Bruce Birmelin, Miramax Films
Thomas Haden Church and Ellen Page in the film "Smart People."

There's a reason that brains, intellectuals, nerds — whatever label is slapped on them — often are outcasts. They intimidate other people.

Thomas Haden Church wasn't scared off by the title of "Smart People." While his jobless character, Chuck Wetherhold, may not appear to be the intellectual equal of his brother, Lawrence (Dennis Quaid), a literature professor, Chuck proves to have quite a bit of savvy that Lawrence lacks.

"Because I'm a writer, I'm definitely very title-bound," says Church, who directed and co-wrote the 2003 comedy "Rolling Kansas." "That's the first prompting of any potential audience member, anybody flipping through the paper or reading a magazine article. The title's gotta provoke you in some way.

"There's no small measure of irony to the title because (the other characters) are such scholastic elitists. And even Chuck ... has his own elitism intact. He speaks Spanish and he reads The Economist. He may be a little more earthbound financially ... but he's got a competitive edge to him."

Church, 47, found that the Wetherhold clan had much in common with his own family.

"I come from a very academically overachieving family," the native Texan says by phone during a publicity visit to New York. "My mother taught at the university level; my father taught at the university level. My brother's an attorney who also teaches law. My sister-in-law teaches Bible at Texas Christian University. I have another sister that teaches library sciences at University of Texas.

"I come from that world, and I immediately recognized some of the more subtle arrogance of the characters in 'Smart People.' ... Whatever the span of your academic career is, once you stop relying on that as this superior benchmark, once you get out into the real world ... you discover that your feet are in fact made of clay and that there is something common about all men and women, no matter how elite you may fancy yourself to be or how self-indulgent you may feel about your own acumen or IQ or whatever."

The actor has always been sharper than his first two defining roles — Lowell Mather on the sitcom "Wings" and Lyle van de Groot in "George of the Jungle" and its sequel — indicated. But it's only since his Academy Award-nominated performance in 2004's "Sideways" that the press has been eager to hear his thoughts.

Here's one: Church thinks the state of small, independent films — like "Sideways" and last year's "Juno," starring "Smart People" co-star Ellen Page — is extremely healthy.

"Look at 'Juno' — $5 million movie, and it's made well over $200 million worldwide," he says. "'Little Miss Sunshine' a year before. 'Sideways' ... Even 'Crash' was a very small movie.

"As much criticism as the industry takes about all these giant hype movies — and it's all about marketing, and it's all about merchandising — at the end of every year you do have smaller movies. 'There Will Be Blood' — smaller movie. '(The Assassination of) Jesse James (by the Coward Robert Ford)' — smaller movie. ...

"As long as you know how to tell a story and you know how to tell it completely, and there's a movie camera and some sound equipment to capture the dialogue and the visuals, I don't think independent filmmaking is going anywhere."

However, Church doesn't look down his nose at mainstream films. Playing Sandman in "Spider-Man 3" was just as important to his career as "Sideways" was, he says.

"You cannot have a critically acclaimed credit and hope to move forward and get great roles in bigger movies without the commercial buoyancy of something like 'Spider-Man 3,'" he says. "You really have to have both.

"I'm one of the leads in a movie that made $900 million last year. It's a separate cachet, it really is, and it's a movie I'm proud of also. I think (director) Sam (Raimi) did a great job, and they created an honorable continuation of that story.

"You have to make the small movies because you have to be artistically satisfied, but you need to participate in the bigger commercial films. Ideally, there's a convergence of the two."

And then there are the projects that seem to come totally out of left field, such as the TV miniseries "Broken Trail," which won Church a Supporting Actor Emmy last year.

"In my career, over these last few years, things are meritorious for whatever not only you find in them but for how you invest yourself in them," says Church, who lives on a ranch in Texas. "Right on the heels of 'Sideways,' before 'Spider-Man,' I was absolutely not looking to go into a miniseries, but I could not pass up Robert Duvall, (director) Walter Hill and a Western."