Thomas Haden Church
The 43-year-old Oscar-nominated actor on the role of his lifetime, working with Brando, and the Hill Country ranch he calls home.
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 lot of money for, but then Eszterhas refused to be involved in it, so Mike wrote the script himself. It was actually quite extraordinary. But they put Wesley Snipes in the lead, and I don’t know that he was the right guy. He’s a gifted actor, but it didn’t seem that [Wesley and Mike] got along when we were shooting. There were great things about that movie, but it really bombed.
ES: The George of the Jungle movies, I suppose, are the opposite case—low hopes going in, and they were huge.
THC: I did them for my nieces and nephews. I did them because they were fun kids’ films. The money was actually great, and you know what? I went to Australia for two months and had a blast.
ES: How can that be bad?
THC: Here’s the other outgrowth of that: I’m now doing Charlotte’s Web, which is being produced by Jordan Kerner, who was the producer on George of the Jungle. Jordan really considered it a big favor for me to come back and do the sequel, and he rewarded me by giving me Charlotte’s Web. It’s gonna be a huge movie. It’s got Julia Roberts, Robert Redford. Everybody knows the story, but they’ve updated it in a way that’s very clever, very funny. Charlotte’s the Virgin Mary, Mother Teresa, and a spider all in one. I really enjoyed the script. With a kids’ film, you’re always like, “Is this gonna be Iron Giant, or is it going to be Princess Diaries 2?”
ES: Come back to Sideways for a bit. Tell me the story of how exactly you got the part.
THC: Here’s where the Marlon Brando movie is significant: I had already signed to do that movie, but I read Election, and I wanted to meet with Alexander. When we met, we talked about Marlon. I am convinced he only remembered me [when it came time to audition actors ] for About Schmidt because I had worked with Marlon.
ES: You were a big fan of both Election and About Schmidt, right?
THC: I had read those scripts, and I thought they were brilliantly crafted and so character-specific and also had at times these great, kind of dark observations on the frailty and absurdity and poignancy and sadness of a normal life. Alexander and I had a great work session on Schmidt. I got very close to being in that movie.
ES: You were going to play the son-in-law, the Dermot Mulroney part.
THC: It was down to the wire to the point that Alexander called me just to let me know he hadn’t made up his mind—I shouldn’t be alarmed that I hadn’t heard anything. It was between me and another guy. I think it took him four months to make up his mind, and then he picked Dermot. I talked to him on the phone later, and he was like, “I just want you to know, it was so close that I had to cover my eyes and pick a picture. But you and I will be crossing paths again.”
ES: When did they send you the Sideways script?
THC: In 2003. It came with a request, because I’d been in Texas full-time for almost four years. They said, “If you respond to the script, Alexander would like to meet you in Los Angeles.” And I called them back and said, “I don’t even need to respond to the material. This is gonna happen, because it’s him.” I read it, and I knew immediately that they’d be serving ice water in hell about the same time I’d be cast in the movie. But I flew out and we had amazing meetings, and I found out I was definitely in contention. Then I got a phone call that Alexander wanted to meet again, only this time it was going to be less formal. We had supper and hung out, just to get to know each other a bit. Probably two weeks after that I was out at the ranch, looking at my caller ID, and there was this “Alex Payne” with a 323 area code. And I was literally like, “Who is that?” Because if you’ve ever met him, you do not call him Alex. It’s Alexander. So I was like, “Alex Payne?” And then I was like, “Oh, Alexander. What the hell is he calling me for?”
ES: You had written off the possibility of getting it.
THC: Oh, totally. Even though I had gone back and had supper with him, I didn’t believe there was any chance of it happening, because I knew guys like Brad Pitt and George Clooney were pursuing the role. It got back to me through a casting director I know that Matt Dillon was seriously in the hunt. And I’m like, “Well, you know, that’s it. He’s perfect.”
So I listen to my answering machine, and it’s, “Hey, Tom, it’s Alexander Payne calling you. I sure would like to talk to you if you wouldn’t mind giving me a call.” And I’m like, “You know, here it is, one of the most defeating moments in modern history, and he’s letting me down in person.”
ES: But, in fact, you got it. I guess it’s the case, isn’t it, that getting the part you want happens much more infrequently than not getting it?
THC: I’ve certainly been the bridesmaid a number of times. I screen-tested for the lead in Ace Ventura. I screen-tested for Quiz Show.
ES: For the Ralph Fiennes part?
THC: Yeah. I screen-tested for Tom Sizemore’s role in Saving Private Ryan. I wanted to do that movie bad. Then again, Sideways was the only movie that I auditioned for in 2003.
ES: The perception out there is that until it came along, you’d pretty much given up on acting.
