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Film

Haley Joel Osment reflects on child stardom and 'The Sixth Sense'

On this day, 23 years ago, M. Night Shyamalan flexed his muscles as an eminent filmmaker in the supernatural psychological thriller, The Sixth Sense. The film starred Bruce Willis as a child psychologist whose young patient, portrayed by Haley Joel Osment, claims to possess a sixth sense whereby the world of the roaming dead is very much visible. 

The chilling and twisted tale was enough to have an ill effect on my sleeping patterns for a few weeks after I watched the film in my youth. As a child actor under the pressure of Hollywood fame and expectation, it’s a wonder that Osment emerged from his youth with not a single scar, be that from the haunting ghosts, fake blood or the intense spotlight. As historical media coverage denotes, exposure to worldwide fame at such a young age doesn’t always end in a particularly palatable onward trajectory. 

Osment became a household name after his career-defining performance in The Sixth Sense in 1999, aged just 11. The attention garnered the child-star significant roles in subsequent films over the next five years, including Play It Forward, A.I. Artificial Intelligence and Secondhand Lions. 

After an emphatic half-decade under the Hollywood spotlight, Osment seemingly disappeared, leading to worries for the youngster’s mental health. As it transpired, though, Osment maintained mental integrity and simply decided to step back from the acting world for a few years to focus on his personal development and education. 

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In a 2019 interview with the Independent, Osment discussed his experiences as a child star. “I think sometimes there’s an expectation for there to be that darkness,” the now-34-year-old actor explained. “But I think there are a lot more stories of people who had positive experiences working as children and didn’t have that kind of cliched storyline going forward. And that’s been the case for me.”

Indeed, as can be analogised to other topics, the media’s focus on the unfortunate cases has put a dark shadow of bias over the subject. In actuality, most child actors that reach such dizzying heights of fame will enjoy a normal upbringing and ongoing career, be it in or outside of show business. 

“I realise that I’m very lucky,” Osment admitted. “Because there were other kids who maybe didn’t have parents that looked out for them, or worked on film sets that were not wholesome, or where they were not protected. But that was not my experience.”

Another unfortunate and more prevalent issue plaguing child actors is typecasting. An example that comes to mind is Daniel Radcliffe. The prototypical wizardry student of the Harry Potter film franchise experienced a significant struggle to find satisfactory leading roles in the aftermath of the immensely popular book and film series. Fortunately, the actor seems to have found some traction in the past few years in which he has enjoyed a variety of abstracting roles. 

In the case of Osment, he managed to tactfully dodge the blight of typecasting through his well-timed break from acting. Upon his return to acting in the early 2010s, Osment began to crop up in contrasting roles. No longer would he fall under the banner of the cute and vulnerable child; born was an evil and mysterious side to Osment’s talent. 

His departure in character for more recent films like Silicon Valley, Future Man and Entourage have been enough to vindicate any notion of typecasting. “I think a lot of actors will tell you that some of the most fun you can have is diverting expectations, and playing the villain can sometimes be a little bit more interesting than playing somebody on the straight-and-narrow,” he explained. “But it works both ways too. After doing a run of villains and things like that, it’s nice to change up the routine and to play someone a bit more on the good side. And it’s a little less taxing.”

Unlike his fellow Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile co-star Zac Efron, Osment’s spell as a child actor was spent mostly in the realm of mature movies, acting opposite established stars, including Tom Hanks, Michael Caine and Bruce Willis. At the time, Osment’s classmates weren’t of age to see most of his early performances, which granted him freedom from prying attention.

“It intruded less on my personal life that I wasn’t in things that were being watched by my age rank,” Osment opined. “So going back to school, it wasn’t like I was on a show that everybody at school was watching at the same time, and I think it made the growing-up process a little bit easier. Even going back to sixth grade after The Sixth Sense, that was a movie that my classmates were too young to see.”

Osment explained that there’s much more pressure put upon actors like Zac Efron and his younger sister Emily, who appeared in films angled toward infantile viewership. “Being on those shows that were hugely popular with their own age groups, I think there’s a lot more pressure and a lot more scrutiny, so I admire them both for coming through it,” Osment said.

Toward the end of the interview, Osment seemed entirely satisfied with his ongoing career. While adulthood endeavours might fail to rival the altitude of his sunrise years, “I just feel lucky that I’m able to do something that I’ve done since I was a very young age and continue to have that be my job today.”