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Thomas Haden Church on Don McKay and His Part in John Carter of Mars: ‘He’s a Badass’

Since 2004's Sideways , in which he played a rakish man-child, Thomas Haden Church, who was at that point toying with the idea of retirement, has been in high demand. His latest performance is the title role in Don McKay, in which he plays a janitor who returns to his small hometown, drawn by a letter from his high-school girlfriend (Elisabeth Shue), from whom he drifted apart 25 years earlier. Vulture caught up with Church recently to talk about the long, slow haul of making an independent film (even in the wake of an Oscar nomination), as well as his role in the much-buzzed-about John Carter of Mars.

Did Don McKay come about as a result of Sideways’ success?
Yes and no. We shot Sideways and then waited pretty much a year for it to come out. You’re still dead to the industry until you’re involved in a sensational film. When it came out, [McKay director] Jake Goldberger loved it. I attached myself to the movie and we started that slow ballroom dance with different actresses and financiers. There were some pretty lofty names that came in and out, but the timing wasn’t right — they couldn’t do it for a year, or they wanted the budget to be bigger.

Part of what makes the movie so unusual is its purposefully vague tone, which is finally fully explained late in the film.
Well, it’s Hitchcock and the Coens, Jake genuflects before them. I mean, it’s a movie where people are basically either going to get onboard and say, “What the fuck is going on?,” and be compelled, or they’re going to be like, “What is this?”

You also got involved and took a producing credit, your first in some time.
I was a little wary of being a producer because I didn’t want to get more involved on the business and production side. I wanted to maintain a bit of a Pollyanna attitude, where it was just about the creative content. But it just helped in understanding everything that was involved in pushing forward on such a small budget and schedule.

You’re now involved in another film with a long development history, the live-action blockbuster John Carter of Mars.
I got a letter a year ago saying, “You’ve been offered this role, please call this number to discuss.” And it was a phone number in Northern California. I called my agent, and he said that didn’t even come through us, that came straight from Disney. So I called [writer and director] Andrew Stanton, who two weeks previously had just won two Academy Awards, and we talked for like two hours. He’s such a funny, warm, smart guy. He said he wrote the part for me, and gave me this whole backstory of John Carter, even though I’d already read the script. Filming started in January in England, and I went over there for a couple weeks. Then they’re moving to Utah and I’m about to go back..

Do you have a sense yet of the look of the film, since technological questions were at the heart of so many of its fitful starts?
The only comparison I can make is Avatar. It’s live-action, CGI, and motion capture — all that stuff. I didn’t realize how excited people were about this movie, and that it’s been around for like 80 years — somebody was telling me they tried to mount the first production in 1930 or something. But it’s going to be fascinating, it really is. They don’t say don’t talk at all about it, but I want to be political. I’ll say this: My character is a badass warrior. There are tribes, and in my tribe he’s a very ferocious individual.

Photo: Patrick McMullan