Jackie Earle Haley Talks About His “Criminal Activities”

Jackie Earl Haley talks about his feature film directorial debut, Criminal Activities
Jackie Earl Haley talks about his feature film directorial debut, Criminal Activities
Photo by Chuck Cook Photography

Jackie Earle Haley has spent most of his life in the public eye as an actor. He started as a child voice actor in an animated Hanna-Barbera series called Wait Till Your Father Gets Home but really entered the public consciousness as Kelly Leak in Bad News Bears. There was a lull in his acting career for a time, but he reemerged in a big way, landing an Oscar nomination for his role as a sex offender in the film Little Children. He’s also notable for his portrayal of Rorschach from Watchmen, based on the graphic novel and Confederacy president Alexander Stephens in Steven Spielberg’s award-winning historical film, Lincoln.

He has another credit to his name now: director of the forthcoming film Criminal Activities, which also marks John Travolta’s return to a role as a criminal—in this case, a mob boss. The movie made its world premiere last night during Houston pop culture convention Comicpalooza. Some lucky attendees who went to the early screening say the movie is everything a filmgoer could want. There’s action, sharp-witted comedic moments, outstanding acting by all the cast members and a twist ending that is as satisfying as it is surprising.

Haley sat down with the Houston Press before the screening to talk about Criminal Activities and why he’s made a transition from being in front of the camera to also being behind it.

Houston Press: What made you decide you wanted to move from acting to directing?

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Jackie Earle Haley: I’ve always wanted to direct, ever since I was a little kid. I was always paying attention to what the director was doing and I learned “camera geography” at a young age. There was just something about it that fascinated me.

I always loved acting. I wanted to direct but I could never figure out how to find the right script, how to get that script financed and who to take it to so it always kind of flummoxed me. When I turned 30, I was incredibly bummed out that I hadn’t directed a movie, and by 40, I gave up on the idea because I wasn’t even acting.

When I started acting again, I felt if I focused on that for five or seven years maybe I could get into directing but [the opportunity] really just fell into my lap. The producer, Wayne Rice, is married to my manager. Over the last ten years, he’s been seeing all the audition tapes that I send in and sometimes they’re a little elaborate. I think he came to the conclusion that I could direct. One morning, he said to his wife, “Hey, do you think he’d be interested in directing Criminal Activities?” and she said, “I don’t know. Send him the script!”

So, he called me up and expressed interest in me directing this. He also said, “Listen, that first film is really important, so you have to love the script.” I said, “Yeah, absolutely.” I read the script and just loved it. It was already financed so we just dove right into making this movie. It was like a dream come true.

HP: Was it the kind of movie that you expected you’d first be directing?

JEH: That’s a good question. I guess so, because I chose to do it! To me, it’s not so much what type of movie or genre, because I like all genres. To me, the important thing is, “Is the script good?” and when I read the script it was very entertaining and just really good.

HP: For Criminal Activities, you’re not only directing. You also have a role in the movie. What’s the name of your character?

JEH: I play Gerry. John Travolta plays Eddie Lovato who is the mob boss and Gerry is his right-hand guy.

HP: What can you tell us about the plot, without giving too much away?

JEH: Well, there’s these four young guys who are reunited. They used to go to high school together and were all kind of pals. Now, they’re in their late 20s and stumble across a really incredible “sure thing” in the stock market. If they can just raise some money, they’re all going to get rich. They borrow some money and of course the deal goes completely south. They had unwittingly borrowed the money from the mob—and, of course, Eddie Lovato is John Travolta’s character.

They’re all in some deep trouble, so it’s either face the consequences or do the bidding of the mob. They decide to do the bidding of the mob. They are requested to kidnap a guy and hold him for 24 hours. It’s a complete “fish out of water.” These guys have no idea how to kidnap somebody. They’re not criminals. They don’t know what they’re doing. Everything spirals out of control from there.

HP: This marks a return of John Travolta to a role in a world of crime. I’ve read other interviews with you and I think some people are drawing parallels between this and Pulp Fiction but this sounds like a very different kind of movie.

JEH: Oh yeah, it’s a different kind of movie. Every now and then, there’s a Quentin Tarantino lilt to the writing, but yeah, they’re very different. John is very good in it. He did a wonderful job. His character, Eddie Lovato, is a driving force behind the movie. You feel his presence even when he’s not in the scene because everything these guys have to do is because they were ordered to do it by Eddie Lovato. It’s a really cool part and he’s wonderful in it.

HP: It sounds like a terrific use of his talents. What would you say the tone of this movie is? It sounds like there are some funny moments. Are there dramatic moments?

JEH: I call it a thriller/dark comedy. Its more of a thriller but there is some dark humor to it.

HP: Who else is in the movie?

JEH: We’ve got Michael Pitt, who does a wonderful job playing Zach, who is the alpha male of the group of four. Then we’ve got Dan Stevens who is playing Noah Dorfman. He’s kind of the nerd of the group, which is really wonderful because Dan is an incredible actor. You might know him from Downton Abbey [as Matthew Crawley]. He plays this very suave, sophisticated, debonaire guy and in [the film] The Guest he plays the sinister guy. Here, he completely embraces and embodies this quasi-nerd character. He’s almost unrecognizable as the guy from Downton Abbey. He’s a very diverse actor and I’m real proud of him.

