Interview: Jackie Earl Haley Tackles Directing with Criminal Activities


Interview: Jackie Earl Haley Tackles Directing with Criminal Activities talks with actor Jackie Earl Haley about his directorial debut, Criminal Activities

Over forty years ago, Jackie Earl Haley came onto the scene as a child actor and became famous as a teenager playing roles in The Bad News Bears and Breaking Away. He continued to act through the ‘80s and early ‘90s but then kind of disappeared for a while, only to return in 2006 in an Oscar-nominated role in Todd Field’s Little Children. That was followed by high-profile roles in Zack Snyder’s Watchmen and playing Freddie Krueger in a remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street.

Now, Haley is starting another chapter in his career, directing the crime flick Criminal Activities, co-starring John Travolta, Michael Pitt, Dan Stevens (“Downton Abbey,” The Guest), Christopher Abbott (James White) and Rob Brown, the latter playing four friends reunited at a mutual friend’s funeral who go into an investment deal that goes sour. Unfortunately they borrowed the money for that deal from the crimelord Eddie (Travolta’s character) and to pay him back, they’re forced to kidnap one of an opposing gang’s main guys (Edi Gathegi). Things inevitably go wrong as the friends learn that not everything is as it seems.

Fans of movies like Pulp Fiction and Suicide Kings should appreciate what Haley does with the movie with a debut that’s entertaining and surprisingly funny (particularly Travolta and Haley’s own character, a henchman named Gerry). got on the phone with Haley earlier in the week to talk about this directorial debut. This film took me by surprise because I was aware of the plot for it but I didn’t realize how funny it was going to be. I kind of was really expecting something dark like these movies usually are, but it actually is a very, very funny movie, so congratulations on it.

Jackie Earl Haley: It’s got a kind of fun tone to it, because it is definitely kind of dark and it’s also kind of a thriller. It’s by no stretch a comedy, but it is a pretty funny film at times.

CS: What made you decide to take the plunge? You were obviously making movies and acting for many, many years. Had it been something on your mind to direct as it went along or was it a script that showed up and you said, “I can give it a try?”

Jackie Earl Haley: No, I actually just wanted to direct a movie basically my entire life, but I never really tried hard to get a movie off the ground and sort of perseverance and as you know, it’s a really difficult thing to do, but this is something that I’ve been planning my entire life. The way it went down, is just that it’d be the most amazing scenario ever. My manager’s husband is a really prolific producer. He’s been watching my audition tapes over the years as I send them to my manager, and he basically had this movie financed and ready to go and he called me just out of the blue and said, “Hey listen, I’ve got this script. I’d like you to read it now. It’s important that if you don’t like the script, I’ll understand. But I’m just excited by the notion that when I actually got the script and it turned out to be a wonderful script, I immediately called him and said, “I’m in.” Then he hired me to direct this movie and he did all the hard work of the producing side of things and I just got to step in and start directing and working with Wayne Allan Rice. It was a dream come true, but I’m just as passionate about directing as I am acting, so I really hope that I’m able to find some good scripts and continue to make movies.


CS: Was the role you’re playing in the movie, was that something which kind of also jumped out at you as like, “This is a role I can do and still direct as well?”

Jackie Earl Haley: Well, you know what? It’s the kind of thing where when he sent me the script, he says, “You should probably play Gerry.” I loved the role. I would’ve loved to have played Gerry had I not directed the movie. So it seemed to make sense, especially budget-wise (chuckles), for me to play Gerry.

CS: Did you find that it was easier to direct while playing a role? I’ve talked to a bunch of actors now, some who direct and don’t act in their movies and some who’ve both directed and acted and they feel it’s easier to direct if you’re actually in a role because then you can guide the other actors by your own performance, I guess. Do you find that’s the case?

