Thomas Haden Church describes his journey to becoming an ‘Accidental Texan’

His latest film brings together settings and characters familiar to the actor’s Lone Star State background.

By Laura Rice & Alan TiscarenoMarch 8, 2024 11:33 am, ,

Actor Thomas Haden Church has a face that you’d no doubt recognize – from the blockbuster Spider-Man movies or the indie hit “Sideways,” for which he was nominated for an Oscar.

You’d also likely recognize his voice, usually with hints of something unmistakably Texan. His latest film is called “Accidental Texan” and is in theaters today.

He joined the Standard to talk about his life as a cattle rancher and actor in the state. Listen to the interview above or read transcript below.

Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: You can’t believe everything you read on the internet. So please tell us yourself about how it was that you became a Texan?

Thomas Haden Church: I was brought to Texas when I was two years old by my mother, along with my younger brother and my older sister, [from] I guess you would call it Central California – Woodland, California, would be the nearest town. Sacramento is a is a big city that’s near Woodland. And, we moved first to Fort Worth briefly and then to El Paso, and we lived in El Paso until we moved back to Fort Worth in ‘68.

And then my mother married my adopted father, and we moved to various places around the state. And then I went to North Texas and, you know, then lived in Dallas and then moved to L.A., but always had one boot on Texas soil.

I would say, I mean, I did have a home in California – in L.A. – for 12 years. But I always tried to keep a place in Texas, and now I’ve actually lived completely in Texas for almost 23 years.

You know, that’s amazing and you certainly got the tour. I think you’ve seen more of Texas than lots of Texans who’ve lived here for a really long time. So you’re in Central Texas now, just a couple hours from Austin. Why was that the place that you wanted to call home? 

You know, in the mid-90s, I always aspired really to be a rancher. And when I was a kid, my very first job was on a ranch when I was 13 years old in South Texas. There was a ranch that was owned by a big ranching family down there that we went to church with.

And some of the men were friends with my dad, but my brother Tex – that was his nickname – he and I were looking for a ranch to buy together, and we just always loved the Hill Country. We hunted in the Hill Country when we were kids in the early ’70s.

And so he lived in Dallas, and I was living partly in L.A. and partly in Austin. He eventually bought a ranch up a little bit west of Abilene. And I bought my ranch to the southwest of Kerrville, which is where I live. I live in Kerrville, and then the ranch is about is about 30 miles away.

So I was going to ask, do you do this for real? Like you got cattle and you’re out there with them and doing the hard work, or are you mostly just sort of enjoying the views? 

I’ve been a full time cattle rancher for 25 years. And, yeah, you know, it’s me. I used to have a partner, but we split up a number of years ago, and it’s really just me and over the years have had different people working for me, but it’s mostly me and one other guy that works for me.

And, you know, you get to a place where it’s not as hard as people might imagine. We’re not repairing fence all the time and building new fence. We’re not doing that stuff anymore. You know, you do it. I have done it. But you get to a place where everything is just handled.

Now really the hardest work is when we gather the cattle and we separate the calves and low calves and haul them to auction and that sort of thing by putting out hay. I mean, I was feeding here yesterday.

So, you know, there’s various tasks that you just do them and it doesn’t really feel like it’s hard work at all.

Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

Rudy Pankow (left) stars as Erwin alongside Thomas Haden Church's Merle (right).

Now, have you gotten to stay in Texas for many of your roles? 

No, I’ve only shot… How many things have I shot here? I directed and was in a movie called “Rolling Kansas” that we shot around Austin. I did another, smaller movie called “Lone Star State of Mind” that we shot around Austin. And then, you know, [“Accidental”] “Texan,” we actually shot around Austin.

I think I did a very small part when I was still living in Dallas. I did a very small part in like a mini-series in Houston. That was whenever I first started out, and then I quickly realized that I had to get to L.A. to be taken seriously – at least then. I’m not sure that’s the case anymore.

You know, I mean, my partner and I have a movie that we’ve written about West Texas that we’re trying to get made, and, you know, like I’m a Texan and this is where I want to be, and I would love to work here more.

Did the small town feel in “Accidental Texan” feel familiar to you? And was it cool to actually do it in Texas? 

Absolutely authentic. I mean, you know, the movie is set in Buffalo Gap. We didn’t really get to shoot there. And then all the references to Abilene and, you know, all of that was very familiar because my brother’s ranch is a little ways west of Abilene, outside of a town called Merkel. From my brother’s ranch, Buffalo Gap, I think, it’s about 15 miles away.

So, I mean, I know that area. Because of film crews and actors and everything that we needed for production, we ended up shooting around Austin, but we tried to make it as authentically West Texas as we can. We did a lot of second unit up there, around Buffalo Gap in Abilene.

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I have a tiny spoiler here. There’s a line in the film where someone has to say, “yes, this guy is a good guy,” about your character, because sometimes it’s a little hard to tell. How would you describe your character, Merle? 

You know, he has been emotionally, to some extent, isolated for – I was going to say “traumatized,” but that’s really a little bit too strong and I think it gets overused in our society. But he really has become emotionally isolated because of the loss of his son. And he, you know, by virtue of just getting older, being stubborn, he is at the brink of losing his drilling business.

A lot of it is, like you said, his stubbornness is maybe he’s made some bad choices. You know, he is really based upon men that I was around in the ’70s in South Texas. I don’t know if I’ve already said that, but, there’s a lot of me in there.

Merle, you know, like I said, he struggles. He has that speech about “you got to fight like a Mexican bull every day to just stay on your feet.” And really that speech in the script, I mean, we worked on it a lot and I did want it to be sort of authentic to Merle, but authentic to my life.

But I think that between he and Erwin, they travel together. They’re able to sort of move forward in their separate journeys, and their separate emotional journeys. You know, he’s really helping Erwin with these feelings of ineptitude as far as his father’s expectations. And he helps me move forward. You know, having lost my son and really kind of losing sight of what he wants to accomplish.

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