The last time I interviewed Thomas Haden Church, I noted how well he projects. Talking to him on the phone from his Texas ranch the other week it occurred to me that the guy could probably conduct his side of the interview without telecommunications.
The junket for Over the Hedge, the new CGI cartoon from Dreamworks, where Church plays a pest control expert brought in to deal with the cute and fuzzy animals who are raiding a new suburban development for food, happened to be going on the same day I was in LA for Poseidon press. I managed to make things happen and attend the press day, where I was going to interview Church and William Shatner.
But as always, things don’t work out as planned. Church was stuck in Texas – he talks about that in the interview – while Shatner bowed out for an equestrian event. Way to go, Captain Kirk. It all worked out for the best, as Church gave me a call a few days after I got back from LA.
A lot has changed since I interviewed Church before Sideways was released – awards won, Oscar nominations, and a Spider-Man villain role accepted – but Church seems like the same kind of guy – funny, quick and very friendly. I think this might be the only time someone has used my name so many times in an interview. We talked for over a half an hour and probably could have kept on going longer.
Over the Hedge opens this weekend.
Church: Sorry I missed you on Friday. You were at the junket, right? Was that fun?
Q: It was good. Garry Shandling was nervous.
Church: He was? I don’t understand that. That’s highly uncharacteristic of him.
Q: I know! He mentioned that he hadn’t met anyone from the film because you guys all recorded your stuff separately. Had you ever met any of these guys before?
Church: Never. I had supper with Bruce Willis around 1992, by virtue of that we were both friendly acquaintances of Woody Harrelson. I was hanging out with Woody in New York and I met Bruce, although I’m certain he would never remember me because I was all the way at the other end of the table between a body guard and this guy Cam Neely who used to play for the Boston Bruins. I was wedged between this giant, Israeli bodyguard. This guy was at least 300 pounds, and at one point I asked him, ‘How many weapons do you have on you right now?’ And he said, ‘Many.’ And I think that was all he said to me the whole time we were eating. Then I asked Cam Neely how many weapons he had, and he said, ‘I don’t have any.’
I’ve never – Wanda, Steve, Nick, Allison, Garry… I got invited to play basketball at Garry Shandling’s house once but I didn’t go. And that’s it. I’ve never met any of the other cast members. Eugene Levy. Catherine O’Hara. Wait, I take it back – I met Cary Kirkpatrick’s son. One of the directors’ son plays one of the porcupine children. So I met him. He was the only one I partied with. I actually met him when we did a press day in April, we had a very brief press day at the W Hotel and I met Cary’s son.
But I do know Cary. Cary and I are working together on another movie, Charlotte’s Web.
Q: He had mentioned he had poached you from there.
Church: Yeah, he did. I actually spoke to him yesterday for a while. I was really bummed that I missed the junket; I live in Texas and I had a ranching issue going on, where I had to miss Friday. But then I drove three hours to the Austin airport and I sat in the airport for five hours, waiting to take off. They finally concluded that we were in an indefinite situation because of a big giant storm. So I got off the plane – as far as I know I was the only person who got off the plane – and attempted to rebook for the next morning. So I had to drive back to the ranch three hours through a hellacious storm.
Q: What a pain in the ass.
Church: You know, I was just bummed because I was looking forward to doing the junket. I enjoy doing press for something that I like, and I think the movie is very fun and charming and clever. I saw it at Amblin, because we did a field tour about three weeks ago. Cary and I went out to a couple of cities around the country, and it’s fun. When people like the movie, it’s fun. I think the movie is being very well received.
Q: And it’s from Dreamworks, which made Shrek, but it doesn’t have that Shrek pop culture reference stuff, which makes the movie feel dated in two years.
Church: Right. And Cary and Tim Johnson and all of the writers, they’re very attendant to that. I did a series called Ned and Stacey for two years for Fox back in the 90s. I was writer on it as well as a producer, and it was very important to me that there were no contemporary references. At times it would put me at odds with the other producers and writers saying, ‘Yeah, but it’s a guaranteed huge laugh if the headless ghost of Nicole Simpson walks through a scene’ or some shit like that. I was like, it’s not a guaranteed fucking laugh… well, that’s kind of a garish image. But I was like, no, I don’t think OJ jokes or Johnny Cochran jokes – I don’t like any of that shit. Unless you turn it on its head, like Seinfeld did with their big trial and their Johnny Cochrane doppelganger. You have to turn it completely on its head so that it’s absurd.
