Thomas Haden Church on Don McKay and Going Straight to Cable With Marlon Brando

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Expect to see a few new sides of Thomas Haden Church as the title character of Don McKay, a wildly genre-hopping indie featuring the actor as a Boston janitor summoned home after 25 years by his high-school sweetheart Sonny (Elisabeth Shue). Terminally ill and under the care of a brusque, officious nurse (Melissa Leo), Sonny wants to spent the rest of her short life with Don -- who wouldn't mind that himself if not for the mounting levels of suspicion and secrets towering around them. Rookie writer-director Jake Goldberger cites Blood Simple as a seminal influence, but the film draws its primary energy from Church's strapping, coiled reticence -- not to mention the star's leadership behind the scenes, where he labored for four years in the afterglow of his Oscar-nominated Sideways role to help bring Don McKay to fruition.

Church recently spoke with Movieline about building McKay from scratch, wearing his producer hat, the backlash to last year's loathed All About Steve, and what it was like going to work with Marlon Brando and Charlie Sheen (at the same time!)

You've mentioned how surprised you were that a young guy like Jake Goldberger could write so perceptively about the emotional experience of a 40-something male. What specific parts of that experience called out to you?

It was the emotional isolation of a janitor [to whom] something terrible happened 25 years earlier -- something so terrible that it disconnected him from the world. He has this very stoic existence as an employee in his apartment. And you probably didn't even notice it, but... Did you see the movie?

Yes.

He maintains a fish tank in his apartment, but there are no fish in it. He maintains the coral and the aerator. He's just a really emotionally disconnected guy. And going through the script, there were just very specific moments with Don -- not so much in the action, but his whole demeanor. I was just fascinated that Jake -- at 25 or 26 -- wrote it with such authenticity. And then he couldn't have been sweeter or more ingenuous and collaborative than when we started talking on the phone.

Don's an interesting guy who, despite an almost comical self-consciousness, you can tell is dealing with some severe demons. How did you approach those coexisting traits?

We just decided along the way, in our conversations along the four years between attachment and getting to shoot the picture, that anything that came up in conversation about nuance and just the fabric of who he is -- no matter how subtle -- it was worthy of discussion. And maybe even infusing into a scene or into a moment. I'll give you an example: Early on, I told Jake, "I don't ever want him to use bad language." And Jake was like, "What? Wow, that's really interesting. Why?" And I said, "Because he works around children all the time. And eventually it's just going to be a part of himself that he doesn't ever express." And we had lengthy conversations about it, because especially as things went on and became more desperate and unhinged, Don might start to betray himself in certain ways. And I said, "I just don't think it would be that way." I really felt like at the marrow of who he was, he was very, very respectful of everyone. No matter what their character was, no matter how absurd or how threatening it may be. [SPOILER ALERT] Even after I killed the doctor, I continue to refer to him as Dr. Price. I don't ever refer to him as "a**hole" or ''motherf*cker" or even by his first name. I continue to refer to him as Dr. Price. Even after I've stabbed him in the jugular. [END SPOILERS]

Very specific things like that were very important to me. And whether or not the audience picks up on that doesn't really matter. It's just that the engine that we built -- Jake and I and everybody else -- that we have to take a ride in? that machine has to be very specifically, emotionally sound to be considered reliable.

A lot of actors will sign on to things as an executive producer, but everyone has a different idea of what that means. What did it mean to you?

We just started collaborating early on, and I became so involved in how the script evolved: Vetting who wanted to finance the movie. Vetting various actors and actresses who wanted to be involved. Every decision that had significant impact on the movie, Jake would approach me with. And then when [producer] Jim Young became involved, it was always conference calls. And ultimately -- this was maybe six months or a year before we got the movie made -- they just said, "Would you consider being a producer?" Quite honestly I was a little reluctant, because I didn't want to be distracted by the business side with all my intentions on the creative side. But they said, "We're never going to bother you with the particulate matter of getting the movie made. We're just going to come to you with the bigger issues where it would be nice to have your opinion." I was like, "OK!"

Actually, they'd asked me to come on as a producer, but my role was more as an executive producer: You're a little more removed than an actual producer. I saw a lot of rough cuts, and I've give notes and that sort of thing. And I was always invited to dailies when we were shooting. I've directed a movie, and I've been through that/ I didn't want to have too heavy a hand in that. Once we got the got the movie in the can, I wanted Jake to cut together the movie he felt the strongest about. But I definitely gave notes on a lot of different versions of the movie.

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