Interview: Thomas Hayden Church, The Authentic Man

If there is one thing that Thomas Hayden Church is known for, it’s the playfulness of his many roles. He’s been acting for 21 years, and in those 21 years, Church has established himself as one of Hollywood’s great underused talents. But that’s not for a lack of trying on Hollywood’s part. It’s because Church is that special kind of actor who looks only for roles that agree with who he really is.

From his days as Lowell Mather, the goofy mechanic on Wings to his big budget work as The Sandman in Spider-Man 3, Church has always brought a sense of authenticity to his roles. But then again, that’s not acting. That’s just the kind of authentic guy he his. And with every role, he explained to me, he tries to connect a part of himself to the character. For Lowell, it was the energy of a man in his 20s, one that he shared as a green actor in Hollywood. For The Sandman, it was becoming a father and understanding what a man might do to save his daughter.

It’s this authenticity that makes his role in Don McKay such an interesting turn in a career full of levity. As the titular character, Church takes to becoming a stoic, lonely high school janitor who gets caught up in a web of lies thanks to a 25-year overdue trip back to his hometown and a visit to his high school sweetheart (played by Elisabeth Shue). It’s an introverted character unlike anything he’s done before, but also one that reflects some of the loneliness that exists in his life today. It’s not a story that a journalist is used to hearing — such an open and honest dialogue — but again, that’s what makes Thomas Hayden Church a rare kind of guy. That very real kind of actor whose roles are all extensions of his own dynamic personality.

In the following conversation, we talk about those roles — from Lowell Mather to Don McKay to his upcoming work with Andrew Stanton on John Carter of Mars.

FSR: What drew you to the script when you first read it?

Thomas Hayden Church: You know, it just was how specific Jay Goldberger, the writer/director, was able to portray the emotional life of this kind of middle-aged guy. And that fascinated me, because his imagination was so specific in creating this character.

When I was sent the script, there was no foundation. It was just a script and a guy. But I was so intrigued with it that I got his phone number…wrangled it out of my agent…and called him and started talking to him just myself. I mean I didn’t want to have to go through managers, or publicists, or agents, or anybody, you know, producers. I wanted to just have this very short, straight communication with him.

And he was so funny and sincere and ingenious that I really…It just…It just felt like the right thing. And then we started going along and exploring actors and financiers. And it was like somebody would come in and they would go out, and somebody else would come in and they would go out.

And finally, by December of 2008, we had some people that wanted to fund the movie at what we thought was a reasonable budget level. We knew we could get it done in Massachusetts. And Elisabeth Shue’s name came up. She had been talked about before, but it just was…the timing was right.

And we also…You know, the actress that played the character had to be age appropriate. It had to be somebody that I could have reasonably gone to high school with. And Elisabeth and I are only a few years apart in age. And that was real important to me, because I didn’t want to be going for this ride with somebody that was 10 years younger. It was real important to me, and it was to Jake, as well.

You mentioned that there was a lot of coming and going of finding different actresses and finding different financiers. And you first read the script, if I am correct, right around 2005, right?

It was the end of ’04, yeah.

Would you say that is a frustrating process?

Not really. Not really. It wasn’t frustrating, because I had so much. On the heels of Sideways, I immediately started pre-production on Spider-Man 3. Then I went off and shot Broken Trail. Then I came back and started shooting for the next 7-8 months. Then I went and shot Smart People. You know what I mean? Like, you know, then Spider-Man 3 came out, which involved worldwide touring and promotion. Then went and shot an Eddie Murphy picture, and then the Sandra Bullock movie.

So it was not like…You know, I wasn’t like sitting around waiting for my next job opportunity. I was busy. But at the same time, you know, keeping the balls in the air with Don McKay and with Jake, and checking in with Jake periodically, him with me. You know, “When you are in LA, can we go and have supper and talk about so and so, and so and so, and so and so?”