THC: I really have to give you the quick chronology of my career. From ’89 to 2000, I did nothing but television and the occasional movie. I did a lot of guest-star stuff, and I was supposed to do ten episodes of China Beach, but I got fired. But thank God I got fired, because that made me available to do Wings. I did six seasons of Wings, two seasons of Ned and Stacey, and then I had a two-year deal at ABC to develop and star in a series. So I did eleven solid years of television, and, yeah, I got to do Tombstone and George of the Jungle. In 2000 I’d already owned a ranch in the Hill Country for a couple of years, and I was like, “That’s enough TV for a while. I’ve made plenty of money. I’ve put it away. I’ve invested. I have property. I’m fine financially for a long time. Now I’m really going to relax and step back and try to figure out what I want my next choice to be.” My writing partner, David Denney, and I had already started writing scripts, and one of them, Southern Story, got green-lit, with Whoopi Goldberg directing. That was in the spring of 2000. Then the movie falls apart by the end of 2000. I’m like, “Okay, now I gotta refocus on acting, because I’ve kind of been fallow for a couple years.” So in January of 2001, I was cast in a movie, Lone Star State of Mind, and then right after that I was hired to play Billy Bob Thornton’s brother in a movie called The Badge. The guy who made The Badge found out about Southern Story through Billy Bob, who had read it and liked it. So he flew to New Orleans, where we were shooting, and said, “We would like to read some of your stuff.” So we sent them Southern Story and this other thing, Rolling Kansas. Southern Story was a drama, and they weren’t interested; they wanted to make a comedy. But they just flipped for Rolling Kansas. So they were like, “As soon as you wrap in Louisiana, we want you to fly back to L.A., because we want to have a meeting.” And in that meeting they said, “We want to make this movie. We want to be in prep by the middle of August.” That was on June 1, 2001.
ES: Stuff generally doesn’t happen that fast, does it?
THC: Oh, never. Never ever. In fact, I even said to them in the meeting, “You realize you guys aren’t doing this right. We’re supposed to develop this for a year.” They just laughed. And literally, about ten weeks after we had that meeting, I was in prep in Austin on Rolling Kansas.
I finished shooting that movie and pretty much cut it for a good portion of 2002, and then I went to Australia to do George of the Jungle 2. When I got back, Rolling Kansas got into Sundance, and then that spilled over into all the other festivals, in Maui and Croatia and Canada and all over the United States. I went everywhere with that movie. And then, you know, I went home for a few weeks and got sent Sideways.
ES: So it’s not that you were lacking for work. You were busy.
THC: I was busy. Somebody said to me, “Man, you’ve been off the radar screen for so long. This is a massive opportunity for you to have new life breathed into your career.” And I was like, “Look, they didn’t exactly pry the lid off my coffin with Sideways.”
ES: Talk about your ranch. It’s around Ingram, right?
THC: No, it’s equidistant from Kerrville and Uvalde.
ES: But you grew up all over Texas. You lived in Harlingen
THC: . . . Harlingen, Laredo, El Paso, and Fort Worth.
ES: Why’d you move around so much growing up?
THC: My dad had been in the military. He was kind of semiretired, but he worked for the government for the Department of Health, and, you know, we just moved around a lot. And then, on my own, I went to college in Denton, and then I worked and lived in Dallas. I actually had a house in Austin for several years, and I still own a house in Dallas that I bought four years ago.
ES: But the ranch is really the place where you live.
THC: This is where I live. I bought the ranch because I looked all over the Hill Country—as far north as Goldthwaite and as far west as Rocksprings and Menard and Mason and even out past Junction towards Sonora. Not too much farther south from where I am, because I wanted to be in the true Hill Country. My brother Andy was looking for me. We looked for five years, and then it just happened.
ES: Wasn’t there a car trip down from Denton involved?
THC: That was way back in the early eighties. He and I stopped at a rest stop that’s a mile from the gate of my ranch. We were having a rock-throwing contest, and I told him, “Man, I would love to be around this part of the Hill Country.” See, we went to church camp in Leakey all the way back in the early seventies, so I knew that part of Texas, and my dad leased ranches in San Saba County to hunt. So I knew the Hill Country very, very well. Then Andy called me in ’98, and he’s like, “Dude, I found the perfect ranch, and you’re never gonna believe where it is: a mile from that rest stop that you and I visited when we were in college.” I was in L.A., and I immediately got butterflies in my stomach. I didn’t want to let it get away. And it was the perfect size. It was a 3,100-acre ranch, but they wanted to break it up into 1,100- and 2,000-acre parcels. I wanted to buy around 2,000 acres.
ES: It worked out perfectly.
THC: As soon as I saw it and drove through it, I was like, “This is it, man.”
ES: So much for wanting or needing to be in L.A.
THC: You know, it’s one of those things where you don’t know what you’re missing, ’cause you’re not there. But on the other side of that, as cocky as it sounds, I’m an Academy award nominee, so how bad has it really been? I got a movie made that I co-wrote and got to direct, and the movie I directed went to Sundance. I got to go to Australia. Sideways was the massive event of 2003, and then last year it was all about promoting it. I did a few things in the spring. I did a little part in Jim Brooks’s movie [Spanglish]. I did a little part in Mike Judge’s movie [the forthcoming 3001]. This year started off great with Charlotte’s Web, and there’s another big movie looming.
My writing partner says that if I’d stayed in L.A. all these years, there’s a damn good chance I would have gotten sucked into another TV series or would have been doing another movie and wouldn’t have been available to do Sideways. And, buddy, let me tell you, that would have killed me.