Jackie Earl Haley: Well, no. There’s a little added degree of difficulty, when you’re also acting in a scene. I am kind of used to putting my own audition tapes together, meaning I’ll do several takes, look at them, pick one, know you’ve got it and move on. The thing is that when I’m doing audition tapes, I could take as long as I want. On a movie set, you’ve got to kind of keep your schedule going according to plan so that you don’t run over overtime or over budget. But it is a great day and age where you’ve got video playback on the set, so I’ll do a set of three takes of myself and then I’ll go look at them and adjust myself from there. I think it’s also important, for me anyway, if it’s me in the shot, I also have my son there, who is assisting for me, as my assistant, and he’s got a real good eye, and Wayne Allan Rice, the producer, so between the two of them, I could also look and go, “Do you think we got it? It’s there, right?” So it’s that kind of thing, of having a good couple of trusted eyes with you, and my ability to see these takes that I do.

CS: Did you already know John Travolta beforehand or was he interested in the script and the character completely separately? How did that come about?

Jackie Earl Haley: You know what? I never met John until the movie, and from what he said in an interview is he heard I was directing this film, and that interested him enough to want to read the script. After he read the script, we had a 20-minute phone conversation and the very next day, John called his manager and said, “You know what? Normally I’d like to meet with somebody in person before doing it, but I feel like our phone conversation,” he was like, “Let’s sign up. I’m in.” I think he really did like the script and he’s real pleased with the movie, and that’s fun.

CS: It’s great. It’s funny, and he actually gets in on the action. I was kind of surprised because I thought he’d be one of these bad guys who sits behind a desk or on the phone. He doesn’t really have to do much and he actually does have some action in this movie.

Jackie Earl Haley: Yeah, it’s pretty fun. I like the bit how he’s training for some marathon. (Laughs) You always see him out jogging somewhere. I always thought that was kind of cool.

CS: It was funny because again, when he first came on the screen, I was like, “Oh he’s probably just going to be behind the desk and we’ll see him a couple of times,” but no, he actually is very pivotal and important.

Jackie Earl Haley: You’re talking about John, right? You know, Eddie, John Travolta’s character, it really is the driving force behind the whole movie, so if his presence is kind of felt even when he’s not there.


CS: I’m actually surprised you guys have never met before. I don’t know who is older, but I feel like you’re about the same age and been making movies back in the ‘70s, so I’m surprised you weren’t on the same general circuit.

Jackie Earl Haley: Well, that’s funny. We almost did (meet) because “The Bad News Bears” played a fake softball game against (the cast of) “Grease,” and I think everybody but John was there, so I almost met him.

CS: I have to say that I didn’t recognize Dan Stevens at first because he’s playing such a different character.

Jackie Earl Haley: I can’t agree with you more. Dan Stevens to me is like a revelation in this movie, in the sense that here you’ve got a guy that’s the suave, debonair, good-looking guy from “Downton Abbey,” and he has a real menacing force and depth, and those two parts speak of diversity. But then, when you throw in this Noah character, who is basically a nerd. Dan, his diversity as an actor, this just speaks huge volumes to that because he really owns playing this nerdy guy. The look we were able to get with the perm and everything was just… I’m real proud of him. I know as an actor personally, when you’re able to not kind of get typecast in one sort of thing, because in the movie, he’s just very diverse. He’s believable in all these different types of roles he’s been playing.

CS: Did you do a lot of auditions? Coming from the acting world, you must have really good instincts about casting? Did the producer mention a lot of ideas of who might work?

Jackie Earl Haley: Absolutely. Wayne and I, with the help of William Morris Endeavor, really put together just this awesome ensemble. Most of them did not need to audition at all. There was a couple of key characters, where I just really felt like, “Man, I’ve got to see this.” One of them was the role of Marques, because it was such a difficult role. That guy, to me, is kind of like the centerpiece of the film. You know, we were getting a lot of auditions that were good auditions, but they weren’t quite conveying to me what I was feeling when I read it. When I got Edi Gathegi’s audition, it was kind of like Wayne and I both said the same thing to different people. I looked over at my son who was assisting, and I went, “Okay, we got a movie,” because this was like two weeks before shooting. We cast everybody else, but when I got his audition, I was like, “Oh my God, this is the guy.” As you can tell when you saw the movie, Edi Gathegi is just great in this. Almost the whole movie, he’s taped to a chair and he just chews it up. Everybody’s really good, but he just has a wonderful performance. Again, I think it’s a really great ensemble, but he’s wonderful in it. I really liked it.

