Thomas Haden Church Talks HBO’s Divorce: “Anybody’s Emotional Life Is Worth Examining”

TV Features Divorce
Thomas Haden Church Talks HBO’s Divorce: “Anybody’s Emotional Life Is Worth Examining”

Thomas Haden Church’s character on HBO’s Divorce is not a perfect father, and frankly, far from a perfect husband. He’s monotonous, whiny, pretentious, passive-aggressive and long-winded. Perhaps these personality peccadillos were endearing to his wife, Frances (Sarah Jessica Parker), when they were first dating, but now that the couple has hit middle age, they’re infuriating—so much that she’s driven to have an affair with a college professor (Jemaine Clement) and shoot her husband the finger when he’s not looking.

As evidenced by her actions, Parker’s Frances is no picnic herself, but the larger point is that Church and Parker’s characters fell out of love long ago and spend the first season of Divorce pursuing the titular split. As they begin to trudge through what soon becomes a series of openly nasty, vindictive proceedings, they’re simultaneously forced to reckon with both why their marriage failed and whether or not they truly do have any remaining feelings for one another.

“Next season there’s obviously custody stuff to work out and shared assets,” says Church, a veteran actor who has also starred in films like Sideways, Easy A and Spanglish. “But we really want to get a sense of how we are all moving on. That doesn’t mean that the divorce is going to be resolved anytime in the near future. Sarah Jessica and I both feel like this season has been defined by a lot of confrontation, hostility, blame-throwing and finger-pointing. We want to move past a lot of that and break new ground because we’re with the family and kids.”

Church recently called up Paste to talk about Divorce’s Season One finale (which airs Sunday at 10 p.m.), ruminates on Robert’s many acts of aggression (such as handing Clement a gun, in one particularly jarring scene) and predicts what’s next for his character and his soon-to-be ex-wife.

Paste: Audiences are introduced to Frances and Robert at the lowest point of their marriage: Frances is cheating on Robert, and Robert appears to have stopped putting in any effort at all. What do you think drew this couple together in the first place?

Thomas Haden Church: It was discussed liberally. In between actually starting shooting in November, we had about eight months and SJ and I would check in periodically. We would have these vague yet specific esoteric imaginings about who they were, even before they met, because given that we’re both 50ish in the show and been together for 20ish years—we discussed the distinct possibility that they’d had whole relationships, but didn’t get together until their late 20s or even 30s. 20 years later, where did that disconnect begin? How long-simmering had it been?

The lacking of emotional awareness is something I’ve talked about on Robert’s side. He’s allowed himself—and I think this is fairly commonplace in our society, and certainly not exclusive to men—to go with the rift. In the first few episodes, really the first three or four, he doesn’t have any real emotional connection to his children, the people he works with, to his ostensible friends, which is almost unilaterally Tracy Letts’ character, Nick. He has no real connection to Nick. The comedy just comes out of the absurdity of Robert’s complete emotional isolation. The episode when I sit down with the workers at the job site and ask them about their lives, their happiness and their marriages, it’s not insincere at all. It has to be sincere, but the comedy comes out of the absurdity of the situation. One of the workers said he’s got a guy who can get me a gun, and boom, I’m giving Julian a gun. The gun idea was my idea, because I wanted to bring in a level of not danger or threat, but something that was more mysteriously absurd. But my point is that there is something slightly unhinged about where Robert is emotionally.

Paste: My read on Robert’s handling of the Julian situation is that he is trying to redefine or repossess his masculinity to some extent.

Church: There’s clearly some salient moments with that. In “Church,” he’s aggressively working out with the heavy bag, and in the very end he’s injecting himself with testosterone. Which you know, that’s a very common thing in society now, it’s not that edgy. But we introduce the possibility that he’s doing too much and that is compelling him. Even at the archery range, which is such a lighthearted, romping thing, but I ask my daughter if she could kill for me. I don’t know if you remember that moment. She’s like, “Yeah, I think so.” It wasn’t written. Everybody was just like, wait a second, you’re asking a 12-year-old if she could kill for you?

Paste: But I feel like he might be just doing these hyper-aggressive things to assert his power over a situation that’s surpassed his control. Even if he isn’t truly a violent man.

Church: Absolutely. What good is it to point [the gun] at Julian or keep it at my side? The introduction of the weapon, there it is, there’s the threat. Robert immediately empowers himself even further by giving Julian the gun, which is to say, “Whatever you do with it, I’m fine, I’m good.”

Paste: Which kind of draws a parallel to Robert’s embrace of the church…

Church: Yeah, he’s reaching for something emotionally that he doesn’t have a definition for yet. I’ve commented on this in some other interviews, too—that Robert, even from the jump in the first episode, is just trying hold back some sense of doom. Whether it’s emotional, financial, professional, personal, familial—there’s something that’s lurking that he’s trying to manage, to define and understand. Everything is so out of control with him. I think with the church, also with him working out and meeting Julian, it’s all just an attempt to manage what has become unmanageable emotionally. And physically. It all has a physical manifestation if your wife betrays you and you don’t see it coming, but there’s a part of you that knows you should have seen it coming and you should have done something about it, which is to make her feel of more emotional value, make her feel more romantically loved and embraced. There’s a ton of guilt on Robert’s side.