Q: And so that you can laugh at the joke later on even if you don’t get the reference.
Church: Exactly. And then it’s more of a historical joke than a Kato Kaelin joke. Anyway, my point is, circuitously, that Cary and Tim and I really agreed on that. There are only a couple of places where they skirt contemporary references.
Q: On Charlotte’s Web is it the same situation, where you’re alone in a room and never meet your costars?
Church: The only departure on Charlotte’s Web – and I’m actually working on another animated film at Disney that John Travolta and I are starring in. Or our voices are starring in, anyway. That movie, which is being directed by Chris Sanders, who did Lilo and Stitch, Chris is a little bit more pursuant of the performers being together to get more of that improvisational, spontaneous flow. But it’s not nearly as big of a cast in that movie.
In Charlotte’s Web I have been video conferenced with my counterpart, Andre Benjamin from OutKast. I’ve actually been working on Charlotte’s Web before Over the Hedge, I’ve been on Charlotte’s Web since a year ago January. Andre and I have been videoconferenced together a few times, and I’ve a few sessions without him. But they prefer – and Cary has been involved – they prefer that we work together. And I still haven’t met him face to face yet.
Q: Do you prefer that as well?
Church: As an actor I kind of do. I started out doing voice overs in the mid 80s when I was in grad school. I worked in radio in high school and all through college, and then I got a voice over agent in Dallas in the mid 80s. Even doing radio, when we had to read copy, they used staff announcers for all the radio ads, and we would do them together. If it was more than one voice they would get three or four people in the booth and it would be like the classic radio dramas, leaning into the mic and then leaning back away. That’s how I learned how to do multi-voice spots. Even in the mid 80s, when I was doing voice over work in Dallas, it was the same thing. If there was a woman and a man talking about what kind of gasoline she was going to buy for the minivan, you’d have both actors there. That’s how I learned, and that is how I prefer it. But with someone like Andre, who isn’t really an actor, is a singer and a performer, I assume he records the lion’s share of his vocals alone. He may prefer to do it like that.
Q: What’s the Disney film you’re doing?
Church: It’s called American Dog, and it’s not coming out until 08. As I’ve come to learn, these projects have a looong lead.
Q: Is it weird working on something that won’t see the light of day for two or three years?
Church: I’ve already done American Dog for a year. I signed for all three of them within a couple of months last year. I signed with Charlotte’s Web in January, I signed for Over the Hedge in February and then I signed for American Dog in April of last year. By the time American Dog comes out, I’ll have been on it for three years.
Q: What do you play in American Dog?
Church: I play a rabbit. I play a one-eyed rabbit. Mario Cantone is doing a voice. There’s a dog and a cat and a rabbit that are traveling cross-country together. I think Mario is going to be the other character.
Q: Do you sing?
Church: Do I sing? I don’t believe I do. Not yet, anyway. I did sing a little bit in Over the Hedge, but I think they cut it.
Q: Yeah, I don’t remember you singing in Over the Hedge.
Church: Which could be a reflection of my singing ability. So Devin, where are you?
Q: I’m in New York City.
Church: What’s a 347 number?
Q: That’s a cell phone in New York. 917 is the main cell phone.
So speaking of New York, you’re playing a character in a movie that takes place ostensibly in New York but I don’t think has been filmed here yet.
Church: Are we talking Spider-Man?
Q: We’re talking Spider-Man 3. You’ve done the superhero side of the equation with The Specials –
Q: – now you’re doing the supervillain side. Which do you like better?
Church: You have done your homework.
Q: I love The Specials, are you kidding me?
Church: It’s a fun movie. I was doing press in Seattle about three weeks ago and a guy walked in and asked me to sign his Specials DVD and his Sideways DVD. I was like, buddy, talk about polar opposites of the cinematic paradigm. He was like, ‘Oh man, I love this fucking movie. All my friends love it. It’s a fun movie.’ We went into a discourse about why The Specials didn’t work. I don’t know why it didn’t work. Too small, too weird. I don’t know, but there’s some funny stuff in it.
Q: I dig it. But you’re a superhero in that and a supervillain in Spider-Man – which do you like better?
Church: They’re both really fun, provocative roles. The Specials was a very small movie, and believe me we were butting our heads into the budget all the time. It was a million dollar movie we shot in three weeks – in LA, no less, which is tough. It was a fun little movie and in fact the director is still a good friend of mine. They put together a great cast. That movie was a lot of fun because I think James Gunn is a really talented writer. He’s gone on to fame and glory with Dawn of the Dead and Scooby Doo. He just had a movie that came out that he wrote and directed but I’m not sure if it did any business.
