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Jackie Earle Haley, ‘Little Children’

Supporting actor contender

The question hangs in the air before Jackie Earle Haley responds. How could the actor relate to the character of convicted sex offender Ronald James McGorvey in “Little Children”?

Silence. Finally, the words come pouring out.

“I’ll never be able to relate to this character’s urges or his obsessions, but what I can relate to is his obsessive nature,” Haley says. “I understand that. Ronny is an incredibly self-loathing character who suffers from a great deal of low self-esteem.”

In fact, from the moment Haley began reading the script for “Little Children,” it began tapping into his own self-confidence issues.

“Ten pages in, I’m thinking, ‘This is good.’ Twenty pages in, ‘This is really good.’ Thirty pages in, ‘This is really, really good.’ Forty pages in, I was thinking, ‘This is so good, I don’t have a shot at getting this role.’ Then I got kind of depressed,” he says with a laugh.

But on the heels of nabbing a role in “All the King’s Men” — the first part in more than a decade for an actor who worked constantly as a teen in pics including “Bad News Bears” and “Breaking Away” — Haley won over director Todd Field for “Little Children.”

The casting pushed Haley into a simultaneous examination of himself alongside Ronny.

“One of the things that I found is I’m 45 and, for some reason, I just can’t stop biting my fingernails,” Haley says. “I started to make a concerted effort to ask myself when I was biting on my nails, ‘What am I thinking?’ Every single time, what I was thinking about somehow related to insecurity or fear.”

Most affecting for Haley during the shoot was the nature of Ronny’s relationship with his mother. Haley, whose older brother battled heroin addiction before dying of an overdose 15 years ago, notes that he “couldn’t help but see some parallels between Ronny and his mom and my brother and my mom.

“Every now and then me and my siblings would somewhat ostracize him from family gatherings,” Haley says. “And during all of this time, my mom was always there for him.

“When he was down and out, she would let him move into the house. She would make breakfast for him every morning and give words of encouragement and try to steer him in the right direction. She lifted him up and loved him because he was her baby.”

How could Jackie Earle Haley relate to the character of a convicted sex offender? Any number of remarkable ways.

Favorite film of the past five years: “Amores perros.” “Oh man, it was brilliantly written, brilliantly directed and brilliantly acted. It was great storytelling. I love movies that either break away from formula altogether, that are intelligent and sophisticated, or that somehow can retain a little formula while just being wonderfully unique and clever.”

Actor who impressed you greatly after working together: Sean Penn. “That was kind of like going to acting school on ‘All the King’s Men.’ He always had an eye of looking into a scene and finding what was interesting, and continuing to look at it, not just going in and doing it.”

Next project: “The next thing I’m going to be filming is a Christmas hospital commercial.” (Haley has been working for several years as a commercial director). “That’s what I’ve got on my slate. I’m auditioning for stuff, and hopefully I’ll be lucky enough that I can do some more (acting).”

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