by L. Chesley Turner
photography by Michael Lavine
Thomas Haden Church speaks with a voice reminiscent of a lethargic roll of thunder, an easygoing spirit, and a remarkable ability to maneuver the English language. Standing 6 foot 1, he seems to take things in stride, making the dichotomy of life on the wild range and life on the silver screen seem like the most natural match in the world.
On one hand, Haden Church owns and operates a cattle ranch in Bandera County, Texas, about three hours due west of Austin. On the other, he’s continually appearing in a broad spectrum of films, ranging from character driven think-pieces like Smart People, to no-holds-barred cinematic spectacles, like Spiderman 3. And the next few years show no sign of slacking. Imagine That hit theatres in June, All About Steve is due for release in September, and the dramatic John Carter of Mars is rumored to be a 2012 project. It’s not surprising, then, that he has so much to say about the Lone Star State’s interest in attracting the film industry. “Texas used to be only behind California, New York, and Illinois in terms of filmed entertainment. Now it’s not even on the list. […] Back in the day when Anne Richards was governor, she really turned the state around and got things going in a very aggressive, progressive way with the film and television industry.” Texas House Bill 873/Senate Bill 605 was signed in April, approving incentives for the film industry, but the terms weren’t quite as tenacious as Haden Church had hoped for. “The conservative majority claimed a victory – we were asking for a very large incentive program: it’s own stimulus package for more networks, studios, and independent productions. Unfortunately, they fell back to the same plan as in years past.” When asked what makes him angry, he responds simply, “I don’t really get angry. I just wish that Texas was more competitive.”
Increased film production activity in Texas would make commuting to work a much easier task. His ranch is fairly isolated, but he’s happy with home. “It’s a cool thing, but not for everyone. My nearest neighbor is 5 miles away.” That’s a long way to go to borrow a cup of sugar. He knowingly reports some comparative math for the readers of Moves: Manhattan covers about 14,520 acres. Haden Church oversees 28,000 acres, where the cattle roam freely. “New Yorkers think of things in terms of blocks, how long it takes to get someplace on the subway, on the bus. In Texas, I drive a diesel truck everywhere I go, whether it’s 1 mile or 100 miles.”
So how did this Texan end up in the film business? It wasn’t a snap process. While in high school and college, he worked at local radio stations. “I had a high school English teacher whose husband was a weekend disc jockey at a country western station. I had this resonant basso voice and she told me to submit a resume and see if I got a job. I did. I think because I was very, very cheap high school labor…” Radio days segued into voiceover gigs in the 90s, and after an L.A. casting director came to town to give a seminar, he scored a role in a very small indie film. “I was sleeping on a buddy’s couch in Long Beach for the first months that I was in L.A. I got an agent from this little movie… there wasn’t even a year to [a guest role on] Cheers, then to Wings, and it all kind of rolled out from there.” Constantly trying new angles of the entertainment biz, he wrote and directed Rolling Kansas, which appeared at Sundance in 2003 and gained him more exposure.
“Then,” he says succinctly, “a little script called Sideways came to the ranch.”
“Director Alexander Payne had just come off About Schmidt, and in spite of the legendary folklore of the actors that were chasing that movie – Clooney, Pitt – he wanted to be back working with actors that were largely unknown.” After the amazing success of Sideways, which won the Oscar for Best Writing/Adapted Screenplay, and secured Haden Church a nomination for Supporting Actor, came Sam Raimi’s invitation to play the roll of Sandman in Spiderman 3. Haden Church didn’t know much of the Spiderman franchise, but he was a big fan of the talent on set. “Raimi had just finished Simple Plan, which I love, and I thought Toby was a terrific young actor. I wanted to be in that movie because of them.”
