Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them about.
The actor: Thomas Haden Church is one of those actors who seems to have had at least nine career lives. After becoming a familiar face on sitcoms like Wings and Ned And Stacey, he took a powder for a while, moving to a ranch in Texas. Then director Alexander Payne pulled him out of retirement in 2004 to star in his film Sideways, which rejuvenated his career once again. Since then he’s been a familiar face in movies from Spider-Man 3 to Easy A to Daddy’s Home. His voice is familiar too, as he’s done a lot of voice-over work, including (just like his Sideways character) a lot of commercials. He recently wrapped up his latest TV series, HBO’s Divorce, and his well-received new movie The Peanut Butter Falcon won the audience award at South By Southwest.
The A.V. Club previously spoke with Haden Church for Random Roles in 2008, so if you’re looking for his thoughts on Sideways and Spider-Man 3, check that out. Fortunately, there are plenty more parts he’s taken on since then (and some we didn’t get to before), so he sat down with us for a rare Random Roles part two.
Divorce (2016-2019)—“Robert Dufresne”
The A.V. Club: Divorce just aired its final episode on HBO after three seasons with three different showrunners. What was that like for you?
Thomas Haden Church: After [season-one showrunner] Paul [Simms] and [co-creator] Sharon [Horgan] were gone, with Jenny Bicks, the show was in its second season. She has a way of doing business that was different. And it’s not a criticism of Jenny. She just was somebody that’s like, everybody goes off and writes. On those episodes, the writers would be on set, and then everybody else was typically not there. All the other writers were off rewriting—including Jenny. She just was that kind of a showrunner. Like, more hands-off than Paul and Sharon had been, and definitely more hands-off than Liz Tuccillo.
It’s just a different style. I got along with Jenny, and I think we did some good shows that season. But Liz is way more collaborative in the sense that Liz is literally there every minute of every day that there’s a camera rolling. I’ve known Liz for a very long time and have always liked her, and [think she’s a] really smart writer and a good producer.
AVC: It wrapped up really nicely. Although it definitely wound up in a very different place from where it began in season one.
THC: It’s funny because the first season was exactly what we wanted to do. Unfortunately, it was not what the audience wanted us to do, and HBO has to respond to the consumer, to the audience. So there was, as you noted, a tonal shift to the second season, and this year is just really a continuation of that. It’s like, “Let’s make [Sarah Jessica Parker’s character] Frances more likable, let’s make the stories more hopeful…” I want to be on a show that succeeds, but I want it to be on a show that’s true to the marrow that was its origin. And I think to some extent we succeeded.
I really love the dark, and that there was always this thought that everything was going to collapse on top of Robert specifically. I think I was a little holding back how [the show] needed to evolve, and that’s my ego of what I really wanted to do with a TV series after being out of series television for 20 years. I was like, “I’ve got a new mousetrap here, and it’s going to catch mice like you guys have never seen before,” and SJ was totally on board with it. I felt everybody was onboard.
But after we finished shooting—it was like eight months later, I believe—and it had been tested and tested and tested, we even had to reshoot a few things that the test audiences were like, “What?” Or just thought it was just too ugly to watch. You do that on movies, but I wasn’t familiar with doing it on TV. But that was like, “Okay, this may not be everybody’s favorite stout lager. Maybe they’re not up for this. They’re up for a light chardonnay.” And when the critic reviews came in and the audience was just like, “Eh. Yeah, it wasn’t what we thought it was going to be at all.” That’s also largely because of SJ’s branding. Nobody really saw that coming, however many years after Sex And The City went off the air. Nobody thought that the audience was going to be that resistant to seeing her in this kind of darker, comically at-times-unlikable character.
So really, for the survival of the show, we had to change and just tell much more lighthearted, uplifting stories. And you know what? That’s all right. It’s all right. I did some shows that I really liked, particularly the “Ohio” show, and then this season, we just kind of stayed with that, but we pretty much knew it was going to end. Because of the [six-episode] order, and we knew that the ratings, they just weren’t what HBO had hoped. But those shows that we did, including the very last one, those were exactly the way that I wanted them to be.
