Interview : Thomas Haden Church


Plays The Sandman in “Spider-Man 3”

Its hard to believe that just a few short years ago Thomas Haden Church was starring in direct-to-dvd sequels (“George of the Jungle 2”) and pretty much living from paycheque to paycheque. Now, he’s ‘Academy Award Nominee’ Thomas Haden Church (thanks to an amazing performance in “Sideways”) and an actor who can demand a significant amount of money per film. His latest release is the blockbuster “Spider-Man 3”.

Should we assume that you spent a lot of time in front of the computers where they were taking pictures of your body and all of that kind of stuff to get ready for the sand FX and turning into the Sandman?
Church: Yeah, the preproduction aspect of it was lengthy and all of the body scans and motion capture and all the various technological processes.

Was it interesting at all, or was it all pretty boring to go through?
Church: No. I found it very interesting. I’m not a tech head, but the whole phenomena of what they do is cool and I got to be pretty close with Scott Stokdyk who I had actually met at The Academy Awards in 2005. Scott’s a really sweet guy and he was so generous in sharing information and letting me know how they build the creatures, but a lot of it, like they like to say, is inspired by me because the three big sequences, the birth of Sandman – for my character, I don’t want to seem self aggrandizing – and then whenever he manifests himself out of the truck and then of course at the end of the movie. It was kind of this video-tracking, camera test process where many, many times they would have multiple camera sets and I would act it out because it’s all so muted and bestial. It became, to some extent, the bane of my daily life when I was shooting because you would hear crackling over the walkie, ‘Sam wants to meet with Thomas at lunch to shoot some more video of the birth of Sandman.’ We really did a lot of it. There were very specific emotional beats that we wanted that they were going to layer upon. Particularly in the birth of the Sandman, without the advantage of eyes and real human facial expression you still wanted to convey the tragedy and not just leave it up to things like when he grabs the clasp and it breaks apart in his hand and then he kind of re-manifests himself. It could just be that. It had to be everything that was happening and how he would breathe as he’s re-ionizing the evolution of the beast.

With all of the CGI and the FX there wasn’t a whole lot of dialogue for your character. How did you go about building your character?
Church: It was very challenging. It was the most challenging thing. The birth of Sandman was by far the most challenging dramatic thing that I did in the movie because we did it so much and it’s setup by the terror of being ripped apart. It also happens to involve by far the most dangerous stunts in the movie which I did myself. The insurance company would only allow me to do them one time and we literally rehearsed it for six hours before we shot it. It was when the de-ionizer or however you want to describe it – I always called it a kind of molecular accelerator. I decided to have my own scientific terminology. But that thing was built off of this Bell helicopter turbo engine and when it got up to full rev, the guys were like, ‘Look, if you get hit it’s like getting hit by a car at eighty miles an hour.’ So that’s why we rehearsed it as long as we did. I was on a tether, but the way that Sam wanted to do it, and you’ve seen it, is that where the camera was and you see the light bars going by and I had to run straight at those light bars and then get yanked back. Like I said, the insurance company – believe me there was a phalanx of representatives there that today – would only allow me to do it one time. I wanted to do it again, but it’s the one that’s in the movie. The intensity and quite frankly the fear is really there. You’re right though, because it was so muted and because you don’t have any vocalization of the character you kind of just have to rely on how your body conveys the tragedy and your face to some extent, but not really in the birth of the character, and then the same thing when I come out of the trick. There is this ferocity that I’m really glad we were able to capture in melding the CG with how I acted it out in the video tracking. I thought it came through very well. I wanted to have that mix of anger and innocence. I’m just trying to get away from them and then whenever I come up they start shooting me and then I kind of get upset.

Did you see your characters, the Sandman and Flint Marko, as totally different entities?
Church: No. They’re absolutely, intrinsically woven together really just the core of who Flint Marko is. When we first started this process, they asked me to do this movie in January ’05 and we immediately started having story conferences. I live in Texas full time and so a lot of it was on the phone, but any time that I came to L.A. for prep stuff Sam [Raimi] and I would get together and Alvin [Sargent] and Ivan [Raimi], Laura [Ziskin], we’d all get together and talk about the character and it was always about Flint Marko. It was about the man because it was very important to myself and to Sam that we know who the man was and what his propulsion through the movie was sustained by. Sandman, like Frankenstein, is just the darker monstrosity and malevolence that he can’t control, not unlike the black suit that Spider-Man can’t control and ultimately Venom, Eddie Brock, can’t control. So, while Venom and Sandman don’t have a direct connection they’re mutually exclusive. They kind of suffer from the same problem as does Spider-Man with the black suit.

