Cool Hand Lukas

Eleven years after he wowed the world in Witness, Austinite Lukas Haas is a movie star again—but he swears he won’t let Hollywood go to his head.

April 1996By Comments

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.”

One resonant example Haas has seen up close is his pal Leonardo DiCaprio, a heartthrob actor whose performances in This Boy’s Life and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? (for which he earned an Oscar nomination) have made him a hot commodity. As public personas go, Haas and DiCaprio couldn’t be more dissimilar. DiCaprio’s handlers blitz the major magazines whenever he has a movie coming out; by contrast, even if all of Haas’s films this year are hits, it is impossible to imagine that he will pose seductively for the cover of Details. “Leo is in this amazing place right now,” Haas says. “People want to be like him. He’s idolized. But no one is as big as he’s projected to be. Leo is just a guy—he’s my friend.” Like all friends, though, these two have had their moments of rivalry: Each auditioned for This Boy’s Life and Gilbert Grape. Haas maintains he doesn’t care that DiCaprio got both roles. “We’re both very lucky because we make money doing art,” he says. “Why should I want to be him?”

As far back as anyone can remember, Lukas Haas has always known just what he wanted. When he was still preschool  age and his family was still living in L.A., he saw a live taping of a TV show his mother had written and was immediately taken with acting. “Afterward, he put his arm around me and said, ‘Mommy, this is what I’m going to do, I’m going to be a star for a little while,’” Emily remembers with a laugh. Initially, she and Berthold were reluctant to allow their son to do what could be cruel and demeaning work, but Lukas was insistent. Eventually they let him audition, and he got a role alongside Jane Alexander in the no-nukes drama Testament. He was five and a half.

With that first experience, the Haases began a tradition of discussing roles with Lukas in great depth. “We paid attention very, very carefully to whatever project he wanted to do,” Berthold says. “We wanted to make sure it was something he liked and that we felt good about, so that when he saw it, he would feel it was worth it.” Choosing scripts and roles carefully was one thing, however; guaranteeing that a finished movie would meet the family’s expectations was quite another. “There are so many variables, so many different people affecting a movie,” Lukas says. “You could give the most beautiful performance in the world and if they wanted to make it crap, they could. Somebody else could ruin it.”

This sober realization taught Lukas early on to speak his mind on a set, a trait that risked getting him pegged as an enfant terrible. “I’d say the director-actor relationship is very strange,” he observes. “You can be friends with a director, but there is a fine line where one person has control and the other doesn’t. There have been times I’ve jumped into the director’s territory. It’s the director’s movie, of course, but it’s my movie too—it’s on my record.” Many directors seem to at least consider, if not agree with, Lukas’ suggestions. “He clearly has his own opinion about things,” says Stacy Cochran, who directed Boys. “But he’s not opposed to figuring out someone else’s idea.”

Even at age seven, as he began working on Witness, Haas demonstrated a level of acting sophistication that put him far above his peers. “With a child actor, it is particularly difficult to avoid sentimentality,” says Peter Weir. “With Lukas, I needed to push into areas of pain, and this requires a great deal of cooperation.” In the hardest scene of the movie—its catalyst—Haas had to convincingly portray an innocent Amish child seeing violence for the first time in his life. “I did not want him to actually witness the murder being acted out,” says Weir. “All he had to look at was a piece of tape beside the lens that represented the crime.” When the first few takes did not yield what the director wanted, he took Haas for a walk. “I said, ‘You must find something inside of yourself that you think is scary; otherwise the picture won’t work.’ We got back, and somehow he found the required fear. That performance was crucial to the emotional fulfillment of the film.”

Not every on-set experience has been so charmed. One director, in an attempt to evoke a frightened response from Haas, tore up a photo of his mother and told him she was dead. Even the prestige of working with Woody Allen did not come without a price. “He’s this genius eccentric who has complete control over what he’s doing,” Haas says. “He’s nervous as hell about it, and he makes everyone around him nervous.” Still, Haas keeps everything in perspective. “I think my parents had a ton to do with the fact that I’m not confused,” he says. “I realize that there’s this fabricated idealism when you look at a star, but the people you idolize go through the same things as everyone else—stars are just normal people in crazy situations.”

For the Haas family, the crazy situation has most often been Hollywood. Berthold and Emily left that city when Lukas was in sixth grade; after Witness was released, they couldn’t even eat a meal out together without being hassled. “The pressures were so intense,” Berthold recalls, “that Emily and I realized it was not something a child should go through.” But the move to Austin, Emily’s childhood home, did not provide immediate relief for Lukas. “We wanted him to have this opportunity to be with kids from all walks of life, but in the beginning it was really obnoxious,” Emily says. “Kids treated him like he was lying about acting. Then when they believed him, they projected their idea of what a star should be onto him and treated him like they expected him to be snooty. Fortunately, the kids in school finally took a cue from him. He didn’t treat it like a big deal, so they didn’t either.”

Over and over, Hollywood pros who have worked with Lukas make this point—that he has never seen his success as something to be exploited or rubbed in the faces of others. “He has this remarkable kind of overview,” Weir notes. “He has a calm that is rare for anyone that age.”

Emily Tracy says that while her son has always had a good deal of clarity and self-confidence, one event really cemented his levelheadedness. “Right after making Rambling Rose, he had a big spine operation,” she recalls. “He had several vertebrae fused and rods put in.” The diagnosis was a form of scoliosis—rare in boys—that doctors feared would kill him. Haas’s response to the surgery and the six-month recuperation was, at the very least, unusual. “I remember him saying he was grateful for the pain,” Emily says. “It gave him more compassion for others, and it matured him. It really shaped who he is now more than any other single thing. After that he found a new core, a strength in himself that is unshakable.”

No doubt this core is precisely where Lukas will turn when the pressures of celebrity return to his life this year. And he’ll turn as well to his parents, who have always guided him thoughtfully through the process of making smart choices. Still, he’s cautious. “I can’t assume anything,” he says, “but the way it’s going now, it’s as good as it can be. I want my career to always be that way—as good as I can make it.”

“I don’t worry about him,” Berthold Haas says. “He’ll have to learn how to live with the rules that exist in his own way. We can’t protect him from that, and I wouldn’t care to. He’s smart, he’s not lazy, and he’s well adjusted. Deep inside, I know he’ll be okay.”

Austinite Spike Gillespie has written for GQ, Cosmopolitan, and Playboy.

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