Easy A (2010)—“Mr. Griffith”
THC: Now they’re talking of making a sequel. It was an article that of course was sent to me by 25 people. The guy that wrote the script is named Bert Royal. He actually wrote it as a play, and then it was adapted, and then, obviously, the movie was a hit and made Emma Stone a movie star. I think the studio, Screen Gems, they green-lit a sequel, and I think Bert’s going to write and direct it. I don’t think Will Gluck is going to direct again. I think it’s going to be Bert, who is a great guy and really funny.
There was a thing in the article that was like, clearly it’s whenever it ends up—10 years later or whatever—but the original cast, teachers, are welcome to return. There was some remark at the end of the article about that. If they ask me to come back, I would strongly consider it. Mr. Griffith in his late 50s or whatever.
Will was the one that reached out to me because I knew Will from way back in the ’90s when I lived in L.A., and I played a lot of street basketball. And Will and I would play at some of the same courts. And so I just got to know him as a struggling writer-director dude.
And then they sent me the script. I was originally offered the role to play Emma’s dad. Which obviously Stanley Tucci did a brilliant job. That was the role they offered me. And I wasn’t terribly interested in that. I had just done a movie a couple years earlier playing Ellen Page’s uncle [in Smart People], and I just wasn’t ready to get into the dad roles of grown teenagers, for whatever stupid ego-drunk reason. But the teacher role was more interesting to me, and I talked to Will, and I was like, “Yeah, no offense,” about it.
And then the head of the studio, Clint Culpepper, called me, and he was like, “Look, man. We’ve got this young actress that we’re in love with, but nobody knows who she is, and I can’t green-light this movie with just her. I need people that are recognizable around her.” I think the budget was, like, 8 million. And he goes, “None of these young actors are very well-known… It would be a big favor to me.” And who doesn’t want to get a call from a studio head who is asking a favor?
I did like the script. In fact, I loved the script, I just didn’t know if there was enough, you know, in the words of Sam Elliott, enough meat on the bone for a performance. But, I just was like, you know what? It’s a week of my life. It’s working with this actress who I do think is very promising, and I knew Will had liked her, and I thought the script was smart, and quite frankly, the business side of it made a whole lot of sense. So I went and did it, and it was a great experience. And then the movie was a hit, and that’s always fun.
I always try to build a complete character, but sometimes when you’re in a smaller role, like in Easy A—there was a bigger, what I thought was a crucial scene, that was just between Emma and I that got cut. And I was very disappointed, but ultimately, I kind of recognized that the scene wasn’t absolutely necessary in her journey. Again, that’s ego. Because his marriage is falling apart, and he’s sort of talking about her, but really talking about him. And look, the movie is about her.
So it was just one of those things that they’re like, “This isn’t necessary in telling her story.” And it got cut. It stung when I first saw it because it was really the scene I did the movie for. But, you know, ultimately it’s a good movie, and I’m proud to be a part of it.
And kids come up to me all the time. I mean, it’s been nine years now since the picture came out. Kids that watched it now, they’re young adults, they’re like, “Man, I love Easy A and I thought your character was cool.” So, never hurts to show up in something that makes somebody a movie star.
I also passed on playing Ellen Page’s dad in Juno only because I had just literally finished playing her uncle in Smart People. Jason Reitman called me and we talked. I said, “Bro, I just played her uncle. To walk into my very next picture playing her dad, it’s just… the timing is weird.” He’s like, “I get it, I get it.” And J.K. Simmons was wonderful in that performance.
I was watching a thing with Tarantino and the actors from Once Upon A Time…, and Tarantino made a comment: “I guarantee Leo remembers the guy that didn’t get This Boy’s Life, and I guarantee Brad knows the guy that didn’t get Thelma & Louise.” And I definitely know that parts I was up for and didn’t get and who got them. It’s just something that’s in your roll call in your brain.
