Actor Jackie Earle Haley is a respected member of the Hollywood community, having earned raves for his performance in 2006's "Little Children." But despite that respect amongst his peers, he's relatively unknown to mainstream cinema goers.
That's going to change in March, when Haley takes to the screen in as Rorschach, the most compelling and popular character of "Watchmen," the new Zack Snyder film based on the classic DC Comics graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.
During CBR's visit to the Vancouver set in December of 2007, we got a chance to talk with Haley about portraying Walter Kovacs, the masked vigilante known as Rorschach.
Jackie, with Rorschach, you're portraying possibly the most important character in the story of "Watchmen." What's your impression of the character?
It depends on how you look at it. If I'm looking at it from Rorschach's point of view, that's one thing, but I usually talk about him from a third person, my own point of view. All of the information seems to be in the graphic novel, so it's really kind of digging in there and opening it up and really trying to find what makes this guy tick.
It's kind of interesting for me that we live in a world of grays, where there's just so much complexity to describe behavior, so much complexity that can sometimes kind of justify wrongs for greater goods. An example of that would be Walter's mom and how she had to make some decisions to be able to put a roof over his head and feed him. The decisions she made, getting into prostitution, her lifestyle, her own self-centerednes -- I'm sure that the complexity was there to provide for Walter, but there was still a lot of her own self-centeredness.
A lot of people somehow survive upbringings like that -- somewhat emotionally scarred, but they somehow get on in life. But I think that for Walter, he was such a victim that it tweaked him, it tweaked him to I think a very large degree that when he considers the complexity that justifies her decisions, all he can see is the black and white of it. He sees that there's no justifications for her decisions, because in doing so, yeah, maybe she put a roof over his head, but she basically victimized him, abused him. He's got such incredible scarring from that, I think it just really pushed him over a certain type of edge. I think he had several edges to go over, but that was kind of like the first one, and I just think that for him, that is part of what sums up his desire for black and white. In his mind, you cannot justify wrong behavior. If it's wrong, it's wrong.
Some see Rorschach as a demonstration of the Batman archetype, whereby the hero comes from a dark childhood, taken as extremely as it can be taken. What are your thoughts along those lines?
It's like they say, ["Watchmen" is] a deconstruction of the comic book genre. And it's pretty fascinating, and it's really fascinating when you talk about Bruce Wayne and Walter Kovacs, two completely different people. They've had some similarities, but it's almost like Bruce is able to assimilate into the real word, but he had a little tweak, and found this area to go where Rorschach, that's all he's got. He's the only guy that didn't quit during the Keene act. Why? He's got nothing else, this is his life.
Word on the street is you submitted your own audition tape without being asked. Had you been contacted about auditioning?
To tell you the truth, it kind of looked like early on in the process of trying to cast this part, they were going in a different direction. Then my agent and my manager kind of got wind when it looked like, "Hey, it might be shifting a little bit," so we didn't wait, we just went ahead and made a tape and sent it in, rather than waiting for them. In other words, if there was any sort of hiccup, I wanted to be in there, whether I had a shot or not. I figured it was better to get a tape in there so they had it if they wanted it, rather than they want one and have to wait for it.
What did you put on that tape?
I basically went through the script and picked a couple different things, and I put them together to make a three-minute tape.
One of the experiences in reading the book the second time is realizing that Walter is hiding in plain view a fair amount of the time. You're a recognizable actor, is it going to be harder to hide you in the movie before the mask comes off?
You know, I'm not sure. I think that's a question for Zack. I don't know how recognizable I am in terms of the general public. You're going to have a percentage that will recognize me, but that should be a small percentage. In terms of people who already know the script, you can put anybody in this part because I'm holding the sign. So if you've read the book, you know who Walter is. You can't not hold the sign.
Can you talk about acting with a mask over your face?
Well, it's an interesting challenge. I would say that 90% of my performance in the movie is with a sock over my head. It's an interesting challenge. At first it's kind of daunting because as an actor, your tool is your face. But at the same time, you don't think about that. It's not like I control my face, I try to control the inside, and then the rest of it just kind of works itself out. And at the end of the day, if I just do that with Rorschach, that's kind of where I'm coming from, I'm trying to do it internally. But I also have to think about the fact that I don't have facial expressions, and what can I do to express certain emotions and things like that. Rorschach, though, he's not a big emoting kind of guy.
Is there a difference in performance between Walter and Rorschach?
Just a little, but mostly not. To me, there is no Walter. I mean, there really isn't. Even looking at him from the third party, even popping across the iIMDB page where they put everybody's name, and next to it when I see "Walter Kovacs/Rorschach," it drives me nuts, it should just say "Rorschach."
That's how he'd like it.
Right? There's little things. I'm a different person from the third person looking in, but a little piece of you gets vested into a character, no matter what the character is, and I know that from meeting Dave Gibbons, from going to dinner with him. I was so giddy, I kind of felt like a little piece of me was meeting one of my creators. That little piece of me that's vested in Rorschach, this is like one of his parents, and it was just like, "Wow." I mean, how cool is that, to be able to sit and chat with this guy, who one day, between him and Alan, they were both staring at a white piece of paper, "Hey, let's do this."
In Chapter 7 of "Watchmen," Walter is being examined by a therapist. The theme of the piece is if you look in the abyss, the abyss looks back at you. Do you feel that living with a character as dark as this, does that stay with you?
Yeah, in little pieces it does. I'm pretty good at walking away from it, but surprisingly, when I played Ronnie McGorvy in "Little Children," that thing was so daunting on an emotional level that when they said "wrap," I could walk away from that guy. But for some reason, when they said "wrap" on ["Watchmen,"] I pretty much walked away, but every now and then there has been a moment here that came out where I've said something that just came out a little to Rorschach-ian. One time we were all leaving work, I said, "That's great," and it just came out totally in Rorschach's voice, and I'm like, "Dude, I did not do that on purpose."
Do you think that Rorschach is a sane man in an insane world, or is he an insane man in a sane world?
Well, it depends how you want to look at it. From our perspective, I don't know if "insane" is really the right word. I think it is from one standpoint; to look at this person's behavior, at what he's capable of doing to people. But at the same time there's this odd righteousness to it. What he does, he may kind of go about it in a very harsh manner and sometimes he may victimize some innocent people to get some information, but in this weird kind of way, he's getting things done that aren't getting done otherwise. And it's only a nutball like this that can really get it done. It is a rational reaction to some degree to the world that this is set in. I mean, this is a messed up world. I'm trying to make sense out of this whole wackiness of this shooting thing the other day. One of the things that that guy said is, "Well, at least I'll be famous." And then they kept going on and on and on and on for 30 or 40 minutes, and it was kind of like, "Wow, I wonder what would happen if we didn't want to tune into that, I wonder what would happen if the news just refused to report on that, would people go out and do this shit?"
Are you prepared for the level of scrutiny that you're going to come under from longtime fans of the "Watchmen" graphic novel?
Well, I think they're going to talk about all the characters. I think they're going to focus on us all. I don't know how to answer that, really. I've got the greatest amount of passion for this project, I'm so thrilled to be part of it and I feel so incredibly lucky and fortunate to have been Zack's choice as Rorschach. All I can do is study the book, study the character, become vested in him, and do my best to understand him. I can talk about him in the third person, but I've also got to embrace him and understand him and agree with him on a certain level. All I can do is go for it, and I will tell you that at every given moment, I'm definitely trying to be accountable to Zack, to Alan, to Dave, and to every fanboy and girl. I want to do the best work that I can for this story, this character, and everything about it, because it is such a beloved piece of work, and rightfully so.