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Spotlight on Thomas Hayden Church

The cattle rancher and bulks up for ”Spider-Man 3”

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In certain parts of Texas, a man’s reputation lives and dies by his choice of transportation: namely, his boots. And when Thomas Haden Church swaggers into the bar of a swanky Bel Air hotel in a pair of mud-caked steel-toes that look like they barely survived a buffalo stampede, he might as well be wearing a sign that says ”Not from these parts.” The tall, brawny, and surprisingly baby-faced guy dressed in a red plaid shirt and beat-up jeans plops down and starts jabbering, riding one stream-of-consciousness riff to the next: ”That cheese is the temperature of the surface of the sun,” declares the 45-year-old actor after biting into a quesadilla. ”I just burned the dog s— out of my mouth. Bet you never saw it happen. That’s how chilled-out I am.”

In 2004’s Sideways, Church put his unique brand of high-octane, slightly off-kilter charisma to use as an unhinged bachelor on a bender. Suddenly, the middling-sitcom star (he played a boneheaded mechanic on NBC’s Wings from 1990 to 1995 and a boneheaded cad on Fox’s Ned and Stacey from 1995 to 1997) became an Oscar nominee. He followed it up last year with a Golden Globe nod for the TV Western Broken Trail. And after this week’s comic-book colossus Spider-Man 3, the world will know him as Flint Marko, a.k.a. Sandman, a shape-shifting villain who faces off against Spidey. Sandman, an escaped convict with the power to transform into a towering granular blob, is a pivotal character for the movie (he’s on the receiving end of a Peter Parker vendetta) and for Church, who has never made a flick even close to this size.

But whether or not he wants into the club of name-brand actors remains to be seen. Six years ago, Church hightailed it back to his native Texas, where he now runs four working cattle ranches. ”I realized I needed to have a balance…. I didn’t belong [in L.A.],” he says. ”What’s weird is that since I’ve lived full-time at the ranch, things have gone better.” Leaving L.A. helped Church let go of his inhibitions and unfurl his freak flag. Take his Sideways audition: He’s convinced he cinched the role by trying out in the buff. An irrepressible eccentric, Church is the kind of guy who would be incredibly annoying if he weren’t so entertaining. (In a classic digression, he recalls the time his horse got bitten by a rattlesnake: ”I had to drag him six miles whacking him on the ass as hard as I could with a cedar stick. His name is Tortilla. He lived.”)

It’s a wonder anyone ever saw this chatterbox as a brooding villain. ”What was most important for this part is that Thomas had a good soul,” says Spider-Man 3 director Sam Raimi, who was dazzled by the sad-sack magnetism Church brought to his hedonistic lothario in Sideways. ”For all his faults, he was completely human. A lot of those qualities were necessary for this role in Spider-Man.” Church forged his own connection to the character, the father of an ailing daughter, through a more personal experience — the birth of his little girl, Cody, almost three years ago, with his fiancé, Mia Church (a former actress who has taken his name though they have yet to marry). ”It was very close to my heart because I have a daughter,” says Church.

Of course, playing an action-movie villain isn’t just about getting in touch with your feelings. To resemble his ultra-buff comic-book character, Church was asked to pack on 40 pounds of muscle. The actor spent two years pumping iron for two hours a day, six days a week, but came up 20 pounds shy. ”I’ve always worked out, but it started getting to freak-show levels,” recalls Church, who says he performed ”98 percent” of his own stunts.

He didn’t always have such die-hard commitment to an acting career. Three years after graduating from the University of North Texas in 1986, Church auditioned for a role in the ABC pilot To Protect and Surf on a lark and walked away with the second lead. It all came so easily that even now he’s reluctant to acknowledge his accomplishments, calling himself ”a serviceable actor.” But having endured a few lean years, he’s working harder than ever. ”I want to match what Sideways re-established in my life,” says Church, who owns up to feeling regret at having passed on the Greg Kinnear role in Little Miss Sunshine.

Until the next Oscar-caliber script lands on his doorstep, Church is doing his best to enjoy the heady thrill that goes along with having an action figure crafted in his image. But whatever happens, he’s determined to maintain a safe distance from the Hollywood hustle. ”I’m as dedicated to ranching as I am to movies,” he blurts, before pausing to reconsider. ”Maybe that’s not true. I’m a rancher, and a father…and a dude who works in movies.”


Thomas Haden Church’s Must List

The Office
”When Mia and I fly, we watch iPod episodes. So hysterical.”

Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans, T.R. Fehrenbach (1968)
”It goes back to a cannibalistic tribe [on] the Gulf Coast, a giant race of seven-foot Indians. That’s great.”

Transform, Powerman 5000 (2003)
”They’re punk-metal-alt-rock. I [first] heard this at the gym…. They’re very political.”

Alien (1979)
”The first movie that made me think about a Hollywood career. Ridley Scott is a samurai warrior. He’s a master.”

Army of Anyone
”The guitarist, Dean DeLeo, is really innovative. I was in a band in college — good thing it didn’t work out. I was so self-destructive, I’d have been dead by 27.”