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Q&A: Thomas Haden Church on Playing the Brother of a Guy Who Bought a Zoo

Thomas Haden Church
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More than 20 years after introducing himself to audiences via the doofus mechanic Lowell on the sitcom "Wings," Thomas Haden Church has become one of Hollywood's most reliable character actors. Transitioning from TV to film in the late 1990s, he enjoyed a career resurgence in 2003 in Alexander Payne's "Sideways" playing a caddish best friend to Paul Giamatti's sad-sack writer, and has since found his way into movies both big (Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man 3") and small (Sam Levinson's directorial debut "Another Happy Day").

Next up for Church is Cameron Crowe's "We Bought A Zoo," in which he plays Duncan, older brother to Matt Damon's character Benjamin, a bereaved father who purchases an ailing zoo. Church talked to us in New York about finding common ground between himself and his on-screen sibling, creating stories that are both believable and wish-fulfilling, and, well, buying a zoo.

Talk about how well-defined this guy was in the script. What did you particularly feel like you wanted to bring to him?
It actually wasn't all that well-defined when I first read the script, and ... quite frankly, I'm not even sure that there was a brother in the book. I did not read the book, and when I met Benjamin I don't even remember if it was discussed, but after I signed on, Cameron ... I think he wanted to find an anchoring for the character that resonated a little bit more. So my story for the most part is parallel to the main story, and then at the end I dovetail into what they're trying to get accomplished. But as far as the broader strokes he's sort of hand wringing, a little overwrought, overly protective, you have to protect your base and protect the nest and protect the nest egg ... but I think he finally is compelled and brought around by his brother's convictions to turn the zoo around.

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Your character sort of serves as the audience, constantly questioning how smart a decision it is for this guy to take this on.
This was the construct of the story, and I think that it was a really smart thing on Cameron's part that the very first scene is just the two brothers together and you really get a sense of hey, you got to get back out there, you've got to start dating, you've got to figure out what you want to do -- I mean, you just really get a sense of how much these guys love each other. They're grown men, but they're brothers and they genuinely want what is best for each other, and then things sort of become more complicated because he makes a very bold decision to buy this used crumbling zoo. And initially I'm just the finger-wagging, "don't make the biggest mistake of your life on my watch" kind of a guy, and that quickly turns into an almost shrieking kind of panicked campaign of, you're definitely ruining your life and all the lives around you. But there is this unrelenting passion and commitment from Benjamin that brings Duncan around ... Because it's my brother, it's my niece and nephew, I like the people, I like the animals and if it goes down then we all go down in a heroic cause.

We Bought a Zoo
20th Century Fox

Other than sort of the writing of the two characters being similar, what is the key if you're playing the sibling of somebody who's obviously not your sibling in real life?
I got to get some rehearsal with Matt. [We had] a lot of conversations before we ever started shooting with Cameron, who is pretty close to my age, and it's just about finding common interests or things that you can talk about -- and I don't mean the obvious things like sports and girls and stuff like that, but as grown men, what are the shared interests ... I live on a ranch in Texas. Matt lives in New York City, but I was trying to sell a house last year, and Matt was trying to sell a house in Florida -- talking about stuff like that like, "Oh sh**, the home market." It's like just things, just life, human experience.

How responsible or irresponsible is it to make a movie about a guy who quits a job and sort of jumps into a very uncertain venture? Do you look at this as a realistic pursuit for a person to have, whether a zoo is a metaphor for something else that they might want to do, or is it a fantasy?
I definitely think the zoo is metaphorical, but if you remember in the scene with Peter Riegert [who plays Benjamin's editor], he is on the ropes and Peter Riegert knows it. He knows that this guy has not recovered from his wife's death, and whenever Matt's character pitches the story and he's like, "Don't you think that would be great?" And he's like, "Yeah." And he goes, "But you're not going to print it." And he goes, "No." He knows that Matt is seriously on the ropes, and so I don't know that Benjamin really quits his job. I think he's not too far from getting his notice that the magazine doesn't need him any longer, because his work has become unfocused and unproductive and it's not compelling reading ... And again, he is sort of confused in his grief and what he thinks is a great idea, and it actually is sort of an early sort of foreshadowing of what is coming ...

Aand so he then quits and what does he do? He goes house hunting, buys this rundown zoo ... And that's the next sort of bad judgment call in the bigger scheme of life, and then [he] takes his son out of school and has to move to a new school. But that scene earlier with Peter Riegert kind of points to the larger bad judgment sort of umbrella that is shading Ben's life, and it's a struggle. But it's a man struggling with his own identity and that affects everybody around him, including his brother.

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When you're dealing with what is a fantasy to a certain extent, do you think that people really need this as a distraction or as a reminder of what things are possible? How do you look at it?
I think there are two sides to that. Yes, I think if this movie was pure fantasy, or we'll just say pure fiction, I would say "Oh, here we go" ... but this really happened. That's the difference. I mean that really is the linchpin. Cameron did not go out into the world of literature and try to find a Hollywood story. What Cameron and the studio and Aline Brosh McKenna, the other writer, what she discovered was a very compelling story of this man, who was an adventure journalist. He had a tragedy. He thought, "I really need a change," and his children needed a change because they couldn't shake out of this sad, mournful sort of wake of the mother's death. And he stumbled upon the zoo, and he had enough money to take his shot and he just rolled the dice and threw everything he had at it and hoped for the best, and it worked. It worked, and that, to me, because it's factual that makes it compelling.

And so to answer your question as far as wish fulfillment, do we need these kinds of movies?
Yes, I think we do because it's the true story of people really, really persevering; and it's a story of two families, a human family and a zoo family that are thrown together by fate -- and by the way, not such a kind, gracious fate. I mean, the zoo has been shut down. They're going to sell the animals and they're all going to be on unemployment, and these two children and this man have lost their mother and his wife. So the circumstances sort of superficially are not great, and not in any way a Hollywood holiday family movie. But the storytelling and I think Cameron's execution, Matt's performance, Scarlett's performance, the kids are great, and then there is a pastiche of interaction with the animals that sometimes is dangerous, sometimes is cute, but I think that it's just in the course of the human experience of these stories being brought together in this movie.

It's interesting to consider where we look at things to purely fulfill the fantasies that we are not able to achieve, and which ones inspire us to try to achieve those things that we are afraid that we can't.
Well, I'll tell you this. I read a review, and somebody, I don't even remember who it was, they were like, "If this movie is starring Tim Allen it's a completely different, light sort of saccharine holiday movie [because] we know Tim Allen is going to persevere ... there is going to be a lot of comedy along the way and a couple of touching, human moments, but it is a balls-out Christmas holiday comedy."

With Cameron and Matt and the fact that it's a true story, it completely changes the complexion of how the story is told. Especially the relationship between Matt and Colin the boy -- it's raw. I mean, it's a very complex relationship that is defined by raw emotion. And then Scarlett, I love the scenes between Matt and Scarlett because she is trying so hard, and she is so young -- she has a lot more on top of her than she is really prepared to deal with. I mean she is a young woman who is an assistant zookeeper, and now she is pretty much having to run the whole show, and teach this grown man with these two kids what to do every step of the way.

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