Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the roles that defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Since emerging from the theater world, Steve Zahn has made a career out of playing stoners, zany comic-relief roles, and wacky sidekicks. In his latest, Werner Herzog’s rousing POW drama Rescue Dawn, he again plays the loyal best friend of the male lead (Christian Bale), but the result is arguably Zahn’s most poignant and substantive performance to date.
Rescue Dawn (2007) — “Duane”
Steve Zahn: Oh my God, I saw Little Dieter Needs To Fly (the Werner Herzog documentary that inspired Rescue Dawn) in ‘97, at 5 in the morning. I got up to go hunting, and I was on my farm. I just remember this image of a German guy standing there going, “There’s a P-51 Mustang.” I’m a big history buff. All I read is non-fiction, so I’m drawn to that stuff to begin with. I didn’t move. I drank coffee and watched this thing. I was so moved and inspired by it. I woke up my wife—we’re big documentary buffs. I just thought it was an incredible documentary, and Werner Herzog is awesome. So the Little Dieter DVD is something I’ve given people so many times. I had copies, and I’m like, “Just take it. It’s great.”
So when my agent was giving me a list of things that were out there, things that were looking for financing or attachments, he brought up Rescue Dawn. And I was like, “I have to meet Werner. I have to meet him. I love Werner, and I have to be in this. I don’t know what I’m going to do, I’m so nervous.” I met him, went to his house, he cooked me steak. I was just fully prepared to give him the speech about being in comedies and how my other experience was in theater, and he didn’t care. Which was great. He wanted me to play Duane. This was in 2003, I was doing Daddy Day Care at the time, and Rescue Dawn got its financing, which is a miracle. Even with Christian Bale and Werner… It’s like, “We can’t get somebody to give us whatever?” We got it. And then we just started the preparation.
I am the first person to make fun of the whole, “This film was so hard to make. It was so hot.” You know, being a coal miner is tough too. That said, I’ve never done anything that was as unconventional. Werner is great, because there’s no distractions on the set. There’s no chairs, there’s no trailers. There’s no M&Ms, which creates a certain atmosphere. Because you don’t have those comfortable places to hang out and chill, you don’t have this passive high-school grab-ass happening. And then you have directors going, “Remember, you’re starving, you don’t have shoes.” And you’re like, “Right. I was just playing golf in my trailer.” You know what I mean? It wasn’t that. So you had friction, you had people that were like, “I’m not used to this.” Which is good. He loves that.
The A.V. Club: It seems like making this movie wasn’t terribly dissimilar from actually being in a POW camp.
SZ: We were barefoot, and the only time there was a green screen was in that plane in the beginning, in the crash. That was it. You know, Christian and I have the will to live. We have kids. We weren’t going to do anything really crazy, but at the same time, we were so passionate about it, and the story was so amazing. Being there with Werner was so amazing. There were so many aspects of it that we were really prepared for anything, because of the stories of Werner and not knowing him. I’ve never seen a guy like him. He demonstrated everything first, going down the river, or waterfall, he would do it. He’s not a young guy, you know. So we really trusted him, and we really had a lot of respect. More so than just the obvious respect that it’s Werner Herzog.
Reality Bites (1994) — “Sammy Gray”
SZ: I was scared. I was so frightened with that one. I had acted a lot, I had worked with Ethan [Hawke] when I got that part, and then Ethan and I did like four jobs in a row after that. We went back to theater, and it was crazy. That fear went away when I realized how different film was from theater. You had to have a different way of thinking. And I remember thinking, “Wow, I actually have that head that remembers all those things. I think I can be good at this.” Because I’m able to keep track of my mark, and that’s what you need for film.
AVC: At the time, it was being posited as the definitive film of Generation X. Were you cognizant of all the hype on the set, or did that come up afterward?
SZ: Those things always happen later, at least from what I can remember. I still have people come up to me now, “I love that movie.” Young people. And I’m like, “It’s so dated. Wow.”
SubUrbia (1996) —”Buff”
SZ: I love SubUrbia. I did that workshop in Boston in ‘90, ‘89, and then we did the play at Lincoln Center. I had a migraine two nights ago, I was in Philly. I woke up at 3 o’clock in the morning with a migraine, and I had to get up, and I was throwing up and everything, and I sat down and SubUrbia was on. So at like 4 in the morning, I watched SubUrbia and just sat in bed. I hadn’t seen it in so long.
AVC: How did the movie and the play differ?
SZ: The movie was a lot darker, the play was more of a party. It was more fast-paced and funny. I love Rick Linklater. I haven’t worked with him since, but I can’t wait to work with him again.
Safe Men (1998) — “Eddie”
SZ: I love Safe Men. Now it’s getting all this culty kind of—it just came out on DVD. That was awesome. I read that script, I never laughed so hard in my life. It was then that I decided I had to be in it. I told [writer-director] John Hamburg, “I gotta be in it. You gotta hire me, you gotta hire me. It’s the funniest thing I’ve ever read.” It was just fun to do. Sam [Rockwell] and I have been friends ever since. We are always up for the same parts, it’s kind of constant. We go back and forth from movies that he’s done, I’ve done, and we’ve both done. We had so much fun.