Daddy’s Home (2015)—“Leo Holt”
THC: That was so much fun. To get to not only riff with Will [Ferrell], but then, they—because those guys—the way those guys work, [writer-director Sean Anders] and [writer John Morris] and all the guys that work with Will, [producer] Chris Henchy and those guys…
There is a script that you are sent, and that is a shooting script. And then they had this whole other alternative-universe script of all the other stuff that they want to try. And for somebody like me that’s improvisational, it’s like, “Here’s the keys to a brand new, vintage Cadillac. Go crazy, bro.”
And working with those guys was a dream. Will and I—it was absolute just rapid-fire going back and forth in the scenes and making shit up. Yes, a lot of it was scripted, but so much of it was changed. By the way, Hannibal Buress was brilliant.
Just to be able to just hurl insults at Mark Wahlberg and make Mark laugh—like I just kept on him in the one scene where I first meet him. And they were like, “Again. Go again. Say something different. Say something different.” And I would just keep going, and I barely knew Mark. I had met him a couple of times. But I’d see the corner of Mark’s mouth start to go, and then that would just make me start busting out, because Mark is so stoic. I mean, if you get that guy to break, you know you’re working hard, but that movie was a lot of fun.
For the longest time, they were like, “Dude. You’ve got to be in the sequel.” And then the studio just went bigger—to flip it to be where those guys’ dads show up, and I was totally cool with it. I mean, if Sean and John want to work with me again, you walk away knowing you had a great experience.
Hellboy (2019)—“Lobster Johnson”
THC: Unfortunately Hellboy completely bombed, which is unfortunate, because I thought it really had a shot to be good, and I thought my role was really cool in it.
I didn’t see it. Somebody came up to me the other day, they were like, “Dude, you were the best part of Hellboy.” I’m like, “I only had two scenes. How can I be the best part of Hellboy?” And then somebody else, a friend of mine who is an agent, he called me or sent me a text or something that was like, he goes, “Dude, I would go see a Lobster Johnson movie.” I’m like, “I don’t think they’re going to be signing me up for that one anytime soon, but thanks.”
John Carter (2012)—“Tal Hajus”
AVC: You had previously done a similar kind of strange-creature action role in John Carter.
THC: Great experience. Even though you don’t know it’s me, nor do you know it’s Willem Dafoe or, Samantha Morton—you don’t know it’s us, but you recognize our voices, at least probably mine and Willem’s. But that was a great experience because of [director-writer] Andrew Stanton, who I not only admired, but he’s involved in some movies that are touchstones of my relationship with my kids. For Andrew, it was his first shot at a live-action thing, and man, the script was just so sprawling and mesmerizing.
I was not familiar with those Princess Of Mars books, and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ writing in the science-fiction genre. So, for me, it was just fascinating, and then it’s like, “Yeah, I want you to play this 8-foot lizard-man.” I’m like, “Oh, shit. This could be cool.” And it was really a great experience.
My daughter, who is about to be 15, she watched it recently. She was like, “I liked it. I thought it was pretty good. Was that movie successful?” And I’m like, “Uh, mmm, you have to talk to people that own Disney stock about that.” I mean, they probably have an opinion.
I was on that movie for a long time. We started shooting in London, and then we finished in January, and we didn’t finish shooting until, like, mid-June in Utah. And we shot in Arizona and Utah and London. On the one hand, it’s not a Jason Bourne movie—where you’re in six different countries—but it was pretty sprawling, that movie. To do all that green-screen CGI stuff in the middle of the desert in 60-mph sandstorms, it was pretty gnarly. But I love Taylor Kitsch, and hope to work with him again, and almost did. I almost did a role in that Waco miniseries last year. And I’d line up Andrew tomorrow.