So no, it was not frustrating. There were a couple of times where we got…you know, it got really close, and I am like, “OK. Great.” And then something would happen. Something else would come up. I would have to go do a reshoot of Spider-Man 3 that was absolutely necessary and we couldn’t get away from. And, you know, you do have to prioritize. And I always thought, “OK, Don McKay. If anything can wait, it can wait a little bit.”

And then summer of ’08, you know, we had the money. They said yes to Elisabeth, who I adored for the part. And Melissa Leo came in, and it was like, “Bam” and the timing was right and we got to make it.

And it seems like you and Elisabeth have this good chemistry on screen, but it is not one of those things where there is this very instant, loving connection. There is this, kind of, distance that comes into play later in the movie. Was that something that you say right away in Elisabeth or was that something that you developed together?

You know, it did seem that you would comment on that, because a lot of the other journalists are remarking on how immediate and believable our chemistry was. I was fascinated with her immediately, and we just struck, you know, this kind of great, you know, a comfortable friendship.

If anything, I think we had to work at the distance, and the wariness, and the discomfort that goes on through the story as Don learns more about her and she becomes more desperate to kind of hold this shit together. We sort of had to kind of work harder at that stuff, because Elisabeth is so wonderfully team-minded, and funny, and conversational. And, you know, she is gorgeous and so easy to get along with. I mean we hit it off straight out of the gate and really enjoyed spending a lot of time together.

I am interested in what it is like for you taking on a role like this. A lot of your other roles are extroverted characters where they are funny, they are… But Don is a very, very stoic, kind of introverted character.


I am interested in what your process of preparing for that kind of a role is as opposed to the things that you have done in the past.

You know, here is how I will answer that. You know, any performance… And let’s just use Robert De Niro as a lofty comparison. But any performance that is genuine and you feel that you really do get to the marrow of a human experience as it is portrayed on screen. Ultimately, Robert De Niro, whether it is Cape Fear, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, Meet the Parents, you tap in… Robert De Niro is tapping into some stream of his own personality. And no matter what he is doing, you are always getting some of Robert De Niro or some part of Robert De Niro’s emotional experience as he is….What’s the word I am looking for? As that culvert is flowing to you, and however he is getting it to you, it is still part of him.

And that is the thing. I think with me…You know, all the way back to Wings, which is a TV show, and a lot of people are like, “Oh, you know, what is it like to play the dumb mechanic?” I never saw the guy as a dumb mechanic. I always saw him as just this very innocent, genuine guy. And if other people thought his behavior was dumb, or his conversation was dumb, then that is there interpretation of the guy. It doesn’t necessarily mean that is who the guy is. And, you know, that is just the way I’ve always gone. I go through each performance. And with Don, that is a part of me that is real. I mean I live alone on a ranch in the middle of damn near nowhere. And, yes, I have a daughter. You know, she lives 35 miles away with my ex. You know, I certainly move in and out of society in rural Texas. And periodically, whatever — New York, or LA, or wherever I have to go.

But ultimately, there is a part of me that, you know, is so sort of emotionally isolated that…I mean I have been accused of being a hermit by friends and family. And, you know, whatever. Hermits mumble to themselves, but you spend a lot of time alone and non-verbal, and that is the part of me, Tom Church, that I use to inform this sort of emotionally disconnected guy that I really felt, and Jake believed, that Don McKay was.

Is that something that kind of evolves and changes over the course of your life?

Yeah. I mean, you know, Lowell Mather, the character from Wings, you know, was very appealing to me 20 years ago when I was an actor in my late 20’s, you know, who was pretty much new to LA. I was in LA like six months when I got Wings. I got Cheers and then I got Wings.

