Spider-Man 3 Interviews: Thomas Haden Church

Thomas Haden Church plays Sandman in Spider-Man 3 and Superhero Hype! talked to him at the L.A. press day about what it was like to play one of Spidey’s greatest villains. Church does spill a few BIG SPOILERS, so only proceed if you don’t mind finding out plot details ahead of time!

Superhero Hype!: Should we assume that you spent a lot of time in front of computers where they were taking pictures of your body to get ready for the sand FX and turning into Sandman?

Thomas Haden Church: Yeah, the preproduction aspect of it was lengthy and all of the body scans and motion capture and all the various technological processes.

SHH!: Was it interesting at all, or was it all pretty boring to go through?

Church: No. I found it very interesting. I’m not a tech head, but the whole phenomena of what they do is cool and I got to be pretty close with [visual effects supervisor] Scott Stokdyk who I had actually met at The Academy Awards in 2005. Scott’s a really sweet guy and he was so generous in sharing information and letting me know how they build the creatures, but a lot of it, like they like to say, is inspired by me because the three big sequences, the birth of Sandman – for my character, I don’t want to seem self-aggrandizing – and then whenever he manifests himself out of the truck and then of course at the end of the movie. It was kind of this video-tracking, camera test process where many, many times they would have multiple camera sets and I would act it out because it’s all so muted and bestial. It became, to some extent, the bane of my daily life when I was shooting because you would hear crackling over the walkie, “Sam wants to meet with Thomas at lunch to shoot some more video of the birth of Sandman.” We really did a lot of it. There were very specific emotional beats that we wanted that they were going to layer upon. Particularly in the birth of the Sandman, without the advantage of eyes and real human facial expression you still wanted to convey the tragedy and not just leave it up to things like when he grabs the clasp and it breaks apart in his hand and then he kind of re-manifests himself. It could just be that. It had to be everything that was happening and how he would breathe as he’s re-ionizing the evolution of the beast.

SHH!: With all of the CGI and the FX there wasn’t a whole lot of dialogue for your character. How did you go about building your character?

Church: It was very challenging. It was the most challenging thing. The birth of Sandman was by far the most challenging dramatic thing that I did in the movie because we did it so much and it’s setup by the terror of being ripped apart. It also happens to involve by far the most dangerous stunts in the movie which I did myself. The insurance company would only allow me to do them one time and we literally rehearsed it for six hours before we shot it. It was when the de-ionizer or however you want to describe it – I always called it a kind of molecular accelerator. I decided to have my own scientific terminology. But that thing was built off of this Bell helicopter turbo engine and when it got up to full rev, the guys were like, “Look, if you get hit it’s like getting hit by a car at eighty miles an hour.” So that’s why we rehearsed it as long as we did. I was on a tether, but the way that Sam wanted to do it, and you’ve seen it, is that where the camera was and you see the light bars going by and I had to run straight at those light bars and then get yanked back. Like I said, the insurance company – believe me there was a phalanx of representatives there that day – would only allow me to do it one time. I wanted to do it again, but it’s the one that’s in the movie. The intensity and quite frankly the fear is really there. You’re right though, because it was so muted and because you don’t have any vocalization of the character you kind of just have to rely on how your body conveys the tragedy and your face to some extent, but not really in the birth of the character, and then the same thing when I come out of the trick. There is this ferocity that I’m really glad we were able to capture in melding the CG with how I acted it out in the video tracking. I thought it came through very well. I wanted to have that mix of anger and innocence. I’m just trying to get away from them and then whenever I come up they start shooting me and then I kind of get upset.

SHH!: did you see your characters, Sandman and Flint Marko, as totally different entities?

Church: No. They’re absolutely, intrinsically woven together really just the core of who Flint Marko is. When we first started this process, they asked me to do this movie in January ’05 and we immediately started having story conferences. I live in Texas full time and so a lot of it was on the phone, but any time that I came to L.A. for prep stuff, Sam [Raimi] and I would together and Alvin [Sargent] and Ivan [Raimi], Laura [Ziskin], we’d all get together and talk about the character and it was always about Flint Marko. It was about the man because it was very important to myself and to Sam that we know who the man was and what his propulsion through the movie was sustained by. Sandman, like Frankenstein, is just the darker monstrosity and malevolence that he can’t control, not unlike the black suit that Spider-Man can’t control and ultimately Venom, Eddie Brock, can’t control. So, while Venom and Sandman don’t have a direct connection they’re mutually exclusive. They kind of suffer from the same problem as does Spider-Man with the black suit.