Don McKay (2009)—“Don McKay”
Whitewash (2013)—“Bruce Landry”
Cardboard Boxer (2016)—“Willie”
THC: The movies that I really enjoyed, you know, performances in some of the smaller movies that I did, like Cardboard Boxer and Don McKay and this French-Canadian film Whitewash that won some awards at Tribeca. Nobody ever saw them, but they’re really some of my favorites. I was the lead, and so I got to build a complete character.
They’re all flawed, because those movies are typically made by first-time writer-directors, and they all three were first-timers. But I just read the script and fell in love. I’ll give you an example, this movie called Don McKay. That movie was offered to me right after Sideways came out. And it was when I was the beneficiary of just a ton of attention and offers and everything. I read Don McKay, and my agent at the time was like, “Oh yeah, and you got offered this little indie, but you’re not going to be able to do it because you’re going to be too busy for the next five years.” And I read it, and I just loved it, said, “Dude, I’ve got to talk to this guy.”
And from then, it took four years to get that movie made, because we needed the right actress that could help us cover the financing, and the number of actors that were interested and came in and out. There were a lot of actresses that were interested in playing Elisabeth Shue’s part, but when Elisabeth read it, it was immediately, like, the chemistries those characters needed. It was just there. It actually may be, beyond Sideways, beyond some of the stuff like Broken Trail, that’s more heralded—Don McKay might be my favorite performance that I’ve ever put together.
Again, I don’t know if that movie completely works. It’s hard, because I was a producer on it, I starred in it. I was involved for years before we got it made. Then it was at Tribeca, and then it got picked up by this small distributor, and they just did nothing with it. It’s pretty dark. It’s a dark comedy. I think there’s some very poignant moments in it. And also, Keith David is in it, who I love, and Pruitt Taylor Vince, and the great, late James Rebhorn we were so stoked to get. We really had a terrific cast. And Melissa Leo. She’s really dark and riveting in it. It’s a pretty good movie, man, I’m proud of that movie.
AVC: Everybody tells you this—your voice is so distinctive. We hear you on commercials a lot. Are you still doing a lot of voice-over work?
THC: It’s kind of had a flat tire for a little while, and I’m not sure why. I haven’t done anything in a few years. You know, I think it’s all cyclical.
AVC: Yeah, it looks like Charlotte’s Web might have been one of your more recent voice appearances for movies, and that was a while ago.
THC: I did a lot of it in the ’90s, and then it went away for a while, and then I did a lot after Sideways and Broken Trail, I got some really nice gigs. You kind of have to parse those [so that] you don’t get overexposed, and that it doesn’t ever encroach upon how exclusive your ego is demanding you’d be in the feature world. It’s why I didn’t do television for 20 years, because I just wanted to do movies.
The voice-over stuff—gosh, I don’t even remember the last thing I did—well, that’s not true. I guess I’ve been doing Frosted Mini-Wheats for the last year. I think they’re either going to hire me again soon, or it’s going to go away.
I don’t ever worry about it because I enjoy doing voice-overs. It goes so far back to literally when I was in high school doing radio and doing local commercials at radio stations in south Texas, and writing copy and producing the commercials myself. That goes back to when I was also, like, 17, 18 years old. So I’ve done it for so long that being in a booth with a microphone, man, and an engineer, it’s just part of my anatomy.
The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019)—“Clint/The Salt Water Redneck”
THC: It won the audience award at South By Southwest. They’re not punching that ticket at the security line. And then it won again at the Nantucket Festival. So, it’s a good movie, man. It’s really solid. I have a pretty small part in it, but it’s an important role, but I really think that it is a career-defining performance for Shia [LaBeouf], and maybe Honey Boy is going to be, you know, the one-two punch this year for Shia. Between him and Dakota [Johnson], who is also wonderful, and then Zack [Gottsagen], you know, the young man who has Down syndrome—they just are beautiful together, the three of them.
