|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?
“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.
Still, Church comes on like he’s happy to know you. Confident but solicitous, an eager listener and a better talker, you can see how he so thoroughly inhabits Jack.
“I’m really not a very good actor,” he says. “I’m pretty fucking limited. I mean, I draw upon who I am as a guy. Whatever it is that appeals to Alexander [Payne] is from me to Alexander, like me as a man to Alexander as a man.”
Church grew up knocking around small towns mostly in West Texas, the adopted son of a periodically itinerant father who, after going off at 16 to fight in World War II, got his education on the GI Bill, worked for the government “in various capacities” and, at 79, just retired two years ago. His mother, 10 years younger than his dad, teaches nursing at Texas Women’s University. They live north of Dallas in a town called Aubrey.
That’s the easy part. The photo album, with upward of six siblings and half-siblings, gets a little more complicated. I ask Church if he’s met his biological father.
“I attempted contact. No, he’s an idiot,” Church says, turning pensive for the first and only time during the interview. “You know, he was, again, a military guy, fought in Korea and has blamed everything for the rest of his life on that.” Despite whatever qualms he may have about his biological dad’s life as a hard liver and a ne’er-do-well, Church does acknowledge a genetic link to his own rakish appeal. “I’ve seen pictures of him, and he was definitely . . . I mean, I can see why my mom fell for him because, you know, he was a POW. And he came out and he was rugged, you know, good-looking. He has this mane of blond hair in the ’50s.”
As a schoolboy Church boxed and played football, until he put an opponent into a weeklong coma after an unintentionally vicious hit. That was enough of that. He also worked on the ranches of family friends, which instilled in him a love of the country and animal husbandry. So much so that he lives back in Texas now, having quit Los Angeles in 2001, and is an active partner in a 2,000-head cattle ranch. He’s bummed he’s missing a “huge thing” at the ranch while he’s out here doing publicity: A USDA inspector is checking all of his cattle for Texas fever tick.
After working in radio in high school and college, Church studied journalism in grad school at Southern Methodist University, keeping a practical eye on the prospect of one day writing and directing commercials and a dreamy one on being a rock & roll DJ. The road to Hollywood started with voice-overs: “I had to get an agent and then I had to join the union, and then this movie came to town and I got a role on the movie.” Church can’t remember the title — it was a vanity project funded by a rich Kansan — but the film had an L.A. casting director who told Church he would help set him up with meetings in Hollywood if the actor wanted to try his luck. Church had friends living in Long Beach, so he thought he’d give it a couple months and see what happened. Within two weeks, he landed a part.
“The very first TV movie I was cast in was called To Protect and Surf,” he says, laughing. “Oh, I was money in that.”
Soon after that he cashed in with a starring role on TV’s popular Wings, playing the irrepressible Lowell Mather from 1990 to ’95. He followed that with a two-year stint as Ned on 48 episodes of the critically acclaimed if generally underappreciated Ned and Stacey. If this still sounds like a fairy tale, remember that a couple of good series can lead to the boneyard for actors who want to do movies but are too closely identified with a television character. I mean, is anybody going to let Luke Perry be a serious actor despite his obvious chops?
“Nobody will give you a fucking break in movies if you’re that familiar,” says Church. “And that’s the danger of it. It’s definitely a roll of the dice.”
Church did what he had to do to reinvent himself. He started saying no to television offers — enough times to worry that waitress in Texas. “When you start saying no, you’ve got to be prepared to ride that out,” he says. “I just started saying no to all television stuff because I wanted to work in movies. I mean, I moved to California. I wanted to work in movies, man.”
It’s odd to talk about a big break for someone who had already made millions and been on successful TV shows, but Church’s movie break came when he auditioned for the part of Jack Nicholson’s prospective son-in-law in About Schmidt, a part that eventually went to Dermot Mulroney. According to Church, Payne told him he’d “never know how close it was between you and Dermot” and that “Mark my words, someday you and I are going to cross paths again.” Their paths crossed again at just the right time, both for Sideways and for Church.
“I’m very proud to be in the movie, and I’m glad it’s being embraced,” says Church. “It’s been a long time since I’ve had a part I’ve been interested in, so I like talking about it.”
He’ll be doing plenty of that.