Evan Smith: When you were making Sideways, did you at any point think to yourself, “This is a film that’s going to change my career, get me an Oscar nomination, propel me”?
Thomas Haden Church: The answer is no. I did believe that the movie would garner some attention because of [director and co-screenwriter] Alexander Payne’s pedigree. He did Citizen Ruth, which won a bunch of awards, and then Election, which is kind of a legendary American film, and then About Schmidt. For Election, he and [co-screenwriter] Jim [Taylor] were nominated for an Oscar for best [adapted] screenplay, and they won the [Golden] Globe, and Kathy Bates and Jack Nicholson were nominated for Oscars as well as Globes for About Schmidt. And I knew the script was good, so I thought he was definitely handing me a gift, an opportunity.
ES: You see scripts all the time, so at this point you’re able to distinguish a good one from a bad one. You could tell it was that good?
THC: I just knew, because those guys are damn good at what they do. Though if it was written by anyone else, it still would have been a great script. If it’s a beautiful coat, it doesn’t matter who made it.
ES: The part [of Jack] was also pretty great.
THC: When I read it, I thought, “This is the role.” Jack is the party guy; he’s an injection of energy every single time you see him. [Co-star Paul Giamatti’s character] Miles is so morose and so beaten down and so convinced of his own worthlessness that he doesn’t even need the gallows man. He’s ready to step through the trapdoor himself.
ES: Did you see yourself in the part? How much is Jack like you?
THC: I actually saw myself in both roles. I told Alexander that I was kind of adrift when I read the script because I could identify with both guys. I think that was one of the smarter things I said to him, because he always wanted them to be two parts of a whole man.
ES: You’ve obviously thought about the movie a lot. If I were asking you questions about another of your movies, George of the Jungle, would you be as articulate and passionate about it?
THC: Passionate, yes. Articulate, no. It’s not that kind of movie. You can be passionate about entertaining children, but articulating the finer elements of characters—kids aren’t interested in that.
ES: Is Sideways the first of your movies that made you feel this way?
THC: I did a movie that came out about six or seven years ago called Free Money. The three leads were Charlie Sheen, myself, and Marlon Brando, and I really thought it was going to be extraordinary. But it just came out smaller than it should have been. There was a grandeur to the story. It was about these two blue-collar knuckleheads who live in way upstate Minnesota, and they find out about a train that comes from Canada delivering old American money back to Fort Knox or wherever they take old money to be destroyed. They hijack the mail car and steal all of the old money. Marlon is the warden of the local prison, and we marry his twin daughters. He starts to put it together, and, you know, one thing leads to another.
ES: Only in Hollywood. What was it like working with Brando?
THC: We shot the movie in ’98, six and a half years ago. He was having problems then. He had gained a huge amount of weight, and he was battling the respiratory infection that eventually took him down. I remember him saying, and I don’t think I’m revealing anything, that he had been on that fen-phen diet in the mid-nineties, and he was convinced that it had damaged his organs, not the least of which his lungs.
ES: Was he still a great actor at that point?
THC: Oh, yeah, he was tremendous. Look, was it the best material in the world to serve Marlon Brando at that point in his career? Probably not. But it wasn’t bad material, because he was this stern, avuncular presence in the film. If you ever see it, it certainly has its charm, and there’s some funny stuff, but the tone of the movie was too shifty. It opens with this dark incident that Marlon’s involved in, and then it becomes this light romp, and then Mira Sorvino shows up, and it gets dark. Marlon and Mira did not like each other for whatever reason, and I think that made their interaction even darker. When I saw it, I was disheartened. I went to a test screening at Warner Brothers, because they were going to pick it up for distribution, and I think the audience was completely befuddled by what they were watching.
ES: Does that happen a lot? You’re making a movie and you go in with high hopes and by the end your hopes are dashed?
THC: You can’t always tell what it’s gonna be. Some movies deserve more than they get. I did a Mike Figgis movie called One Night Stand, his follow-up to Leaving Las Vegas. It was based on a Joe Eszterhas treatment that New Line had paid a