While committing to a movie project is generally a crap shoot for actors, it took little convincing to get Thomas Haden Church to enlist in the new military-themed family drama “Max.” The military has played an important role the Oscar nominated actor’s life since the very beginning.
“I come from a military background — my dad was in the Army Air Corps during World War II and then the armored infantry after that” Church told me in a recent call from Los Angeles. “He went in 1943 and didn’t retire until 1982, so since my dad had such a long career, I was always around somebody that demanded the highest integrity and respect for everything that the military did.”
And while Church, who turned 55 a week ago, never served in the military himself, he was ready to go if needed.
“I was in one of the last age groups that had to register for the draft in the late ’70s, and there was a real point of honor in doing so for my dad,” Church said. “It was a ritualistic passage into manhood. He accompanied me to the courthouse in south Texas and wanted to be with me to register for potential service in the American military. For my dad, it was always about honor and allegiance to your country. ”
In “Max,” opening in theaters nationwide on Friday, Church plays Ray Wincott, a wounded Desert Storm veteran and father to Kyle (Robbie Amell), a Marine in Afghanistan who is the handler of a military working dog (MWD) named Max. The bond between the duo is shattered, though, when Kyle is killed in battle, traumatizing Max to the point that he can no longer operate in the military.
Max is then adopted by Kyle’s family at home in Texas, where the soldier’s younger brother, Justin (Josh Wiggins), seems to have formed a connection with the MWD. However, transition is rough for the Wincott family, since Justin can’t seem to live up to Ray’s expectations — a situation exacerbated by the tragic loss of Kyle.
Directed by Boaz Yakin, “Max” is the second military-themed film released by Warner Bros. in past six months, behind the Best Picture Oscar-nominated film “American Sniper.” And while “Max” is mainly a family adventure drama and “American Sniper” is a hard-hitting biopic, Church is glad that the studio is releasing films that not only show the lives of American soldiers, but the effects war has on the people at home.
But while “Max” is unlikely to encounter the firestorm of criticism received by “American Sniper” during its record-setting release — particularly from notable actors and filmmakers in Hollywood — Church, who was born in California but raised in Texas, said he’s ready to stand up against anybody talking smack about the military or films about the people who serve.
“I live in rural Texas, and needless to say, a lot of that flack is not tolerated,” Church said with a laugh. “If you remember at the beginning of 2014 when ‘Lone Survivor’ came out — (the film’s subject) Marcus Luttrell is a Texan, not unlike Chris Kyle — and that story is not without controversy as well.”
Church said that while “Max” is more of a family-oriented film than “American Sniper” or “Lone Survivor,” it still tries to address some of the same issues, but of a character you wouldn’t expect.
“It’s about what happens in the intensity of firefight, and how soldiers — including a war dog — respond in the mortal danger of a firefight. How they respond is really a measure of their training and their character, and their ability to defend themselves in their unit,” Church said. “What our movie addresses is the loss of a soldier, and the other soldier at his side returning home. Even though it’s a dog, he still has to deal with all of the sadness and the emotional recovery after the loss of a loved one. Our characters don’t know if anybody loved our son more than Max. He was his companion and his training partner, but also the solider at his side to ensure his safety.”
Needless to say, Church developed a love and respect for Carlos, the four-legged actor who played Max.
“With a Belgian Malinois — a war dog — they bring such intensity and ferocity, but at the same time, an intelligence to be trained and develop skills to find weaponry and the enemy to save American lives,” Church said. “But what you get with that intelligence and high-speed intensity, when they turn it on, you also get — at least in my understanding and experience making the movie — an emotional complexity with these dogs that a lot of people are not aware of. I don’t think a lot of people understand how far back American service dogs in the military go back, and how relevant they are right now in 2015 — chiefly Afghanistan and other areas of conflict around the world — where American soldiers are involved.”
While Church — whose rich resume includes TV’s “Wings” and “Ned and Stacey,” and the films “Tombstone,” “Sideways” (which earned him his Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination), “Spider-Man 3” and “Killer Joe,” among many others — worked exclusively with a Belgian Malinois, he’s not necessarily a dog or cat person in real life.
“I’m both of them,” Church said, laughing. “I’m an animal guy. I have a ranch, and even a pet deer that’s sort of my most loyal companion.”