Great Conversations: Steve Zahn

I interviewed character actor Steve Zahn, one of film's most visible faces over the past 20 years, in 2009. He was memorably funny, energetic and self-effacing, much like the characters he tends to play.


Steve Zahn has become one of his generation of actors' great chameleons. Zahn's filmography features roles as diverse as goofball stoners, cocky musicians and one very brave fighter pilot struggling for survival in a North Vietnamese prison camp.

It all started November 13, 1967 in Marshall, Minnesota when Zahn was born to a Lutheran minister and his wife. After being bitten by the acting bug in his Minneapolis high school, Zahn spent one abortive semester at local Gustavus-Adolphus College before crashing the audition of a professional production of Biloxi Blues at the urging of his acting coach. Zahn, a non-pro at the time, was cast in the lead, and as the famous blues song goes, "the train kept-a-rollin'" from there, including graduation from Harvard's prestigious American Repertory Theater program several years later. After honing his craft on stage in New York, Zahn landed his first film role in Ben Stiller's Reality Bites, in 1994, and garnered major attention for his turn as the manic guitarist Lenny Haise in Tom Hanks' writing/directing debut, That Thing You Do! in 1996.

Zahn's latest turn is in the indie gem Management, playing Mike, a sweet-natured slacker in the small Arizona town of Kingman, who falls hard for an overnight guest named Sue (Jennifer Aniston), at his parents' motel where he is employed. Reminiscent of some of the 1970s' best oddball romantic comedies like Harold and Maude, Management is a delightful cinematic road trip that charts the unlikeliest of romances, and how what doesn't seem to make sense in affairs of the heart is oftentimes a sign that you've met your soul mate. Boasting terrific support from Woody Harrelson, Fred Ward and Margo Martindale, the film also marks the directing debut of playwright (and screenwriter) Stephen Belber (Tape). The Samuel Goldwyn Films release goes into limited exhibition starting May 15, with wider distribution to follow over the next month.

Steve Zahn, who resides on a farm outside of Lexington, Kentucky with his family, spoke with The Hollywood Interview during a recent stopover in Los Angeles.

I really loved this movie. It was nice to see a film that wasn't about things blowing up, for a change.

Steve Zahn: Thanks, man. I really love it, too. It's so nice to be talking about something that's so cool and so different. Aside from the fact that it's great to do press for something you're proud of, this film is a really terrific throwback in the genre of romantic comedy. It''s not even a throwback, it really stands on its own. It's unique.

Yeah, but it also has a really cool, '70s vibe.

Yeah, because romantic comedies in the '70s had a lot of regular people playing the love interests, you know what I mean? You had guys like Dustin Hoffman...

Yeah, movies like Harold and Maude, which was about oddballs falling in love, which is what this is.

Yeah, and because they're a bit odd, or even ordinary to some extent, it makes it easier to relate to them, than it is in a kind of formulaic romantic comedy, which can minimize the audience and you get what you pay for, but ultimately, it's an experience that's forgettable.

It's like eating at McDonald's.

It is, yeah. I'm not going to see movies like that because, well, I'm a guy! (laughs) But I mean, if I was a guy, I'd go see this movie. Wait a minute...I am a guy! (laughs)

The fact that it's from the guy's point-of-view also makes it unusual in the "rom com" genre.

Exactly, it's from the guy's point-of-view, and a guy that is not like an expert surfer, or whatever...

He's not Matthew McConaughey.

Right. He's a regular guy who works in a motel and his mom's terminally ill. He's trying to make the best of it, getting soup over at the Chinese restaurant and doing yoga...

I didn't know they had yoga in Kingman. They've come a long way since I was there last.

(laughs) It's so refreshing. When I read it I kept laughing so hard in my kitchen and my wife said "Wow, it's that good?" And I said "Yeah, it's really that good." In the same breath I'd turn the page, and I'd be so floored and moved it and I realized 'God, I have to be in this. How do I get in this?' You know when you read something that great that a lot of other people are going to want to play the part and be in it, so I just immediately jumped on it.

L to R: Writer/director Stephen Belber, Jennifer Aniston, and Steve Zahn.

I saw that Jennifer was one of the producers. Was she the one that approached you with the project?

