Here’s What Happened, Sweetheart 

How Sideways co-star Thomas Haden Church grew himself a 10-foot face

Thursday, Oct 21 2004
Photo by Ted Soqui

THOMAS HADEN CHURCH STRIDES into the lovely but tragically second-rate Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel as might his character Jack Lopate in Alexander Payne’s wonderful new movie, Sideways — which is to say, with the bouncy step of a former jock, an eager handshake and the boyish charm of a middle-aged man who isn’t giving in to age and gravity without a fight. He still has the hair and the air of a Texas football hero, which, no surprise, he once was.

Church is sure to be the revelation of the highbrow-movie season that Sideways is among the first releases to herald. His doofus, narcissistic train wreck of a washed-up TV actor, set opposite Paul Giamatti’s neurotic, wine-loving failed writer, Miles Raymond, is the catalyst for Payne’s nearly pitch-perfect (only the grape metaphors are squeezed a bit too hard) rumination on the difficult time in just about everyone’s life — everyone past 30, anyway — when conviction and compromise engage in mortal combat.

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The movie was the toast of the Toronto Film Festival and is due for some great reviews. And Church’s role was so sought after that Brad Pitt threw his gorgeous mug in the ring, while George Clooney wined and dined the director in pursuit of it. In the end, says Church, it came down to him and Matt Dillon. Not bad company. But try telling that to the Amazing Colossal Squirrel bedeviling us from a branch overhanging our table. Is there anything more frightening than a muscular squirrel at close range?

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“Jesus fucking Christ,” I say. The animal looks ready to pounce.

“Look at this. I got, like, tree hair,” says Church as the monster shakes a shower of tree debris and other stuff down Church’s collar. “Asshole. It doesn’t annoy me except that they’re filthy little animals. We have them all over the place at the ranch.”

Yes, he has a ranch in Texas, which we’ll get to later, but more to the point, doesn’t this damn squirrel know who he’s dumping on? Probably not, and there’s a good chance the name has already escaped you. It’s a bit of an overstatement to say that Church comes out of nowhere — after all, he’s been making a fine living in Hollywood ever since he set out from West Texas back in 1989, including six years as mechanic Lowell Mather on the venerable sitcom Wings. But he hasn’t exactly been fodder for People and Us magazines the way his erstwhile competition for the part of Jack has been. Church relates an anecdote that puts in perspective the period since he left television.

“I was at a restaurant in Texas, and this waitress came over, a young girl, 20 or 25,” he says, digging into the story while at the same time trying to rescue watery and lukewarm decaf coffee with sweetener. “I was eating by myself, and she came over and sat down next to me. She goes — and, dude, I’m not overplaying this — she goes [hushed, concerned voice], ‘What happened to you?’

“And I’m like, ‘What do you mean?’ She was like, ‘What happened to you after Wings?’

“You know? And you’re just like, ‘Here’s what happened to me — I made millions of dollars. That’s what happened to me. And I’m really happy.’ You know? It’s just like the People thing. It’s like, oh, if I haven’t seen him anymore, then something’s wrong.”

Church is clearly amused by the story, but there’s a point it illustrates. He may not be a household name right now, but he is emblematic of the Everyman actor in this town who has worked solidly for many years in the shadow of big movie stars who make headlines and, as often as not, bad movies. “Success is measured by whatever they’re reporting Leonardo DiCaprio’s next fee is, you know?

“I mean, I was the voice of Icehouse Beer for, like, eight years,” he laughs.


PAYNE’S PREVIOUS MOVIES (Citizen Ruth, Election and About Schmidt) have tended to veer off into condescension or caricature, but Sideways hits so many heart notes without ever losing its sense of humor. A great deal of credit goes to Church and Giamatti, who read their characters so you feel like you’ve known them all your life. It’s easy, though, to think you know a well-realized character in a great film — less so an actor you meet during an hourlong interview over tepid, $15 smoothies and bad coffee.

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