return to more humorous parts for Haley, 48, who in the 1970s starred in hits such as “The Bad News Bears” and “Breaking Away” before a lack of more mature roles prompted him to drop out of Hollywood. His absence lasted more than a decade, and he struggled much of the time with odd jobs and financial woes. But his Oscar-nominated turn as a sex predator in 2006’s “Little Children” and his portrayal of the sinister masked superhero Rorschach in last year’s “Watchmen” brought him back with a vengeance.
Despite “Human Target,” a return to the dark side is just around the corner. He’s the new Freddy Krueger in the upcoming reboot of “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” and he’s in Martin Scorsese’s prison drama “Shutter Island.”
Q. With the kind of roles you’ve been playing recently, are people ever afraid of you or afraid to approach you?
A. Everyone is incredibly nice, very positive: My biggest concern with “Little Children” was whether people would confuse me for that character. Lots of people come up and talk to me about that character, but it’s been more about my acting than with the character’s proclivities.
However, I remember this one night around the premiere of that film. I was at this hotel under my own name, and I get this call at 1 a.m. “Hello, is this Jackie?” It was this girl, a fan who had found me. She ended up saying, “I’m going to send my boyfriend down there tomorrow with a couple of friends to get your autograph. ...” Dude, I couldn’t sleep that night. I thought, “My God, am I being set up? Do these people want to beat me up?” The next day I go out, and sure enough, there are these two guys coming toward me. But one of them had a bag of baseballs he wanted me to sign. That fear had all been in my head.
Q. What has this return to Hollywood been like?
A. An incredible rush. I had no idea what that movie would do. Part of me felt it would be bad for the career. But it was worth risking all, even if it was the last role I played.
Q. What’s been the main highlight?
A. If someone asked me my favorite role, it would probably be Rorschach. I fell in love with that miserable character. I don’t necessarily agree with a lot of his ideas, but he’s affected my life more than I affected his. He’s made me more cynical.
Q. How do you define this period?
A. It’s definitely a whole new go. The first go was stopped, it was mourned. It was lost, it was painful. It’s a blessing to be a working actor again. I don’t know how you make it once in this business. Doing it twice is mind-boggling.
Q. When you were gone, was it painful to think back on the past?
A. About five years after I quit, I found this pile of posters from this play I did on Broadway, “The Slab Boys” with Sean Penn, Val Kilmer and Kevin Bacon. The poster is a photograph of the four of us. I folded them up and threw them in the dumpster.
Q. Were you sad? Angry? Bitter?
A. It was all of that. By the way, this doesn’t define my experience, just that moment. But I was jealous of all those guys who were doing great things. I went through the process of thinking there was a conspiracy against me. But Hollywood did not get together and vote me out. I will tell you this. It definitely feels like Hollywood got together and voted me back in.
Q. How did being away affect your attitude?
A. I was incredibly successful and privileged as a kid. To have that all drift away, to have to deal with that emotionally changes your life and gnaws at you. Now that I have that experience to draw from, I’m kind of grateful for that.
Q. What was the biggest misconception about you?
A. When I was 14, 15, 16, it looked like I was going in the direction of the heartthrob thing. But as my body was maturing, I wasn’t developing into the physicality of a leading man, and I think people got confused what to do with me.
Q. And now you’re the new Freddy Krueger.
A. I saw the first one in a theater. I’m not a big horror fan, but it was interesting because of the supernatural element. We’re re-envisioning the first one. Freddy is so iconic he’s more famous than the guy who played him. Robert (Englund) played the hell out of him. Becoming that character is such an arduous process — 3 1/2 hours of makeup, incredibly cumbersome arms and claws and knives. I take all those uncomfortable feelings and give them to Freddy.