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Driving Sideways

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As part of Back Stage West's ongoing "An Evening With…" series, the cast of Sideways joined readers for a conversation following a screening of the film Nov. 16. The Fox Searchlight film is the fourth feature from Alexander Payne, director and co-writer (with Jim Taylor) of Citizen Ruth, Election, and About Schmidt. Cast members Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, and Sandra Oh spoke to a packed audience about their experiences working on the film, which has already generated strong awards buzz.

The tale of two middle-aged men—failed novelist Miles (Giamatti) and struggling actor Jack (Church)—as they spend a week in Santa Barbara Wine Country before Jack's impending marriage, Sideways is a bittersweet road trip full of crackling dialogue that celebrates the seemingly ordinary lives of several individuals. Giamatti, an acclaimed character actor, claimed he was shocked when Payne offered him the showcase role of Miles. Asked why, he responded, "Well, because I'm me." The modest actor then said the full impact of playing the lead in an Alexander Payne movie didn't sink in until almost halfway through the shoot.

Church, best known for his work on the television series Wings, had to beat stiff competition from the likes of George Clooney and Brad Pitt to win the coveted role of selfish cad Jack. Having previously auditioned for Election and very nearly earning the role that eventually went to Dermot Mulroney in About Schmidt, the actor was living on his ranch in Texas when he was called in to audition. "When I met with [Payne], I walked out and said, 'I have no chance in hell of getting this, but it's cool you flew me here from Texas,'" recalled Church. After casting Giamatti, Payne put him in contact with Church so the two could begin building the close rapport they share in the film. "Alexander gave Tom my phone number, and Tom gave me a call," Giamatti revealed. "Three-and-a-half hours later, I emerged a new man."

Madsen, who is nothing short of a revelation here after 20 years of making movies, plays a lonely waitress who falls for Miles, and she said she was equally grateful to be thought of for the role. She said she was unusually calm when she met Payne. "I was strangely relaxed, which I guess worked for me," she observed. And Oh, who is married to Payne, steals scenes as a single mother who falls for Jack, unaware of his pending nuptials. "It was a joy to work with him," she said of the director.

The four actors spoke of a fun and lighthearted shoot, and at times they poked fun at one another during the course of the panel. When Church began teasing Giamatti about falling in love with his "big, wet, brown eyes," all four were reduced to laughter. "It was like this on set all the time," Oh warned the audience. "Alexander would get aggravated at us at times, we were laughing so hard."

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