I was only on that picture for a week, and it was almost two years ago in Savannah. Maybe it was two weeks. But the three of them together was such a beautiful thing. They just had an energy that was just not something that was performed by any of them. They spent time with Zack before they started shooting, especially Shia. And then Dakota came in I think a couple of weeks before they started shooting. And it was right after Shia had gotten into some trouble in Savannah, and gives credit to Zack for really helping him recognize how bad his path in life was, and how much Zack really helped him heal through the process of finishing the movie. It’s a beautiful film, it is.
I play a retired wrestler. And for Zack—that’s his life’s dream, and I’m like his childhood hero. So at the beginning of the movie, you only see me in these, like, really cheesy, early-’90s VHS videos. And my character is The Salt Water Redneck. Then it jumps forward, toward the end of their search for me, but there’s some very touching moments in that film, and I have a few really beautiful scenes with Zack.
But I have a scene with Shia that I could have easily in life. Had I had children when I was a lot younger, I could have easily had a son Shia’s age. And we have a scene that is really one of the scenes I’m most proud of that I’ve ever done, and it’s just Shia and I, you know, just talking. It’s a really powerful scene in the film. But fingers-crossed, I really want that movie to get the attention I think it deserves.
THC: I have another movie that I did with David Lynch. It’s called The Happy Worker, and I’m not sure what’s going to happen with that movie. We shot it and finished it last fall. It’s just this really, like, genre-bending—you know, everything you expect from David Lynch.
Duwayne Dunham directed it, but David Lynch was executive producer—kind of the overlord. He essentially owned that project for 35 years. It was written as a play in the ’80s, and he saw a performance of the play, and he bought the rights and owned it for thirtysomething years, and was going to direct it, and then he turned over directing.
He was the godfather of the script being adapted, of everybody that was hired. Everybody that was on that movie worked with David Lynch forever. Duwayne was on the editorial staff the first round of Twin Peaks in the early-’90s, worked with David Lynch on different movies, on Blue Velvet. So, David trusted Duwayne, who is a great, great guy and really good director. When the script was sent to me, it was, “David Lynch presents The Happy Worker.” I have high hopes for that movie. It’s really cool.
THC: What’s funny is that my character, Mike [Judge] and I agreed my character was going to be Marlon Brawndo, because the energy drink that all of America is addicted to is Brawndo, and the character was Marlon Brawndo. And then the studio, in the end credit, they didn’t do the credit correctly, but I always thought that was kind of funny. Marlon Brawndo.
I knew Mike. I read repeatedly for Office Space. And it was between me and the actor who got it whose name I can’t remember. But after that, Mike was like, “Dude—I just want to do anything with you.” And he had offered me—it was going to be a recurring character in King Of The Hill, and I had a production deal at Disney, and I couldn’t do anything for Fox. I think that’s what got in the way of that.
But whenever Idiocracy came on, he called me. They were shooting in Austin, and he was like, “Man, would you come over and just do this.” It was a one-day role, and I was like, “Sure.” And I drove to Austin, and I only had a couple of scenes. And I’ve never seen Idiocracy.
AVC: What? Especially now, you’ve got to see it.
THC: I’ve never seen the movie.
AVC: It’s scarily appropriate.
THC: The movie bombed, then became this cult hit on DVD. But since then, Mike had wanted me—we were going to do a movie together that was going to be—did you ever see The Trip with Steve Coogan? He was going to adapt it like The Trip for me and him to do this buddy comedy. And this was only, like, maybe four years ago? And then he got way involved in Silicon Valley, and I got Divorce on HBO, it just sort of fell by the wayside. I don’t know what happened to it, but I love Mike. He actually offered me a role that Chris Diamantopoulos ended up doing. Who is [Haden Church’s Divorce co-star] Becki Newton’s husband. There you go. Mike had wanted me to play the billionaire venture-capitalist guy, and then it just didn’t work out for whatever reason. I’m sure Mike and I will find something to do one of these days again.
But yeah, Idiocracy. That’s hilarious. It really is this cult thing. I get asked about it quite often—I think I’m in the movie for two minutes, if even that.