No, it was Wyck Godfrey, the other producer, and Steve Belber was also really instrumental in that. I knew Jennifer and I knew she was cool with it, but not until after. I just kind of went in blind, not caring who else was in it, as long as I was. (laughs) I sort of went in and did the meeting that they always advise you not to do: where you tell them how you're perfect for the job. (laughs) I tried to be modest, but I just kept on saying 'I get it, that's all I can tell you. I get it.' Steve writes for pauses. I get that. I understood the tempo. I understood the tone, that there was slapstick comedy and kitchen sink drama in the same movie. For some reason it all makes sense because these characters all so believable and so vulnerable and interesting and funny because of that.

Two of my favorite character actors play your parents: Fred Ward and Margo Martindale.

Those guys, both of them are...that was just a thrill, for real. Fred is the rock of Gibraltar. You won't find a more old-school, manly guy. Those are my favorite scenes in the movie, those scenes with Fred.

He's a real throwback to the Robert Mitchum/Lee Marvin school.

Yeah, totally. Nothing seems to really affect him, but then you see that still waters run deep. And Margo was terrific, but a lot of our scenes wound up getting cut. Steve had a really tough time losing those scenes. I don't think he realized how well they would come off, and they wound up coming off much more deep and meaningful than he intended them to be. It kind of brought the movie into a different place, and a different tone, so they had to minimize that. Margo is so wonderful even in that little bit, that you get it. You get that relationship between she and her son. It's like writing a symphony: you can't just keep it at this ardaggio, you have to bring it up again.

Aniston and Zahn get mellow in Management.

It really seemed like you, Woody, and Jennifer were having a lot of fun.

We did, and it's not always like that. I've had horrible times on movies, and they're still great, because it's a great job. But when you can't wait to go to work the next day because you're laughing your fuckin' ass off, and you know what you're doing is actually challenging and interesting, yet at the same time you know you're doing it well, there's nothing like it. And I had the best time with Jennifer. I don't know what it was. We just work similarly, and she's such a kind, great actress who comes totally prepared right out of the gate. We rehearsed for a week before we shot, which was essential, and Steve, coming from the theater, really wanted that. I was all for it, and was nervous about it. I was like 'Let's practice so when we get to the game I know what the fuckin' play is, and I can catch the ball.' I really approach things like that and Jennifer is the same way. By the first day of shooting, we felt really comfortable with each other. That scene where we fight in the basement, that really high-pitched, emotional scene, we rehearsed that two times before we shot it: we read it at the table and then we got it on its feet, and it just worked. I remember we did it and we were all like 'Let's just leave this one alone.' We knew then that it was gonna be good.

Your character is a tricky one in that if he were miscast, or approached from a slightly different angle, he wouldn't have worked at all, and maybe come off as a bit of a loser.

People have brought up the "stalker" thing, which I wasn't worried about at all. Jennifer played it so well, and it's really due to her reaction that the idea of him being a stalker isn't present at all, I don't think. But what I was worried about was him coming off as a kind of loser, like you say, this kind of sad sack.

You have to believe that Jennifer Aniston is going to fall for this guy, and the only way anyone would buy that is if you found your character's humanity, which I think you did.

Yeah, and Sue has got her flaws, too. There are so many great scenes with her where Jennifer doesn't say anything, like when she's sitting in her room with her computer, and it's just quiet. She just sits there, not knowing what to do, waiting for her time to leave, and she calls her was just so vulnerable and yet at the same time, she was able to put this wall up and be this hard woman that she didn't want anybody to attach themselves to.

Mike (Steve Zahn)'s first clumsy attempt at seducing yuppie Sue (Jennifer Aniston).

Her issues had to do with intimacy, for the most part.

And yet at the same time, it was so cute, you know? (laughs) And that's what Mike loves about her. And he even says in that great line "I think you're really sweet." And she's like "Please..." And he's like "No, I do. Underneath..." "Underneath what?" "Underneath the part of you that's not." And he's fuckin' telling the truth! And then he walks away, and that's what brings her around to him. He's very honest.

He was probably the first person to really see her in a long time.

Yeah, or ever, aside from her mom, or whatever. It's a very interesting movie and the challenge is to get people into seats so they can see it. How do you market this movie?

Yeah, how do you compete with tentpole, "event" movies like Star Trek, and the like that populate most of the summer?

