To say that Thomas Haden Church is enthusiastic about his new film Max is an understatement akin to saying the dogs in the movie worked kinda hard. A familiar face on TV and in movies for nearly three decades, the actor has gone out of his way to play a wide variety of roles, from the befuddled mechanic Lowell Mather in Wings to the desperate cowboy Tom Harte in the mini-series Broken Trail, to super-villain Flint “Sandman” Marko in Spider-Man 3. However, his breakout role came in Sideways as Jack, an actor desperate for a big break and dreading his upcoming marriage, a part that earned him an Academy Award nomination and ensured he would have a steady stream of opportunities from then on.
During a recent stop over in Chicago to promote “Max,” I asked him why, what with a so many offers always coming his way, he decided to devote two months of his life to making this movie. I discovered that a personal connection drove him to commit to it. “My father was in the military for over four decades, so I was immediately drawn to the script and intrigued by the fact that this focused on the service dogs which had never been done to my knowledge,” said Church. “I also knew Boaz (Yakin, director of the film) and had wanted to work with him so there was incentive, but I also liked how the film wasn’t just about the dog but that it had elements of family in it, that it eventually had a crime story element to it, that we could see the relationship grow between Max and Justin, and I didn’t find any of it corny. Additionally, there’s no real level of awareness of how important the role of these dogs are in regards to the important work they do and the many lives they save. So, the long and short of it is, I don’t often get scripts as diverse as this and that’s why I did it. ”
If nothing else, Yakin’s film accomplishes putting these four-legged warriors in the spotlight as the five Belgian Malinois used to bring the title canine to life were put through their paces in showing how these dogs sniff out weapons caches, shield their owners and attack any job they’re given with a fervor that borders on obsessive. “These dogs were incredible,” Church recalled. “They used five different dogs in the film to portray Max – one was trained to growl menacingly, one was better at attacking, one ran quicker than any dog I’d ever seen – so they all had differing personalities. However, they all had to be rewarded after each task and you’d give them a piece of meat. I was bit a few times doing this but it was never done out of malice. They were just so intense in completing their tasks that they were eager to get their reward and go on to the next job.”
In mentioning how the efforts of dogs such as Max are often overlooked, I wondered aloud if films today do a better job raising awareness of what today’s troops are going through, in comparison to the post-Vietnam War film era which took its time examining the effects of that conflict on the big screen.
“I think the media and the government do a great job as far as raising and keeping awareness of what our wounded veterans go through,” the actor said. “With my father in the military during the Vietnam War, I was very aware of how soldiers who served during that time were vilified and how the media covered the war. To this day, I remember we would watch Walter Cronkite on the evening news and how he would report the body count each day and it was all over the newspapers in Laredo and Fort Worth where we were living at the time. It was handled badly.”
“But I think that after the war and particularly after 9/11, our country reset as far as our perception of those who serve,” he continued. “Listen, our troops have a duty to protect not only our country but other Middle East countries where citizens there want democracy to grow and I think, while people by and large are aware of the necessity of this and the sacrifices our troops make, it doesn’t hurt to remind them. In my mind, that’s the purpose of Max, not just to bring a sharp focus on what these animals and the soldiers they’re assigned to are doing now, but what they’ve done in the past, which the montage at the end does a great job of conveying. I wanted to be a part of raising that awareness with this film and I think we pulled it off.”
As impressive as Church’s canine co-stars were, he also had words of high praise for his young co-star Josh Wiggins, the actor who was cast as screen son Justin and was working on only his third film. “I had no idea who he was. I knew that he had a film at Sundance called Hellion that I had not seen and that he had just finished his second feature before we began ‘Max.’ The thing that impressed me was just how quiet and confident he was. He was able to take this taciturn kid and convincingly turn him into a likable, honorable character by the end of the film, which is not easy. He had a complete handle on the emotions of Justin and that’s not easy to do for a performer his age.”
While Church has no shortage of film work coming his way, with two more films set for release this year, in a sense his career has come full circle as, having starred in Wings, and Ned and Stacey, he’s signed on to do an HBO series titled Divorce, a comedic look at one couple’s drawn-out separation. As with most actors today, he doesn’t see doing a television series as a step backwards. “When I started, transitioning to movies was something that only a very few of us were able to do,’ Church recalls. “It was like trying to get around the Great Wall of China. I mean I would go on auditions with George Clooney and we would read for the same parts and he was really the only one of my generation that was able to make that leap.”
“Now things have changed so much as far as the type of shows and content being produced that I think the stigma of doing television has disappeared. The boundary between them is gone and you see actors going back and forth between the two mediums and as a result, big screen stars are emerging more regularly and it’s not just here. Look at Benedict Cumberbatch from England and I guess the newest would be Chris Pratt. So, I’m happy to be doing a series for HBO. I would have worked for them 20 years ago because I think they led the way in blurring the lines between television and movies. They’ve always been the gold standard where programing is concerned.”