Thomas Haden Church talks Divorce, Spider-Man 3 & a mystery comic book role

Last Updated on July 30, 2021

Most of you know who Thomas Haden Church is. If you don't, there's a good chance you're at least familiar with him from a garden variety of roles throughout the years. Some may know him as the bad guy in GEORGE OF THE JUNGLE, some as the charismatic actor in SIDEWAYS, some as The Sandman in SPIDER-MAN 3, some as the guy from Wings (or Ned and Stacy) or even as Billy Clanton in TOMBSTONE. Either way, there's a good chance that Thomas Haden Church has crossed paths with you at some point or another in your cinematic (and TV) wanderings. And, chances are, he left an impression. From that deep, booming voice (which actually gave him his start early on in radio) and lined face that carries with it a sense of experience and wisdom, Church tends to do that. And so, with his latest endeavor, I found myself relating to him more than I ever thought I would.

In checking out HBO's new half-hour dramedy Divorce I discovered my spirit animal in Church's portrayal of Robert, a middle-aged man who finds himself suddenly going through a divorce and dealing with it in the only way he knows how; which is to say he doesn't know how. The result is a brilliantly drawn out character that is both deeply emotional, irrational, traumatized, socially awkward and absolutely hysterical in the delivery of dry, beautifully executed dry humor. I caught up with Church in a phone interview and we talked a lot about Divorce, the evolution of the show, how it's not Sex and the City 2.0 (and it's really not) and then took a stroll back through his days in superhero land as Flint Marko AKA The Sandman in SPIDER-MAN 3 and even uncovered that he's actually already jumped back into the genre…but can't disclose where.


PAUL: So, I'm actually going through a divorce and I have to say that Robert has quickly become my divorce spirit animal. Unintentional or not, I think this is a show that not only entertains, but serves as humor therapy for folks like me.

CHURCH: Well, that’s cool. We wanted to make it and it was always-three years ago when evil plans were being laid for the pilot-me, SJ, the producers-everybody wanted it to be, more than anything, in terms of how it was defined, not a comedy, not a dramedy, but a very personal, at times darkly comedic and at times a darkly dramatic evaluation, a very personal evaluation of not only what a marriage is going through, but what a family and everybody that orbits that family what they’re all forced to endure.

There were some reviews that were like, “Ah, c’mon, man, buncha middle-aged white people problems bullshit…” and we premiered along with Insecure, which is a wildly inventive and entertaining show and I think Issa Rae is on her way to being a significant voice, not just in entertainment but in socio-political arena, because she’s so outspoken and gifted and can do it in such a way that it’s entertaining. But, that comparison was made and I was like, “Hey man, there’s an audience for her and an audience for us and it’s not fair to diminish us, because you’re a millennial who doesn’t give a shit about the older generation and their problems.”

We did want it to be a bit of a primer…it’s kind of like Robert and Frances have to go to divorce college. They have to learn, y’know, what are the emotional algorithms of dealing with their kids, with their jobs, with professional contacts, with friends, with family. There’s a whole lot they have to learn and not unlike college freshmen worldwide. There’s a lot of fumbling and stumbling that goes along with that. And to us that absolutely made it a much, much more personal examination of what this family was going through.

And last year we definitely chose the darker side a lot of the time. Although, I gleefully fired lawyers and I really had some comedic stuff I enjoyed, as well as this season. But, once I got to the end of the first season, we were like, okay, we covered that part; we’ve covered the hostility, the treachery, the back-stabbing; we’ve done that, we got that part. So, we really wanted to button that with the first episode [of season 2]. And it was like, now, let’s be on the road to recovery and the road of hopefulness, but there’s still gonna be that fumbling and stumbling and misunderstanding and miscommunication and, y’know, dysfunction; there’s just not gonna be as much of it. Everybody wanted to move forward.

