It makes sense that a kid who got his first movie role at the age of four and his big break at seven (when he was cast opposite Harrison Ford in Peter Weir's Witness) would experience his career low point in his mid-teens.
"I started getting sick of it," Lukas Haas recalls a few weeks before his 30th birthday, sitting on a sofa in a hotel suite in Toronto. "I started getting flakey. I didn't read scripts. Up until then my life had been charmed. I was spoiled. I figured if I wanted to act, I could."
That moment, he says, is when life (and Hollywood) wound up and sucker-punched him in the gut. "I was up for the lead in What's Eating Gilbert Grape. It was down to me and one other guy. And when I didn't get that role I was surprised. Basically Leo [DiCaprio, who won the role]was my first adult competition. After that I was like, 'Screw it, I'll just play music.' "
But it was too late for Haas. The acting bug had already embedded itself deep in his DNA. He did play music -- guitar, drums, piano -- and he still plays well, performing recently with Outkast and Macy Gray. But before long he was back at the drama trough, sorting through scripts and looking for roles that challenged him.
Ending up a struggling actor at the age of 20 was a little hard to swallow. The shock was enough to make Haas realize that from then on, if he wanted to be an actor, he would have to work at it -- something that, like most talented child stars, he'd never really had to do.
His effort paid off, because since then Haas has worked steadily, under the direction of Woody Allen, Tim Burton, Gus Van Sant and others. But it's his latest role in Brick, a small feature by first-time writer-director Rian Johnson, may be the one that defines his adult career as an off-kilter character actor.
The film, which cost only $500,000 (U.S.), won the 2005 Sundance Special Jury Prize. Haas plays The Pin, a teenage drug lord just out of high school who runs a mob-like operation out of his mother's basement. A noir detective story set in an out-of-time suburban California high school, the film casts Haas as the villain, albeit an unusual one.
While The Pin surrounds himself with murderous flunkies and works in an eerily immaculate office at a desk decorated with a gold eagle statue, he is also the movie's most comically sympathetic character. In spite of his demonic tendencies, his mother still fixes him milk and cookies. And in what is perhaps Brick's most poignant moment, he innocently asks the film's leading straight man (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) if he's ever read The Lord of the Rings.
Haas laughs remembering the moment. "He's starts off as this sinister evil dude and then slowly you get to see his vulnerable human side," he says, chewing on a toothpick. While he says the story attracted him right away (the cast and crew began shooting only a week after he read the script), the language posed some issues. The script, written in a fictitious teen dialect, took some getting used to. "At first I found it confusing," Haas says, "but after a while it was almost like doing Shakespeare."
Despite his big-studio beginnings, Haas now seems committed to the indie ethic. He's just finished shooting another small film, a romantic comedy tentatively titled Who Loves the Sun, about two friends fighting over one woman. The second feature from Canadian director Matt Bissonnette, the film also stars Bissonnette's wife, Molly Parker, Adam Scott, R.H. Thomson and Wendy Crewson.
As for his spoiled inner-child star, Haas says he's paid his dues and is a grownup pro. "Now," he says, "I'm just in it for the love of acting."