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BRIEF ENCOUNTER

A major career step

His role in `Sideways' opened a lot of doors for Thomas Haden Church.

May 21, 2006|Susan King

THOMAS Haden Church may not have won the best supporting actor Oscar for his witty yet poignant performance in 2004's hit "Sideways" as a middle-aged actor who comes of age. But he has won a slew of choice acting jobs thanks to his memorable turn.

The 44-year-old Texan, who came to fame 16 years ago in the NBC sitcom "Wings," is in production on director Sam Raimi's third installment of the "Spider-Man" franchise, playing the villainous Sandman.

Church also teamed with actor Robert Duvall and director Walter Hill for AMC's western miniseries "Broken Trail," which premieres June 25.

And his trademark husky voice is being put to good use in several animated films, including "Over the Hedge," which opened Friday. In the computer-graphic animated comedy, Church plays an overweight, balding vermin exterminator nicknamed "the Verminator." He'll be "heard" later this year as a crow in "Charlotte's Web."

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So you're still in production on "Spider-Man 3."

I am here [in Los Angeles] now, and we move to New York in a couple of weeks. I pretty much work all through June.

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How long have you been involved with Spidey?

All told, since the beginning of March last year. There is so much prep that goes into it. They asked me to do the movie in January of last year, and I was officially engaged with the movie in the beginning of March. I started the physical training, the dietary and all the metabolic analysis I had to go through to determine -- in your 40s -- the most productive, efficient way to get physically and anatomically what they wanted.

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What did they want?

The way I looked in "Sideways" -- Alexander Payne wanted me to gain from when I met him to when I started shooting, in his words, 20 pounds of middle-age luxury lifestyle. I dropped that right away [after the film]. I am 6-1, and I'm usually about 180, and I bloated up to 200 for "Sideways." When I met with Sam and everybody, they said put on 25 pounds of muscle. And I got about 20 pounds. I went right back up to 200, but when we started, my body fat percentage was about 21, and now it's about 10.

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What type of villain is the Sandman?

He is one of the earliest established villains. He was introduced in the fourth "Spider-Man" issue. He's a guy who sometimes is all sand and sometimes he's all man! He is an elusive figure, but when he's a normal guy, he's a tough guy. He is kind of street-hardened.

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The Oscar nomination and the critical awards you received for "Sideways" really seemed to open a lot of doors for you.

There is no way to get around a midcareer revival. I think now, a year removed from all of the hype and the awards rush, it has produced opportunities. I have "Over the Hedge. I have "Charlotte's Web" coming out in December.

I have another animated movie I am starring in with John Travolta for Disney. And that's just the animated side. It's funny: My writing partner, who is also my closest friend, has been saying to me for the last several years, "Why don't you get more voice-over work?"

I did a lot of voice-over work in the '90s when I was a low-level TV star. When you have the exposure, it's a trigger effect.

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How did "Over the Hedge" come about?

It is flattering when you are asked to be in league with Bruce Willis, Garry Shandling and Steve Carell. They want to hire people they think can hold their own with people who are very established as movie or comedy stars. I got asked to do "Charlotte's Web" first. Karey Kirkpatrick, who co-wrote "Charlotte's Web," is the co-director of "Over the Hedge," and he was there when I did the first session of "Charlotte's Web." Then they approached me to play the Verminator.

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Do you find doing voice work on an outrageous character like the Verminator freeing as an actor?

It is, but it's a very specific challenge to create a characterization with only your voice -- letting go of all of the things you cannot control, like how he's dressed, the manifestation of the character physically, what his props are. Does he wear glasses? Does he have a fat stomach? Does he wear boots?

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How did you fit "Broken Trail" into your schedule?

Believe me, it required massive planning on the part of two different studios, but they found a way for me to do that. Starting at the end of last summer, I had a window of opportunity when "Spider-Man" wasn't going to need me too much.

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What is the film about?

Robert Duvall and I are uncle and nephew who drive a herd of 500 horses from Oregon to Wyoming to sell them to the British government and encounter many challenges along the way, including, but not limited to, five bereft Chinese girls.

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When you're not acting, you actually are a cowboy.

I have three ranches [in Texas]. I only own one, but the other two we lease. We run upwards of 500 head of cattle. It's not huge in the pantheon of commercial beef producers ... but it's a full-time thing. When I'm in Texas, every day I am attending to something.

-- Susan King

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