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The sci-fi drama from Steven Spielberg opened June 29, 2001 when he was barely a teenager, but the actor, now 33, quickly recalls the mental challenge of playing the lead role of an android programmed with the ability to show unconditional love.
David was an “unusual and unique” character to take on, Osment tells The Hollywood Reporter over the phone, because it involved “having to make decisions for an artificial person.” Yet the central aspect of David’s identity was something Osment could relate to, even filming it as an 11-year-old schoolboy in sixth grade: that idea of love.
After the human family he is living with have their real son cured of a disease and returned to them, David becomes jealous and menacing, which jeopardizes the potential of his mother, played by Frances O’Connor, to be affectionate toward him. Dealing with the threat of destruction, David longs to be a real boy so that she might really love him.
“That’s his singular focus for thousands of years,” Osment says. “That love for his mother, and being able to look past all the crazy things that happened to him and all the things that Jude [Law, who plays another humanoid robot] and I go through in the movie. Any other character might have been pulled in different directions, he’s just singularly focused on reestablishing the connection with his mother. That’s his whole purpose as a person.”
Osment recalls first meeting Spielberg at Amblin in the Fall of 1999 when the director was still deciding whether to do Harry Potter or A.I. Osment says that, at the time, he was already a fan of Spielberg, and got a kick out of the Jurassic Park memorabilia in his office. “A lot of his movies were really important to me at that age – they were sort of rights of passage as I began to work more,” says Osment, naming Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark among his favorites.
Osment, whose mother is a school teacher and encouraged him and his sister [The Kominsky Method actor Emily Osment] to read at an early age, devoured the script for A.I., which was written by Spielberg — “the first screenplay Steven had done solo since A Close Encounter” Osment recalls — and turned pages “like a great book.” Later, the filmmaking process involved him having weighty discussions with Spielberg not just about David’s capacity for love, but the idea of a human being’s respect for artificial intelligence itself. “I think he probably said in the first meeting we had: one of the big questions we’re trying to deal with is what our responsibility is to these entities that we create,” recalls Osment. “It was heavy stuff, but it was all a great learning experience.”
Of course, the conversations also frequently involved Stanley Kubrick, who was a close friend of Spielberg’s and originally intended to make A.I., but died of a heart attack in 1999. “Beginning to talk about the genesis of that project and all their planning over the years was very exciting and remains, to this day, a very exciting thing,” says Osment, who at that age had seen a lot fewer of Kubrick’s movies, though was familiar with 2001: A Space Odyssey and Dr. Strangelove.
In 2013, Osment was able to visit an exhibition at LACMA in Los Angeles with original drawings Kubrick had done in the 1980s with certain artists, and witnessed the history of the whole project.
As he recalls, filming A.I. was quite a big deal. “We had a significant amount of underwater stuff to do, really deep underwater, weighted down, learning to breathe on the respirator…” Osment says, summoning a highlight of the whole experience: getting certified for scuba diving. He remembers having to perform certain stunts where he would jump in the water with “a bunch of lead weights” and then sinking like a robot would, and then trusting that a scuba diver would swoop in with the respirator after a take was completed. “That was all a big adventure,” Osment says, adding that some underwater scenes were shot in one of the same tanks at Paramount that had been used for some shots in Jaws.
And then there was the entire 3-4 story house that the A.I. crew built “in the pit at Stage 16 at Warner Bros.,” recalls Osment. “Working on a Spielberg movie, everything is just epic in scale.”
Among the connections that Osment made on the set, which he remembers being “very comfortable” even though a lot was at stake, the actor recalls how makeup artist Joel Harlow would spray him with latex every morning to make his skin look robotic. “He and I spent a lot of time putting on and taking off that makeup every day,” says Osment, adding the pleasure of working with SFX makeup artist Stan Winston.
In addition to his film and TV performances, which include Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, The Kominsky Method and Silicon Valley, Osment has done numerous voiceover roles over the last 20 years. Among them is the Kingdom Hearts video game franchise, “the longest job I have ever done” says the actor, who first started the project in 2001 and recorded material for it last year. “It’s great work to do,” he says, of voiceover performances, adding that he was able to continue working “during the depths of the pandemic” via a recording booth he set up in his house that was “pretty soundproof” and “not quite a professional job” — though it got the job done.
Osment says that while he does play video games in downtime and enjoys them, “games are so good these days that I can’t get too involved with it, it’s just so addictive to play all the time.” He references the advancement of not only the technology of games, but the stories within them. “It’s definitely something I appreciate.”
He says that acting is “one of the most fun jobs in the world” and while has taken many times in his life to reflect on whether there was anything else he wanted to focus on, particularly when he was in college, there has never been a doubt in his mind that this career is one of longevity for him. “I love acting because, as with many arts, you always can learn something new — there’s never a point where you completely master it and you stop learning. You can be 90 years old and there’s still new information to uncover and new things to learn about yourself and how you work. That’s why I think I’ll always do it, because it’s always interesting and always gives you opportunities to grow.”
In the future, Osment says he’d like to work with director Paul Thomas Anderson and also do a movie in the action or action-adventure genre, of which A.I.’s fast-paced sequences gave him a taste.
He concludes of the experience on A.I.: “Being around someone like Steven and working with the legacy of someone like Kubrick, it definitely was a really powerful and formative experience for me and it’s had a big effect on how I see the world.”
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