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Haley Joel Osment gets to show his shady side in ‘The Devil Has a Name’

Ed Symkus
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Kate Bosworth is the bad boss who forces Haley Joel Osment to do bad things.

Close your eyes and say the name Haley Joel Osment. You’ll no doubt conjure up a movie image from long ago: Cole, the little boy with the worried eyes and the downturned mouth who saw dead people in “The Sixth Sense.” Osment was 11 at the time, and already six years into his acting career (which started with a Pizza Hut commercial). Or maybe you’ll get an image of David, the smiling, ever-hopeful mecha boy who misses his mother in “A.I. Artificial Intelligence.” That film was made when Osment was 13.

It’s odd that that’s how so many people remember Osment. Yet he’s never stopped acting, regularly and comfortably moving between movies (“Second Hand Lions,” “Tusk”), TV (“Alpha House,” “What We Do in the Shadows”), and the stage (“American Buffalo”).

Now 32, Osment is riding out the pandemic by doing voice work for animated TV shows from home. His newest film is “The Devil Has a Name,” a based-on-fact story of oil company evildoers taking advantage of small-time farmers, in which he plays the shady Alex Gardner. The film costars and was directed by Edward James Olmos. Osment spoke about his career and getting this job by phone from Los Angeles.

Q. Have you managed to maintain a fairly normal life?

A. The length of time I’ve been doing it has helped, I guess. When you’re introduced to this business as a kid, there’s very little awareness of the career aspect of it. Most of my earliest memories of the job are based on everything that was happening on-set. It’s only later in life that you go out to do promotion and deal with the press. I guess I had a gradual introduction to the business, and it’s always seemed kind of natural.

Q. Your father had been an actor for a long time before you got into it. Did you ever get the warning talk about how crazy this business is?

A. From the beginning, or maybe since the time we were thinking of it as more long term, my parents were telling me that nothing is very certain in this business, and just to enjoy things as they go along. Most importantly, they told me early on that if there was a point that I didn’t like doing it any more, I could quit and just do school. It was helpful not having a lot of pressure.

Q. Looking at your IMDB page, you obviously have a lot of offers coming your way. How did “The Devil Has a Name” happen?

A. The usual way; it came through my agent. It was such an exciting script to get, and there’s an amazing cast (David Strathairn, Martin Sheen, Kate Bosworth, Alfred Molina, Pablo Schreiber), a lot of whom had already been attached by the time I got the script. So, knowing that I’d be working with Eddie (Olmos) and all of these great actors, I was pretty primed to go. Also, the story seemed really relevant. You know, a very unregulated world with a lot of simultaneous ecological disasters happening, so it felt like we were working on something that was important at this time, too.

Q. It says at the top of the film that it’s inspired by true events. Is your character, Alex, a real person?

A. No, he’s kind of an amalgam of different real people. It’s done that way in the film to simplify some of the timeline.

Q. You’ve played plenty of good guys and a number of villains in past projects. But Alex is hard to peg. He’s kind of a bad guy but not really a villain. Is that about right?

A. He grew up in that town with (the farmers) Fred and Santiago, and knew them well. But he always had bigger ambitions than living in a Central California agricultural area. He was hired by an advertising agency and has become a smooth-talking kind of flim-flam man. Eventually (oil woman) Gigi (Kate Bosworth) decides to exploit Alex’s relationship with these people, trying to get him to take the land out from underneath them. Alex is not purely evil, but he thinks he’s a lot more capable and tough than he really is.

Q. You have a great part in the film, with plenty of dialogue and room to stretch. Is it mostly you doing your own thing or are you being tightly directed, and do you enjoy being directed?

A. It depends on the project. Of course, there are definitely practical considerations. There are shows where you can do a ton of improv, and add a lot of stuff, and that works fine within the parameters of what you’re doing. But there are also projects with certain technical considerations where sometimes the scene needs to be only as long as it is in the script, and things need to happen as they happen on the page. I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve never worked with a director who would respond poorly to you wanting to make your character as fully fleshed out as possible.

“The Devil Has a Name” opens in theaters and will be released digitally and On Demand on Oct. 16.

Ed Symkus can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.