After spending six seasons on NBC’s Wings as airplane mechanic Lowell Mather and following up with two seasons on Fox’s Ned and Stacey as Debra Messing’s husband of convenience, Thomas Haden Church appeared to have permanently broken the surly bonds of the small screen when he earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his work in the 2004 film Sideways. Indeed, that acclaim did put him in a position where he was able to find gainful employment in the film world on a regular basis, but when HBO comes calling with a half-hour comedy that provides you with the opportunity to work with one of the most high-profile comedic actresses in the business – we’re referring to Sarah Jessica Parker, of course – and on a well-written TV series to boot, you do exactly what Church did: you say yes. (That the show is created by Catastrophe‘s Sharon Horgan and executive produced by Paul Simms probably didn’t hurt.)
Church sat down with Uproxx during this summer’s Television Critics Association press tour to discuss the tone of Divorce, whose first season finale airs this Sunday, and how he found his way into the series in the first place, but he was also kind enough to indulge the whims of an aging pop culture journalist, reminiscing about his first-ever TV gig, his cameo in Monkeybone, and the bond he built with Johnny Depp as a result of guesting on 21 Jump Street once upon a long ago.
Divorce is kind of a dark series.
It’s certainly a bit dark, anyway. Did you not think so?
Well, you know, it’s not supposed to be a straight-ahead comedy. And while we try to balance sort of the absurdity and the pathos of going through what these people are going through, it’s going to… I would say yeah. I think everybody set out to kind of have a dark comedic tone or, conversely, a light dramatic tone. But sometimes the drama gets a little tense. And that’s okay, too, because Sarah Jessica and I always set out… Well, not just us. The whole team. But S.J. and I, as the lead actors, we always set out to be very purposeful in its always being accessible in a human way, that you see behavior that can easily typify people going through a divorce that don’t want to go through a divorce.
Even in the pilot, when she announces that she wants a divorce, she literally the next morning regrets it and tries to fix it all and change it all and do a 180 and try to… make nice. [Laughs.] And to act like it was a ridiculous bump in the road, it was insignificant, and let’s just move on. And that’s because she doesn’t know what she wants, and she blindsides him with it. But as we peel off all of the layers throughout the season, we see Robert’s path, what his engine was, and how much of it was designed for destruction of the marriage. And he’s not even aware of it. That’s the thing: It’s not all her. There’s no one to blame. And you love to play that game in a relationship of going, “Yeah, well, I might’ve done that, but what you did was worse.” “No, no, no, no. Remember that thing you did…”
We want to avoid all the familiar pitfalls of telling a story about divorce, but at the same time, some tenets of it you have to address, because it’s just the way it is in America when you’re breaking up in America. There are certain things that you have to attend to legally, with the family, with the children, with friends, with colleagues. There are things that you just have to attend to. And that’s what makes for some of the most uncomfortable moments.
Prior to Divorce, you hadn’t done TV in awhile. Had you actually been looking for something, or did this just happen to come up?
Not at all. [Laughs.] It just came up, and I had not done television for 20 years, but it was just the right challenge at the right time with the right people, starting and ending with S.J. as an actor. But conversations ensued immediately with Paul and Sharon and other people that were going to weigh in right away, even before we shot the pilot. And after a myriad of conversations, and S.J. and I said, “This is what I want to do. What do you want to do? Okay, that’s what I want to do, too.” And as I already described, yes, we wanted to be a dark comedy, but not to shy away from the darkness of it, and if that leans into some sort of uncomfortable drama and tragedy… It’s just wherever the day takes you as the marriage is breaking up.
Now that we’ve talked about what you’re doing now, I actually wanted to ask you about what I think was the very first TV thing you ever worked on: Protect and Surf.
Yeah. That was… [Starts to laugh.] That was a TV movie, and…was it in ’89? It was one of the first things I got, because I moved to L.A. in January of ’89, and I think I got hired on that in March of ’89. You know what? Yes, it was terrible. It was ridiculous. It was so silly.
