|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 Paynes 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 isnt 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 Giamattis neurotic, wine-loving failed writer, Miles Raymond, is the catalyst for Paynes nearly pitch-perfect (only the grape metaphors are squeezed a bit too hard) rumination on the difficult time in just about everyones 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 Churchs 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?
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 Churchs collar. Asshole. It doesnt annoy me except that theyre filthy little animals. We have them all over the place at the ranch.
Yes, he has a ranch in Texas, which well get to later, but more to the point, doesnt this damn squirrel know who hes dumping on? Probably not, and theres a good chance the name has already escaped you. Its a bit of an overstatement to say that Church comes out of nowhere after all, hes 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 hasnt 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, Im not overplaying this she goes [hushed, concerned voice], What happened to you?
And Im like, What do you mean? She was like, What happened to you after Wings?
You know? And youre just like, Heres what happened to me I made millions of dollars. Thats what happened to me. And Im really happy. You know? Its just like the People thing. Its like, oh, if I havent seen him anymore, then somethings wrong.
Church is clearly amused by the story, but theres 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 theyre reporting Leonardo DiCaprios next fee is, you know?
I mean, I was the voice of Icehouse Beer for, like, eight years, he laughs.
PAYNES 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 youve known them all your life. Its 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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