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Wingless Flight

Here's Paul Giamatti's take on his Sideways co-star, Thomas Haden Church: "He's a very … have you talked to him?" Giamatti pauses to laugh. "It's all out there with Tom. He's not hiding anything, that guy. It's all right there. He's an incredibly open guy." Sideways director Alexander Payne puts it more bluntly, quipping, "I always liked him because he's, you know, nuts." Tell Church that he has a bit of a reputation preceding him, and he takes it in stride. "Hopefully they think I'm crazy in a positive, constructive way," he says, mulling these remarks over. "I probably say things that most people are too politic to say."

It's easy to see why people might find Church a little off-kilter. After all, he's calling from one of his ranches, located three hours west of Austin, Texas, where he personally works 10,000 acres of land and handles 400 head of cattle. He sold his house in L.A. in 2001 to live full-time on his ranch, more or less willing to kiss his acting career goodbye. This was after six years as mechanic Lowell on the sitcom Wings, two seasons on the underrated Ned and Stacey, and several film credits, including George of the Jungle and Tombstone. Also notable are the movies he didn't get: he had close calls on Ace Ventura, Saving Private Ryan, and Quiz Show. "At some point, you just kind of have to embrace where you are," he explains. "In 2001, I did a couple of small parts in movies that were wholly unfulfilling and went straight to cable. In 2002, all I did was a straight-to-video sequel that I was contractually obligated to do. It was diminishing returns for me. I had financial security; I was happy living in Texas. Not to wax too sentimental about it, but there is a part of me that had kind of waved goodbye to acting. Then I read Sideways."

Written by Payne and Jim Taylor, the team behind Election and About Schmidt, Sideways tells the story of two middle-aged men who spend a week bonding in Santa Barbara wine country. Miles (Paul Giamatti) is a failed writer and recent divorcé who finds himself babysitting his soon-to-be married friend Jack (Church), a washed-up soap star determined to enjoy a final fling before his wedding. By turns touching and poignant, it's also one of the funniest films of the year, thanks in no small part to the chemistry between the two bickering actors. "We all hit it off rather beautifully," enthuses Church of the ensemble, which includes Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh. "It's a good role."

Such a good role that Church was sure he wouldn't get it. He had auditioned for Payne before: for the lead in Election and the Dermot Mulroney role in Schmidt—a role he came "unbelievably" close to getting. "Alexander contacted me several months later while I was scouting for a movie I directed in Nebraska," Church recalls. "He contacted me through the Nebraska Film Commissioner and explained to me that I would never know how narrowly I missed being in Schmidt and swore to me, on a hot summer day in 2001, that our paths would cross again." Church was at the top of Payne's list when casting began for Sideways, but the actor was fairly certain the role would go to someone else. "When I was walking out of the audition, I said to Alexander, 'I have no chance in hell of getting this, but thanks for spending some time with me.' And he just laughed," says Church. "And then we didn't hear anything for a couple weeks, and my guy at ICM called me and said, 'Not only are you still in the mix but you're the guy to beat.' I said, 'You're so full of shit. There is no way I'm the guy to beat.'"

Church can be forgiven for his aloofness—after all, it was well-known that both George Clooney and Brad Pitt were just a couple of the A-list stars hotly pursuing the role. A month later, Church got the call to return to L.A. for an intensive work session, where he was given 45-50 pages of material. "I was so sure I had ruined it entirely," he says. "Because you know whatever you did the first time that put you on the top of that list, you're not going to recapture it. And you dread having to not only recapture it, but to top it." When his agent told him his stock had gone even higher, Church's reply was still low-key. He recalls, "I said, 'Whatever, dude. I've been to the dance, and I have a healthy measure of cynicism about all this.' " The role is rumored to have come down to Church and Matt Dillon, but about two weeks later, Payne made his decision and called the actor. "We chatted for a minute, then he says, 'Remember that movie you came out to meet with me on? Would you do me the honor of playing that role?'"

On the Spot

The Sideways shoot was, by all accounts, a joy for everyone involved. Church was particularly thrilled that he was allowed the freedom to improvise off the script. One of the movie's most memorable moments—Jack's catlike meow in an attempt to be sexy—was an off-the-cuff addition. "I told Alexander I would never do this unless I have your blessing," he says, adding that the director not only approved, but encouraged it.

Church is quick to point out he's been a writer longer than an actor, and improv is something he feels comfortable with. When he first met with Fox TV about doing Ned and Stacey, one of his conditions was that he be allowed some freedom with the dialogue. "I said that I'd been frustrated on Wings because, while they'll occasionally embrace improvisation and ad-libbing, you have to so completely make your case that it would damn near stand up [in the] Supreme Court. Just to get something in that you come up with," says Church. "It was frustrating, and I wanted to have the freedom to work off-page if I thought it was appropriate and organic to the scene. So my deal on Ned and Stacey for two years was: I would always give them what was on the page for one or two takes, and then I would have one or two takes to give them what I wanted. It's something I think I'm good at."

Church has also tried his hand at directing—his film Rolling Kansas played the Sundance Film Festival and is now available on DVD—and he is hoping to direct another feature in the near future. Because of his experience in writing, directing, producing, and starring in that film, he says he has nothing but respect and admiration for his directors. "Directing is the hardest job I've ever had, and I used to pick up dead animals for the highway department," he notes. "I've been a cowboy, a roustabout, I've worked in the oil field, I've done every conceivable hard job, and yet directing is the most physically, mentally, and emotionally taxing thing I've done."

Role Play

One might think Church grew bitter in the years he was out of the spotlight, but the actor reflects on his many achievements. "I'm very happy with the way things have played out," he says. "There have been many, many near misses. But aside of that, I created what I think are wonderful TV characters with Lowell and Ned. I did George of the Jungle, which I'm proud of; my nieces and nephews love that movie. I got to be in Tombstone. I got to work with Marlon Brando. I've had the opportunity to direct something that I wrote. So I've had a really nice 15 years."

Now that he's back on the Hollywood radar, is he planning on sticking around awhile? "Ohhhhh…." he sighs, long and hard. "Yeah. I just [have] got to find a cool thing to do. I've gotten a number of offers since the Toronto Film Festival, but they're all crappy." Church has taken small roles in James L. Brooks' upcoming Spanglish and the new Mike Judge film, 3001, but is being extremely picky. "I do think if you follow a great film with crap, you kind of sully it a little," he says. "I want to really be careful."

His loyalty to Sideways is understandable, considering he told Payne that the director "saved his life" in terms of acting. "He said to me, 'Here's how I look at it. When you came in, I knew that you weren't really acting much. Sometimes a guy comes in, and you were just so perfect, there was a part of me that didn't want you to say goodbye to acting. I really believe you still have something to contribute,'" Church recalls. "You know, I may never surpass Sideways, and that would be OK." BSW

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