PAUL: The DIVORCE part is the darkest part, so it makes sense that it would be that way…

CHURCH: The architecture of it was Sharon Horgan, Paul Simms and Sarah Jessica and myself. We sort of drove that team of oxen. HBO completely supported it; they did not want Sex and the City 2.0. SJ damn sure didn’t. And, quite frankly, I didn’t. Nobody did. That was an entertaining, legendary show, totally buttoned-up, they did a couple movies, all that is however many years downstream now and y’know, SJ is leading the charge and we’re moving on to a whole new scheme and schedule of life and storytelling and characters and so that’s what we went on to do.

PAUL: It definitely has it's own identity. It's so not Sex and the City. Not even close. You're no stranger to TV (having been on both Wings and Ned & Stacy, respectively). What was the draw to come back to TV after 20 years?

CHURCH: Yeah, I took about a 20 year hiatus, between the last season of Ned & Stacy. It really was almost exactly 20 years between me doing series television. There’s no secret it was her (Sarah Jessica Parker), it was HBO, which I think they still are the benchmark premium television brand of entertainment. I mean, look, Netflix and Amazon, they’re all really coming up with a lot of great programing. Like, I watch a shitload of Netflix, I’m not shy about it. But, HBO still is just in there bangin’- y’know, Game of Thrones, Westworld, Crashing – They’re always driving their own development to stay, not only relevant, but as that premium brand, y’know? So, it was double SJ and HBO. Over the course of those 20 years HBO had offered me a couple of other shows and for whatever reason the timing was wrong and it just wasn’t a good fit for me then, but when they approached me three years ago and she was the vessel that I was approached by and I adore her, I worked with her before, we had hit it off great and I really and truly just thought that if I’m gonna jump back into this and make this kind of a commitment as far as, y’know, doing multiple episodes and moving to New York, diving right into the dead of winter to start shooting, but it just was worth it; with them, with HBO and her [SJP].

I was very proud of the first season. I thought all of the episodes worked pretty well. They weren’t all, y’know, extraordinary television, but I thought they worked very well for a first year. And in the break Paul and Sharon moved on to their project they had going on and so another team was brought in, but also completely committed to the show.

PAUL: Robert has this wonderful social awkwardness and perfectly-time dry humor. How much of that is the script and how much of that is you? He is just so clearly defined, so I'm curious how much of that comes from you…

CHURCH: I mean, I do think I’m a fairly dry-humored guy, which is maybe one of the reasons that SJ wanted me to be her partner in this journey. But, you’re right, the social awkwardness was very important to me starting straight out of the gate in the pilot, because he was a guy who was a successful Wall Street guy, a money manager who had risen to mid-level management at a big firm, made a good living, she made a good living, they live in Hasting on Hudson, beautiful home, y’know, the whole storybook thing. And, in the first season, when all of that starts to fissure and fracture we start to ask what is really going on with him. I wanted that social awkwardness to be born out of a new vulnerability; he used to be such a socially at ease guy when he was a successful executive with the beautiful wife on his arm, the glib lines and the parties. Early on in the first season we don’t know what’s going on with him and we don’t know why he’s socially awkward. And people kind of just point and laugh; we have no idea. And then we start to learn why he behaves the way that he does and how that behavior is interpreted by people he’s called friends and family for a long time. Again, it’s all the change that’s gone on before we meet him and we start that story.

And the way he deals with Julian (Jemaine Clement), the lover, y’know stalking him and, y’know, a scene where I give him a gun. As self-aggrandizing as it is, all of that was not only my idea, but I sort of laid it out with the writers exactly how I wanted it to go and how awkward I wanted that to be. It’s one of those ironic moments and I managed to pitch the awkwardness over to Julian and I seem completely confident that giving a handgun to obstensively my worst enemy in the world is sorty of, “Well, let’s see what happens here.” There’s a chance that he’s either gonna put me or him or both of us out of our misery.

PAUL: (laughing) But the thing is it feels so genuine to Robert’s character. I don't want to say crazy, that's not the right word. He's got that sensibility. You firmly believe that Robert would hand someone a gun.