For the record, I hadn’t planned on saying any of those things.
It was a Baywatch knockoff to some extent, but they’re lifeguards, and we were going to be police. You know, like, undercover cops on the beach. And it was at ABC, and… you know what? What’s weird is that I moved to L.A. with virtually no footage. I’d done one really bad independent film that I’d been cast in out of Texas, we didn’t know what was going to happen with it, but my agent – and I didn’t really have an agent, but an agent at William Morris was, like, “Sure, I’ll kind of send you out on some meetings” – he did manage to get a little bit of cut footage of this movie, and… It’s the same way today: People want to see you on camera. What you look like, how fluid you are in your performance.
So we had a little bit of footage, and it was pilot season, which is in the spring, so I went out and got close on several pilots. And ABC was looking at Protect and Surf, and they were, like, “Well, maybe it’s a pilot, maybe it’s a TV movie, and we don’t’ really know what we want it to be yet, so we’re going to shoot it as a TV movie.” And in some ways I think I got it more easily because ABC thought, “It’s a one-off.” Like, “Dunno if this guy’s ready to be a prime-time series player, but we like him, and this might be a one-and-done, anyway.” Which it was. But it opened doors. Warner Bros. was the production company and ABC was the network, and Warner Bros. was interested in me for other projects, and ABC was, like, “Well, he was good enough in it.” But… it’s really terrible. [Laughs.] And I had really bad long, blonde hair.
Now I need to find a photo.
Oh, I think you can actually find scenes on YouTube. I mean, I haven’t looked for them, but I think you can.
If they’re there, then we’ll be embedding one of them.
Well. There you go.
[Actually, Church got off lucky: we couldn’t find a clip. Thankfully, however, his former Protect and Surf co-star William Zabka posted a promo photo from the pilot not so long ago, and if you think we’re going to miss an opportunity to share it with you, you couldn’t be more wrong. – ed.]
One of your other early roles was on 21 Jump Street, and in the past, you’ve talked about how you bonded a bit with Johnny Depp.
Yeah, Johnny was great. He was even a little bit of a mentor. We just… Our humor sorta kinda hit it off together, And as it happened, we wrapped the episode on a Friday night, and we were both catching, like, the first flight back to Los Angeles from Vancouver. I saw or I knew that he was on the flight, and I was, like, “I’m gonna give him his space, I’ve been around him all week with my bad humor,” or whatever. [Laughs.] But he came walking over to me, and he’s, like, “Hey, man, why don’t you sit next to me on the flight?” And I was, like, “Oh, yeah, sure!”
It’s like a three-hour flight from Vancouver to L.A., and we just kind of chatted up and hit it off even more. And even in that one flight, he gave me a lot of sage advice for a dude that was younger than me but had a lot more experience than me. Because Jump Street was a big hit. He’d already done Platoon, and he’d been in A Nightmare on Elm Street and some other very successful films, and… He was just a very wise dude. Not really a mentor, but he was just, like, “If you ever need anything, call me.” And I swear to God, I still have my planner from then, and somebody was flipping through it recently, and I still have Johnny Depp’s phone number. Land line, of course, because it was 1989. [Laughs.] But it just says “Johnny Depp” and there’s a 213 number.
I never called him, but I’d run into him here and there. We had a lot of mutual friends, ‘cause in those first years I was in L.A. – ’89 and ’90 – I became friends with Christian Slater, and then there was, like, Winona Ryder and River Phoenix and… there was this, like, actor gang. [Laughs.] They were younger than me – not a lot younger, but they were a little bit younger than me, most of them – so you’d just run into ’em all the time.
So did you find the same bond with Richard Grieco when you worked with him on Booker?
You know… [Starts to laugh.] No, Grieco was great! He was so young and sort of gregarious, but he was such an open guy. I liked Richard a lot. I don’t know what he’s been doing, but… I did two episodes of Booker, didn’t it?
