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Lukas Haas' unusual film career leads to honor

The Texas Film Hall of Fame will celebrate the eclectic resume of actor and former Austinite Haas

Chris Garcia

Lukas Haas is one of those actors who keeps his image so low-heat and selects his films so carefully that his mere name prompts the questions "What's he been doing?" and "Where's he been?" and, for the energetically disengaged, "Lukas who?"

Haas hasn't gone anywhere. The actor, 33, has been acting consistently since he was 5. His breakout role, the one with which he's most identified, was as an Amish boy named Samuel who witnesses a murder in Peter Weir's 1985 thriller "Witness," starring Harrison Ford. Haas was 8.

Haas was born in Los Angeles and moved to Austin with his family when he was 12 and spent his teen years here. (His mother, screenwriter Emily Tracy, was born in San Antonio and raised in Austin.) He graduated from St. Stephen's Episcopal High School and played ice hockey at Northcross Mall. He loves Guero's and was surprised to hear that another favorite haunt, Las Manitas, had been razed. ("Bummer," he says by phone from Los Angeles, where he lives.)

Eclecticism and integrity describe Haas' acting career and are the traits, along with his former Austin residency, that will be celebrated when he's inducted into the Texas Film Hall of Fame on March 11. He joins fellow inductees Bruce McGill, Michael Nesmith and Quentin Tarantino, as well as the Texas-shot comedy "Waiting for Guffman."

"It's pretty wild. I've never been inducted into anything in my life," Haas says. "It's an honor. I'm excited about it."

Haas has performed in movies as varied as the Woody Allen musical "Everyone Says I Love You" and the Tim Burton sci-fi spoof "Mars Attacks!" He appears in this summer's big-budget sci-fi thriller "Inception," directed by Christopher Nolan ("The Dark Knight") and co-starring his good friend Leonardo DiCaprio.

"It's probably the most artistic big movie that I've worked on," Haas says. "It's not your typical commercial Hollywood blockbuster."

A huge Beatles fan, Haas also records his own music and is building an eight-track studio in L.A. with his younger brother Niki. They plan to record and co-produce separate albums. Haas' debut record, a self-titled EP, is available on iTunes.

Crazy busy, Haas took a brief break to chat earlier this week.

Chris Garcia: Once and for all, should people stop associating you only with your role in 'Witness'? Are you still trying to shake that?

Lukas Haas: That was a long time ago. Some people just remember me from that. I suppose I haven't been in anything that made quite the impact that movie did. I don't know if I'm necessarily trying to shake it. I'm glad I was a part of it and I think it's a great film. A couple of other favorite movies of mine, performance-wise, are "Rambling Rose" and more recently "Brick."

'Brick' is terrific and you're great in it. What is it about that bad-guy role, the Pin, that you like so much?

That's why, because the role was so unique. It gave me the chance to show a side of myself that people didn't expect. I play a weirdo, a kind of Godfather-y type of guy. It was really fun and liberating. It's always fun to play characters that people don't expect. People who've seen it look at me in a different way now.

What's been your strategy for picking films? You seem to willfully stay under the radar, doing smaller, more interesting movies. Is that your choice?

Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't. You never know what a film is going to do. I didn't know how big "Witness" would be, you know? So it's not like I choose a film knowing it's going to be under the radar. It's really a lot about the character for me. I like challenging myself and like thoughtful, more artistic movies, where it's a real collaboration between the actors and the director, where everything involved is an artistic expression, rather than just entertainment.

Do directors approach you for specific kinds of roles? Have you experienced any typecasting?

"Brick" changed a lot of that for me. For a while after it, I was getting only bad-guy roles. I've actually been lucky that people don't really know what to expect from me. That's a good thing — no, it's a great thing. It's part of growing up, too. If people haven't seen me in a while, they're not sure what I look like now or what I'm like.

You seem to keep things low-profile, avoiding publicity and the like. How would you describe your career? It's an unusual track you've been on.

It is. There have been times when I haven't got movies I wanted to do, so it's not like it's always my choice. I wouldn't know how to describe my career. I've been really lucky that I've been able to keep working and do movies I really wanted to do. If anything, what directors expect of me is that I can play different kinds of roles and that I really invest myself, whether it's a role like The Pin in "Brick" or the role I just finished in "Inception." That's one thing I'm really happy about. It's still an open slate for me.

I know you're very close friends with big shots Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire. Is it hard watching these guys work with Martin Scorsese and play Spider-Man, or is it inspiring?

If anything, it's inspiring. I look at it from a different perspective. Acting as long as I have, you see the ups and the downs and see how things change all the time. If one day your friend is doing "Spider-Man" or a Scorsese film, you just feel proud and happy for them. Of course I'd like to work with Scorsese. Who wouldn't? But who knows if I will. Acting is a career that, if you're lucky, you get to do your whole life. You never know what's ahead of you.

cgarcia@statesman.com; 445-3649