Capone With Thomas Haden Church About SMART PEOPLE, BOLT, And ALL ABOUT STEVE!!
Published at: April 8, 2008, 8:20 a.m. CST by merrick
Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.
Boy, do I get a kick out of Thomas Haden Church. After kicking around on some memorable and not-so-memorable TV shows and movies, as well as low-budget films for 15 years or so, the guy became an overnight sensation thanks to a little film called SIDEWAYS, for which he received an Oscar nomination. That performance led to a wide variety of roles in such works as the TNT movie BROKEN TRAILS (for which he won an Emmy for Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or Movie) and perhaps his highest-profile performance as Flint Marko (aka Sandman) in SPIDER-MAN 3. These larger parts were supplemented by some fantastic voice work in the animated film OVER THE HEDGE as Dwayne the Verminator, and playing a crow in CHARLOTTE'S WEB. And who could forget his legendary work as the CEO of Brawndo in IDIOCRACY? Not I.
His latest ensemble piece is a terrific little movie called SMART PEOPLE, and for those of you who think Haden Church has yet to top his work in SIDEWAYS, you might think his role as the stoic, borderline-homeless stepbrother to Dennis Quaid is pretty close.
We got a chance to talk recently about the film and its evocative assemblage of characters (played by the likes of Ellen Page in a film she shot just before JUNO, and Sarah Jessica Parker). He's just as jovial and fun to talk to as you might imagine, and there are times when he transitioned into acting downright weird (in a loveable way). We had a chance to really bounce around all parts of his interesting career, but first I had to deliver Thomas a message from my mom.
Capone: I’m usually in Chicago, but today I’m on the East Coast visiting family, and when I told my mother I would be interviewing you, she said, “Well, you tell him your mother loved him in ‘Wings’!” So there, I’ve discharged my filial duties.
Thomas Haden Church: [laughs] You tell her I love her for planting herself in front of the television every Thursday at…well, let’s see, for a while we were on at 9:30, after “Cheers,” then we were moved to 8:30, before “Cheers,” and then, we finally--before I left the show, which was after the ’94-’95 season--we got moved to Tuesday nights at, like, 8:00, up against “Roseanne”! How far back is that in TV history?
Capone: That’s pretty far. I can’t believe you remember all those programming changes.
THC: Oh, yes. Well, when you’re living it, you know, you’re living week to week…and, how are the ratings, and what do are we doing with the 18 to 49 and 18 to 34. You’re just so entrenched in it, you can’t really help it.
Capone: And, then Roseanne crushed you, literally and figuratively.
THC: You know what, she actually did not. By the time that we got moved to Tuesday night, they were fading. Their glory was fading. And, we actually beat “Rosanne,” and I think that’s what hastened their departure from ABC’s schedule. No, I remember that. It was a massive victory for NBC, that they moved “Wings” up against “Roseanne,” and we would beat “Roseanne” regularly.
Capone: Good for them. Alright, let’s talk about SMART PEOPLE for a second. There’s an old saying, I’m sure you’ve heard it: “In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” And, I get the sense that with the family in this movie, that in the kingdom of the book smart, that the street-smart uncle is king. Is that a fair statement?
THC: I would say that’s actually quite applicable to the story. I don’t know if it’s Abraham Lincoln…I was crediting Abraham Lincoln with this, with this nugget of profundity: “Where you’re from informs where you’re going.” They have been living in such, kind of abysmal dysfunction since the mother/wife passed away, and they don’t know how to regenerate themselves. They don’t know how to move forward emotionally--the daughter, even the son, and certainly Dennis’s [Quaid] character.
And then, of course, he romantically happens upon Sarah Jessica’s [Parker] character, and it’s still, you know, it’s like the wheels, the gears and the wheels just can’t get going in a well-oiled way. And, the brother enters into this miasma and it’s just very specific little details here and there. With the son, I mean, it’s a little bit more scant with the son, with Ashton Holmes’s character, and then, obviously, liberally, with Ellen’s [Page] character and with Dennis’s character…but, you know, he’s never…One of my favorite things, she’s, like, “You know,” she says, “you should make your bed in the morning.” And, I say, “Why?” And she says, “It sets the tone for the day.” And, I say, “Well, how do you know what tone I intend to set?”
