You're Joseph Cross, a young actor several years removed from cute.
Sure, you were Haley Joel Osment before there was Haley Joel Osment, but "Wide Awake," the M. Night Shyamalan film you starred in, was no "Sixth Sense," and that was eight years ago, anyway. In your follow-up film, "Jack Frost," you starred with an anthropomorphic snowman, a character Roger Ebert called "the most repulsive creature in the history of special effects." You haven't had a leading role in a movie since.
Now you're the talk of the town, starring in not one, but two surefire Oscar contenders, "Running With Scissors" and "Flags of Our Fathers" (both out October 20). There's even talk that your work might be Oscar-worthy. How did you do it?
After speaking with Cross about his upcoming films, we've broken down his experience into three simple guidelines:
Pick Important Films
Cross was offered a role in "Flags of Our Fathers" as Franklin Sousley, a 19-year-old Marine from Hilltop, Kentucky, whom he described as "not the brightest bulb in the box." Based on the late Joe Rosenthal's legendary photograph of six U.S. soldiers raising the American flag on Iwo Jima during World War II, the Clint Eastwood-helmed flick centers on the tragic cost of battle and the bloody American victory on the small but hard-won Pacific island. Eastwood, of course, screams Oscar these days — the fact that the screenplay happens to have been written by "Million Dollar Baby" and "Crash" scribe Paul Haggis is like bringing coal to Newcastle.
Cross followed that role by playing another real-life character, the author Augusten Burroughs, in "Running With Scissors," a movie based on the best-selling memoir of the same name. The product of divorce, 12-year-old Augusten's life was radically altered when his mother came out as a lesbian the same year he was sent to live with the family psychiatrist, Dr. Finch.
Playing two real-life people could have been daunting, but Cross wasn't fazed. Rather than doing impersonations, he said his ultimate role is to be faithful to the scripts, rather than his real-world counterparts.
"I think that you have to feel the responsibility toward the script, because that's what you're doing," he said. "Any movie that's made from a book is really an interpretation of the book, and any time you're playing a real person, you're still playing a character."
It was paying close attention to the written word that allowed Cross to make leaps of character judgment, such as "loneliness is Augusten's greatest personal tragedy."
"The thing that really stuck out when I first read the ['Scissors'] script is Augusten's isolation in this chaotic world," he said. "He can't really connect with anybody because he realizes that all these people are crazy. I mean, that abandonment — it's such a young age at 12 for your father to not have any interest in your life and for your mother to be so self-absorbed that she's giving you up."
Burroughs is still very much alive, of course, but Cross' assessment of his childhood is based on the script, not on his personal interaction with the man. He trusted the written word and had faith in the filmmakers. In short, he followed the second guideline ...
Work With The Best
On "Flags," Cross had the opportunity to work with Clint Eastwood, who has already won four Oscars and is gunning for more. Working with the legend was a dream come true. "You can't ask for anything more," he gushed. "He's very laid-back, kind and gracious. He knows exactly what he's doing. He doesn't need 100 takes to get what he wants."
On "Scissors," directed by Ryan Murphy, almost all of Cross' co-stars — Alec Baldwin, Annette Bening, Brian Cox, Evan Rachel Wood, Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow — were larger than life.
"At first it was very intimidating for me because these people were icons in my mind, and they weren't quite human for me yet," he said. "But once I got there and started talking to them, they were humanized. They're just people and actors."
Particularly imposing for Cross was Paltrow, whom he called the "biggest deal" among the cast.
"She is just this, you know, gorgeous movie star," he said. "So for me, I guess that was probably the most intimidating, because she is kind of the most famous for my generation."
Eventually he overcame his trepidation. Paltrow was "really kind to me, and really kind to everybody," he said. "Everybody on that set loved Gwyneth. She was just so pleasant to be around, such a good person. Totally down-to-earth, too — no diva stuff."
It's a lesson Cross gained from experience. But experience is something he doesn't have a lot of yet. So he resolved to ...
Learn From His Elders
Forced to make connections where he can, Burroughs finds a confidant in Neil Bookman, Dr. Finch's 33-year-old adopted son. After telling Bookman that he's gay, Burroughs is compelled to perform sexual acts on the older man. No one — not his mother, Dr. Finch or anyone else in the family — intervenes.
Cross admits that the scenes with Fiennes, who plays Bookman, posed a unique challenge to him as an actor.
"Leading up to it, it was fine," he said. "There are lots of things you do as an actor that aren't natural for you, that aren't who you are — that's what acting is. But sexuality is such a weird thing. There was something uncomfortable about it in rehearsal."
Cross credited Fiennes with helping him get through his initial unease.
"Joe was really helpful; he was just like, 'Talk to me, what's hard about this for you, what can we do to deal with this?' " he recalled. "I don't remember what it was that I said to him, but it was a passing moment. Once you start actually working it gets so technical that it isn't as difficult as it had felt."
Cross may be well past cute, but now he's got something better — clout.
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