CHURCH: And that’s what I was trying to communicate to the audience. It’s not temporary insanity or anything like that. But, it’s definitely an emotional sort of trauma/disconnect that goes on for a really good big part of the first season. And there’s a beat that I love in that sequence when I go to the college and I’m listening to Julian speak in the auditorium and I’m loudly eating Power Bars and this kid’s kind of giving me a dirty look and I give him a Power Bar and kind of like pat him on the hand like, “Here ya go, buddy. Feel the old man’s pain.”

PAUL: One of my favorite scenes is where SJP finds his book on narcissism and she reads the whole thing and confronts him saying she's not a narcissist since she read the book and took the quiz. And Robert looks at her and just says, "And yet you still thought it was about you…" And, I lose it every time. I love it. Robert has just got this sensibility that I think just connects to so many people in so many ways, because he just kind of says those things…

CHURCH: It’s way less acidic and acerbic than it was last year, but there still is an element of them both kind of searching for immediate vindication in these moments where they think they’ve outed the other person, not so much as the enemy, but as an emotional opponent. Everybody’s looking for immediate vindication. “Ah, ha, you just proved my point!”


PAUL: Can I ask about the mustache? What went into the mustache? The birth and death of the mustache?

CHURCH: You would be an irresponsible journalist if you didn’t.

The mustache in the first season was the bellwether of him kind of not knowing where he would fit in this mysterious kind of gloom.  I think Robert is kind of hiding behind the mustache. And, it was completely by accident that I showed up with a full mustache with no-there was no description of how he looked, really, how he dressed. It was really kind of left wide open to me with input from others. But, I had just come off shooting Daddy’s Home where I had a big bushy mustache and a big bushy goatee and actually kind of longish hair. I showed up in New York to start rehearsing and it was just like, Well, is this how you think he should look? And I was like, I don’t know, man, I’m still trying to figure that out.

And so we kind of decided, like, he was a Wall Street guy, so we should kind of tighten it up. Now, Robert is trying to solidify this construction man image, y’know? So, he drives a truck, always dressed in boots and jeans and flannels, so that guy, in Robert’s mind, has to have a mustache. It just kind of completes the identity, the preconception. And then, going into the second season it really was the chrysalis stage of, y’know, become a butterfly again. Gotta lose the mustache. I don’t know what’s gonna happen. Next month I’ll have a whiskery mug for my next project and then I’m going right into my next picture, which is a western and I’ll probably stay pretty whiskery for that. If we do get picked up for a third season we don’t anticipate starting shooting until fall, so I’ve got plenty of time.


PAUL: You played a Spider-Man villain many years back and I'm curious what your thoughts are now that the genre has taken off and if you have any desire to return to that and be a part of the comic-book world or even play Sandman again. It really kind of blew up after SPIDER-MAN 3 when IRON MAN came out. I'm just curious what your thoughts are on that whole genre take off…

CHURCH: I’m not supposed to talk about it, but I actually have returned, but not in the Marvel world, it’s another world, but it is in that genre of superheroes and supervillains. I’m not supposed to talk about it, it’s a movie I shot last year. They’re trying to keep it-and good luck to ‘em-with, y’know, today man, I’m surprised it hasn’t already kinda been revealed.

*Note: Let your speculations run wild, but my first inclination is perhaps a mysterious DC role in AQUAMAN? Hmmm…


CHURCH: When I got into it, it was right on the heels of-I had gotten a tremendous amount of acclaim for this picture Sideways and Sam Raimi, Laura Ziskin, Kevin Feige and Avi Arad, called me to meet with all of them and sort of laid out the framework of a film. I was like, I know who you guys are and they’re like, we’re not really sure where we’re going and we just wanted to pitch some ideas to you about what you would be interested in doing. And, I knew, given those people, we must be talking really advanced talks about Spider-Man 3. And they were just sorta talking to me about different ideas they had and what would be appealing to me.