You know what I mean? It’s, like, little parry and thrusts like that, ’cause then you see… [director] Noam [Murro] then kind of lets the camera just for a moment land on her; she’s so convinced she’s always right, that it’s, like, there’s just the slightest moment of hesitation after I say that to her “Well, how do you know what I intend for my day?”
Capone: You brought up two points I was going to ask you. Your character doesn’t say that much, but everything you say has a logic and a wisdom that confounds everybody. It’s monk-like almost.
THC: And, there’s another little moment--they are kind of sprinkled throughout, particularly with Dennis’s and Ellen’s characters. We’re watching the Mexican soap opera. And, again, she’s so convinced that she’s expert at everything she’s ever put her hand to…and she says, “What about so-and-so?” And, I’m, like, “Well, clearly, he thinks this, and she thinks that.” [referring to characters in the Mexican soap opera] And, at the very end, I just kind of toss on for good measure, “If your Spanish were better, you’d know that.”
You know what I mean? It’s, like, these little zingers that she doesn’t necessarily deserve, but are well placed in a constructive way. Stop being so convinced of your own elitist superiority. And, I know that’s a bit redundant, but you know what I mean. But, she’s so convinced of her superiority to everyone she encounters. And, she just needs to be taken down a notch or two, but in a constructive way. And, he’s not doing that--Dennis’s character is not doing that. There’s just an empty acknowledgment and an empty endorsement of who she is, and what her ambitions are, and what she aspires to be. And, there’s just kind of an empty endorsement on Dennis’s character’s part. It’s just not real, man. He’s not organically connected to his own daughter.
Capone: There’s almost never a comfortable moment between your character and Ellen’s character in particular. Normally, when you talk to an actor about working with another, creating chemistry is a topic of interest. But, you guys have almost done the reverse. How did you keep things awkward between you?
THC: Uhhh, I would say it’s equal parts the way it was scripted, because I think Mark [Poirier] wrote a terrific script--and I’m actually attached to another movie that he wrote called GOATS, which was adapted from a novel that he wrote--but, I would say, it’s equal parts Noam’s interpretation of what Mark wrote. And, then, Ellen and I just trying to sort out…because I disagree with you…I actually think that there are moments when we’re quite comfortable in each other’s presence, when we’re watching the Mexican soap opera…
Capone: That’s true. I didn't mean to imply there were no moments, but those comfortable moments are hard-earned.
THC: Yeah. When we go to take her deceased mother’s clothes to the Salvation Army. There are moments towards the end…and then, at the end of the movie, when she’s, like, “I know you hate me.” And, I’m, like, “I don’t.” And, I just sit down, and we just talk. And, I just very kind of plaintively tell her, “I want to be your friend, you know? I’m sorry if you misunderstood that, but I just want to be your friend. I think you’re cool and smart, and I’d like to have some cool, smart friends.”
Capone: I remember you talking in some of your SPIDER-MAN 3 interviews about this movie, like, last summer, so this has obviously been something that's been worked on for a while.
THC: We shot it right after I finished SPIDER-MAN. I shot it between principal on SPIDER-MAN and reshoots on SPIDER-MAN. So, we finished it a year ago December. We finished it in December of ’06.
Capone: Wow. Okay, so this is before Ellen shot JUNO then?
Capone: I remember you talking about her, and probably, a lot of people at the time didn’t know who she was…
THC: They didn’t. Well, a lot of journalists knew her from HARD CANDY. That was about all they knew.
Capone: I remember seeing her in something called MOUTH TO MOUTH right around the same time as HARD CANDY. You referred to her as “preternaturally gifted,” so obviously, you had a good experience working with her.
Capone: Well since JUNO hadn’t come out yet when you made SMART PEOPLE, I can't ask you whether you and Ellen traded stories about backlash on your big indie hits?
THC: [laughs] No, but I knew Jason Reitman was interested in me to play the father in JUNO, and we were already shooting SMART PEOPLE whenever I got the call about JUNO. And, I had read it, and I knew it was terrific, and then when we started doing SMART PEOPLE, Ellen told me that was her next film. She was going to go into it right away, and I was just, like, “Holy shit. This chick is going to t-e-a-r t-h-i-s m-o-vie to pieces.”
And, then they started putting the cast together: Jennifer Garner; Jason Batemen, who I know; J.K. Simmons, who I never had any scenes with, but I met on SPIDER-MAN. I was just, like…And, then they got Michael Cera, who I think is terrific. I was just, like, Arghh…This is now turning into a movie I really, really want to be in, but, you know, I had just played her uncle, and I didn’t think it was the right thing.