Any possibility that Sandman will return in Spidey 4? Has there been any talk of that?
Church: No. They were asking me in Japan if it was a calculated move, how he leaves the movie and it wasn’t. We re-shot the end of the movie. Tobey [Maguire] and I, we shot four versions of it and to some extent it was about what was happening between Flint and Peter, but it was also about how does he leave the movie in a satisfying way and ultimately the most satisfying way was the most mysterious way. He just disintegrates and goes away, and maybe it’s sacrificial and he’s returning to the earth. Maybe he’s only going to be with his daughter and will not continue in his criminal activities. It’s open to interpretation and that’s what we wanted. Whatever life experience that people come into the movie with is largely going to determine how they think about Sandman’s exit from the movie.

Why was the decision made to re-shoot the movie?
Church: We did it once in L.A. and then again in New York and then we came back and did it twice in January and in February. It was just little adjustments, but we just couldn’t quite find the emotional combination and I think that we did.

So will we see the DVD advertised with four alternate endings?
Church: No. No, you’ll never see that. You’ll never see it because it takes away from the movie. We wouldn’t have kept redoing it if it wasn’t getting better and wasn’t becoming what we thought was a fulfilling closure to the story. No, the others were inferior. So you will never see them.

With all the critical success that you got for Sideways, did you worry at all about just sort of growling in this film as a follow up to a great performance?
Church: Two names – Sam Raimi, Tobey Maguire. They are genetically incapable of delivering anything that isn’t superlative in the business. It has to be good. I knew that it was going to be a compelling and dramatic story because Sam refuses to do anything less, and you go all the way back, I’m not a huge fan of Evil Dead, but I think that the character’s stories in Evil Dead II are very compelling. Then you move onto Army of Darkness and particularly Dark Man and then really one of my favorite movies, Simple Plan, which is a very intimate character study really – I mean it has it’s psychological thriller kind of aspect to it – and I knew that between Sam’s filmmaking history and what a thoughtful performer that I think Tobey is that this was going to be good. Sam introduced Tobey the other night at the Tokyo premiere as perhaps the finest actor of his generation and I concur. If you look at Ride With the Devil which I think is a great film and he’s terrific in it and then you look at Deconstructing Harry and he’s hysterical in it – he just has such amazing range as a performer. I think that they picked the perfect guy for these movies, and then having worked with Tobey over the last two years he really is profoundly determined to find a character that the audience understands and what’s to take a journey with. From the onset to the end they’re going to be happy and thrilled and saddened, but ultimately rewarded. So it’s the two of them really that made me want to do it. That was the fire down below for me.

Like Doc Ock in the second movie, you’re a villain with sympathy rather than a villain who’s hated by the audience. What’s the difference there you think, you having the sympathy and Topher Grace’s villain not having that sympathy?
Church: I actually disagree with that. I think that Topher’s character is ultimately a very tragic character because when he hurls himself back just before the explosion I loved the way that he did that. It just gave me goose bumps. Topher just manages to capture in that one kind of flash of performance that this guy has nothing else. He’s only existed in the movie by superficiality and duplicity and then of course embraces the black suit and turns into Venom, but whenever he’s torn apart that’s all he has. He has no other choice, but to really commit himself suicidally because he just has nothing else. He has no other path. I find that to be resolute in its tragedy with its character. I think that my character certainly starts off in a place emotionally which addresses the worst fear of any parent, the possibility that you’ll lose your greatest gift which is your child. I’m a father and Sam is a father and Laura and Alvin are parents, Avi is a parent, everyone involved – early on that’s what we wanted the anchoring of the character to be. It was that kind of impending tragedy with the character. You’re right though, he’s sympathetic and certainly some clicks beyond Eddie Brock and Venom, but I think that as Avi has said before there are no bad guys in these movies. They’re just people that this far into the series, I think, come into these movies with a value system intact that’s corrupted by ambition or lust. In the case of Sandman he’s really corrupted by the ferocity of his own good intentions. You’ve got to pretty much figure that whenever I become a sand tornado and I’m spinning through the streets of Manhattan and flipping over cars some people probably got fucked up. That’s probably a drag and they don’t care if my daughter is dying because their car got turned upside down, their Hyundai Excel. They don’t even see the hidden benefit that insurance pays and they get another car…

Not if they’re dead.
Church: True, in which case their family collects death benefits, huh? (Laughs) They go party in Cabo. ‘Damn! I am all about Sandman, ya’ll!’

