"I see dead people."
Those four words are sending chills up the spines of movie audiences thanks to Haley Joel Osment, who delivers that line in one of the most despairing whispers ever heard on the screen.
The 11-year-old Glendale resident has been receiving rave reviews--one critic called it Oscar-worthy--for his performance as Cole, the troubled, intense and frightened young patient of a caring child psychologist (Bruce Willis) in "The Sixth Sense." The sleeper summer hit had the highest August opening in history last week with $26.7 million.
The well-spoken, personable young actor admits he was spooked by the ghost story when he initially read the script. "It really scared me," says Osment, over the phone from the first-class section of a flight to New York where he's doing publicity for the film.
"Just as a script, it was terrifying," Osment says in a calm, confident voice, nothing like the much-imitated breathy, panicky one he uses in the film. "But when we started to shoot, it wasn't scary anymore because you know how it all works. The [actors who play] ghosts are walking around the set drinking coffee and eating, so it doesn't get to be as scary. It was more of a challenge to get scared on the set."
Osment said even his friends have been terrified by "Sixth Sense." "If I hadn't been in the movie, I don't think I would have seen it," he confesses.
To work himself into a state of terror, Osment kept believing that he actually was Cole and "knowing his character so well I could be afraid of what he was afraid of and really believed what was scaring him was real."
Writer-director M. Night Shyamalan auditioned Osment after seeing a reel of his previous movie and TV work.
"I wasn't thinking I was going to find the child in L.A.," says Shyamalan, who directed the comedy "Wide Awake" and who lives in Philadelphia, where "Sixth Sense" is set. "They tend to lose their naturalness. They tend to lose their innocence."
Though most of the child actors he saw in L.A. were dressed in earrings and sloppy T-shirts, Osment arrived for his audition "prim and proper" in a suit, Oxford shirt and tie.
"He had respect for the audition," the director says. "He had this respect for his job. That kind of work ethic is unusual in general for human beings, let alone a child."
Cole was vastly different than any other role the youngster had done before. "I had to find things that were related to me and Cole," Osment explains. "But it was hard to relate to a person who was terrified all the time and has such an intense life."
Because Cole is a raw, exposed nerve during the entire film, Osment was often exhausted by the day's shooting. But he never got tired of playing the role.
"I liked going there and getting scared all day," he says. "When I got back to the hotel, it kind of felt good to say that was good I got scared today. Being scared on the set was a good thing."
Osment arrived at that haunting whisper by sheer instinct. "Once you are in the scene, it really figures to do what is the most realistic--the best way to play out every line. It comes as an instinct, really."
The scariest moment in "The Sixth Sense," says Osment, occurs when Cole encounters the angry ghost of a dead woman in the kitchen. "Even watching it on the screen made me jump," he says with a laugh.
Because the material was so intense, Shyamalan was concerned for the kids auditioning. "But it never entered my mind with him," the director says. "He had such an understanding of the material. I asked him my usual question: 'Did you read the scenes or did you just get handed them by your agent right now?' He said, 'I read the script twice.' He had a thorough understanding of the character and the movie. I treated him exactly the way I treated all of the other actors."
The young star also has the highest praise for his director. "He knew what he was doing," Osment says. "It was amazing enough that the script was just so fantastic. He knew everything that happened in the script like he had written it yesterday."
Shyamalan thinks that Osment "knocked this performance out of the park" because he is very similar to Cole. "His relationship with me and to everyone else [in the film] was very similar to that child," he says. And Willis and Osment had the same relationship on screen as off.
As an example, the director points to the scene in the hospital room in which Osment tells Willis his secret. "Willis' character is supposed to act with awe. And Bruce Willis was acting with awe to Haley's performance. They were identical reactions," Shyamalan says.
Osment began acting six years ago. His father, Eugene, has been an actor since college. His mother is a schoolteacher. "Ever since I was old enough to get the concept [of acting] I always admired how he was an actor," says Osment, who has a 7-year-old sister. "Ialways wanted to try. We both loved movies and Dad couldn't wait until I was old enough [to audition]."
Because Osment was a talkative tyke, his father believed he was ready when he was 5. Osment started doing commercials and then was cast as Forrest Jr. in "Forrest Gump."
"We started getting more work and everything started going," the younger Osment says.
Osment's first TV series was the short-lived ABC comedy "Thunder Alley." He's best known on the small screen as Avery, the son of "Murphy Brown" on the CBS series.
Other credits include Norman Jewison's fantasy "Bogus" and such TV movies as "Cab to Canada" and "Last Stand at Sabre River."
This past season, he gave a memorable performance as a child dying of cancer who decides to sue God on "Ally McBeal."
"I don't strictly like to stay with drama all the time," Osment states matter-of-factly. "I like balancing out TV, films, drama and comedy. I would like to try theater some time. That is where my dad started and I think that's a good idea."
This summer, though, Osment is just relaxing. "Our family is having a nice summer, doing lots of sports activities," he points out. "I like to boogie board a lot and play basketball." (His summer has also included guest appearances on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno," among other perks of stardom.)
Next month, he'll begin sixth grade. "When I am not working I do go to normal school, which is down the street from my house," he says. "When I am working, a tutor comes on the set."
Despite his busy schedule, Osment maintains he has a typical childhood. "All my friends like movies, but I like how they just treat me normal when I come home. It's good to be a normal kid when all the acting is done."