ON A MIDWINTER FRIDAY AT GUERO’S restaurant in South Austin, Lukas Haas is about to muse on his life as an actor when he turns his attention to a harried waiter. The place is packed with a hyper, bustling lunch crowd ordering heaping plates of Tex-Mex, but the nineteen-year-old calmly fixes his enormous, bottomless brown eyes on the guy and orders only two corn tortillas and a glass of orange juice. “That’s it?” the puzzled waiter asks. “Really, that’s all I want,” he replies decisively.
It would be easy to read too much into the exchange—maybe Haas wasn’t hungry—but it serves well as a metaphor for his career to date. Eleven years ago, in his first major role, he shook the seats of moviegoers everywhere as the frightened title character in Witness, director Peter Weir’s thriller about an Amish boy who sees a murder at a train station and helps a detective (played by Harrison Ford) bring the perpetrators to justice. It was the kind of high-impact role that catapults a child performer to stardom, yet in the months and years that followed, Haas turned down big-budget projects in favor of smaller ones that touched his head and heart. Such pickiness meant taking parts in films that did not exactly qualify as box office hits, such as the thirties-era drama Rambling Rose and Leap of Faith, a satire about a traveling evangelist. Factor in the Haas family’s move from California to Texas three years after Witness and you can see how he slipped from the limelight and, despite working steadily, never again gained the recognition he earned as an eight-year-old.
That transition, from famous child to somewhat anonymous young adult, has not bothered Haas. In fact, he professes to be publicity shy—so it will be interesting to see how he greets the onslaught of accolades that await him this year, when he’ll be all over the big screen in four highly visible films. First comes Boys, a coming-of-age tale starring icon-of-her-generation Winona Ryder; it hits theaters at the end of April. Then there’s Johns, an independent flick about young male hustlers in Hollywood, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January and was picked up by a major distributor. Haas also has a role in Woody Allen’s latest, Everyone Says I Love You, a musical comedy that stars Alan Alda and Julia Roberts. And he has joined the cast of Tim Burton’s forthcoming sci-fi farce, Mars Attacks!, which features campy turns by Glenn Close, Pierce Brosnan, and Jack Nicholson as the president of the United States.
Haas would prefer not to fathom the possibilities of a return to full-throttled fame, though he knows enough to be thankful for whatever comes. It’s a wise stance, considering how many of his contemporaries crashed after their first star turns. Take Justin Henry, who broke into the business in a big way in Kramer vs. Kramer; after becoming the youngest actor ever nominated for an Oscar, he all but disappeared. Or, at the other end of the spectrum, take Macaulay Culkin, whose relentless precociousness has turned the country against him. Or take River Phoenix, who crafted his career as carefully as Haas has but eventually succumbed to Hollywood’s pitfalls and ended up overdosing at an L.A. nightclub. Perhaps the best model Haas can hope to emulate is Henry Thomas, who got the ultimate career kickoff in E.T. but has managed to stay centered ever since by carefully choosing the roles that best suit him (his last marquee performance was in Legends of the Fall) and splitting his time between Los Angeles and his native San Antonio, where he lives near his family and plays in a band.
“After Witness, I was really famous, but I don’t remember much—I think I was very protected,” Haas says. “I don’t know how I’ll react this time. I can’t predetermine that. I’m going to try to keep living the same way I’ve been living.”
How he’s been living depends on which day of the week or week of the month it is. He mainly divides his time between Austin, where he owns a condominium in one of the city’s older neighborhoods, and L.A., where he shares an apartment with his mother, screenwriter Emily Tracy (who shuttles back and forth to see her husband, painter Berthold Haas, and their eleven-year-old twins, Simon and Niki). There is no set breakdown on how much time Haas spends in each place, but there’s a big difference in what gets done there. “In Austin, I mainly stay in my house and record my keyboard music, read, or write,” he says. “ L.A. is a party scene. I hang out with a lot of famous people out there. But not because they’re famous—that’s just the community.” Indeed, Haas insists his life is essentially the same wherever he is. “It’s not like, ‘Now I’m in Austin, so I’m changed.’ Austin provides a balance for me. I have old friends here who are non-industry and who are just as creative as a lot of my industry friends. I go off to New York or L.A. for a month and I’m with these stars. Then I come back and it’s a completely different world. It’s like real life.”
Not that Haas loathes the Fantasyland aspect of being a Hollywood actor. His celebrity comes with privileges, from star treatment on the sets of his films to fast friendships with show business gadabouts like rock star—auteur Michael Stipe and model-actress Liv Tyler. But it’s clear that Haas would rather the spotlight fall on someone other than him. Unlike, say, Culkin, Haas neither seeks reporters nor finds himself having to run from them. And when the spotlight does fall on him, his mother insists, he can handle it. “He’s seen many examples across the board—all the dead ends,” she says. “He’s watched what happens to people who get full of themselves and who buy their own press. Those things are just not interesting to him.”