The actor: Thomas Haden Church, best known in cinema for his Oscar-nominated breakout role as Paul Giamatti's irresponsible friend Jack in Sideways, or his subsequent part as the Sandman in Spider-Man 3. But he's also had a long, successful TV career, starring as Ned on Ned And Stacey immediately after five seasons as Lowell Mather on Wings. He's currently appearing in Smart People, again as the irresponsible foil to an unloveable curmudgeon.
Gypsy Angels (1989)—"Roommate"
Thomas Haden Church: Online, it says that was 1980, but it actually wasn't. I did that movie in 1989. That's some stupid infarction on the Internet. I met a casting director, I was living in Dallas, going to school in 1988. My best friend was an actor. I went to this cold-read audition seminar, just on a lark, just because he invited me. It was like, a hundred people. But it was an L.A. casting director, and for whatever reason, he thought I was interesting. He was like, "I'm gonna be back casting a picture that's going to shoot in Kansas, and we're gonna read some actors in Dallas," and I ended up getting a role in it. But the movie, it was a real weird, small independent, financed by a guy—he was like a Pizza Hut franchise king or something. He wanted to star in a movie that he self-financed. I went up to Kansas and shot on it for like, three weeks. But what was great about it is that this L.A. casting director then got me connected to an agent in L.A., William Morris, and I took a shot at L.A. shortly thereafter in the spring of '89, got signed away to Morris, started working.
The A.V. Club: You have a bunch of TV credits from 1989. Was Gypsy Angels the first thing you ever worked on, or did some of the other stuff happen first?
THC: That was the first thing I ever worked on. I don't know why, on IMBD it says 1980. In 1980 I was way, way, way too immature to ever pursue anything like an acting career.
AVC: Do you remember a point where you decided that you wanted to seriously pursue acting, as opposed to just doing it as a lark?
THC: When I landed in L.A. in early '89, William Morris decided to take me on to see if I could get any jobs. I was cast in a TV movie called Protected Surf, and made $30,000 in four weeks, and I decided I needed to take acting seriously, because I had never made that much money in a year, much less four weeks. That's when I decided I thought I could make a career out of it.
21 Jump Street (1989)—"Tony"
THC: That was great. Johnny [Depp] was sort of a mentor. I got to know him pretty well when I worked on it, just over the course of a week. We had similar comedic sensibilities. I remember we flew back from Vancouver to L.A. together when I wrapped the episode. His advice to me was to never do a series, to hold out and try to just get movie roles. And I was immediately cast in China Beach, fired, and then immediately cast in Cheers, and then cast in Wings—which then went on for the next six years of my life—and then cast in Ned And Stacey. So I didn't necessarily dismiss his advice, I just didn't apply it for the next decade.
Tombstone (1993)—"Billy Clanton"
THC: That was my first real movie. It was terrific, because it was just a bunch of dudes in the desert. I was young. We shot the whole movie in Tucson and outside of Tucson. And it was just great to go on location for a whole summer. I was on hiatus from Wings, and the movie just fell in perfectly. And I literally was in Arizona the whole summer—June, July, August, even into September. We actually started shooting in May. It took the better part of four months to shoot that movie.
AVC: Presumably, conditions were miserable?
THC: It was hot. It was hot and dry.
AVC: But in terms of being on your first big film set, was it what you expected it to be like, especially after years in television?
THC: I was still such a neophyte. But I felt like I had enough experience moving around the camera, and moving around sets and in rehearsal, knowing professionally what was expected of me. Wings was a filmed show, and I had been on single-camera film projects. But you know, I was a little intimidated. Powers Boothe and Val Kilmer and Kurt Russell. I was fairly intimidated by the environment the first week or so. Because everything was big and fast-moving. And the director got fired. He was the screenwriter. I was there for, like, two weeks, and he got fired and they brought in George Cosmatos. That was a little intimidating also.
Wings (1990-1995)—"Lowell Mather"
THC: Wings was exactly what every actor hopes will happen when you have zero skill sets, zero experience, and you absolutely cannot find your ass with a fork and a knife. I just had no idea what I was getting myself into. I moved to L.A. full time in March of '89, and I was cast in Cheers in September, and that led to Wings. So six months into my air-quotes "professional acting career," I was cast in a pilot that was already picked up for several episodes. And I was convinced that I was going to be found out as an imposter. I was convinced of it. I didn't know why these people were laughing when I said my dialogue, because I was clueless as to the mechanics of it. I just tried to play it as real as I could. But if you look back at early episodes of Wings, the clumsiness comes through.
