Thomas Haden Church On Going Back to His Oil Man Roots In ‘Accidental Texan’

Growing up working the oil fields in south Texas made this role a natural fit. "My character could have been someone taken out of my life 50 years ago," he says.

Thomas Haden Church in Accidental Texan. Jalisco Wayne

The moment you see Thomas Haden Church mosey into a small-town Texas diner to jump-start his day in Accidental Texan, a joyful little dramedy opening March 8, you get the sense that he belongs there. From his bow-legged amble to his rough-hewn masculinity,  he is a Texan through and through—emphatically not the title character. 

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That dubious distinction goes to a young Harvard grad (Rudy Pankow) who just blew his first big acting job in New Orleans and is now beating a retreat—tail between his legs—back to California. 

He gets as far as Buffalo Gap, TX, when his car conks out, and he’s left too broke to get it fixed. Enter Church as a near-bankrupt oil driller. Naively overestimating the youth’s acting ability, he hires him to play the role of an oil expert in order to outfox the bank, the sheriff, and a corrupt oil company. 

Rudy Pankow and Thomas Haden Church in Accidental Texan. Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

Playing an oil man was familiar turf for Church. “I worked in the oil fields when I was a teenager, and I was always around oil wells, growing up in south Texas,” he tells Observer. “This role was really a natural fit for me. My character could have been someone taken out of my life 50 years ago. I was around ranchers and farmers and oil men way back then—people who were friends of my dad. That aspect of it was very authentic to me.”

Though, he continues, more than that attracted him to playing this Texas oil man. “I just loved the story, too,” Church says. “How this young man comes into my life when I’m on the precipice of losing my family’s oil-drilling company. Their paths converge, and they sorta quickly realize that they can help one another possibly succeed.”

Very much an Emphatic Texan, Church spent all but two years of his childhood—the first two—in the Lone Star State. He was born Thomas Richard McMillen in central California. When his parents split up, he and his mother moved in with her parents in Fort Worth. When she remarried in 1969, to George A. Quesada, they relocated to Laredo and then to El Paso. Ever since, Texas has been one big ant farm for Church. “I’ve lived in Dallas, Denton, Austin, the Rio Grande Valley,” he says. “I currently live in the Texas Hill Country, which is two hours west of Austin, near Kerrville. We have a home outside of Kerrville and a small [2,000-acre] ranch 35 miles south of Kerrville.”

Thomas Richard McMillen opted to retain the three-word moniker when he officially changed his name. “My adopted name is Quesada because my stepfather was Nicaraguan, but nobody could pronounce it,” he explains. “Also, it was misleading when I started getting voice-overs in Dallas in the ‘80s. People would think that I was Hispanic.” He remedied the situation by cherry-picking from his own family tree—and voila! Thomas Haden Church. “I just liked the way that it sounded.”

Church was delighted last spring when Brendan Fraser—his co-star in 1997’s George of the Jungle—popped up an Oscar-winner for Best Actor for The Whale. “I spent a lot of my time with him back in the day. He’s a lovely guy, and I was so happy for him—just as I hope to be so happy this year for Paul Giamatti on Oscar night.”

Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church during the 2005 New York Film Critics Circle Awards Dinner at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City. Dimitrios Kambouris/WireImage

Giamatti is currently up for The Holdovers, directed by Alexander Payne. In 2004 he and Church were both in another Alexander Payne movie, Sideways, for which Church received a Best Supporting Actor nomination. They played a pair of middle-aged men who sample the Santa Barbara County wine country for a week. Church was the horny, narcissistic, less committed one, and he shucked his shorts to get the part.

It paid off in more than a Best Supporting Actor nomination and an IFP Independent Spirit Award. It somehow elevated him to the leading-man league. He has subsequently (and surprisingly) been praised for the humanity he brought to the Marvel Universe villain Sandman (Flint Marko) in two Spider-Man outings: Spider-Man 3 and Spider-Man: No Way Home.

Accidental Texan began filming in the fall of 2021 in Austin and in small, nearby burgs like Bartlett, Taylor, and Ballard, and it premiered last spring at the Dallas International Film Festival.

Getting this film to the market was, Church concedes, “a little bit of a journey. In 2022, they took their time in post production, and then last year they really started trying to find a distributor, but the whole industry got shut down for six months because of the strike. That actually turned out to be to our advantage. Roadside Attractions originally said, ‘Oh, not really,’ but they revisited the film later and decided, ‘You know, maybe this could be something that would work for us.’ They came back in the fall, and we made a deal to release the picture.”

Thomas Haden Church and Carrie-Anne Moss in Accidental Texan. Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

Church remembers it as a pretty “easy-breezy” shoot. He and Pankow spent much time building a rapport that would photograph, “just tooling around between these towns, riding and talking. He was very smart, very funny, very inventive. Willing to rehearse and go through the script.”

Also co-starring are Carrie-Ann Moss as the diner waitress (and unofficial town mayor) who seems to be having an affair with Church. Bruce Dern dropped by for a couple of days of shooting to play an old codger who has the oil-rich property that provides a happy ending.

These days, you won’t find Church dogging the offices of agents for another film assignment. He prefers Texas over Hollywood. “I prefer Texas over everywhere,” he insists. “I love being home.”

And, yes, there really is a Buffalo Gap, TX. “It’s about 15 miles south of Abilene,” he says.





Thomas Haden Church On Going Back to His Oil Man Roots In ‘Accidental Texan’