Helen Hunt's reign as one of America's most beloved actresses may be coming to an end. Audiences are gasping in horror at a scene in her latest film, Pay It Forward (opening Friday), which features the Oscar winner violently slapping across the face America's

other sweetheart — Sixth Sense wonderkid Haley Joel Osment.

"I was so much more flipped out than him," Hunt tells TV Guide Online. "I can't tell you. The idea of perpetrating that kind of rage against that kind of innocence was crushing to me."

Due to the sensitivity of the scene — and its importance to the film — Hunt and Osment spent more time on it than any other. "We shot it once where I did a sort of stage slap, and it was a lose-lose [situation]," explains the former Mad About You star, who plays Osment's alcoholic mother in the pic. "First of all, even a slight stage slap is not fun when you're dealing with the sweetest child you've ever met. And, second of all, it didn't look brutal enough.

"The whole plot turns on that moment," Hunt continues. "I felt that if [the scene] wasn't very disarming, the movie would be different. Kevin [Spacey]'s and my characters get close because that happens; Haley and I find each other because that happens. So we reshot it and did it in a way in which there was no chance he could get hurt, [but] it would look more brutal."

And while moviegoers may find Hunt's violent outburst disturbing, the actual victim couldn't be more pleased. "When I saw it in the rough cut, I was very happy," admits Osment. "It's such an important part of the movie, we wanted to get it perfect."