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Thomas Haden Church, 'All About Steve'

He had reservations, but costar and producer Sandra Bullock wanted him in the movie.

September 03, 2009|Michael Ordona

This is a Texan rancher who knows his way around Los Angeles -- including a possibly self-incriminating awareness of its seedier sides. The relish with which Thomas Haden Church discusses such things (unmentionable in a family newspaper) runs from the literary observer's view to the smirkingly lascivious. But one thing the loquacious actor definitely does is notice details.

Throughout lunch at the old-school Polo Lounge in Beverly Hills, he provides running commentary on those around him -- particularly a large, happy group he reasons must be three generations of a family, from the established older men, possibly brothers, to the beautiful younger granddaughter decked out a la Swinging London.

Church has those rugged good looks described by his narcissistic newsman character in "All About Steve" as "Marlboro Man," with the open shirt on a 6-foot-1-inch frame. He also has that surprisingly Valley-like inflection, a kind of near-urban but still-suburban lilt -- but he is definitely a Texan. Big time. He lives on a ranch not far from Austin and runs four others with a partner.

"We were on the phone for an hour this morning talking about fixing windmills. . . . We're in a terrible, terrible drought right now. We're going to have to shift animals around to areas that have gotten more rain," he says.

Church's acting career, however, is aflood. In his latest, "All About Steve," his character's selfishness helps set in motion events that put in danger a possibly unhinged but well-meaning woman (played by producer-star Sandra Bullock) madly infatuated with his cameraman (Bradley Cooper). Church turned the role down twice before Bullock applied a good old-fashioned arm-twisting.

"She called and we talked for like, two hours. I told her all the things I didn't think were right with the character. She was like, 'How do we address this? You tell me what it will take for you to be in this movie.' "

They set up a conference call with writers and producers: "Everybody pitched and collaborated and blah blah blee, and they were like, 'We will start getting pages to you for your approval in a week.' And they did. She, as assertively as anyone I've ever dealt with in the industry, knew what she wanted and with surgical precision, she made it happen."

Chief among the changes, the actor wanted the character to be "less bitchy" and more of a fading former war correspondent. "Arthur Kent is somebody I thought about," Church declares. "I remembered him from Desert Storm, the 'Scud Stud.' He was this kind of -- with the hair, and his shirt was always open, and he'd wear camo pants and jump boots. That's what I wanted, this combat reporter who has sort of been demoted because he's getting older. He's a little embittered about that. They didn't defer to every note but they were highly collaborative."

He also pitched Bullock and company a new ending that would alter his character's -- and the film's -- trajectory. His suggestions were largely incorporated into the script. But that input should come as no surprise: Church is no rookie scenarist. He co-wrote and directed "Rolling Kansas" -- although his official bio describes that film as "acclaimed by no one." The bio also says that over the years, he has proven a "serviceable actor," although his work on "Ned and Stacey" led to him being declared "unfit to live with dogs."

"I wrote that," he confesses, not quite sheepishly.

Rising from the table, he impulsively crosses to the large family's table and tells them how much he has enjoyed observing the family's interaction. On the way out, he exchanges pleasantries with Frank and Kathie Lee Gifford, the powerful NFL Hall of Famer glad-handing him. Once in the lobby, the big rancher says, impressed, "I just got my hand in a vise grip!"




Where you've seen him

Thomas Haden Church was nominated for an Oscar for "Sideways" and won an Emmy for "Broken Trail." He was the Sandman in "Spider-Man 3" and the dim mechanic, Lowell, in the popular sitcom "Wings." In the late '90s, he made an obscure dramedy, "Free Money," with Charlie Sheen, Mira Sorvino . . . and Marlon Brando. When Church's agents called to tell him he had that movie, "I said, 'I have to call you right back.' I burst into tears. I was so overcome with emotion that I was going to get to be in a movie with Marlon Brando."

-- Michael Ordona

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