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Rorschach test: Jackie Earle Haley won coveted role with self-made audition tape

by Matthew Price Modified: April 22, 2013 at 3:21 pm •  Published: February 27, 2009
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. – The role of Rorschach, the masked, driven vigilante in “Watchmen,” was sought by many a Hollywood A-lister, said the producers of the film. The role went to Jackie Earle Haley, the child actor who, until being nominated for an Oscar for his 2006 film “Little Children,” was probably best-known for playing Kelly Leak in “Bad News Bears.”

Encouraged by fan chatter online that he’d make a good Rorschach, Haley made his own costume, and acted out scenes from the screenplay. He sent the tape to the producers of “Watchmen.”

After impressing the producers and director Zack Snyder, Haley became Rorschach – and in the process was reunited with his “Little Children” co-star Patrick Wilson. Wilson had already been cast as Nite Owl, Rorschach’s former crime-fighting partner.

“For me it was kind of interesting, to show up on the set and to basically, at least at the start, to know one guy, to only really have one friend there,” Haley said in a recent press interview. “And I did internally focus on that, because Rorschach only has one friend. And it happens to be the same guy. So there’s a neat parallel there.”

Rorschach is the most obsessive of this group of obsessives; when the superheroes in “Watchmen” are forced to retire by an act of Congress, Rorschach presses on in violation of the law. When one of their own is murdered, it’s Rorschach who believes someone is out to get the masks, and won’t let the investigation stop.

“This guy’s so lost in this world,” Haley said. “The cops don’t like him, the pedestrians don’t like him, his own masked vigilante partners don’t like him. If it wasn’t for Nite Owl, this guy would be absolutely, completely alone. And really, Nite Owl doesn’t even like the guy! If you really look at it, he puts up with him! But he does care.”

Rorschach’s drive results from his neglected upbringing, Haley said.

“He’s a victim of his mom’s own self-centeredness. … He ended up in a home at age 11 only to discover they weren’t much better at raising him than his mom was,” he said. “And I think he finally reached this point in life where he needed this black and white sense of the world. Because he was such a victim of the grey complexities.

“His whole life was falling through the cracks. And if it weren’t for becoming a masked vigilante, this guy would have no purpose in life.”

That focus on what would motivate a character to wear a mask and fight crime was part of what made the graphic novel “Watchmen,” which was the basis for the film, so successful, Haley said.

“People never thought to challenge the assumptions of the comic-book genre,” Haley said. “Watchmen” creators Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons took this medium that was more of a childlike entertainment medium, and decided to take that template and use it in more of a thought-provoking, grown-up manner to examine humanity. And it’s kind of fascinating when you take those two worlds and put them together,” he said.

That world was translated to film through the expertise of Snyder and the hundreds of craftspeople and technicians working on the film. Working on the heavily designed sets aided in the performance, Haley said.

“Zack created this incredible world,” he said. “Walking onto these beautiful sets was … incredibly motivating. You take the wardrobe design department, the makeup design department, all these departments that came together to create each character and these sets – it was total immersion.”

From Friday’s The Oklahoman
By Matthew Price

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by Matthew Price
Features Editor
Features Editor Matthew Price has worked for The Oklahoman since 2000. He’s a University of Oklahoma graduate who has also worked at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and was a Dow Jones Newspaper Fund intern for the Dallas Morning News. He’s...
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