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Child Actor Haley Joel Osment Is So Skilled It's Spooky

11-year-old develops strong acting `Sense'

Susan King, Los Angeles Times

``I see dead people.''

Those four words are sending chills up the spines of movie audiences thanks to Haley Joel Osment, who delivers that line in one of the most despairing whispers ever heard on the screen.

The 11-year-old Glendale (Los Angeles County) resident has been receiving rave reviews for his performance as Cole, the troubled, intense and frightened young patient of a caring child psychologist (Bruce Willis) in ``The Sixth Sense.'' The summer hit had the highest August opening in history three weeks ago with $26.7 million.

The well-spoken, personable young actor says he was spooked by the ghost story when he initially read the script. ``It really scared me,'' Osment says.

``Just as a script, it was terrifying,'' he says in a calm, confident voice, nothing like the breathy, panicky one he uses in the film. ``But when we started to shoot, it wasn't scary anymore because you know how it all works. The (actors who play) ghosts are walking around the set drinking coffee and eating, so it doesn't get to be as scary. It was more of a challenge to get scared on the set.''

To work himself into a state of terror, Osment kept imagining that he actually was Cole and ``knowing his character so well, I could be afraid of what he was afraid of and really believed what was scaring him was real.''

Writer-director M. Night Shyamalan auditioned Osment after seeing a reel of his previous movie and TV work. ``I wasn't thinking I was going to find the child in L.A.,'' says Shyamalan, who lives in Philadelphia, where ``Sixth Sense'' is set. ``They tend to lose their naturalness. They tend to lose their innocence.''

Though most of the child actors he saw in Los Angeles were dressed in earrings and sloppy T-shirts, Osment arrived for his audition ``prim and proper'' in a suit, Oxford shirt and tie.

``He had respect for the audition,'' the director says. ``He had this respect for his job. That kind of work ethic is unusual in general for human beings, let alone a child.'' Cole was vastly different than any other role the youngster had done before. ``I had to find things that were related to me and Cole,'' Osment says. ``But it was hard to relate to a person who was terrified all the time and has such an intense life.''

Because Cole is a raw, exposed nerve during the entire film, Osment was often exhausted by the day's shooting. But he never got tired of playing the role.

``I liked going there and getting scared all day,'' he says.

Osment arrived at that haunting whisper by sheer instinct. ``Once you are in the scene, it really figures to do what is the most realistic -- the best way to play out every line. It comes as an instinct, really.'' Because the material was so intense, Shyamalan was concerned for the kids auditioning. ``But it never entered my mind with him,'' the director says. ``He had such an understanding of the material. I asked him my usual question: `Did you read the scenes or did you just get handed them by your agent right now?' He said, `I read the script twice.' He had a thorough understanding of the character and the movie. I treated him exactly the way I treated all of the other actors.''

The young star also has the highest praise for his director. ``He knew what he was doing,'' Osment says. ``It was amazing enough that the script was just so fantastic. He knew everything that happened in the script like he had written it yesterday.''

Osment began acting six years ago. His father, Eugene, has been an actor since college. His mother is a schoolteacher. ``Ever since I was old enough to get the concept (of acting) I always admired how he was an actor,'' says Osment, who has a 7-year-old sister. ``I always wanted to try. We both loved movies, and Dad couldn't wait until I was old enough (to audition).''

Because Osment was a talkative tyke, his father believed he was ready when he was 5. Osment started doing commercials and then was cast as Forrest Jr. in ``Forrest Gump.''

``We started getting more work and every thing started going,'' the younger Osment says.

Osment's first TV series was the short- lived ABC comedy ``Thunder Alley.'' He's best known on the small screen as Avery, the son of ``Murphy Brown'' on the CBS series.

Other credits include Norman Jewison's fantasy ``Bogus'' and TV movies such as ``Cab to Canada'' and ``Last Stand at Saber River.''

This past season he gave a memorable performance as a child dying of cancer who decides to sue God on ``Ally McBeal.''

``I don't strictly like to stay with drama all the time,'' Osment says. ``I like balancing out TV, films, drama and comedy. I would like to try theater sometime.''

This summer, though, Osment is just relaxing. ``Our family is having a nice summer, doing lots of sports activities,'' he says. ``I like to boogie-board a lot and play basketball.''

Next month, he'll begin sixth grade. ``When I am not working I do go to normal school, which is down the street from my house,'' he says. ``When I am working, a tutor comes on the set.''

Despite his busy schedule, Osment maintains he has a typical childhood.

``All my friends like movies, but I like how they just treat me normal when I come home. It's good to be a normal kid when all the acting is done.''