Thomas Hayden Church is a former sitcom star best known as the lovably dim-witted mechanic Lowell Mather on the show “Wings” before making the leap to big screen stardom as a comedic sidekick to Paul Giamatti in the Oscar winning wine movie “Sideways.”
His latest film, “Whitewash,” sees him leave the comedy behind to take on a darkly psychological role that pits him against the snowy backdrop of Northern Quebec.
In the film’s opening moments we witness the event that shapes the remainder of Bruce’s (Church) life. A wild, drunken ride on a bulldozer through town leaves a man (Marc Labreche) dead. Panicked, Bruce hides the body in a snow bank and hightails it for the deep woods in an effort to avoid the police and clear his head.
The cold rugged wilderness provides a backdrop for Bruce as he pieces together the events of the past few days and flashbacks on exactly how he wound up in this situation.
There are moments of dark humor here as Bruce struggles to survive, physically and mentally, but the tone of the film is bleak. It starts with an accidental murder and never strays far from the primal necessities of Bruce’s life.
Church is in virtually every scene and delivers an extraordinary, minimalist performance. He doesn’t appear to be doing much, but subtly rides the lines between sanity and insanity, between absurdity and logic, leaving the viewer off balance as the film veers between the present and flashbacks. It’s Church’s performance that adds colour to “Whitewash’s” bleak story and ice white surroundings.
The dynamic between Labreche’s character Paul and Bruce fuels the story, building slowly to the film’s climax.
“Whitewash” is quietly suspenseful, melancholic that won’t be to everyone’s taste, but is an elegantly told story of redemption and survival.
In February 2005 I saw Paul Giamatti, the self confessed “funny looking leading man” and star of Sideways and the upcoming Barney’s Version, waiting at a departure lounge at LAX. It’s not unusual to see a star at Los Angeles’s biggest airport, but it is strange to see one outside the First Class Lounge, reading a tattered science fiction novel with a knapsack shaped suspiciously like a SAG award. (He had won the Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture award the night before along with Sideways cast mates Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh.)
“I prefer sitting down by the gate because I‘m afraid I’m going to miss the plane,” he says when I remind him of the day. “I get uncomfortable in those places. It just feels funny. There is no more classist place on earth than in an airport. It makes me uncomfortable.”
The 43-year-old actor is also somewhat uncomfortable with the fame Sideways brought him.
“You can’t avoid [fame] when you are exposed as much as you are in movies,” he says. “It made me uncomfortable at first. Would I prefer to be anonymous all the time? Yeah, I would because I like it and I also feel it is a precious thing as an actor. It goes away and you just have to go with it I suppose. At a certain point I tried to cop an attitude of saying, ‘Well these people come up and talk to me and so it is actually an opportunity. I don’t have the anonymity but I can observe these people now.’”
People watching is an important tool for an actor, but Giamatti admits that his adopted home town of New York—he’s from New Haven, Connecticut originally—while still interesting and diverse, isn’t as rich a source as it once was.
“New York has changed a lot,” he says. “I don’t know what happened to a lot of the people you used to see [in the city] that were absolutely jaws dropping. You would see things that weren’t just fascinating to study; you would see things that you could not believe you were seeing. People in a condition you couldn’t believe you were seeing. People behaving in ways you couldn’t believe. That doesn’t quite happen as much in New York anymore. It’s a little bit less insane than it used to be.”
His latest role takes him far away from New York, all the way to Canada. Montréal to be specific. In Barney’s Version Giamatti brings to life Barney Panofsky, one of the most iconic characters in Canadian literature. When he accepted the role, however, the Oscar nominee didn’t realize how well loved the book is in Canada.
“It was a gradual realization,” he said. “I did an interview in Rome [during the shoot] with Canadian television and somebody said to me, ‘Wow, you must be really nervous,’ and I thought ‘Jesus Christ, I wasn’t until now.’ I think I was mostly feeling that I’m an American guy and I don’t want to screw up something precious to Canadians.”
In his typical humble way Giamatti adds, “Part of me thinks that I don’t want everyone, when they read the book, to only see me,” he says. “I hope people can still see what they want to see in the book and separate the two. Hopefully they exist as two different beasts.”