Ned And Stacey (1995-1997)—"Ned Dorsey"
THC: I left Wings a couple years before it ended, and went on to do Ned And Stacey at Fox. I thought I was very accomplished at that point, and I immensely enjoyed doing that show. But I also became megalomaniacal for those two years, and I think I probably hastened the departure of the show. I was holding on very tightly to what the stories were, and who was cast, and what the other actors were doing. And I was gonna direct, and I was already doing a lot of impromptu writing. And I was probably too immersed in it. I don't think it was for the good of the show that I was so immersed in it. And I can say that now, 11 years after the show ended. It's taken me a long time to be able to admit that.
AVC: Being in those two shows back-to-back more or less locked you up professionally, apart from Tombstone, for seven years. Were there other things you wanted to be doing during that time? Roles you wanted and just didn't have time for?
THC: I did some movies. I did George Of The Jungle while I was still doing Ned And Stacey. I did a Tales From The Crypt movie while I was still doing Wings. I'm trying to think what else I did in those days. There were definitely some other credits. I did that Mike Figgis film with Wesley Snipes while I was doing Ned And Stacey. But it was hard. In that period, in the mid-'90s, I learned what a real professional working actor's life is like. Because I was starring in a series, and also trying to foster a movie career. And it was not easy, let me tell you, to have a full-time job, and then have another full-time job.
One Night Stand (1997)—"Don"
AVC: Mike Figgis is known for having unusual working methods. How did they work out for you?
THC: He has a very cerebral approach to his writing, which is to say, he writes a schematic of what he wants to do. But he was the first director—of course, my film credits were few at that point—but he was the first director, television or film or theater, for that matter, who openly encouraged us to go off the page. To just kind of freestyle, and be footloose, and know what the intent of the character is in the scene. As long as we weren't fouling the other characters, and what they were doing in the scene, then we were welcome—and I think it's because foremost, he's a very accomplished jazz musician. So I think he has a real artistic, musician's appreciation for that freeform, "Let's just all just become spontaneous and see what comes out of it." He's also a very accomplished photographer. Really likes these composite shots that are sort of posed, but not really. Very interesting guy.
Free Money (1998)—"Larry"
THC: Brilliant. Irreplaceable. At the exact same time I was offered the lead in Free Money with Charlie Sheen and Marlon Brando, I was offered a role in Saving Private Ryan. And I chose to march off to Canada to work with Marlon Brando. And I ran into Steven Spielberg many years later, and we discussed it, and he said, "You know what, if I had a choice between me and him, I would choose him." I was like, "Thank you for your blessing, my liege." I had a manager at the time—we were soon parted—but he was like, "You're gonna go do a movie with Marlon Brando that more than likely no one will see, vs. a really nice role in a movie that's probably going to win Best Picture next year?" And he was right! But the experience working with Marlon in his penultimate performance was irreplaceable. And I spent 10, 12 weeks with him in Quebec, and it was a remarkable experience, and I wouldn't trade it for any credit on my résumé.
AVC: What about it in particular was significant for you?
THC: You know, he was quite avuncular in his disposition on the set. He really wanted to kind of nurture Charlie and me. He was in poor health. He had a respiratory infection that I'm not convinced he ever, ever recovered from. Even though he died—I think it was about six and a half years after I worked with him. But he had a respiratory infection that he could not get over. And I knew that he'd been sick for a while before we started shooting. And I know that the bonding company had some problems clearing him for the medical. But other than that… He was wonderfully inventive and improvisational, and seemed wholly disinclined to say the same line twice. He always wanted to change things a little bit, just to keep it fresh and spontaneous.
Rolling Kansas (2003)—"Agent Madsen"
AVC: You wrote and directed that film, as well as appearing in it. What was that experience like?
THC: The hardest thing I've ever done, and by far the most rewarding. To write something, and then somebody says, "Hey, here's $3 million. Go make it wherever you want to make it." I chose Texas, which is very close to where I live. I have a ranch in Texas. It just was so involving, and so complete. It's the most complete experience. Because at the end of the day, I was responsible for all the decisions. And that was what was most rewarding about it. And I would step into that breach again, if somebody would give me the chance.