Q: No, Slither did not do well, unfortunately.
Church: I heard it was good. My buddy showed me on Rotten Tomatoes that it got a lot of really good reviews. I wonder why it didn’t work.
Q: I think because Universal didn’t know how to sell a horror/comedy.
Church: But it’s good?
Q: It’s really good.
Church: Next time I speak to James, unless you’ve already spoken to him, I’ll lend your supportive heralding.
Q: He knows that I love the film.
Church: You know him?
Q: Yeah. He’s a friend of the site. He’s a great talent.
Church: All the way back to his Troma days?
Q: All the way back to Tromeo & Juliet!
So how much of Spider-Man 3 is green screen? I assume Sandman is a character who will be heavily done in CG.
Church: Oh yeah. Probably so far – I’m not going to be done until the end of June, and in fact I have to go back to LA to work on it – it’s been a pretty good balance. Everybody knows what he is and what he’s capable of doing, in terms of shapeshifting. So yeah, there’s a real balance there. What I have learned is that these movies require tremendous stamina. You’re in it for the long haul. It’s an action picture, but people think that there’s so much green screen or blue screen – in fact it’s all blue screen, not green screen – that they lose sight of how much action you physically are doing. I have been in physical training for 14 months. When we started shooting I shot exclusively for two weeks in November with Sam. It was a pre-shoot, they just wanted to get a very difficult sequence in the can before they started principal in January. Sam’s apparently a pre-shoot kind of guy, he likes to get a leg up. So we had to pre-shoot a very difficult sequence for my character, and at that point – this was November – so I had been training for eight or nine months and I realized it wasn’t just about the visual aspect of what they wanted. You have to be tough. You have to be physically tough, running through fucking sub-freezing temperatures through marshes, and all the shit I had to do; they needed me to be in great physical condition to do the stuff I had to do.
A big part of it is to look the part. I don’t know if you’ve been on the Spider-Man website, but they put a picture up of how I look.
Q: You look fantastic.
Church: Thank you. You know, it’s not easy, Devin, when you’re in your 40s to change from doughy fat boy, like I was in Sideways to – you know, I gained a lot of weight for that because Alexander Payne wanted me doughier than I normally walk around as. I gained 20 pounds for that movie and when we were doing the press for it I lost it all – it just dropped off. I have a pretty active lifestyle. Then when I signed on to Spider-Man last year they asked me to put on 20 pounds of muscle, which I have done. I’m back up to 200, but my body fat is like 9 percent, which is a lot less than it was for Sideways!
Q: How has Sideways changed things? What kind of scripts have been coming in post-Sideways?
Church: It’s been a while now. A whole other awards season has come and gone. I would say that the big thing is Spider-Man. As far as I know, I was the only actor they considered for the role. They knew they wanted Sandman in the movie, and they saw me – Avi Arad and Sam were at the Critic’s Choice Awards last year and saw me accept my award for supporting actor and they called the next day. They called my agent and said they wanted to have a meeting with me. So I went and I had a three hour meeting with them where Sam went through the whole movie! He went through the storyboards of the entire movie and showed me the guy they wanted me to play and how he was plugged into the story. He went through the whole movie and sat down and said, ‘What do you think?’ We went over my first impression of the character and he wanted to meet with me again alone, to go through things more in depth. So Sam and I met again for about five hours, the centerpiece being sushi for lunch. We met, read what they had, talked about it. It was like this massive jam session about who the guy was, literary references that were parallel to what he wanted and what I thought were applicable.
It was kind of a significant week. I met with Sam for five hours on Monday, I was nominated for an Academy Award the next morning, and Sam called me that afternoon and said that Amy Pascal had signed off on me based on all of the consortium’s sponsorship. So the day I was nominated was the day they asked me to do the movie, which was kind of cool.
Q: That’s a good day.
Church: That’s one of the days you don’t forget, Devin! My point is, my long winded answer to your query is, that kind of knocked everything out. I got offered a lot of stuff, and I still get offers, but at the end of 2004 and the beginning of last year I got offered a shit ton of movies. And some of them were flattering – I got offered North Country, I got offered Little Miss Sunshine, I got offered Thank You For Smoking, I got offered a lot of movies. But a lot of them didn’t feel right and as soon as they asked me to do Spider-Man I said yes at the beginning of March. That really tied me up a lot.