SHH!: Any possibility that Sandman will return in “Spidey 4?” Has there been any talk of that?

Church: No. They were asking me in Japan if it was a calculated move, how he leaves the movie and it wasn’t. We re-shot the end of the movie. Tobey [Maguire] and I, we shot four versions of it and to some extent it was about what was happening between Flint and Peter, but it was also about how does he leave the movie in a satisfying way and ultimately the most satisfying way was the most mysterious way. He just disintegrates and goes away, and maybe it’s sacrificial and he’s returning to the earth. Maybe he’s only going to be with his daughter and will not continue in his criminal activities. It’s open to interpretation and that’s what we wanted. Whatever life experience that people come into the movie with is largely going to determine how they think about Sandman’s exit from the movie.

SHH!: So will we see the DVD advertised with four alternate endings?

Church: No. No, you’ll never see that. You’ll never see it because it takes away from the movie. We wouldn’t have kept redoing it if it wasn’t getting better and wasn’t becoming what we thought was a fulfilling closure to the story. No, the others were inferior. So you will never see them.

SHH!: With all the critical success that you got for “Sideways,” did you worry at all about just sort of growling in this film as a follow up to a great performance?

Church: Sam Raimi & Tobey Maguire. They are genetically incapable of delivering anything that isn’t superlative in the business. It has to be good. I knew that it was going to be a compelling and dramatic story because Sam refuses to do anything less, and you go all the way back, I’m not a huge fan of “Evil Dead,” but I think that the characters’ stories in “Evil Dead II” are very compelling. Then you move onto “Army of Darkness” and particularly “Dark Man” and then really one of my favorite movies, “A Simple Plan,” which is a very intimate character study really – I mean it has its psychological thriller kind of aspect to it – and I knew that between Sam’s filmmaking history and what a thoughtful performer that I think Tobey is that this was going to be good. Sam introduced Tobey the other night at the Tokyo premiere as perhaps the finest actor of his generation and I concur. If you look at “Ride With the Devil” which I think is a great film and he’s terrific in it and then you look at “Deconstructing Harry” and he’s hysterical in it – he just has such amazing range as a performer. I think that they picked the perfect guy for these movies, and then having worked with Tobey over the last two years he really is profoundly determined to find a character that the audience understands and what’s to take a journey with. From the onset to the end they’re going to be happy and thrilled and saddened, but ultimately rewarded. So it’s the two of them really that made me want to do it. That was the fire down below for me.

SHH!: Like Doc Ock in the second movie, you’re a villain with sympathy rather than a villain who’s hated by the audience. What’s the difference there you think, you having the sympathy and Topher Grace’s villain not having that sympathy?

Church: I actually disagree with that. I think that Topher’s character is ultimately a very tragic character because when he hurls himself back just before the explosion I loved the way that he did that. It just gave me goose bumps. Topher just manages to capture in that one kind of flash of performance that this guy has nothing else. He’s only existed in the movie by superficiality and duplicity and then of course embraces the black suit and turns into Venom, but whenever he’s torn apart that’s all he has. He has no other choice, but to really commit himself suicidally because he just has nothing else. He has no other path. I find that to be resolute in it’s tragedy with it’s character. I think that my character certainly starts off in a place emotionally which addresses the worst fear of any parent, the possibility that you’ll lose your greatest gift which is your child. I’m a father and Sam is a father and Laura and Alvin are parents, Avi is a parent, everyone involved – early on that’s what we wanted the anchoring of the character to be. It was that kind of impending tragedy with the character. You’re right though, he’s sympathetic and certainly some clicks beyond Eddie Brock and Venom, but I think that as Avi has said before there are no bad guys in these movies. They’re just people that this far into the series, I think, come into these movies with a value system in tact that’s corrupted by ambition or lust. In the case of Sandman he’s really corrupted by the ferocity of his own good intentions. You’ve got to pretty much figure that whenever I become a sand tornado and I’m spinning through the streets of Manhattan and flipping over cars some people probably got f**ked up. That’s probably a drag and they don’t care if my daughter is dying because their car got turned upside down, their Hyundai Excel. They don’t even see the hidden benefit that insurance pays and they get another car.

SHH!: Not if they’re dead.

Church: True, in which case their family collects death benefits, huh? [Laughs] They go party in Cabo. “Damn! I am all about Sandman, ya’ll!”

SHH!: How much working out did you do for the film?

