Thomas Haden Church is surprised that success took over late in his career, a career he was ready to give up on, until a little movie called "Sideways" changed all of that. He has certainly mixed it up, with films as different as "Spider-Man 3" and "Smart People". Now he’s back in the fantasy comedy "Imagine That" in which he appears opposite Eddie Murphy. Church talked to Paul Fischer in this exclusive interview.
Question: This is a lot of fun for you. I mean, was it because – you know, it was something that you hadn’t done before, with a family movie? I mean, what was the attraction for you, for doing this?
Church: It was actually to work with Eddie, chiefly. But I have to say, very close to that priority was to do a movie that my daughter could see. And she was involved in – which is to say, she came to visit me a couple of times while we were shooting. And – you know, I just wanted to do something that I knew that she would enjoy. So – you know. I mean, I can’t say that one was more important than the other. But I definitely – you know, I mean, I’ve pined to work with Eddie since I became an actor 20 years ago.
Question: What did you take away from that experience? I mean, what does a guy like him teach you about the business of acting and comedy?
Church: He’s just so natural. I don’t really know if he could teach anybody. It just – it’s so effortless for him. You know, that’s just – you know. He was a movie star when he was 19, 20 years old, because he had – he just had such a gift. And – you know, he continues to thrive as a performer. The guy is just – his focus and his intensity, and his drive to make things entertaining and unique – that’s what I took away from the experience.
Question: Is he somebody who likes to mix it up, and to improv a lot?
Church: In certain scenes, I think he was probably more comfortable doing that than in others. But that – you can pretty much apply that axiom to any performer. I mean, whenever things started drifting probably closer to – you know, his wheelhouse of what he thought was going to be different and entertaining, he probably was a little bit more improvisational. But like I said, you can apply that to anybody. I’m that way. You know? There are scenes in the movie where it’s a little bit more free-flowing. And there are other scenes where I just – I stuck to the script and paid attention to what I was being told to do, because it was a little bit outside my comfort zone.
Question: In fact, it is very much outside your comfort zone. And I’m just wondering what you were able to do, to be able to remain – sort of – I mean, this is a genre that we don’t see much of, we don’t see you involved in very much.
Church: You mean family movies.
Question: Family movies, fantasy, this kind of thing. What were you able to do that made you comfortable throughout this shoot? I mean, that you could bring something of yourself to a character like this?
Church: You know, when I read the script, I thought it was a guy that I would be interested in. My friend, Karey Kirkpatrick, is the director. And – you know, it was just a compelling challenge. And then to try and make that – you know, straddling that high wire of authenticity and absurdity was something that I was keenly interested in. And then you throw in the Eddie Murphy dynamo factor – it just was something that I thought could be a lot of fun. I’ve done the edgier stuff comedically with Sideways and Smart People the last few years, and then very dramatic roles in Spider-Man 3 and Broken Trail. And – you know, I have a fairly dramatic, comedic thing that just premiered at Tribeca called Don McKay that should be out at the end of the year. And – you know, I just was interested in doing something that was just a frolic, you know? Just a romp. Something that – like you said before, that I could take my daughter to, and she can enjoy my performance, and not have to be concerned about any of the content of the movie as a parent.
Question: Your career really took off after Sideways. Or, re-took-off, I guess. I do remember when we – that’s when we first met – that you were very genuinely surprised at how things were going to be for you. And I’m wondering how that trajectory has developed for you. Has your career, at this point, turned out this time around the way that you were more or less expecting? Or is it still a surprise?
Church: You know, I don’t know, Paul. That’s a – you know, my expectations before Sideways was released were fairly low. I mean, I thought – you know, if the movie connects, it’s gonna be a miracle. And not because of – you know, the script, or Alexander, or Paul, or anything else. We just all – it was a small movie, with a very specific story. One that was probably going to be difficult to market. And it was a movie, ostensibly, about wine, which is a fairly snobbish, elitist community. And – you know, I think everybody – well, I know this, because I was involved in a lot of marketing conversations before the movie came out with Searchlight. And I think everybody’s expectations were low. That the movie, if it connected commercially and then went on to sort of platform in a commercial way, but then also that would facilitate a kind of critical springboard.
I just think it was – you know, it was just all of the planets and stars aligning in some celestial ballet. And yet, it happened. And then coming out of Sideways—I mean, I was seeing you at various things, and talking to you. And – you know, I just think that I just wanted to meet opportunity, and make the right choices. And now, give or take four years later, almost five years later, I think some of the choices were good, and some of the choices were – some of them that I didn’t do, maybe I should have thought a little bit longer on. But invariably, over the last four and a half, five years, something – you know, there are different dynamics that prevail when you’re trying to make that sort of decision.
And there are people that pick movies so strategically – you know, like, whatever. Pick a career. You know? I think Paul Giamatti, if you look at Paul’s career coming out of the same movie – you know, Cinderella Man was, I think, a real critical success for him. But then Nanny Diaries and Lady in the Water and Shoot 'Em Up, and – you know, there’s been other things that he’s chosen to do that didn’t catch fire the way that I’m sure he hopes. But then, you know, he does John Adams, and he wins every conceivable award that they’ve molded in some metalworks. So – you know. And now – you know, I don’t know what Paul’s got coming out. But it’s just – you know, I’m just moving – I have another kid’s movie coming out, and then this movie with Sandra Bullock and Bradley Cooper, and then – we release Don McKay at the end of the year.
Question: That sounds very funny, this All About Steve.
Church: Yeah, it is funny. It’s a very entertaining film.
Question: Who do you play in that?
Church: I play a CNN reporter. Bradley is my cameraman. And Sandy spends the entire film stalking us, to stay close to him and to me.
Question: Does Sandra Bullock have a very different approach to comedy than, say, Eddie Murphy?
Church: Well, yeah. I mean, you know, Eddie’s a comedian, and started out in comedy, and Saturday Night Live, and sketch comedy. And – you know, Sandy’s a very serious actress. I mean, she happens to be very smart and funny. But she’s a very serious actress producer. And she thoroughly researches and investigates any level or angle or dynamic of the character that she’s going to play.
Question: What else do you have coming up now?
Church: Well, you know, four movies in one year is a lot. So –
Question: Are you looking for something to direct, as well?
Church: You know, if I could find the right thing and somebody was into hiring me, yeah, I would like to direct again. But movies are damned hard to get made these days. And I haven’t directed a movie now in over seven years. So, it’s a little different game. They put together these Appleworks presentations, and stuff like that. I’m a little – I may be a dinosaur, at this point. I’m talking as far as directing.
Question: You began your career as a deejay.
Church: [LAUGHTER] Funny. I don’t think anybody wants to fall back on a deejay career at this point.
Question: No. But I mean, I’m just wondering where the transformation from deejay to actor came from. And what was it about being an actor that really appealed to you? And how did you get from being a deejay and voice-over guy, to –
Church: Well, that wasn’t really it. I mean, I was a disc jockey in high school and a little in college, but then I went on and finished my schooling, and – you know, got more involved in writing, in advertising. And then acting – I had an agent, and I had taken acting in college. So it was a fairly natural transition.
Question: Are you still as excited about being in front of the camera as you were when you began?
Church: Yeah, in the right thing. Sure.
Question: Do you find it tough to find roles that really get your juices flowing?
Church: No. No. I find it tough to get the ones that I really want. [LAUGHTER] I read great scripts every week, and compelling roles. But – hey, Paul, they’re giving me the old stage hook.