I was not that familiar with that world, but when they started talking about The Sandman and his story, I told them that’s appealing to me. That’s a guy that’s completely misunderstood and while the world regards him as villainous he’s actually on a mission that’s the purest of humanity. And that of course is a character that is immensely appealing to me. And they all just kind of looked at each other and said, “We feel the same way.” I kinda backed into it. And, yeah, we were in the early stages of putting together Spider-Man 3 and we feel that The Sandman, we want him to be the principal villain.” Although, it didn’t really turn out that way later on. Because, when they first pitched me the movie, Sandman and, of course, Franco’s transformation to the Goblin, we were who he [Spider-Man] had to deal with in the picture and Venom wasn’t even in it. They introduced at the very beginning the character of Vulture, but he was only in it briefly and then at the very end of that picture they were gonna bring The Vulture back just to sorta set the stage that he was probably going to be the main villain in Spider-Man 4. But then, obviously all of that stuff sort of derailed. Well, not so much derailed, but took a different railway.

The studio felt like they had me, they had Franco’s story continuing, and they were like, we need one more that’s more of a millennial. And that’s how Venom and Topher Grace came into the picture. And by the way, I thought Topher was great in the movie and Venom is a pretty scary animal. And that was the evolution of that. I was thrilled, man. I’m a big admirer of Sam Raimi’s, I love Tobey [Maguire] as an actor and it was right on the heels of getting so much attention for SIDEWAYS and then these people step up and offer me the villain in the next Spider-Man. And, I just liked everybody involved, I liked the script. Again, I didn’t know how it was going to change, but c’mon, I would’ve done the movie anyway. I liked the character a lot. I thought he was a challenge and it presented a whole other set of challenges, which is physically to transform myself to be Flint Marko, y’know, to be that guy, the way he was drawn and the way he was portrayed in the books. It was a big challenge and it went on for two years. They asked me to do it in January of 2005 and the movie didn’t come out until May of 2007, so it was a good two plus years of my own life.

PAUL: The movie gets a bad rap, but upon revisiting I actually like it more and more. A lot of people had mixed feelings about it when it came out and obviously there were changes made. There’s actually a lot going for it, yourself included. I don't think you could ask for a better Sandman performance. There's really a lot going for it than it gets credit for, I think.

CHURCH: Well, thank you, man. I’m very proud of it. Even Sam [Raimi] has gone on record as saying, “Hey we tried to shove ten pounds of story into a five-pound bag.” Even he thought it was just too much. And, to some extent it led to Sam and Sony to part ways. Sam’s production company is still set up there and he’ll always have a home at Sony, but on that particular franchise they parted ways. I think that Sam could come back to it if he was really interested if it doesn’t so far past him, y’know. Sam is only like a year or two older than me. Sam’s got plenty of energy and creative fuel and if they ever invited Sam to come back and do another one, I think he’d consider it, I do.

PAUL: I'd love to see him back in the genre. I think he’s one of the original defining voices that helped pave the way for other filmmakers to be inspired and wade into that pool.

CHURCH: Before the Spider-Man movies, was really the Tim Burton, two Batman’s and then, y'know, the Batman’s kind of lost their way in the ‘90’s and the first Spider-Man came out in 2002. And I agree with you, I think Sam was absolutely – and completely different sensibilities than Tim Burton – I’m very fond, ‘cause I was in my late twenties when those movies came out – I’m very fond of those first two Batman movies. I mean, they’re virtually pretty silly, but that’s what Tim Burton wanted to do with those stories. Michael Keaton is great in them. Kim Basinger, probably one of her best performances. Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman. Danny DeVito. Especially Danny DeVito’s character, it’s like a really tragic story of this orphan – I’m just really fond of those movies and I agree with you, I think that Sam really crafted for superhero movies a very personal story.

You can catch Divorce every Sunday on HBO or stream the series on HBO GO or HBO NOW (free episodes available HERE)



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