Church: By the end of shooting I clocked in right at two years. We started out pretty intensively for nine months before I started shooting, and just stuck with it because I had to maintain the appearance, but it was pretty intensive.

SHH!: Did you have a personal trainer?

Church: I had guys in L.A., guys in Texas, when I went to do “Broken Trail” in Canada I had two guys there, and a school hall monitor that came up to check to make sure I was doing what I was supposed to be doing. The guy that trained me in L.A. were the guys that trained Brad Pitt for “Troy,” these guys Duffy and Mike, and Duffy would come and check in on me in Calgary to make sure I was behaving. But it was really about strength training and diet, I never did any cardio because as any fitness expert will tell you cardio is the enemy of muscle and they just wanted me to get bigger, and I did, I gained 28 pounds of muscle and dropped 10 points of body fat, which for a dude in his forties was, let me tell you, was no bake sale. You’re talking about (pretends to lift weights and groans) I could have done a Robin Williams movie. Which is true, I was offered “RV” at the same time I was offered “Spider-Man.”

SHH!: You have a dramatic scene with Theresa Russell and the girl who played your daughter, can you talk about that?

Church: You know, unfortunately, Theresa and Pearla, the little girl, did have some other stuff in the movie and ultimately – I think when they were testing the movie it became just too tragic, and it started to, I think, imbalance the other stories. It’s a little bit of a drag because I did – Theresa was terrific and Pearla was terrific, but I think they just felt like, as I said, that early emotional anchoring is there, and maybe it’s better that it becomes kind of nebulous after that. But Theresa was so dedicated and in the summer of ’05 I read with a lot of actresses to play the mother and then a lot of actresses to play my daughter, every great young actress, Dakota Fanning’s sister and Abigail Breslin came into read to play my daughter. Pearla captured this quality and Theresa captured this quality that was kind of at once tragic but hopeful. And I think that they really felt like less is more, you just needed a little bit of that to set the stage and then you just turn the ferocity of Flint Marko and Sandman loose.

SHH!: You almost expected a hospital bed scene.

Church: No, we never had anything like that, and you know what, honestly I’m thankful that we did not. I think it did what they needed it to do, and I’m not really objective enough to know otherwise, maybe someday – I just in my mind, and I’m not going to really describe the scenes, there were a few scenes that I was surprised to see were taken out by – man, the movie is long and I’ve directed a movie, and in fact I’m writing a western right now for Sony, and I know how it goes, sometimes you’ve just got to cut them loose, as painful as it may be. And like I said, Sam and I had talked about it and actually he said as much to me yesterday, he said, “You know what, there’s one scene, I love that scene, but I really felt like we’d established that emotionally and I didn’t think it was really necessary.” And Sam, I think is on his way to being, if not already, a legendary director, and I defer to him always.

SHH!: What’s the western that you’re writing?

Church: It’s a movie called “Last Horseman” that I’m writing for Sony and for AMC. It’s based on a short story that I wrote when I was in college. After the success of “Broken Trail,” in the “Broken Trail” scenario AMC was the lead partner and Sony kind of came in as a production partner. This time it’s reversed, Sony is kind of the lead and AMC came in as a production partner. I’m not sure if it’s going to be a feature or a mini-series, but it’s based on a short story that I wrote when I was in school. It’s a very compelling story, it’s based on a real guy in the old west, a guy that was born into slavery and became this master horse breaker, and then this really horrific racial violence was perpetrated upon him and he was driven into this notorious fugitive life. It’s a really compelling story about an African American in the old west. The story spans the Civil War to 1901.

SHH!: Are you going to star in it?

Church: We haven’t shot it yet, we’re hoping to shoot it in the fall, and I’m producing it. But I don’t think I’m going to be in it. I don’t know, maybe.

SHH!: Anything else coming up?

Church: This movie “Smart People” that’s going to be out in the fall with Dennis Quaid and Sarah Jessica Parker. I play Dennis Quaid’s brother. It’s produced by Michael London and it’s tonally similar to “Sideways,” I think it’s kind of a balance of drama and comedy. There’s an amazing young actress Ellen Page in it, who you guys might be familiar with. She’s terrific, from “Hard Candy” and “X-Men 3.” She’s got a ton of movies coming out, she’s kind of taking the industry by storm which is weird because she’s 4’11” and probably weighs 95 pounds. She’s just naturally gifted like Leonardo DiCaprio was in “This Boy’s Life”; a real force to be reckoned with.

Spider-Man 3 opens in conventional theaters and IMAX on May 4.

Source: Heather Newgen