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Jackie Earle Haley felt right at home directing his first film, ‘Criminal Activities’

Jackie Earle Haley admits that he’s not good at doing that many things.

“It would be really difficult for me to cook you a burger,” said Haley, 54, by phone from Orlando, Fla. “I’m not the smartest guy in the world. I know how to act, and I know how to direct.”

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He’s been an actor for more than 40 years, and now he’s making his feature directorial debut with the crime thriller “Criminal Activities,” which opened Friday. Michael Pitt, Dan Stevens, John Travolta and Haley are among the stars of the noir that has a few surprises up its sleeve.

Directing a film has been on his bucket list since he was a young actor in such films as John Schlesinger’s 1974 “Day of the Locust,” in which he gets stomped to death, and Michael Ritchie’s 1976 hit baseball comedy “The Bad News Bears,” which cast him as the local trouble maker.

“I have always been interested in what the director was doing, literally in terms of learning camera geography and what it takes to direct the film,” Haley noted. “In these later years, it’s been a sheer joy to kind of learn nuances and watch the differences in how Marty Scorsese and Steven Spielberg work.” (He was in Scorsese’s “Shutter Island” and Spielberg’s “Lincoln.”)

Besides observing on set, Haley’s film school was becoming a commercial director in San Antonio, where he moved in the 1990s after his film career had ebbed.

“Because of my expertise in commercials, I know how to prep for shoots,” Haley said. “I know how to get them done, and I know how to get them edited.”

So Haley was more than prepared when Wayne Allan Rice, the producer-husband of his agent, called him and said, “I want you to read this script, and if you like it I want you to direct it.”

Haley loved Robert Lowell’s script for “Criminal Activities,” which revolves around four friends (Pitt, Stevens, Christopher Abbott, Rob Brown) who find their lives in are in danger when an investment deal goes bad and learn a substantial amount of the funding came from a ruthless crime boss (Travolta). To pay back the mobster, the four must kidnap a family member (Edi Gathegi) of a rival kingpin.

“I thought, ‘What a great fun ride,’” Haley noted. “I called him back immediately. He was pretty well financed and ready to go.”

And so was Haley.

“I really felt like I was directing my 10th movie because of all my experience,” he said. “It didn’t feel like I had never done this before.”

But Haley also credits his comfort to a “strong cast of guys who are at the top of the game. Michael Pitt brings a lot of passion to his work and has a lot of good ideas. John was a real gracious guy.”

Gathegi, who spends most of his time tied to a chair, noted that Haley “knows exactly how far to push you. Actors are the best directors [that] actors can have because they understand exactly how to set the climate on the set. That was his strong suit.”

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