“Watchmen” may be the most eagerly awaited movie of 2009 - the film of the Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons graphic novel has been the object of breathless Internet anticipation for years.
But before the hype for the movie, opening Friday, reached its fever pitch, there was that first day, that first moment, with actors, old colleagues, in odd costumes about to perform in a comic-book movie.
Patrick Wilson, Jackie Earle Haley, Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Stephen McHattie, Matt Frewer, Carla Gugino
(Warner Brothers; US theatrical: 6 Mar 2009 (General release); UK theatrical: 6 Mar 2009 (General release); 2009)
“Patrick Wilson and I were on the set, in full garb. He’s Nite Owl, in a cape and goggles, and I’m Rorschach, in a mask,” Jackie Earle Haley recalls. “We kinda look at each other and just start laughing, thinking that there’s no WAY that two years ago we could have guessed we’d be standing there, dressed like this in a comic-book movie.”
Two years ago, Haley, 47, was “the comeback kid.” He and Wilson were co-stars in the acclaimed drama “Little Children.” Haley gave an Oscar-nominated performance as a child molester who likes to put on his swim gear and leer at children in a pool.
“Two years ago, I was the guy in the goggles!”
With “Watchmen,” Haley’s comeback can be called complete. Internet fans pushed for his selection as Rorschach, and one of them, Clint Morris of Moviehole.net, calls him “a standout as the sociopath of the hero troupe.” As “Walter Kovacs (a k a Rorschach) ... Haley is the best thing in ‘Watchmen.’”
“Internet fans of the books got me to start looking into it,” Haley recalls. “The more I looked into it the more excited I got. I fell in love with the book and the character; such an intricate, complex and iconic character. I talked to my agents and asking them to look into it. The problem was, it kind of looked like they were going down the ‘movie star’ road. That ruled me out. At one point, my agent said, ‘Dude, get over it. It’s gone.’ And then a month later he calls and says ‘It looks like things are shifting a bit over there. Why don’t you do an audition tape and send it to (director) Zack (Snyder) and those guys?’”
Haley landed the part, the one member of a group of retired “costumed vigilantes” who suspects that somebody is murdering the members of their elite club and hunts for clues about the crimes. But Rorschach, hidden behind an ever-changing mask, is a brutal, deeply disturbed and ruthless man not above using torture and risking “collateral damage” in his search for a villain.
“This guy’s definitely a bit further out there than most of the characters I’ve played. Damaged? He’s really damaged. But his absolute black-and-white sense of justice is what I love about him. For him to even survive in this world, he had to embrace that absolutism, no compromising. When you start looking at his childhood, how his mother was a prostitute, raging alcoholic, how he was victimized, the beatings, you can see how he’d invent this world for himself, this identity. He fell through society’s cracks and needed a black-and-white world, a simpler view of things - good, evil, life, death.”
The trickiest thing about playing the character was getting across Rorschach’s personality and giving a performance behind a mask. It’s one of the tougher things acting students learn to do - “mask class.”
“Dude, I missed those classes!” Haley chortles. “That would’ve helped! I mean, come on. It was daunting. You think, ‘I’ve gotten another incredible break, a part in this awesome flick.’ And then you think, ‘My God, I’ve got a SOCK on my head for the whole movie!’
“A face is an actor’s main way of getting across feeling and meaning, our main point of conveyance. To cover that up, to not have that, is just plain scary. But on the other hand, to don the Rorschach outfit is incredibly liberating and motivating. I had to embrace it and do the work, the internal work of an actor, and hope that the externals take care of themselves. I admit I did sneak a peak at the monitor to see how a take registered, see if I needed to do more or less. Sometimes, what I was doing just wouldn’t read, so I’d have to animate the outfit a little bit, play it a bit bigger.”
It’s another big break for a former child actor who lived through decades in the movie wilderness, substance-abuse problems and multiple marriages, only to re-emerge in “All the King’s Men” and “Little Children” in 2007. One thing the onetime “Bad News Bears” star learned from the experience is to pay attention to the Internet, where the fanboys and fangirls have embraced him as one of their own. Their latest lobbying effort? Cast Haley as the new Freddy Krueger in a remake of “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” which starts filming at the end of April.
“I just heard about it, so I don’t know what I think about that,” Haley says, laughing. “Nobody’s called yet. It’d be another mask role, wouldn’t it?”
Pretty heady stuff for any actor, fans lobbying for your next job. And his next film after “Watchmen” has a pretty serious pedigree. “Shutter Island” is based on a Dennis Lehane novel, was directed by Martin Scorsese and stars Leonardo DiCaprio.
“When you’ve been where I’ve been, to cut to all these years later and I’ve gotten to play Rorschach, and I’m standing across from Leo, doing a scene for Marty. And I’m calling him Marty! Man, It doesn’t get any better than this!”