In the upcoming movie “Secondhand Lions,” starring Robert Duvall, Michael Caine and Haley Joel Osment, a mother leaves her teenage son on a central Texas farm with his two eccentric great uncles.
Osment’s Walter, Duvall’s Hub and Caine’s Garth are all put out at the situation. However, it turns out to be just what they need. The boy learns about becoming a man, and the grown men regain a sense of worth.
The movie, set in the 1960s and written and directed by Texan Tim McCanlies, opens Sept. 19. Duvall, Caine, Osment and McCanlies recently sat down in Beverly Hills with religion writers to talk about the film.
Several themes emerged during the interviews: the importance of family; growing up with role models; and discovering what really matters in life.
“I’ve never made a film like this before,” said two-time Oscar-winner Caine. “And I felt all proud of myself because it was all good and nice and positive, because I’ve always played these scumbags.” In fact, he plays a French Nazi in his next film, “The Statement.”
But in “Secondhand Lions,” his Garth—the more tenderhearted of the two brothers—has a kind soul.
“It’s more like me,” he said. “I do gardening, I’m a storyteller, I love kids. I’ve got children of my own. I’m very family oriented.”
Caine joked about trying to get his children, now 46 and 30, to travel with him on location.
“I try to take them with me but they won’t come,” he said. “Unless it’s the south of France …”
But a youngster was on the set: 15-year-old Haley Joel Osment, who was nominated for an Oscar for “The Sixth Sense” the year that Caine won for “The Cider House Rules.”
Osment impressed Caine on the set, as he had with his turn as the tormented Cole Sear in M. Night Shyamalan’s thriller. In fact, when Caine accepted the Oscar, he said of Osment: “Haley, when I saw you, I thought, ‘Well that’s me out of it [the competition].'”
Caine gives a lot of credit to Osment’s parents.
“Because of his family and the way they react to him,” Caine said, “he will go through from being a child actor to being an extremely good adult actor. He’s an adult actor now, he just happens to be a child.”
Osment spoke fondly of his parents, saying his father—also his acting coach—is his role model.
“It’s up to my parents to keep me grounded,” he said. “And they’ve done a good job making sure I’m taking part in normal things as well, instead of being consumed by the outlying factors of filmmaking. I act because I love to act. Everything else is a bonus. The things I really concentrate on, the important things, are a normal life.”
Osment said he runs on his school’s cross-country team, reads a lot, plays the guitar and hangs out with friends.
“It doesn’t weird them out—the movies,” he said of how his stardom figures into friendships.
Again, Caine emphasized the importance of family in young people’s lives.
“We know that families are falling apart for a massive amount of people both in this country and my country—families where the father is not present, and the problems that has caused with the children,” he said.
“And you can see Haley, and his performance, is a supreme example of both things,” Caine continued. “One, is his performance as a little boy who never had a father figure and he finds him. Two, is Haley, who’s such a wonderful actor because he has an incredible family, and his parents are wonderful and his father is there for him all day long, every day. And that’s what you get. You get this rounded, great kid with a talent, as opposed to the character he plays, who’s really lost and sad.”
So what did Haley call upon to portray a character—the abandoned Walter—so different from himself and his own experience?
“A lot of it was done with opposites,” Osment said, “knowing what it was like to have a solid role model and to really grow up the correct way. And then for Walter, at the beginning of the story, I had to flip it around and take it all away.”
In the movie, Walter is transformed by living with his great uncles.
“He has to find his place,” Osment said of his character. “And the uncles provide that home for him. And it shows that everyone does have their place, and if you’re lost, you just have to find the right people to follow and the right things to learn.”
What does Walter learn?
“To meet the world as a good, positive human being,” said Duvall, who has received multiple Oscar nominations, as well as the Best Actor award for “Tender Mercies.”
“Somebody said, ‘Don’t be a farmer. Be a man on a farm,'” Duvall continued. “Be yourself first, then your profession second.”
Indeed, the film deals with the things that men teach boys.
“It seemed to be about, you should have your own sense of honor,” said director McCanlies, who said he was on his own a lot as a child.
Osment agreed with McCanlies’ take, saying the great uncles teach Walter about what really matters.
“Primarily you have to put faith in the good things in life—virtue and honor and all those good principles that you have to have an understanding of,” Osment said. “And you have to see past power and physical prowess and all of that and really concentrate on the lasting good things in life and being able to put your faith in them—even when they’re not always supported by the world.”
In “Secondhand Lions,” Walter needs someone to teach him these lessons, and Hub and Garth fit the bill. They assume a responsibility that belonged to Walter’s mother.
Caine reflected on that notion one last time.
“I think if you’re going to have a family, you’ve got to take responsibility for it,” said Caine. “And you’ve got to be there. It’s no good spending money on your kids. You’ve got to spend time.”
“Kids want permanence,” he continued. “They don’t want money. They don’t want ice cream. They want permanence.”
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
Our review of “Secondhand Lions” will appear opening day, Sept. 19.
Visit the movie’s official Web site.