I don't worry about that stuff, or the new Tom Hanks movie. Those are completely different movies. And this thing is going to go out and platform itself across the country. It won't be this big opening. It'll be in Lexington in probably like, two weeks, and people will be like (Kentucky accent) "I couldn't find your movie. We all went out but we couldn't find it and had to watch...some other thing." (laughs)

Let's talk about your background a bit. You were born and raised in Marshall, Minnesota.

I was born in Marshall and raised in Mankato. My dad was the chaplain at Mankato State University, and my mom worked in the bookstore. We lived just off-campus. Then we moved to the suburbs of Minneapolis, to New Hope, which is where I went to high school.

Then you went to Harvard for grad school.

Yeah, I went to Gustavus Adolphus College for undergrad, but dropped out. It's a very strange story. I worked professionally in Minneapolis, but I'd already paid for a semester, so I thought, 'Okay, I'm gonna stay, and eat at the caf' and lift weights.' (laughs) I was stupid. Then I moved home and started working professionally, and auditioned for different grad and training programs, after working with these really amazing professional actors in these plays. They were like "You gotta go train, man. Go East and learn," which was the best advice I got, ever.

When did you know you were an actor?

I was in high school and I was the guy that always got cast in the school play. Theater is huge in high school in Minnesota and I knew that I was very good at that, and gifted and I was "the guy," but it still wasn't something I ever thought of as "a job," or something that one could do professionally. I was going to be a Marine before I was going to be an actor. I was really serious about joining the Marine Corps. Still all I read about is military history, and all that stuff. It's not till I got to college and also I went to London for a trip and saw theater there, and realized that this was what I wanted to do.

Was there one epiphanous moment during a particular play that did it for you?

It was all of them: I saw Les Mis, Starlight Express, and everything that was on stage there. I just loved it. I knew what I wanted to do. I was like 'I have a goal! This is my goal!' (laughs) I was like Mike, in that sense. I had never thought farther ahead than the next day before that, and I was happy with that and...I'm still like that. (laughs) So I got back to Minnesota and was working in this machine shop, and my mentor, my acting teacher said "Look, they're doing Biloxi Blues at this professional theater. Just like and say you're in Equity and audition." And I was like 'Uh...okay.' (laughs) So I went out and lied, and got the part. I told them I wasn't Equity, and they said "Don't worry, we'll make you Equity." And I got great reviews and was the guy that stuck out, and my co-workers were like "You're good, man but you still have a ways to go. You need to study and figure things out." They knew I was just a puppy. "Don't get too sassy. Go learn." One of my roommates suggested I go to the A.R.T. program at Harvard, which was basically the old program from Yale, but moved to Harvard. So I auditioned and got in there. It was a two year program, and was fantastic.

Was it an M.F.A. program?

No, it was very strange. We were Harvard students. We got IDs. We went to classes. We went to lectures, whatever we wanted, and yet I was committed to the theater and the institute there. Then at night, I was committed to working with the company. Now, it's an M.F.A., with Theater Moscow. It didn't really have its legs yet, because it was brand new, but was the "new Yale" drama program, but it was at Harvard. It was ideal, though because we didn't have any pressure about getting grades. They were like "No, you're absolved from getting grades," and I was like 'Fuckin' A!' (laughs)

The Wonders, from Tom Hanks' That Thing You Do! L to R: Hanks, Jonathan Schaech, Liv Tyler, Ethan Embry, Tom Everett Scott, and Steve Zahn.

You did a lot of stage work in New York, then made your film debut in Reality Bites. But the film I really took notice of you in for the first time was Tom Hanks' That Thing You Do!

That was just on TV last week. That movie's so timeless. That was really the baptism for me. That was school. Tom really nurtured us in that. He had a tough job, but he really took the time to teach us. He'd say things like "Here's what you do when you stand up in front of a camera. Don't stand up too fast because..." and he would explain. And I really learned everything technically about film acting from Tom. Also about showing up for work on time, knowing your shit, setting the tone, all those things you kind of know on some level as a beginner, but it's so helpful to have someone tell you. When you have someone like Tom Hanks say to you "When you're a lead in a movie, you set the tone. If you come in late and not knowing what the fuck you're doing, then that's how the crew is going to be, that's how your fellow actors are going to be," and so on. And he was totally right about that. You do have to be that leader, and set that standard. He was brilliant, man.

So it's different being directed by a fellow actor, as opposed to someone who's just a director?