It wasn’t the first time that he chose to do a movie because of admiration for the parties involved. “I have volumes of fondness for many, many, many different individuals both in front and behind the camera.” He sites one film as being particularly memorable: 1998’s Free Money, starring Haden Church, Marlon Brando, and Charlie Sheen. “There was a terrific ensemble of characters in the movie. Marlon and Charlie and I were the leads. It’s an interesting movie, very heavily influenced by a French filmmaker’s aesthetic.” But the role in Free Money came along at the same time he was offered a role in Saving Private Ryan. He had to make a decision. His manager at the time had a hard time with his choice. “He said, ‘This is being directed by arguably the best filmmaker of the era. Why do you want to do a few scenes with Marlon Brando in a film that nobody’s ever going to see?’ And I said, ‘Because he invented film acting, and I’m never gonna get an opportunity like this again.’”
Haden Church can list a retinue of actors with whom he has had the honor of working. “I’ve admired Martin Sheen for 35 years, since Badlands, and Apocalypse Now. I remember seeing it when I was a freshman in college, at an art house theatre in Dallas, and I was just mesmerized. Those were the moments that made me want to be a film actor.” But his memories of being on the set of Free Money with the great Brando seem to reverberate in his memory, even over 10 years later. “Just to sit there and talk with Marlon, and have lunch with him – If there was ever any conflict in my mind about a scene, he’d tell me to come to his trailer.” Brando was willing to proffer advice, deconstructing scenes and working through character motivations. “I’d go in and he would be lying down, just resting his eyes, and he’d just want you to sit next to him and talk to him. He never opened his eyes, but he talked for 30 to 45 minutes.” That’s not the type of recollection that fades, particularly for someone so dedicated to his craft. “I can always talk about that, and the things he imparted to me as a young actor because… because… because he was him, and I had a chance to be in a space and time with him…”
An accomplished actor with a wide variety of films on his filmography, he states simply: “There are many masters in my heart, and they each serve their own.” And the masters of his heart don’t always have to do with film. He’s racked up an impressive list of personal accomplishments and no regrets. “I have done most of the things that I’ve set out to do. I’ve never had the desire to climb Kilimanjaro, to – I don’t know,” he casts about for another unimaginable feat, but turns instead to list what he has done. “I’ve jumped out of airplanes, flown with the Blue Angels, gone to bull riding school, learned street ball in L.A. You find little ways that you challenge yourself.” This is the man who quit smoking the old fashioned way – he just stopped buying cigarettes. He faced his tremendous fear of heights with a skydiving venture, and kicked his fear of needles by donating blood every 60 days for months. That’s a relentless, but effective way to kick a fear. “I have a pretty good sense of self-discipline. This is something that I sort of think, honestly, I’m good at. I can do.”
So what does this intuitive actor, daredevil, and rancher, nestled deep in the bright red state of Texas, have to say about Obama’s first few months in office? “I think that he’s doing the best he can under the circumstances. I’m not making that a comparison to what George Bush said,” he refers to Bush’s infamous comments made after relinquishing the Presidential office to Number 44. “He’s had to deal – every President does – deal with an undulating global socio-political, socio-economic massive ocean. Moment to moment, you know that something significant is happening somewhere, sometimes to the pejorative and sometimes to the hopeful and the life-affirming. I think he’s handling himself well.”
He continues, with an impressive understanding of world affairs and Obama’s significant daily concerns. “Lord knows he has challenges in front of him here, and then there’s Iran. It’s unbelievable because that problem is so face forward. With the genocide in Darfur, and the deep suffering in third world nations, they don’t have an economic political agenda that we can attach to an American political agenda. Whereas Iran is a country right next to Israel and Afghanistan, countries that we’re very, very involved in, with oil production, of course, and with what they are and are not doing in terms of uranium enrichment. Even if everything was awesome in America in terms of economics, that challenge is significant and daunting. Juggling that and North Korea, with China as our major ally… all of this… The ripplings of the world always hit the shores of America.”
It seems Haden Church doesn’t just traverse the entertainment scene and the cattle ranch. He articulately navigates the political concerns of the world, as well. When asked how he became so eloquent, he humbly defers to growing up as the child of two educators with 5 brothers and sisters. “I grew up in an academically challenging environment… I must have picked things up by osmosis. It’s funny you should say that – I feel like I clumsily wend my way through sentences….” There’s that dichotomy again – Movie Star credit with down-home modesty. This one’s a rare breed.