That character would not be as appealing to me today, because now, in my late 40’s, that guy is different. The context of the man as played by me is different. You know, because a guy that I believe is innocent and friendly, but some people thought was dumb, you know, when you are in your 20’s. When you are in your late 40’s, it’s like, you know, the guy, is he emotionally retarded? You know what I mean? Is he mentally insufficient in some way, you know, because he seems dumb and he is in his late 40’s. I think he’s dumb. You know what I mean? It changes the context. The character changes context relying upon who the man is playing that character.

So what excites you looking forward in your career? You have been in film and television for 20 years and…

21 years as of January.

21 years. So what excites you going forward in your career?

Challenge. I know it is a real wrote answer, but it is the truth, man. I am doing a huge science fiction movie for Disney with Andrew Stanton. It is live action animation. It is huge. I might be doing an arc on a new Showtime series this summer. I have a high school comedy drama in the vein of Juno coming out in September called Easy A. There are other movies that, you know, I might or might not do.

Each one brings… Like, the real obvious stuff, sometimes I will get offered something and it is a real superficial comedy and they want me to play the uncle, or a professor, or a dad. And if I read it, I am like, “OK. That is clearly just about having a big opening weekend and then falling off.” And I am not interested in those movies. And I am not interested in very much television. I get approached periodically with shows and, you know, a lot of what is on TV, I am not interested in.

You know, sometimes I am not really that interested in… Sometimes, an opportunity will come up in like a giant blockbuster sequel. I am not real interested in those things. Spider-Man 3 was very specific because it was Sam Raimi and Toby Maguire, two people that I had admired for a long time. And that was not about being in a blockbuster sequel. That was about a very specific character that Sam and I discussed — a father whose very young daughter is dying and he can’t do anything about it. That is very, very specific and very interesting to me. And that character can be in a five million dollar independent film and it would still be very interesting to me.

You mentioned wanting to do projects that are a challenge, and a lot of our readers are interested in Andrew Stanton movie and John Carter of Mars. I am interested in what kind of challenge that presents for you and. Are you done shooting on that?

No. Not even close. I have to go back here pretty quick in the next few weeks, and then all the rest of April, May, and a good chunk of June. Then it is going to be wrapped, and then there will be, like… you know, I will have post-production, motion capture stuff.

You know, in these big movies, my experience in Spider-Man 3, as they get along in the animation stuff, you do sort of…there is a good chance you will have to reshoot some stuff or some additional photography. The movie doesn’t come out until May of 12, and I anticipate probably being involved in it up until it comes out. That’s the way it was for Spider-Man 3.

What was it that really drew you to that project in particular?

Andrew Stanton. I didn’t know anything about it and he wrote the part for me and was very straightforward. The script came to me a year ago, and I read it, and then they called me and they were like, “He really wants to talk to you.” And he was up…I don’t know if it is Marin County or wherever. His offices were at Pixar. And, you know, we had a great conversation about it and he was so flattering in telling me that he had written it for me. And then we talked again a little while later in the summer.

And, you know, just the idea of doing it was very appealing to me, because Andrew is an amazing guy. He couldn’t be more approachable, more funny, more intelligent, more successful. I mean he is just crazy successful. And the fact that I was talking to him on the phone about a character that he had written for me a week or maybe two weeks after he had won two Academy Awards, it was astounding to me that this guy was calling me, and was like, “Hey, I wrote this part for you.” And coming off of winning two Academy Awards for Wall-E. You know, it just was astounding.

And you gotta pay attention to those moments in your life. And we just kept talking and talking, and then I signed on. And then I started in January in England. I was over there for a couple of weeks. And then I had some time off. And then I go back, like I said, in a few weeks, and then I am on it for a while.

Well, we are very excited to see how that comes out, and best of luck with the release of Don McKay.

Thank you. I say this without hesitation. I think it is going to be pretty huge.

Awesome. Can’t wait.

Don McKay is in limited release in Los Angeles now.

Neil Miller is the Founder and Publisher of Film School Rejects. For almost a decade, he has been talking movies on television, the radio, and the Internet. As of yet, no one has stopped him.

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