Capone: Yeah. I guess what I was asking in my backhanded way…I guess you know you’ve made it when you’re movie has become so popular that there’s a huge backlash. And, I remember that happening with SIDEWAYS, and it happened with JUNO.
THC: Did it happen with JUNO?
Capone: Yeah, I think, now some people are claiming it annoys them or that the dialogue seems overly scripted. I disagree, but I think it's a mark of how successful and good a film is sometimes--high praise followed by a hateful backlash.
THC: Right, right. We definitely got a taste of that when SIDEWAYS came out.
Capone: When I hear that an actor is cast for a particular role, it’s usually pretty easy to predict how someone’s going to play a part. You’re the exact opposite. I can almost never anticipate something like that when it comes to you. It’s almost inconceivable that, in view of the roles you’ve played over the last four or five years, that the same actor could play all of them.
THC: Well, that’s very flattering.
Capone: Do you try to surprise yourself and, maybe, not repeat yourself?
THC: Umm, I definitely don’t want to repeat myself. I mean, if they ask me to play Sandman in SPIDER-MAN 4, then this conversation will make me a liar, but I’m not interested in repeating myself, and that’s why Michael London, who produced SIDEWAYS, when he sent me SMART PEOPLE and he said, “I really, really would like you to do this movie. Read it. Tell me what you think. I know what you’re probably going to say, but I really want to talk to you before you say ‘No’.”
And, I actually kind of surprised him, because I did not think the character of Chuck in this picture and the character of Jack in SIDEWAYS were similar. And, Michael was relieved to hear that. He was, like, “Oh God, thank God, I really thought you were going to find them too similar.” And, I’m, like, “No, no, no, no…because I could see, without going through it for you and…Have you seen the movie?
Capone: SMART PEOPLE? Oh absolutely, yes.
THC: Okay, good. What jumped out for me were all of the dissimilarities of the characters, and that’s what I keep…’cause Michael was like, [pantomimes anguish] “Arghh”…Some actors look for…What I want is to look and see what I’ve done before in a character, and I want to see what I haven’t done in a character. And, that’s what I really focus on and key on.
With Chuck, I saw a guy who is pretty content, but then, upon closer examination--in fact, I even said this in an interview just a couple of days ago--I said, “I think that Chuck is the guy that Jack might have become, if Jack were more emotionally responsible and emotionally aware of what he’s doing to people,” because I think Chuck is a very humane, concerned, and in terms of emotional diligence to his family, he’s aggressive. He wants to help his brother sort things out, and he pushes him in ways that…it’s, like, I have that one line, “By your presence here at 8:15, I have to assume you did not get laid.” Even though that’s kind of a vulgar physical assessment, I want him to progress. I need him to make that leap, and I know that if a date only lasted an hour, than he clearly did not clear that next hurdle.
And, that’s Mark’s dialog. And, even though it’s, like, “By your presence here at 8:15, I must assume you did not get laid,” it’s a funny line, but it’s also a very acute emotional observation about Dennis’s character. And, that’s why he just scoffs at me and storms out of the room, ’cause he knows I’m right.
Capone: I can see how the two characters might have been played the same in, maybe, different hands. And, I admit, even going into SMART PEOPLE, I thought it might be similar, and, of course, it is in no way similar.
I remember when SIDEWAYS came out, and I read different interviews in which both [director] Alexander Payne and Paul Giamatti commented on you being on the slightly nutty side--in a loving way, in a loving way! Why do you think they would say something like that?
THC: Oh-h-h, I’m pretty ‘stream-of-conscious’ oriented. I’m a ‘stream-of-consciousness’ guy. And, that’s probably some of it, that I love absurd nonsequiters. And, it’s not, you know, it’s not posturing. In my mind, in my brain, thoughts collide, topics and subject matter.
Stuff just collides. It’s not necessarily something I’m proud of, and I don’t mean to sound like I’m bragging, but, Paul and I would be talking about sports, and then, I would immediately shift to Cormac McCarthy’s work, or how ridiculous Paris Hilton is, you know what I mean? Like, Paul and I got into this thing that we wanted to sue Paris Hilton for being in our brain, that nothing about her was meritorious on any level in our lives. And, we wanted to sue her for being in our brains. That was my idea, which Paul was willing to endorse.
Capone: Okay. That would have been a good class-action law suit--with many people involved.