THC: You know what, it was a great invigoration, a re-invigoration. I had kind of moved away from acting, but I'd met with [director] Alexander [Payne] a couple of times, and gotten close. Particularly during About Schmidt. They sent me the script in Texas, but I was already actually in development to direct another movie for Fox. So later, they sent me Sideways, I really enjoyed it, thought, "I have no shot at this whatsoever, but I have to answer the call of duty. If I get a chance, then I gotta take it." Met with him, met with him again. And then he called me on July 4th, 2003—I was at the ranch, and he asked me to do it. It was a great day. It was a very joyous day, because I knew it was a great script, and I thought we had a chance to make a good movie.
AVC: Most news stories about that make it sound as though you guys are friends, and he was actively looking for a movie role for you.
THC: No, but it was definitely not random. I met with Alexander when he was making Election, and we really hit it off. And I am convinced—and I've said as much in interviews… I was already signed to do Free Money, and he was very curious about Marlon Brando. Not just about his towering legacy, but because they're both Omaha natives. And I am convinced—Alexander never copped to this, but I am convinced he remembered me for About Schmidt because we had talked at length about Marlon and Omaha. And then it was between Dermott Mulroney and I for that role in About Schmidt. And when he cast Dermott, he called me—I was scouting for Rolling Kansas in Nebraska, and he called and he said, "Look, you know, I went with the other guy." I knew Dermott, he and I are acquainted. Alexander said, "I went with the other guy, but you're terrific, and I just hope someday our paths will cross again." And that was in the fall of 2001, and they sent me the script in May of 2003 for Sideways.
Spider-Man 3 (2007)—"Flint Marko/The Sandman"
THC: Worldwide juggernaut. It was a part of my life for probably two and a half years. They asked me to do the movie in January of '05, and it came out in May of '07, which was astonishing to me. I'd never been asked to do anything two and a half years in advance. Just the physical preparation… Working with Sam [Raimi], working with Tobey [Maguire]. And then, you know, the multiple sets of re-shoots. I mean, I shot Smart People between principal shoots on Spider-Man and the re-shoots in December, January, and February of last year. And then I started promoting the film worldwide, which took me to places like Moscow and Amsterdam, you know, places I'd never been to. It was a good, thick chapter of my life. But I was able to go off and do other things. I did Broken Trail while I was involved with Spider-Man, too. But it was a big commitment. It was over two years of a commitment to one picture.
Smart People (2008)—"Chuck Wetherhold"
THC: A small, comedy drama, dysfunctional family, ne'er-do-well, footloose brother. I'm proud of it. I think there's a real balance of comedy and drama. Some middle-aged guys who are kind of at a crossroads, but they're not really aware of it. I think in Sideways, the brothers are more aware of it. I think that Chuck is the guy that Jack would have aspired to be emotionally, if he had any emotional aspirations.
AVC: What about the role specifically interested you?
THC: Well, [producer] Michael London approached me, and he was afraid that the similarities between Jack in Sideways and Chuck in Smart People, it would just be too close for me. And I actually really keyed on the differences. I saw Chuck as a much more emotionally evolved guy. On the surface, he's this kind of shambling, unrepentant, ne'er-do-well, master of no trade. But I really saw him as just a guy, whatever, fluent in Spanish, reads The Economist. Nothing about him warrants impressing anyone else. And he doesn't feel the compulsion to impress anyone else. And I think people start to recognize his contentment as its own reward. Maybe that prompts self-examination of the other characters in the movie.
AVC: Did you have any trepidations or concerns about working with a first-time director on the film?
THC: No, Noam [Murro] is a very accomplished commercial director. He's in his 40s, successful at what he does, Israeli-born, fluently speaks five languages. There's just a worldly, cultural kind of experience and information in him that helped interpret these characters. It transcended what I thought when I first read Smart People—"Such a specific American story." And Noam brought, I hate to sound so cliché, kind of an international fringe definition to it for me. He started telling me a story, the first time I talked to him on the phone, about right before he went into the Israeli army. He was 17, 18 years old, and his uncle was like, "There's something that we need to do together." And his uncle took him out into the country, outside Tel Aviv, and wanted to smoke hashish with him, just get really stoned and be irresponsible, laugh and sing and drink wine. And he was like, "Before I went into the military, into such a disciplined, strict environment, it was important to my uncle that I have this experience." And I was like, "That's perfect." That's a perfect interpretation, specific to his experience when he was a teenager, to what Chuck is trying to do with [Ellen Page's teenage character] Vanessa in Smart People. It's like, before she becomes this button-down, conservative Republican Christian, he wants her to just—just for five minutes, man, or just for an evening—let her hair down, do anything else than what she's predetermined as a responsible life. That's all he's trying to help her with. He's not trying to corrupt his 18-year-old niece. He just wants her to step outside of herself for a few minutes.