One of the interesting dynamics in the show is that, while she was the one that physically betrayed him, in the second episode there was an emotional betrayal of her by Robert. I think as we’ve gone through in the series, Robert has a much bigger guilt albatross around his neck than Frances does.

Paste: Many of Frances’ actions—the affair with Julian in particular—seem to indicate that she feels she’s justified.

Church: Maybe not justified, but she doesn’t deserved to be vilified. Because she does apologize, and I think it’s sincere. In the pilot it’s a bit manipulative because you don’t know what everybody’s emotional life is yet. But now that we’ve gotten several episodes in, it does come up in alternative ways about how I feel about myself going forward and how you should feel about yourself going forward. In the tenth episode, we try to not only give some of those answers, but like in any continuing show, we ask way more big, giant questions about who they are and who they’re going to be.

Paste: One of the more fascinating parts of watching Divorce is seeing how Robert and Frances, now that they’re facing their issues head on, sometimes manage to reach a sort of truce—which abruptly fall apart. Like in last Sunday’s episode, Robert is acting so much more emotionally mature than we’ve seen him in a long time. But later, Frances switches lawyers and accidentally gets Robert served divorce papers right in the middle of their daughter’s basketball game. And you just know: Whatever understanding Robert and Frances managed to reach is now destroyed.

Church: This is how we discussed the dynamic of the last two episodes. Also now that my lawyer, Tony Silvercreek (Dean Winters), has been introduced and you see him at the party, which again is a whole other level of how ruthless he is. But yeah, another [thing] we discussed when we were going through script meetings is that once you get a shark, you have a fish tank and you get a little shark—once you put that shark in the tank, there’s no way you can determine when you go to bed and wake up the next morning, the destruction and death that little shark is causing. There’s no way to control it, and that’s exactly what Frances and Robert end up doing.

Paste: Right. Before your characters hire lawyers, you start out with just mediation and you keep upping the ante with each other.

Church: You’re right, I forgot about the mediation. There’s three tiers that are sloping downwards in hostility or actually upwards in terms of hostility. The last episode is a continuation of that, that the gloves are off. But we don’t want the next season to be defined by that. SJ and I have talked about it. I think there’s a chance that we’re going to get to know more about Robert and possibly his family. I think now, with next season, we have discussed the possibility of doing more excavation on Robert’s family life, be it on his brothers, sisters or parents.

Paste: What is it like working with Dean Winters? I’m dying to know, he’s amazing.

Church: Dean is a very inspiring guy, I don’t know how much you know about Dean.

Paste: I remember he became sick in 2009 and nearly died.

Church: I’m not speaking out of turn, Dean’s story is out there. It’s a very inspiring story. He did actually die, he had to be resuscitated. He had a blood infection that went from 0 to 100 without him really knowing. They got him clear of that—then because of that—a month after, he had that huge incident, he developed in his foot and one of his hands, he developed, what is it?

Paste: Gangrene, right?

Church: Yeah, he developed gangrene and he had to have a bunch of reconstruction surgery on one of his hands and foot. He had to go through physical therapy for that. If you meet Dean, he’s an easygoing, very sharp, funny guy. You really get a sense that he’s one of those people that are really fortunate. He’s like a combat veteran, somebody that feels really fortunate to be alive.

Paste: Do you think ultimately divorce will be a positive thing for Frances and Robert? Do you think there’s a chance they’ll try to work it out down the line?

Church: That’s a very good question. At this point in my life (I’m in my 50’s), I’ve never been married but I’ve been engaged twice. The actual engagement created an unforeseen burden emotionally and logistically that neither of us saw coming. It ended up, both times, it ended the relationship. I think that, because I’ve had so many friends that have gone through divorce, some of my sisters have gone through divorce. I think that sometimes, yeah, it is a positive thing, and sometimes people get separated but then they figure out that we really need each other more than we thought now that we’re not together.

But sometimes it’s the other way. that the only path to happiness is to either be alone or to try and find somebody else. However, and I think this is the first interview where I probably mentioned this, a really good friend of mine and his wife hit a skid and they didn’t think there’s not any way they could get out of it. They got divorced and she moved away to another town and started another life. He found out through a mutual friend that not only was she dating somebody but she was engaged to another guy. He went to see her (at this point they’d been apart for a couple of years) just to see how where she had landed emotionally. He told me, “I really wanted to see her just to close the door.” Well, the opposite occurred. They realized that they were still very much in love. She broke off her engagement, they got married again and they’ve been together ever since.

I think with Robert and Frances, we have created an emotionally complex landscape—with their marriage, with their friends and family. To me, it’s the family that’s being torn apart. I know I’m saying the obvious, but that’s what I always really wanted a major focal point to be. It’s not just a husband and wife, that it’s a husband and wife and two children that don’t have the emotional depth to understand what’s happening to their parents and their family. I hope, I really do, because we’ve created this very complex landscape. One of the reviews I read, they’re like, “Why should we care about upper-middle class white people problems?” And you can you ascribe the exact same evaluation to, I don’t know, Ordinary People, which is an amazing film. But I think anybody’s emotional life is worth examining.

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