Thomas Haden Church’s choice career

Special to The Times

Thomas Haden Church is a man of contradictions.

He’s gamely appeared in a posh hotel dining room to talk about his new movie, “Smart People,” but home on his Texas ranch is clearly where his heart is: His worn long underwear peeks out from a freshly pressed Ralph Lauren button-down shirt, and his jeans are tucked into muddy boots. His refusal to use contractions, eliding pronouns and verbs, would lend his speech an archaic formality if it weren’t studded with curse words.

And while the 47-year-old has the chiseled features and macho demeanor of a leading man, he’s best known for playing quirky characters like the narcissistic friend in 2004’s “Sideways,” which shares some similarities to his new role as Dennis Quaid’s underachieving brother in “Smart People.” Michael London, who produced both movies, explains Church’s oppositions like this: “Tom is the most tortured person I know -- at least who hasn’t turned to heroin or killed himself.”

He certainly takes self-effacing to the extreme. Immediately after offering his roughly callused hand to shake, Church is eager to hear an honest reaction to his latest movie, in which Quaid stars as a widowed and pompous professor trying to come to terms with his ne’er-do-well adopted brother (Church), romantic interest from a former student (Sarah Jessica Parker) and his children (Ellen Page and Ashton Holmes).


“When I saw it by myself, I was like, ‘Well, I guess we did the best we could,’ ” Church says mildly with a shrug, as if describing a failed attempt at making a souffle. “Then I saw it at Sundance and there was such a rollicking reception that I really enjoyed it. But you know, I was hard on ‘Sideways’ too. [Director] Alexander Payne invited me to the editing room and when I watched the movie with him I said, ‘I guess you can re-shoot my part if you have some money.’ ”

IT was that Oscar-nominated performance, playing the egomaniacal friend accompanying Paul Giamatti on an odyssey through wine country, that finally allowed Church to surmount his reputation as a television actor, first as a dim mechanic on “Wings” and then as the star, producer and writer of “Ned and Stacey.” Of the latter, a sitcom that costarred Debra Messing and lasted only two seasons, Church says, “It made me such a megalomaniac that it almost killed me and destroyed half my friendships.”

By the end of 2000, with an expired deal at Disney and ABC, Church retreated to his cattle ranch in Texas, a place he had always felt more comfortable than in his home on Mulholland. “There was this creeping insidious reality that I was desperately searching for any excuse to always be on the ranch,” says Church, who was brought up in Texas and who began working with cattle at the age of 13. “I would be at home in L.A. and suddenly think, ‘Did I forget to feed the cats before I left last time?’ And I would be on the next plane to San Antonio.”

Initially, the solitude suited him. Church had yet to meet his wife, actress Mia Zotolli, with whom he has a 3-year-old daughter. Says London, who counts Church as a good friend: “I think since he lives in his head, he was happier being alone.”

A year after moving to the ranch full-time, Church was clearing a fence line, the only person for at least 30 miles, when he had what he calls “an epiphany, if an epiphany can be sad. I suddenly had this notion that somewhere, right then, Tom Cruise was making a movie. I called my agent and said, ‘I need to refocus.’ ”

Within two months, Church was costarring with Billy Bob Thornton in “The Badge,” which in turn led to finding financing for his directorial debut, 2003’s “Rolling Kansas.” After seeing the film, Payne -- who remembered the actor from auditions for “Election” and “About Schmidt -- called him in to read for “Sideways.”

“I said, ‘You can’t cast that guy,’ ” remembers London. “And then I said something pejorative about washed-up TV actors.” But Church nailed the audition, during which he nonchalantly stripped naked since that’s what the scene called for (he later learned he was the only actor to do so), and scored the part. It was, Church says, “an electro-invigoration of a career.”

It also led to an interesting spectrum of roles: voice-overs in 2006’s “Over the Hedge” and “Charlotte’s Web,” an Emmy-winning role opposite Robert Duvall in AMC’s 2006 western “Broken Trail” and playing the villain Sandman in 2007’s “Spider-Man 3.” But despite lauds from the industry and critics, the role of leading man proved illusive, and Church perhaps didn’t choose as wisely as he might have to further his cause.

“ON one hand, he had this huge range of possibilities that he never had before ‘Sideways,’ but on the other hand, in his mind he had this impossible thing to live up to,” says London. “It’s really hard for him to make choices to begin with. He’s so intelligent, and I think it messes him up all the time. Every choice is life and death to him.”

Ironically, this is one situation Church doesn’t think is all that complicated. “I absolutely gave the leading man thing a shot, and I mean this in the most respectful way, but in features sometimes you have to shake off the manacles of television,” he says.

Church’s calm may represent a new confidence thanks to what will finally be a starring romantic role: He’s signed on to play Kate Hudson’s husband in “Big Eyes,” a biopic about the artist Margaret Keane and her spouse Walter; screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski will make their directorial debut.

After that, Church -- who is also co-writing and producing a western for AMC -- hopes to star in “Goats,” adapted from a novel by “Smart People” screenwriter Mark Poirier.

“He’s got incredible talent, and there’s no question in my mind he’s a leading man,” says “Smart People” director Noam Murro. “He just needs to drink less coffee and he’ll be fine.”

As for Church, he professes that he’s currently as content as he can get. “I am always wondering, ‘Am I doing as much as I can do?’ But then my wife reminds me I run four cattle ranches, a commercial beef operation, and I have an acting career. I think I have made the effort, and it has paid off.”

And then, right on cue, Church checks himself. “I mean,” he adds carefully, “I think I have made the effort. And that effort has paid off . . . to some extent.”