I know that you started out in radio, and I remember talking with [director] Tim Johnson when OVER THE HEDGE was coming out. And, I told him, I said, “It would be a huge mistake to put out a DVD of OVER THE HEDGE without showing extended scenes of both you and Steve Carell recording your voices,” because I would imagine it would have been just as funny to watch that as it was to watch the film. Do you still love that idea of getting behind the mic and doing voices?
THC: [laughs] I did OVER THE HEDGE, and then I did CHARLOTTE’S WEB, and I was involved in another movie--it’s called BOLT now. I was involved in it, but it went through a pretty massive transformation. I was involved in that movie for a couple of years.
It’s a thing that John Travolta’s doing at Disney, and then it went through a major upheaval, the characters all completely changed. And, they asked me if I wanted to stay involved. The character that I played in the original movie was just something I thought that I fit into a little bit better. Even though, I think, it’s still on imdb.com that I’m involved in it, I’m not. I dropped out. Shit, it’s…God, it’s been a year ago now.
Capone: I don’t remember seeing it there, to be honest, so maybe it’s not anymore.
THC: Yeah, it was called AMERICAN DOG, and now it’s called BOLT. I think that somebody, my publicist or somebody, had campaigned with imdb to take it off my resumé for a while now, because I actually left the project. It’s been about a year ago now. But, I do enjoy animation work, and I don’t really do much voice-over stuff anymore. If some of it came into my wheel house, I would enjoy that.
Capone: The Verminator is a terrific screen villain.
THC: It was a fun character. Dwayne La Fontaine, that was a fun character.
Capone: Since I wasn’t able to talk to you when you were doing the big push for SPIDER-MAN 3, I have one question about Sandman. In the comic books, Flint Marko’s hair always baffled me, because I could never really envision what it would look like in real life.
Was [director] Sam Raimi pretty insistent on keeping that Old School look, I mean, not just the hair, but the striped shirt, and the size 27 neck and all that.
THC: Yeah. And, you’ll be glad to know in all the time that I prepared physically for the movie, I actually increased my neck, like, two-and-a-quarter inches for this thing, just from, you know, you do shoulder workouts, and it will build muscle. My shirt size, my collar size physically grew two-and-a-half inches, which is pretty remarkable.
When we were shooting that picture, I wore that stretchy shirt, and I just never had any occasion to have to button up a dress shirt for a long time, and then, when I did, it was, like, Omigod, none of my shirts fit anymore!
But, yes, Sam and Laura Ziskin and [producer] Avi Arad and Alvin Sargent, the screenwriter, they were absolutely militant in maintaining the integrity of the character--how he was drawn, his dialog. The whole characterization was anchored immovably in the early drawings of the character, that real kind of wedged, red, almost startling red, hairstyle. I thought we did a pretty good job of it. You know, you look back at the comic books, like, I have a framed, original copy of the issue when Sandman was introduced.
Capone: Is that No. 4?
THC: Yes, No. 4. I have a framed copy of that. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, how they drew the character, they kind of have this ripple thing going on the flat top, and we worked at it to recreate that as best we could.
Capone: Speaking of being faithful, though, what did you think about the new backstory they gave to the character, because I know for a lot of the Spider-Man faithful it was kind of a sticky subject.
THC: Ehhh, it wasn’t too bad. It wasn’t too bad. There was not a real backlash with the die-hard fans. There wasn’t.
Capone: Coming up, you’ve done a film with Sandra Bullock called ALL ABOUT STEVE. What do you do in that?
THC: I play this veteran CNN reporter, and we all go on an adventure together, kind of like scurrying around the country to major media events.
Capone: Is it a love thing or just two adventuring?
THC: No, there’s really six principal characters. There’s Katy Mixon and D.J. Qualls and Sandy kind of on one side of the movie, and then, Bradley Cooper, Ken Jeong and myself, and we just have intersecting stories. They’re on their mission, and we’re on our mission. And, our stories just periodically intersect. It’s a comedy, but it has poignant moments, a few dramatic moments.
Capone: And, you did something with Eddie Murphy, too?
THC: We finished that in December. It’s called NOWHERELAND. It’s, like, a family comedy, but again, kind of heartwarming. There’s some real sweetness to it. Eddie’s terrific in it.
Capone: Thomas, thank you so much for doing this. This was great.
THC: Alright, dude. Thanks.