CS: I was impressed with him as well. I was watching him and going, “Oh who is that guy?” I must’ve seen him in things before but not realized that was him.

Jackie Earl Haley: I was just going to wax on a little bit more that Michael Pitt’s great in this film. He plays the alpha guy. Chris Abbott is just another wonderful actor, that guy is so lifelike in his deliveries and stuff. It’s like he’s not acting at all. To me, he’s kind of the heart of the movie in the sense that he seems to be kind of the most likeable and he’s the most caring and the most empathetic. Then you’ve got Rob Brown who kind of rounds out our four amateurs and he’s the kind of guy who, to me, he keeps everybody together when sh*t starts getting a little crazy. He starts reigning everybody back into the fantasy. I just think the four guys, along with Edi, it’s a great ensemble.


CS: It’s great for a first movie as a director to have such a great cast. That really must help out a lot.

Jackie Earl Haley: Yeah, to me, that’s the biggest job of the director is making sure that you’ve got a really good cast, because if you don’t, then it’s really hard to make your movie because you’re trying to pull out performances. I’d rather just nudge and steer a little bit, and then also, let the reigns go for a bit like, just do whatever you want, and then kind of guide and try some different things so that you’ve got some choices in the edit room. But if you’re on the set trying to pull a performance out of somebody, you’re really stuck and casting the wrong guy or girl.

CS: I really liked the music and found it an interesting mix of hip-hop plus composer Keefus (Ciancia) is somebody I’ve never heard of before. How did you decide upon the music and find Keefus to compose it?

Jackie Earl Haley: Well, I listened to a bunch of guys. It’s the weirdest thing. Getting a composer was a little daunting for me because you’re just going through all these tapes and files or whatever, listening to music and all these different guys. What’s weird is I never really found somebody that had on their reel what I was kind of envisioning for the film. When I talked with Keefus, he didn’t really quite have it on his reel, either. I just decided, “This guy seems like the right guy.” Man, he just nailed it. I’m talking about the guy that did the score. Because what it was, obviously, we had a temp track throughout the whole movie – that’s how you edit it and borrow people’s stuff. There was some cues just kind of worked temporarily, but some were like, “Wow, wish we could afford this guy,” without giving a specific. There was one cue in there, where I said, “I think the whole thing. I kind of like where we’ve spotted everything.” Of course, some stuff just sounds too ‘80s or it’s too this or it’s too that, but there was one or two cues that we borrowed from somewhere, where it’s like, to me, that’s it, “Keefus, if you can make the movie feel like that.” And he did. He just nailed it.

Of course, we had some famous songs that were in the movie, and had on a temporary basis. We knew we couldn’t afford them, but we did get this music supervisor, who basically is a guy that has access to thousands upon thousands of songs that are more affordable. So I was really pleased that I could find songs that sounded cool and kind of fit where we had them. Some of them I liked better than the famous ones. I will tell you, there’s this one song that was kind of expensive that we were going to try to get, but I also had to have a backup song, in case these guys said no. I ended up falling in love with the backup song so much that I called the producer and I was like, “I know we kind of want this famous song, but I’m kind of falling in love with this.” I started to kind of get a good sense, so everybody was going, “Let’s just go with this.” It was really, it was very impactful, an impactful song. It worked, I think, better than the famous one would’ve.

Criminal Activities opens in select cities and On Demand on Friday, November 20.

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Weekend: Aug. 22, 2019, Aug. 25, 2019

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