Out Of Sight (1998) — “Glenn Michaels”
SZ: Yeah, that’s a great movie. It’s just one of those movies that I’m baffled why it didn’t do as good as it should have. I’m convinced it had to be because people didn’t see it, and the reason for that is the marketing. I mean, just look at the poster. There’s a gun and J-Lo and there’s George [Clooney]. It just looks like a murder-mystery love-triangle thing, when it was really this cool, very unique movie.
AVC: They didn’t highlight the cast when they should have.
SZ: I just remember my name was at the very end. I didn’t get credit. It was kind of the bullshit around movies. There’s this formula you have to follow. People aren’t stupid. You don’t have to follow the poster format. Sometimes that doesn’t work. It didn’t work.
Saving Silverman (2001) — Wayne Lefessier
SZ: I’ve had more people come up to me about Saving Silverman than anything else. That and That Thing You Do! But Saving Silverman is the one I get most often. And I love that. It’s just funny that it didn’t do that well in theaters. It did all right, but none of us were big stars at the time. Jason Biggs was probably bigger than any of us. That’s another one that kind of baffles me. So many people have seen it. I got this big Western coming out. I have another crazy comedy that I really like, Strange Wilderness. It’s just fucking dumb, and I can’t wait to see how people react, because I just know that I’ll have people approach me and say “Strange Wilderness, man. That’s my favorite movie.” I’ll love that.
Bandidas (2006) — “Quentin”
SZ: Well, that one just didn’t work. This is a classic example for me of a formula that didn’t work. You got all the great ingredients together, but you still gotta stir the pot and cook it. When that came out, it was like “What?” You gotta cook it, and only then, the cake tastes good. What’s hard in movies is to have a consistent tone throughout a movie. Whatever that is. And that one, you have Luc Besson, who is this French producer who had these Norwegian directors, who were great, really funny guys, and smart. And there were a variety of cast members coming in and leaving and going in and out. It was shot in Mexico with a French producer and a Mexican crew. It was insane. How can you have a tone? That was one where I knew while shooting. I was like, “I don’t know about this. I don’t even understand if it’s a Western or an epic or a comedy. What are we doing?”
AVC: How can you screw up Penélope Cruz and Salma Hayek as sexy lady-bandits?
SZ: The point is, you can. And you still have to make something good. Just because all the hot actors show up and the money is there and the explosives are ready, it doesn’t matter.
Shattered Glass (2003) — “Adam Penenberg”
SZ: I love Shattered Glass. It’s one of my favorite movies. I think it’s just brilliant. That’s another one that I read and I thought, “I got to be in this. I gotta be in it. I don’t care who I play, or whatever, if I’m just the throwback.” It’s just a great story. It’s very intriguing. And then when I saw it, it was even better than I knew it was going to be when we were shooting it. Peter Sarsgaard is just amazing. I was really happy with that.
AVC: Did you spend time with the guy you were playing?
SZ: I talked a lot with him on the phone. I was doing Daddy Day Care at the time, which was amazing—it took like four months to make. They let me go for five days to shoot Shattered Glass. I had three times the amount of dialogue, yet I did it in three days. And it was complicated and it was stuff you really had to learn, yet that movie was shot in a fraction of the time we shot Daddy Day Care.
Sahara (2005) — “Al Giordino”
SZ: Sahara was a blast. I absolutely loved Sahara. I’ve never done anything like that. And it was just so much fun. I mean every day, going to work, it was never a boring day. Everyone was cool, it was a great group, everyone showed up, there was no bullcrap. That’s the way it should be done. And I really wish there wasn’t all this other stuff, I’d love to make another one.
That Thing You Do! (1996)—”Lenny Haise”
SZ: I love that movie. I remember getting a call when I was renting a cabin in the Poconos. They were like, “Hey, this guy Bob Schwartz or something, his script is being read at, you know, for this movie.” Somebody had dropped out, so “Can you do it tomorrow?” I’m like “Yeah, get it to me.” And I went in and it was Tom Hanks. [Laughs.] “Bob Schwartz” was Tom Hanks. Interesting. And I did the reading, and Tom’s sitting there laughing, and I got up and it was like “Thanks a lot! I don’t know how any of this is gonna go, but you’ve really helped us a lot.” And I was walking to the elevator, and Tom stopped me and was like “Hey, that was great, that was awesome.”
I went home, and I was like “Is that going to happen?” And then Tom called. The same day—I had been up for Courage Under Fire, for the Matt Damon role. And we’d both been up for that for, like, six weeks. Then finally the call came that morning, and my agent was like, “Well, we didn’t get it. This guy Matt Damon got it.” I was just floored. I thought I was going to go back to poverty, and then Tom Hanks said “You want to do this movie?” And I couldn’t believe it. I went from the pits to… it was a good day, you know?