Jackie Earle Haley has been acting since his youth in the early ’70s, becoming well known for his role as Kelly Leak in The Bad News Bears, which he appeared in at 15. Since then he’s played roles like Moocher in Breaking Away, Freddy Krueger in the A Nightmare on Elm Street reboot, sex-offender Ronnie McGorvey in Little Children, and Rorschach in Watchmen. But now Haley has fulfilled his long-awaited directorial desire with Criminal Activities (written by Robert Lowell), which stars John Travolta and Michael Pitt.
The dark comedy casts Travolta as a powerful crime boss who encounters four twentysomethings (Pitt, Dan Stevens, Christopher Abbott, and Rob Brown) who are indebted to him due to a foolish investment they made during a friend’s funeral. Soon the four fellows undertake the kidnapping of mob rival Marques (Edi Gathegi) in order to pay back their debt.
Haley discusses the odd familiarity that came with directing the movie, meeting Travolta, and the film’s magical casting process.
You’ve had a long career as an actor, at what point did you realize you also wanted to direct?
I think I was about nine. This is something I’ve wanted to do my entire life. I remember running around with my buddy Steve Paul in Los Angeles. My mom had gotten me a Super 8mm camera and a projector and a little editor, and he and I use to make these little short films. When I was on every set, especially as a kid, on movies and stuff like that, I was really paying attention to what the director was doing and learning about camera geography and what the rules are and when you could break them. And it’s just something that I’ve always had a great passion for but it took me all the way to the age of 52 to finally direct a movie.
And do you feel like, because you’ve been on sets for so long and watched how different directors work, that when you eventually directed a film it came naturally?
Here’s the thing: What really helped me a lot is the fact that I’ve been directing and producing commercials and in doing that I really knew how to prep a shoot and I knew how to shoot within budget. So I learned how to do that on a commercial. The thing is commercial directing doesn’t usually mean it automatically will translate into your ability to make a good movie. But I think that expertise, combined with what you mentioned—just the fact that I’ve been acting for so long in movies and have watched so many directors and have been directed by so many directors in movies—I really think that I fully understood why more because I’m participating as an actor. I think those two skills dovetailed together and the whole time I was directing this movie it didn’t feel like it was my first time doing it, and that’s weird.
Were you immediately on board to direct once you read the script? Had you read other scripts before that you knew wouldn’t be right and didn’t want to be your directorial debut?
I gotta tell you, first off I’ve never really been offered a directing gig and been given a script until I got this Criminal Activities script. And I read the script and immediately loved it. It’s so well written. I called the producer back and I was like, “I’m in.” I just got very lucky. The producer, Wayne Rice, is married to my manager, so he’s been watching all my audition tapes that I’ve been sending in over the last 10 years and he thought that I could direct this movie. He was financed and ready to go. We dove right in to making this movie. It was a real treat that the script was good because at my age I didn’t want to just direct anything. Even though I’ve always wanted to direct a movie, but I don’t want to direct a bad script and then sit there and try to make the script better and it doesn’t get much better, it’s hard to cast. So I just got super lucky to have this wonderful script.
And did you know that you would want to act in it as well and what part you wanted to be?
That was actually Wayne Rice’s idea. When he sent me the script he said, “Hey, you might even want to play Gerry.” First off, I would have happily have played Gerry if this movie had a different director. I really liked the role. And it also just made sense for me to play that role from a budget standpoint, meaning the producers didn’t really set aside much money for Gerry.
This movie has an amazing cast. How was it working and directing with them?
It was through the process of having great help from the casting department. A lot of the roles were all about getting some wonderful help from William Morris Agency, those guys were very helpful. I was just boning up on all these young actors and were good actors. I just started narrowing it down. I knew that I wanted Michael Pitt in it and I knew that I wanted Dan Stevens and of course me and the producer were on the same page. We both wanted Chris Abbott for Warren, Rob Brown for Bryce and a lot of that was through Skype meetings. And I do remember that Marques was a key character. He’s such a lynchpin, the guy that’s taped to the chair. The casting people were sending a bunch of really good actors that were doing fine in auditions but I just wasn’t feeling anybody as Marques until I got Edi Gathegi’s audition tape and that’s when Wayne and I both said, “We got a movie.” We had cast everybody except for Marques up until about two weeks before the movie had started shooting. So I was starting to get scared, like, man, we’re not going to get the Marques that we want. And then Edi Gathegi shows and he blows us all away and is just wonderful in the film. And, of course, John Travolta was the first guy who came on board and I thought he was just perfect for the role of Eddie.
Was that the first time you met Travolta?
Yes, this was the first time I met him and we met over the phone and decided to do the movie after we had a 20 minute conversation, which was a real compliment because he said that normally he doesn’t actually work with a first-time director unless he meets with them face-to-face. So we thought it would be the phone call and then maybe I’d have to fly out there and sit with him. But he really liked the script, we had a nice conversation and I think he felt confident that I had vision and that I knew what I was doing and so we met on the set. I didn’t have to fly out there because after our phone call he called his manager, “Let’s do it, I like this guy, I don’t need to meet with him.” That was kind of a compliment.