How much did you workout because you looked pretty ripped in the film and you’ve still got some of that going on?
Church: By the end of shooting I clocked in right at two years. We started out pretty intensively for nine months before I started shooting and I just stuck with it because I had to maintain that appearance, but it was pretty intensive.

Personal trainer?
Church: I had guys in L.A., guys in Texas. When I went to do Broken Trail in Canada I had two guys there and a school hall monitor that came up to check and make sure I was doing what I was supposed to be doing. The guys who trained me in L.A. were the guys who trained Brad Pitt for Troy, these guys Duffy and Mike. Duffy would come in and check on me in Calgary and make sure that I was behaving. It was really about strength training and diet. I never did any cardio because as any fitness expert will tell you, cardio is the enemy of muscle and they just wanted me to get bigger and I did. I gained twenty eight pounds of muscle and dropped ten points of body fat which for a dude in his forties was no bake sale, let me tell you. You’re talking like, ‘Ah! (grunting) I could’ve done a Robin Williams movie.’ (Laughs) Which is true, by the way. I was offered RV at the same time I was offered Spider-Man.

You have one good dramatic scene at the beginning of the film with Theresa Russell. It established the whole dramatic arch for your character. Can you talk a bit about working with her and also kind of setting that tone with your character?
Church: Unfortunately, Theresa [Russell] and Perla [Haney-Jardine] did have some other stuff in the movie and ultimately, I think when they were testing the movie it became just too tragic. It started, I think, to imbalance the other stories which is a little bit of a drag because Theresa was terrific and Perla was terrific, but I think that as I said they felt like the early emotional anchoring is there and maybe it was better that it becomes kind of nebulous after that. Theresa was so dedicated. In the summer of ’05 I read with a lot of actresses to play her mother and then a lot of actresses to play my daughter and I mean, every great young actress, Dakota Fanning’s sister and Abigail Breslin came in to read to play my daughter –Perla captured this quality and Theresa captured this quality that was kind of at once tragic, but hopeful. I think that they really felt like less was more. You just needed a little bit of that to set the stage and then you turn the ferocity of Flint Marko and Sandman loose.

You almost expected like a hospital bed scene somewhere in there too.
Church: No, we never had anything like that in there. I’m also thankful that we did not. I think that it did what they needed it to do. I’m not really objective enough to know otherwise. In my mind I can really describe the scenes, and there were a few scenes that I was surprised to see were taken out. The movie is long and I’ve directed a movie, and in fact I’m writing a western film right now for Sony, and I just know how it goes. Sometimes you have to just cut them loose as painful as it might be. Like I said, Sam and I talked about it and actually he said as much to me yesterday. He said, ‘I loved that scene, but I feel like we kind of established that emotionally already and I really didn’t think that it was necessary.’ I also think that Sam is on his way to being, if not already, being a legendary director and I just defer to him always.

What’s the western that you’re writing right now?
Church: Oh, it’s a movie called Last Horseman that I’m writing for Sony and for AMC.

Is it an adaptation?
Church: No, it’s an original. Well, kind of, it’s based on a short story that I wrote when I was in college. After the success of Broken Trail, and in that scenario AMC was the lead partner and Sony kind of came in as the production partner, but this time it’s reversed. Sony is kind of the lead and AMC came in as a production partner. So I’m not sure if it’s going to be a feature or a mini-series, but it’s based on a short story that I wrote when I was in school and it’s a very compelling story. It’s based on a real guy in the old west. It was a guy who was born into slavery and became this master horse breaker and then this really horrific racial violence was perpetrated upon him and was driven into this kind of notorious fugitive life. So it’s a really compelling story about an African American in the old west. I mean, the story spans from the Civil War to 1901.

Will you act in it?
Church: We haven’t shot it yet. We’re going to shoot it in the fall in Alberta and I’m producing it, but I don’t think that I’m going to be in it. I don’t know, maybe.

What’s the character’s name?
Church: His alias was Isom Dart, but he was born Ned Huddleston. He’s a real guy though and a very tragic character.

Do you have anything else going on or coming out?
Church: There’s this movie Smart People that’s going to be out in the fall with Dennis Quaid and Sarah Jessica Parker.

What do you do in that?
Church: I play Dennis Quaid’s brother. It’s produced by Michael London and it’s tonally similar to Sideways. I think that it’s a balance of drama and comedy. There is an amazing young actress named Ellen Page in it who you might be familiar with. She’s from Hard Candy and X-Men 3. She’s got a ton of movies coming out. She’s kind of taking the industry by storm which is weird because she’s like 4’11” and probably weights 95lbs, but she’s just preternaturally gifted like Leonardo DiCaprio was in This Boy’s Life, just a force, a force to be reckoned with.