We’ve got Christopher Abbott, who was wonderful in the first two seasons of Girls. He’s a very naturalistic actor who plays Warren. Warren, to me, is the heart and soul of the movie. He’s the guy who has the most compassion and empathy towards his friends.

Rob Brown does a wonderful job playing Bryce. He rounds out the group of these four guys who used to hang together in high school. He’s really helps ground the guys. When everybody starts to freak out, there’s something about Bryce that calms everybody down and gets them thinking straight again so they can move forward. There’s a really cool dynamic with these four guys.

Then there’s Edi Gathegi, the guy they ultimately have to kidnap and hold for 24 hours for John Travolta’s character. So, there’s a real fish-out-of-water situation for these guys. But Edi, of course, playing Marques, taped to a chair—to me, he’s the centerpiece. He’s the lynchpin of the film. Everything centers around the fact that they’ve got to hold this guy and he just gives a wonderful performance. He’s just a really good actor. He showed up on set with every line of dialog memorized. He was prepared to do any given scene on any given day. He’s a real pro and a pleasure to work with.

Jackie Earl Haley talks about his film Criminal Activities before its world premier at Houston pop-culture convention Comicpalooza.
Jackie Earl Haley talks about his film Criminal Activities before its world premier at Houston pop-culture convention Comicpalooza.
Photo by Chuck Cook Photography

HP: What’s the setting for Criminal Activities?

JEH: Criminal Activities takes place in Cleveland, Ohio and it was a real wonderful place to shoot. They had a great tax incentive and I think that’s why Wayne Rice wanted to shoot there but it also had great human resources. My production designer is from there. Head of wardrobe and head of makeup came out of there. There were just a lot of great resources out of Ohio that came to bear. We found some wonderful talent as well—actors and actresses that played some of the smaller roles. It was a nice place to be.

HP: What’s the feel of this movie? Is it a little gritty?

JEH: Yeah, I feel it’s a little gritty at times. It depends on who you’re with in the film. When you’re with the boys and they’re in the midst of this fish-out-of-water experience, I approached everything in a handheld, gritty kind of way. When you’re with the actual mobsters, everything is beautiful and calm. (laughs) You’d think it should be reversed. It’s a fun ride. It’s not a film that takes itself real seriously. It’s a cool story and a fun predicament to watch these guys work through.

HP: The buzz on this movie seems to have really picked up just within the last couple of weeks. What scope is the release going to be? Is it going to be a wide-release film?

JEH: We’re going to do a platform release. We’re going to open in 15 markets and that will probably be in the fall. We’re going to get it out there, do some previews and get people aware of it. Hopefully, social media will help us along to make people aware of it so when it does come out people will go see it when it hits theaters.

HP: The question on every fan’s mind: do you get tired of Rorschach questions?

JEH: Never!

HP: What was your biggest takeaway from doing that character in Watchmen?

JEH: You know, for every other character, I don’t have an answer, but for this character, I do. In terms of playing this real cynical character, I was kind of isolated in Vancouver. My wife wasn’t with me. She was working in San Antonio so when I wasn’t working I was kind of stuck in my head. At the time, Hillary [Clinton] and [Barack] Obama were going at it. There was just something about playing that character and then trying to see the world through his eyes. I really walked away from there very cynical about government and everything. Since then, I’ve even grown more so. Everything just seems like propaganda and you just don’t know what to believe from anybody at this point.

HP: There’s definitely a very harsh lens that character looks through—with good reason.

JEH: Yeah, that’s the thing. Obviously, he’s a nutter at the same time, but aside from the crazy part of him—the cynical part—as I was focusing on that, everything around me seemed to prove it true.

HP: How difficult was it for you to step from the actor role to the director’s chair?

JEH: You know, it felt like I’d done it 10 times before and I think the reason was there were years when I wasn’t acting. I started a commercial production company out of San Antonio. We were doing a lot of commercials and corporate videos so I got very, very familiar with production and directing. That doesn’t always translate to making a movie but when combining it with all of my acting experiences—working in scenes and long form, understanding screenplays and reading many of them—it wasn’t new to me. So, I think those two things dovetailed and I was just very comfortable with what I was doing.

I remember being on the set of Lincoln with Steven Spielberg and I commented on what an amazing job he was doing on the shot he was setting up. He said, “I’m just exercising old muscles.” It was weird but I really felt, doing my first film, that I was exercising old muscles. Maybe it’s just because I’m an old fart.

HP: Sounds to me like you were just meant to direct! Is there anything else you’d like audiences to know about Criminal Activities

JEH: I’d like them to go see it. (laughs) I’m real proud of it. I think it came out real well. The test audiences seemed to love it so I’m feeling pretty good about it.

HP: Should I ask if it has a happy ending?

JEH: You’ll just have to see! 

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