Thomas Haden Church talks to ADTV about his return to television in Divorce
“This isn’t Sex and the City, I can tell you that,” Thomas Haden Church told me over the phone. “You have me shitting in a coffee can, so you know we’re in for some heavy sledding.”
Although he’s guest starred on many television shows, Church hasn’t been a series regular since he headlined Ned & Stacey with Debra Messing from 1995 to 1997. People also still affectionately remember him as Lowell Mather from Wings, but Church didn’t anticipate a return to television.
“No. Not at all. After being on TV for 10 years, I pretty much thought I was done with it. After I did Sideways, HBO offered me a deal and Showtime offered me a deal, but, ultimately, they weren’t compelling enough at the time to take them,” Church said. “I live full time in Texas, so it would become less and less appealing to move to New York or Los Angeles or Louisiana. That’s a big move for me, and I didn’t want to uproot my daughters. At the time, they were younger, so that was a big obstacle. Sarah Jessica reached out to me personally. She’s so great and thoughtful.”
In Divorce, Thomas Haden Church’s Robert is blindsided by his wife’s demand for a separation after a friend’s birthday party ends dramatically. Sarah Jessica Parker plays his wife, Frances, and the duo previously worked together on the small indie Smart People (“I loved filming in Pittsburgh,” he added). Even though their marriage is deteriorating with every episode, Church jumped at the chance to work with the beloved television star.
“I LOVE to make her laugh. We do a lot of serious stuff on the show. When we are doing serious stuff or confrontational stuff, we always make sure to check with each other beforehand. She’s so great to work with. Sarah really inspires you to be her peer. I absolutely love working with her.”
After details emerge about past indiscretions, both Robert and Frances are on the war path. Think of it as a less destructive version of War of the Roses. While the focus is primarily on the relationship between them, Church wanted to make sure to acknowledge that the entire family is affected by the decision to divorce.
“I read it, and it was an interesting experience. It’s not just about two people going through this. Divorce is really about a family being torn apart by what’s going on between these two people. I thought it was very unique and very challenging. Everything started off as conversations, and they even took some of my ideas—not just for my character, but for the show, too. It was a challenge, but it was a gift.”
The topic of divorce can be a rather grim subject, but HBO’s new show slides between drama and comedy. It can be somewhat satisfying seeing a couple go at each other’s throats and take jabs at each other. Making these characters relatable was a goal of Church’s, and honesty was something he seemed very determined to portray.
“The biggest challenge was making an identifiable human, so my favorite thing about playing Robert was trying to make it as hilarious and real and sincere as it was on the page. When we started doing this project, everyone set out with the same goal—we wanted to make it an entertaining and compelling human experience. People ask, ‘Well is it a comedy or is it a drama?’ but you can’t focus solely on the sad stuff,” Church said. “You can’t only focus on the cancer that’s killing the relationship. One of my favorite movies is Ordinary People, and after you watch that, you are hoping that those characters live on and heal. With Divorce, we strived for the audience to watch something they shouldn’t be watching. We wanted to make something that intimate and personal.”
A couple fighting for 8 or 10 episodes would be intolerable without any comedy, and Divorce delivers some great laughs. There’s a hilarious sequence where Robert tries to return a punching bag to a sporting goods store, and the young clerk behind the desk doesn’t cooperate (“That kid was great. He was so completely and robotically empathetic and unyielding.”). There is a running gag throughout the first season about Robert’s mustache, and I wondered if his castmates gave him the same amount of guff.
“No one harassed me on set. When I first showed up on set, I had just shot a movie called Daddy’s Home. With that movie I had long hair (it was sort of fluffy), but the producers were open to whatever. When you get to your 50’s, some people will just look at you and say, ‘Well he knows the character better than I do anyway.’ For the discussions of the character, we understood that Robert probably worked on Wall Street as a broker or a hedge fund guy—the type of guy that made a comfortable living—but then later in life he could quit and flip houses. I wanted some of that to linger. He’s moved into a more blue collar look from the white collar look. As the season went on, the mustache sort of took on a personality. By the time we finished shooting, I made sure that I wasn’t needed for anymore scenes, and I was so sick of it. The first thing I did was shave off the mustache when I got back home.”
Mustache or no mustache, Church proves himself to be a sturdy leading man (he also headlines the feature film Cardboard Boxer which is available now on VOD and OnDemand) opposite Sarah Jessica Parker. Divorce isn’t overly flashy, but it melds the tragedy and comedy together mainly due to the chemistry between these two actors.