Audiences first fell in love with actor Thomas Haden Church for his role as dim-witted mechanic, Lowell Mather, on the popular TV series Wings but it was Oscar nominated role in Alexander Payne's Oscar winning comedy, Sideways, that made him a household name. Since then the actor has appeared in a slew of mainstream studio films including Charlotte's Web, Smart People, Imagine That, All About Steve and Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 3, in which he played the classic comic book villain, The Sandman. The actor even won an Emmy award for his role in the TV movie Broken Trail opposite screen legend Robert Duvall.
Now Church returns to his Sideways roots with the new independent film Don McKay co-starring Elisabeth Shue and opening in theaters on April 2nd. In the film, Church plays the title role of a haunted man plagued by the demons of his past that returns to his home town to reunite with his long-lost high school sweetheart and confront his past mistakes. We recently had a chance to speak with Thomas Haden Church about the new film, his multi-layered character, working with PEEXZNEGGu0mIL||Elisabeth Shue} and collaborating with first time writer/director Jake Goldberger. Here is what the talented actor had to say:
To begin with, after doing a string of studio films, "Spider-Man 3", "Imagine That" and "All About Steve" did you feel like doing this film was an opportunity for you in a sense to get back to your "Sideways" independent-roots and earn back a little independent street-cred? Is that what attracted you to the project, a chance to get back to making interesting, small, quiet and intriguing character pieces?
Thomas Haden Church: You know the movie actually came along ... originally the script came to me right at the peek of all of the Sideways fanfare and across the span of time that involved all those other movies that you just mentioned we were behind the scenes trying to get Don McKay made. We were trying to find the right actress, find the write finance people and its just really a coincidence that Don McKay got shot and came out when it did. It was purely coincidence because we made the movie about a year and a half ago and some of those other movies like Imagine That and All About Steve, those movies were supposed to have come out in 2008. Both of them were and they both got pushed into 2009. I honestly thought Don McKay was going to come out in the fall by virtue of being at the Tribeca Film Festival and being bought out of there over a year ago. You know what, everything works out the way it does but yeah, to answer your question, it's a small character driven story but I think it has a very powerfully thematic, swift undercurrent that can only be defined by tension and at the same time this sort of romantic thriller, Hitchcock-like element.
Tell me about how you viewed the character of Don McKay? He seems like he's sort of swimming through life and he is such a complicated, multi-layered character that is dealing with a lot of emotions from his past. Can you discuss what aspects about the character you really liked and what emotions that you were excited to portray in this film?
Thomas Haden Church: The first time I read the script I was sort of enveloped by this sense of unease because the guy's emotional story took so many kind of twists and dangerous hairpin turns on rocky cliffs. But more than anything I was fascinated by the fact that a twenty-six year-old writer would be able to capture the emotional life of a man in his '40s so completely and so elegantly. Whether it's with humor, drama, menace or sadness and that's just what blew me away about it. So yes, more than anything I read through the script the first time and I actually read through it a second time before I called the director, Jake Goldberger, just to be sure that everything I talked about, I'd have a real authenticity in my understanding and in my perspective of understanding.
The relationship between your character and M. Emmet Walsh's character was very interesting and played against stereotypes well. It's clear that Samuel is aware of who Don is and his complicated past but makes no judgments against him and they sort of create almost a father and son like relationship, was that the way you saw it and what was it like working with one of the greatest character actors in film history, M. Emmet Walsh?
Thomas Haden Church: You know, Emmet Walsh was just a dream. It was a dream that we got him and that he would consider playing such a small and mysterious part. I didn't know anything about him but I've been a fan for so long and some of his really significant performances, like a movie that came out in the late '70s that he did called Straight Time with Dustin Hoffman and then in the late '80s Clean and Sober with Michael Keaton, you know these were very significant performances when I was growing up and when I was starting to consider the possibility of a career as an actor. You have to be compelled by performances ultimately and writing and I talked to him, he actually goes by Mike, I talked to him about that at length when we first met. Then he asked me last year, he was being honored at a film festival in Dallas and he asked me to present him at the film festival, which I did and was so honored to do. But yeah, I just thought he was tremendous and he was great. Again, I think they bond in this bizarre disconnected way. Because he knows early on, as soon as he knows Don's full name he knows who he is, he knows the events that he was involved in and yet he doesn't cast any judgment. There's no proprietary sense of what are you doing here, how dare you, you may or may not be a murderer, and you know there is none of that. He just sort of receives Don as an open individual, an open vessel who comes along with sadness and maybe a lack of understanding of where he is going. He's completely cool with that. Like I said, he totally embraces him.
Clearly Don knows from the beginning that Sonny isn't exactly who she says she is yet he plays along anyways, do you think that he actually fools himself into believing that she really is Sonny because he wants it to be her so badly and do you think that he actually falls in love with her by the end?
Thomas Haden Church: I don't think that he is fooling himself. He knows from the moment that he gets that first letter at the very beginning of the movie, the scene at the high school, he knows that there is no way that she is who she claims to be. But the fact that someone has the courage or the passion or the manipulation to attempt this is intriguing to him. Behind that his whole life is defined by loneliness and to some extent despair because of the things that have happened to him when he was a teenager, which you obviously don't learn about till the end of the movie. I think that more than anything else he is just willing to explore this even if it means abandoning his job. He's just willing to explore it. He walks into that room and there she is, she's beautiful, she talks to him, she listens to him and she's very powerfully attracted to him. So he just decides that he's going to go along with it. He's going to go along and see what happens. Hopefully at some point the truth is going to come out but they'll get past it, still be in love and maybe have a life together.
What was it like working with Elisabeth Shue who played Sonny?
Thomas Haden Church: You know, in the four years that I was attached to it before we got the movie made there were a lot of actresses that showed interest. But they wanted changes to the script or they wanted to be producers as well as play Sonny and through the years we had certain financial people that came in, left, came in and left so it was always like, what is the correct balance here of the right actor, the right actress, the right budget level? When the people came along that ultimately funded the movie, they started running actresses by me and when PEEXZNEGGu0mIL||Elisabeth}'s name came up I was like, absolutely. I thought she was someone that could really play this character with all of the depth and dexterity that it requires. They approved she and I and Melissa Leo was already starting to gain some momentum for Frozen River, she helped in the financial packaging and then we were able to go after character actors like Keith David, James Rebhorn, Pruitt Taylor Vince, and obviously M. Emmet Walsh, and we got them.
Finally, How would you describe your working experience with first time writer/director Jake Goldberger? Did you guys hit the ground running on set or was there a learning curve that you both bed to overcome?
Thomas Haden Church: You know he's such a sweet guy and has such an understanding for story. I believed in him early on. I think he really executed the best movie that Don McKay ever had the opportunity to be. I mean I don't think anyone ... it was such a specific and interesting story and once I agreed to collaborate he never let me down. The way that people have been responding to the movie, last year at Tribeca and in a lot of other places around the world, the fact that a number of companies wanted to distribute the movie and ultimately Image was just the right fit in terms of marketing and getting behind the movie. You know, Jake is very true to who he is. He's a very sincere person and when he said he was going to be collaborative at the most in depth level he absolutely honored that commitment to me and to Elisabeth. Because for both of us with a first time director we demanded that, we had to have somebody that was willing to collaborate in the purest form, which is, we might be right and you might be wrong. Or you may be right and I may need you to convince me that you are and can you do it with tastefulness and courtesy and he did that.
Don McKay opens in theaters on April 2nd.