Just because I love him and I love Westerns, I was able to break away and do a mini-series with Robert Duvall called Broken Trail. In the midst of the awards season last year somebody had said, ‘Hey I see a miniseries in your near future!’ I would have said, ‘You’re really, really high on brown Mexican heroin,’ but a script came up for a Western and chance to star with Robert Duvall. I just had to do it. And I know some of the actors who were pursuing it, and it was a pretty lofty crowd. I was pretty flattered by that.
Q: This wasn’t your first Western, was it?
Church: No, I had a small but memorable role in Tombstone. While I was there the whole time shooting the movie, I played the role of Billy Clanton, who historically has the distinction of starting the gunfight at the OK Corral.
Q: That’s right! Now I remember.
Church: If you go back and look at it, you’ll see a much younger and startlingly handsome Thomas Haden Church. Much, much younger! But yeah, it’s a pretty small role and I get killed halfway through the movie, but I’m always surprised by how many people come up to me and say, ‘Dude, I loved you in Tombstone.’ Before Sideways, Tombstone was my most notable cinematic reference for people.
Q: I know that for a lot of my friends Tombstone is the ultimate Guy’s Movie, where they watch it together and really bond.
Church: Yeah. It’s a rabble rouser, to be certain. It’s a very popular movie, man. What’s crazy is that I was doing an interview and they asked me about Tombstone and the chronology of it, and I said it opened on Christmas Day of 93 – it had some legs, but ultimately it was not a huge box office success. It only did about 55 million when it came out, which for the most part was the spring of 94. But it was not a big success. It came nowhere near 100 million. But then on DVD and on cable it turned into the iconographic beacon of Westerns that it became.
When you break down the 90s there weren’t many Westerns – Dances With Wolves, Unforgiven and Tombstone were the most notable.
Q: Wyatt Earp.
Church: I thought Wyatt Earp was a pretty good movie, but it was too long. I did a movie with Costner in 2000 and we discussed the merits of the dueling Wyatt Earp movies. He was supposed to do Tombstone, but he got into a compromising situation with the writer/director, Kevin Jarre. We started shooting with Kevin but he was summarily dismissed about three weeks into shooting and he was replaced with Greek legend George Cosmatos.
Q: Costner’s Open Range is a really good Western.
Church: Yeah, that’s a good movie. I think that Duvall’s great in it, Costner’s good in it and there’s some good action stuff in it. I like that movie.
Q: Is it tough keeping Spider-Man 3 a secret? Everyone must be asking you plot points and about Venom.
Church: No, it’s not. I’m contractually bound not to discuss anything. I know they were hoping to keep the identities of the characters secret until next year, but whatev. Cat got out of the bag. It happens. It got blurted out, my character and Topher’s character. That’s just the way it goes.
Q: So keeping it secret is easy for you?
Church: He’s part sand, part man. Anybody that’s familiar with the comic book, you know whatever – you have a broad understanding of what he’s capable of doing. I think that Sam, as with the other two movies, he plays it pretty close to the spirit of the comic book.
Q: I heard you have Amazing Spider-Man #4 framed.
Church: I do! Sam gave that to me when I was set for the movie. It’s an original.
Q: Bruce Campbell has said that Sam can be tough on actors. Has he been tough on you?
Church: No. I don’t think he’s tough. I think he pushes hard but it’s when he sees an opening to get what he knows you both want. He definitely pushes, but it’s in a spirited pursuit of what he knows is the common goal. I like it.
Actor/director relationships could fill up volumes of journalistic reports and books; trying to understand what those relationships are and how impactful they are of what’s finally executed on screen. I’ve worked with some pretty good directors – with Mike Figgis, Alexander Payne, Walter Hill, Sam Raimi – I’ve worked with some good directors and Sam is an extraordinary actor’s director, and he pushes because he knows you’re going to appreciate it when you see it on screen. I have already seen it – I’ve seen the scenes cut together that we’ve already shot, and he gets what he knows you both need. As I said to him one day on set, ‘You’re Elia Kazan trapped in an action director’s body.’
You look at all of his movies, which have terrific performances, but you look at A Simple Plan and, goddamn, that’s brilliant. It’s such an actor’s piece. Actors love him, man. I know Bill Paxton, I know Billy Bob – actors love Sam. And just watching him interact with Kirsten and Toby and James, people really respond to him. They have tremendous respect for him.