LOS ANGELES — – For the last six years, Eugene Osment has read the scripts and approved of the projects his actor son takes on.
In the case of this recent one, in which his son plays a haunted child in the psychological thriller, The Sixth Sense, call it a case of father’s intuition.
"My dad was the first person to read the script and he loved it," says Haley Joel Osment, the 11-year old star who acts opposite Bruce Willis.
"He immediately turned it over to me," recalls Osment. "I thought the writing was just terrific. I loved it just as much as he did. I have to say I didn’t sleep too well that night."
Haley, who starts the sixth grade near his Los Angeles home this fall, plays a young Philadelphia boy, Cole Sear, who is haunted by ghosts. "I see dead people," Cole eventually whispers in a secret confession to child psychologist Malcolm Crowe (played by Willis) who is trying to help the boy.
The film, which opens in theaters nationwide Friday and is one of several new thrillers out this summer, requires the young star to shriek in terror and cry his eyes out from fear and the loneliness of living with a paranormal secret.
Initially, Haley — who played Forrest, Jr. in the Oscar-winning feature film Forrest Gump — says he was spooked by the story. He had a nightmare after reading the script.
He says he had to dig deep to find the emotion to make his role in the film work. "A really good way to get to those kinds of points is by getting to a place of emotions that you’ve experienced in real life," Haley says. "So I was going through Cole’s thoughts and really trying to understand what he would be thinking and feeling. You have to try to make yourself believe in what (Cole) was scared of ."
Haley speaks with maturity beyond his years, but his father says he is a fairly normal kid. "He does his chores," says Eugene Osment, 40, who is also an actor. "He can’t go out and shoot hoops in the summertime unless he makes his bed in the morning and does the dishes. He feeds the lizards and picks up the dog poop in the backyard."
Haley, a straight-A student who loves science and reads science fiction books, has two pet geckos named Pete and Ally. When he is not on location, Haley lives with his father, mother, Theresa, and his younger sister, Emily, 7. He cheers for the L.A. Lakers, his favorite team; and plays basketball and Nintendo 64 video games.
"They think it’s cool,’’ he says of friends' reaction to his acting work. "Most of my close friends treat me just like a normal kid and it is good to just come home and be treated that way."
Haley began his acting career starring in a pizza commercial when he was five years old. He went on to grab parts in television dramas and shows; he played Avery Brown on the Murphy Brown show and Matt Foxworthy on The Jeff Foxworthy Show.
On a recent episode of Ally McBeal, he played a dying boy who wanted to sue God. "I was pretty talkative at that age," says Haley. "And I always loved movies. My favorite movie was the The Little Mermaid. I watched it every day."
During the shooting of The Sixth Sense in Philadelphia, Haley stayed with his father, who helped his son rehearse his scenes over and over again each day. Though the scenes were sometimes chilling, Eugene Osment said his son wasn’t frightened.
"We had lunch with these people every day," he says of the scary ghost characters in the film. "Even when we saw the film and people were screaming in fear, he just turned red with laughter."
And though he was unsure of what it would be like to work with Bruce Willis, Haley says the tough-guy actor put him at ease. "I expected this big star and he comes in and works as hard as every one else," says Haley. "He tried to keep things light on the set."
Toni Collette plays Lynn Sear, Cole’s mother; Olivia Williams plays Anna Crowe, the psychologist’s wife. Eugene Osment says he is currently negotiating his son’s next project, though he can’t say what the next film will be.
As for Haley, he says he wouldn’t mind acting in another thriller. "I like scary movies a lot," he says. "But I haven’t seen too many of them. Most of them are rated R."