Oh yeah, for that very reason. He really understood the process. Any director who's also acted understands the fact that every person has a different process and has to be approached differently. That doesn't necessarily make for a better show. Sometimes that director is not good, because they're just referring to their own experience and not taking your process into account. But that's what so great about this job: every job is so fuckin' different from the last. If I go through the last three years and all the things I've done, they're all so different.

Zahn in Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight.

Speaking of different, your character in Out of Sight couldn't have been more different from the guy in That Thing You Do! What was it like working with Steven Soderbergh and that amazing cast of actors?

Oh man, I loved that. The first time I saw it was at the premiere and I was sitting in front of (Don) Cheadle, and he said "Have you seen this yet, man?" "No." And he was like "Fuck!" He was so excited that I was about to see it and that we were a part of it. It's kind of like this movie. It's such a nice feeling to be in a movie that you know is going to be considered to be very good, that's going to be somebody's favorite. Soderbergh just sort of lets you do your own thing. He's the only director I've ever worked with who never really watches the monitor. He just watches the actors. I'm someone who kind of likes a lot of input from the director, but he doesn't really do that.

Clint Eastwood is renowned for that.

Yeah, I really like that. And I love the fact that he doesn't yell "Action!" I hate that shit! Soderbergh doesn't do that, either. I mean, some directors are like (affected voice) "Okay everybody, here we go. Ready? 4, 3...ready to pretend? Remember, you're not you. You're someone else. And here we go, and...(yells) EVERYBODY QUIET! EVERYBODY QUIET! WE'RE ABOUT TO DO SOME MAGIC! EVERYBODY WATCH THE MAGIC!" And you're just like 'Fuckin' shut up, man! You're reminding me...' "AND--ACTION!!" (laughs) Everybody knows what's going on. Just turn the fuckin' camera on. Please! (laughs)

Do you know who the director Sam Fuller was?

Yeah, I've heard of him.

Instead of saying "Action," he used to shoot a .45 automatic into the air before each take.

(laughs) That's awesome! I find a lot of time with new directors, they're so...let's say the final word of the scene is "bird," okay. So you're saying 'So that's why we killed the bird." "CUT!" (laughs) You just want to say 'Dude, film is really cheap, just let it go for a while.' (laughs)

Tell us about being in the universe of Werner Herzog with Rescue Dawn.

Oh, that was totally different from anything I've ever experienced. He's just an artist, pure and simple. There's no defining him or figuring him out. The minute you think you have him pegged, he's different the next day. And the trap is to be preoccupied with trying to figure him out. And once you give into that, and just say 'You know what, that's just the way he is, and this is going to be kind of chaotic,' then you're good. And Christian (Bale) and I understood that right off, and we work really similarly and became really close, which helped make that film a really great, fun experience. I was so into that film. We didn't get paid a lot. It was a small movie, but I felt very connected to it. It was something I had to be a part of. Werner's documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly, which the film was based on, changed my life. That movie is brilliant. It's so inspiring. So when I found out he was making a dramatic film of the story, I knew I had to be a part of it, and I'm very lucky that he let me be. I'd never played a real person before. I have a picture of Duane, the real Duane, on my fridge. The minute I wanted to cheat, I would just look at his picture and...there was no cheating. I felt a real responsibility there. Dieter's wife and kids visited our set in Thailand during the shoot. His wife walked in, looked at us, and just had to leave. It wasn't a "set," per se. Werner liked to keep things "If you don't need to be here, you're not here."

Zahn and Christian Bale in Werner Herzog's harrowing Rescue Dawn.

What's his process like in terms of how he works with actors?

I don't know. (laughs) Dude, I'm telling you...he loves actors. He admires the process. He'll lose weight with you and he'll be the first to dive in the river to show you there's no rocks and that it's safe. I like that about him. But there's another part of him that doesn't want to feel anything. It changes every day. One day you'll do something and he'll just get up, come over and hug you. And it's kind of weird and out of the blue, and it's him telling you that it was great. Then the next day, it's like he doesn't notice anything. He yells at somebody, and yells at you, and he walks away. And it's fuckin' crazy! (laughs) But I loved it, and I love him to death. I really do.

Any final thoughts about Management before we wrap up?

I just hope that it's a film that people discover and will continue to discover years from now. And if it takes years, that's okay, too. But I sure would like to be in one finally that people see and does a little bit of business. (laughs) Go see it!