I thought so! And, you know, those shows were done by all the same people, so there was a real crossover between them.
Okay, so here’s a hypothetical question. You did a couple of episodes of Flying Blind with Tea Leoni.
If you’d had a chance to talk to her before she started working with Tim Daly on Madam Secretary, what anecdote would you have told her about working with him on Wings?
You know, Tim was always just a real congenial guy. I knew Tea, and I actually worked with Tea again years and years later – I had a cameo in Spanglish with her – and Tea was always great. When we did Flying Blind, it was like her first thing, and she had so much energy and just such a great vivant thing about her. And, you know, then she became a movie star, but when I worked with her on Spanglish, she was still just as cool as she had been when I first met her. So I’d probably just have told her, “You guys are going to get along great, ‘cause Tim’s a congenial guy.” And she’s well-mannered and was raised by good parents, and…I just found her to be a congenial person. And I think they’re getting along great. [Waggles eyebrows.] I’ve heard rumors of romance… and I’m not the only one! [Laughs.]
Just a quick question about a cameo: How did you find your way into Monkeybone?
You know, I had met with Chris Columbus years earlier on something, and we just hit it off, and when they were casting Monkeybone, I probably read for four different roles. And the fourth or fifth time I went in to meet with them, they’re all there, and they’re just, like, “Great! We’re so happy you’re back!” I’m, like, “You guys, I keep auditioning for different parts!” They’re, like, “We just have so much fun with you whenever you come and audition, and we all go home, and we have drinks and watch your audition tapes.” I’m, like, “Wow, that’s great that you’re getting free entertainment out of me, but…” [Laughs.] But there was a small part – and I never auditioned for that role! – and it was Assistant Death, and they just called me up. Chris’s partner, he called me and was, like, “Would you do this role? ‘Cause we really want you to be in the movie, and Brendan [Fraser] loves you.” We had done George of the Jungle together. And he goes, “I’m gonna guarantee you three weeks of work, I’m gonna guarantee you you’re gonna get paid to make it worth your while, and – honestly – you can do whatever you want, because we haven’t really scripted the character. There’s just openings for you to do what you want.”
And then the first day I showed up for wardrobe, Whoopi [Goldberg] was there, we met, we hit it off, and she was, like, “Man, I just want you to do whatever you want to do, man, ’cause you appear to be a funny cat, and I loved you on Wings.” [Laughs.] And so I was, like, “Cool, great!” And that’s what I did! I mean, everything in Monkeybone, I would just, like, pitch an idea to [director] Henry Selick, and he was like [Deadpans.] “Yeah, that sounds real funny to me. Let’s do that.” And all the stuff that I did, I just would literally pitch an idea, and it’d be, like, “Yeah, we’re gonna shoot that.” I’d pitch something to Whoopi. “Yeah, let’s shoot that.” It was great! Unfortunately, the movie was, like, I think maybe the worst bomb of 2001? I mean, it bombed horribly. I was in two consecutive bombs that year. I was in that, and I was in an action picture called 3000 Miles to Graceland, which also tanked. Like, they came out literally one week apart, and both of them bombed. [Shakes head.] Man…
I know we’re out of time, but as a closing question, I was just curious: did you find that things changed for you after the success of Sideways?
Yeah, I would say that things changed a little after Sideways. I would say that I’m sitting here downstream from Sideways because I did Smart People with Sarah Jessica on the heels of Sideways, then we hit it off, and… she asked me to do Divorce! So I would say that everything since 2003… [Laughs.] Actually, even before that, because I met with Alexander [Payne] to be in Election in, like, ’97, and we really hit it off. And then I met with him repeatedly to do a role in About Schmidt, and it just didn’t work out. And then Sideways came up, and he was already familiar with me because I’d had multiple meetings with him. So, yeah, man, everything since 2003 has been touched by Sideways in some way. For sure.