Over the course of his big screen career, Jackie Earle Haley has worked with some of the finest directors in American cinema, appearing in Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island” (2010), Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” (2012) and Tim Burton’s “Dark Shadows” (2012).
Now Haley, who got his big break as athlete/troublemaker Kelly Leak in “The Bad News Bears” (1976) and earned an Oscar nomination for his work in “Little Children” (2006), is making his feature directorial debut with “Criminal Activities.” Playing in select theaters and available through video-on-demand services, the film is a tightly-constructed thriller about four friends who resort to kidnapping in order to pay back a debut owed to a mob boss played by John Travolta.
Haley said that his decades-long career as an actor prepared him for working with his cast, which along with Travolta includes “Boardwalk Empire” actor Michael Pitt, “Downton Abbey” heartthrob Dan Stevens and Haley himself as one of Travolta’s threatening associates.
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“I think having been an actor for so long, actors themselves place a little more trust in a director who is also an actor because they know that you know what they’re going through,” Haley explained.”Everybody has a little bit of a different process, and it’s good to figure out how to deal and work with those different idiosyncrasies, so there is that.
“I’ve directed many, many television commercials, so I have good production experience in terms of knowing what I’m doing, how to prep something, how to make sure you got all the locations lined up and that all of props and everything are going to show up on the shooting day, and then how to get your day in and all that. But one of the things I haven’t really had to deal with was real professional actors in commercials, so that part was a little bit of a different experience. But I will tell you, it was real fun and it was real rewarding because I feel like we got a great ensemble in terms of every single character feels spot-on and they all did just a really good job.”
The film’s screenplay by Robert Lowell, a compelling and dialogue-heavy thriller that recalls the post-“Pulp Fiction” (1994) boom of such works in the mid-’90s, came to Haley through producer Wayne Rice, who is also Haley’s manager’s husband.
“Directing is something I’ve always wanted to do, and the first ingredient that you have to have to make a good movie is a really well-written script,” Haley said. “And, I liked the tone and the feel of the script.”
However, keeping up the pace and the energy of the film through pages and pages of conversation between four or five characters at a time proved to be a challenge, Haley said.
“(There were) some very long scenes, and the challenge for me was to give the movie the feel that you’re not stuck in one place too long,” he explained. “We kept you there just long enough and we had the type of blocking and camera work to keep the pace moving.”
INFO: 94 minutes, not rated
WHEN/WHERE: Now playing in select theaters and available through video-on-demand services
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Jackie Earle Haley talks ‘Criminal Activities’