Haley Joel Osment

Portrait of a modernist master

The act of painting, as embodied by Mark Rothko, gets a fierce and feverish exploration in “Red.”

By Naila Francis

He always knew he would get his college degree. And now that he has it, Haley Joel Osment believes he’s come full circle.

It’s been 12 years since the Los Angeles native channeled a precocious anguish into child misfit Cole Sear in M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Sixth Sense.” He followed that Oscar-nominated turn with appearances in films like “Pay It Forward” and “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence,” but despite such career momentum, Osment decided to take four years off to attend New York University, where he recently graduated from the Experimental Theatre Wing program in the Tisch School of the Arts.

“Ever since I was a kid, I knew I wanted to just complete my education and go all the way to college,” says Osment, who, as a teen, had a tutor for film projects that took him out of school. “I got to experience what every other person’s college education provides for them without any distractions.

“The (Experimental Theatre Wing) was such a wonderful environment and it gave me the opportunity to work with people my own age on the craft. Even though I’ve had the opportunity to work with a lot of great actors, I rarely had the opportunity to work with people my own age as a kid. College was just a great time of my life.”

This week, he is back in Philadelphia, where “The Sixth Sense” was filmed, for his first play since graduating.

Osment will star opposite Broadway veteran Stephen Rowe in the Philadelphia Theatre Company production of “Red,” the intensely visceral and intellectual portrait of master abstract expressionist Mark Rothko, opening in previews Friday.

The work by John Logan won the 2010 Tony Award for Best Play, among several other accolades, and marks an ambitious undertaking for what is only Osment’s second public performance.

His first was his Broadway debut, starring alongside Cedric the Entertainer and John Leguizamo in the short-lived 2008 revival of David Mamet’s “American Buffalo” while still in college. The production closed after only a week.

“I was really glad I did it. It didn’t have that long of a run, but I love that play and I really enjoyed doing Mamet,” he says. “It sort of planted the seed in me that I want to go back (to Broadway) and do it as often as possible. There are so many considerations that go into making a film, where theater is so much more focused on the performances themselves. The director is working with the actors just on their performance, just with the material without all those technical distractions you have when you’re filming.”

That doesn’t mean Osment, who landed his first movie role as Tom Hanks’ son in “Forrest Gump” before going on to star in films like “Bogus” with Whoopi Goldberg and sitcoms such as “Thunder Alley,” “Murphy Brown” and “The Jeff Foxworthy Show,” is turning his back on Hollywood.

The 23-year-old recently completed the indie comedy “Sassy Pants” and will next begin shooting “Wake the Dead,” a re-imagining of the Frankenstein story.

But now that he’s once again stepping onto the stage, there’s a sense of coming into his own as an actor, which can be a challenge for many who begin their careers so young, as Osment, whose father is actor Michael Eugene Osment, did at age 4 in a series of Pizza Hut commercials. (Sister Emily also is an actor, as well as a singer.)

“My dad is a great theater actor who taught me everything I knew about acting as a kid,” says Osment. “Acting in films as a kid, I took a lot from his training in theater. It’s nice to now come full circle and have my own theater degree to draw on.”

That Osment is starring in “Red,” a play that delves so deeply into the complexities of an artist’s creative impulses, seems fitting.

He has the role of Ken, a young assistant hired by Rothko at a critical juncture.

The play takes place during 1958-59 when the egotistical, pedagoguish painter is working on a series of murals for New York’s famed Four Seasons restaurant, located in the Seagram Building, at the time a marvel of modern architecture. The $35,000 commission is considered one of the greatest offered to an abstract expressionist in the 20th century.

But as Rothko and Ken work together in his studio in the Bowery, the artist finds himself being challenged on his decision, as well as his derision of the exploding pop art movement.

“I read the play and (Ken) was just a great character, and it was a great text about what it means to create art and the relationship between an artist and his audience,” says Osment. “Ken is an eager, up-and-coming young painter who’s had some traumatic events in his past. He’s eager to prove himself as an ally of Rothko and as an assistant and also as a painter in his own right.

“It’s the beginning of that transition from abstract expressionism to a sort of lighter tone with the pop artists who are turning everything abstract expressionism built on its head. Ken is in the middle of them because he loves what Rothko does, but he has an appreciation for the humor these other artists have.”

For director Anders Cato, the character of Ken is essential to understanding the mystery that is Rothko, a self-taught artist who didn’t find success until midlife and then seemed trapped by his signature motif of hazy rectangular forms of color on large canvases. He committed suicide in 1970 at age 66.

“Rothko’s life is so rich, so conflicted … that we enter into it through this assistant who comes to work for him,” says Cato, a Swedish-born director who has worked extensively in the U.S. since 1990. “Ken in a strange way is all a blank. We don’t know too much about him. He is this young man who is sort of not yet formed — but that’s what happens during the play.”

Osment, he believes, is uniquely positioned to play the young artist.

“Haley, of course when you see his face, even though he’s 23 now, you still recognize that little boy from all those movies, especially in Philadelphia. We know him as this child actor, but Haley is himself taking that step into adulthood. And as actors have to do, he is doing it publicly,” says Cato. “To me, that intensifies or puts an interesting focus on that step or that important shift for this character. This play is ultimately also a play about a young man really finding out who he is and stepping into adulthood through sort of the test of being Rothko’s assistant.”

“Red” also explores the relationship between teacher and pupil, and older and younger generations, with Rothko’s insistence that a child must banish his father, while still respecting him, in order to create new work.

“Both of (these artists) have complex background relationships with their fathers,” says Osment. “Because they have this sort of shared background, they struggle to navigate the roles of master and apprentice, allies and enemies. … The playwright has said, in the end, it’s a play about fathers and sons, but there are so many shifting colors in their relationship … there are so many responsibilities that human beings have to one another that come out in this play.”

Fueling the drama onstage is the creation of the art itself. To authentically inhabit their roles, Rowe and Osment spent time with some painters in a Brooklyn studio, learning to mix paints and build and stretch canvases.

“We had to pay attention to how Rothko would go through that process because he differed from other painters in his methods of mixing paint. He was very unconventional and his canvases were notorious for being poorly put together with chicken wire,” says Osment, who has seen a collection of the Seagram murals at the Tate Modern in London (Rothko ultimately returned the money for the Four Seasons commission and dispersed the murals among three galleries).

“It’s sort of hard to describe the experience of seeing a Rothko painting. I just think he creates an image that has infinite possibilities for the viewer and that’s what this play is about.”

According to Cato, Rothko himself saw his paintings as dramas, imbued with a theatricality that required more participation than observation from the viewer.

Yet for all the artistic debate happening onstage, “Red” is not high-brow territory.

“(The play) has a lot of vitality. It even has humor and it has a lot of intelligence,” says Cato. “These are two really smart people up there talking. But it’s not dry. It’s not art theory. It’s not a lecture on this or that. It’s about life-and-death issues for them. It’s about what does integrity mean? And every human being has to deal with those questions.”

– The Bucks County Courier Times and The Intelligencer