Connect with us


Interview: Steve Zahn

Many people associate Steve Zahn with comedy because of his roles in films like Saving Silverman and Daddy Day Care, a perception that doesn’t bother Zahn, but a perception which he doesn’t quite understand. His resume includes a lot of comedy, which he excels at (he’s also very funny in person), but also plenty of serious dramatic roles, like his characters in Speak and Out of Sight.

Many people associate Steve Zahn with comedy because of his roles in films like Saving Silverman and Daddy Day Care, a perception that doesn’t bother Zahn, but a perception which he doesn’t quite understand. His resume includes a lot of comedy, which he excels at (he’s also very funny in person), but also plenty of serious dramatic roles, like his characters in Speak and Out of Sight. With Rescue Dawn, Zahn gives a tour de force performance as a prisoner of war, and stands out among an ensemble cast.

Based on a short film Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Rescue Dawn is acclaimed filmmaker Werner Herzog’s account of German born U.S. fighter pilot Dieter Dengler’s escape from a Laos POW camp during the early years of the Vietnam War. Zahn plays Duane, who becomes Dieter’s companion as the stage their daring escape, and then set out on an even more daring trek across miles of uninhabited jungle.

I had the chance to attend a roundtable discussion with Zahn while he was in New York City promoting the upcoming release of Rescue Dawn.

Steve Zahn

Question: This was a nice meaty role for you, not the role as a goofy sidekick in a teen comedy.
Steve Zahn: I like those roles too, they’re meaty too. Just on a different level, you know?

Q: This was heavy duty.
SZ: Yeah, it was heavy duty, it was a completely different kind of prep and I had never played a real person before, let alone somebody who had been through something like this, and it was just unique. I mean… there wasn’t much information about Duane, and as I was prepping for it physically, I became obsessed in a weird way, partly just losing that weight and stuff… it’s kind of a mental thing to, you know. I don’t know if you’ve ever done that.

Q: How much weight did you lose?
SZ: Forty pounds. In four months. So you become obsessed. And my wife would be like, ‘God, you’re like a fucking high school bulimic chick. You drive me fucking… get out of here!’ And then she’s like, ‘I’m going to Dominos. We’re gonna eat it.’ And I’m like, ‘I’m not eating Dominos.’ And then I remember she said… then it came, and I’m not eating any and she was pissed at me, and I said, ‘Look, you just want me to eat so you feel fucking better about eating a piece of pizza. Alright, I’ll eat a piece of pizza.’ And then I ate it in front of her and she’s like, ‘I’m not eating anymore.’ And then she leaves the kitchen. And I remember standing there and thinking, ‘Well… I already cheated.’ And then I ate the entire pizza in like five minutes.

Q: How did that affect you, having 40 pounds off for four months?
SZ: I don’t even know… you’re like in a state where you’re like stoned, or you just woke up. But in the process of losing the weight, to get back to the film, I had never played a part where I felt such a responsibility toward this character, toward this person that lived, and I was honored to play him, and I really felt like… if I didn’t push myself as far as I could, it was less about what I looked like, honestly, and it was just like, I want to lose as much as I can, suffer as much as I can, so I can have a minute experience that wouldn’t even be close to his, but at least then I feel like I can be truthful. And I was happy to get to that point, I felt like I got to that point. And I really had a good time, shooting it. It was nice to do a movie where I didn’t have to talk to tell a story. I like movies like that. I’m fascinated with that. And I usually have to talk. I don’t know. I was thrilled to do it, I really was. I was more excited about it than any other movie I had done.

Q: What did the actors and crew do to create the atmosphere of a POW camp on set?
SZ: Nothing intentional. We were in the jungle, which was almost enough there. Truly, just in the middle of nowhere, where very few Thai people go. Especially when we did all the escape stuff. And the other thing is Werner… you usually go to a set, and you’re on a set, and you know where the lights are, you can see them around the corner. Werner, there’s no distractions, there’s no trailers, there’s no food, or huge trucks and crew and gators and mules with the sound department. And not a lot of people hanging out, shooting the shit and playing high school grab ass. There wasn’t any of that stuff. When you weren’t shooting, you just sat there on set, which was so minimal. We never left that compound, when we were in the camp. We just sat there. And we’d shoot the shit and wait for them to get ready, which was like ten minutes. It was never a long wait, because Werner is so… it’s very unique, I’ve never experienced anything like it.

Q: Was it a liberating experience, shooting a film like this?
SZ: It was. Extremely liberating, it was. Because it was frustrating, when you were tired or like, ‘Fucking… I want to go lie down.’ But for the most part, it was nice. It was nice to be on a set where, after an hour break, you didn’t have to be reminded what you were doing, or have to get back into it. You were always in it. And it was easy to just kind of, go in and out of it.
Q: Did you to improve at all?
SZ: Not really. I mean, Werner was very open to any ideas that we had, but it was very strange because Werner hadn’t read the script in two years before he shot it, so it was like we would do things that he thought were improve, and we were like, ‘No man, that’s in the script.’ And he was like, ‘Ah, it was brilliant.’ And we were like, ‘And you wrote it!’ [laughs]. And improve is rare unless you’re doing some crazy comedy. It doesn’t involve coming up with a lot of lines or tag lines, the improve is like, physical. It’s little things, character things.

Q: How did you get this role? Was it offered to you, did you go after it?
SZ: I went after it, big time. Which… usually when you go after something like this… and I had been so into it because I’m a big fan of his, and I loved Little Dieter Needed to Fly, it was something I had seen years before, and was something I had seen eight times. Six times. I loved it. I would recommend it to people. So I found out, ‘Hey, Werner’s doing…’ When I’d get the list from my agent that was one of them. And I thought, ‘I have to meet him, I have to at least get a meeting with him. I don’t know if he’s meeting people now, or…’ So I called him. And right at the beginning of his process. This was like, 2003. And I was fully prepared to give him the whole speech about how being in comedies, and perception of me, and my history. And he didn’t care about any of it. And we just had dinner, at his house, he cooked me steak, and we talked and drank wine. And then we had another meal, and he just told me he wanted me to play Duane. And it was that simple. Which was very interesting, because I thought it would be so complicated. But the insecurities and pretenses for youth. I find it harder to… it’s like ‘Whoa, I’m meeting…’ I don’t know, but it depends. Generally speaking, you meet at The Ivy, and it’s this very formal… Werner was just like, standing there with a skillet, ‘Do you like it medium, or medium rare? The bears like it rare.’ And, ‘Um, medium rare?’ It was very strange. ‘Have you seen any of my work?’ ‘Noooo.’ I don’t know if he had or not. ‘I think you are Duane.’ ‘Fuck! Great! I’m so glad I called!’

Q: Have you heard feedback from any of Duane’s relatives?
SZ: No, because, it’s somewhat of a mystery, unfortunately. It’s sad. I would really love to meet someone from his family. Just to tell them what a great opportunity it was, how much I was honored. I would love to say something to these people, after living with this guy’s picture in my house forever. I don’t know… It’s sad that you can google someone and just get their military records and know nothing about them, and you can google someone like… you can google me and learn about shit I don’t know about me. ‘Ah, interesting. Forgot I went there. Oh! Here’s a picture of my ass!’

Q: How did you feel about those, the Joyride pictures being online?
SZ: Dude, I don’t give a fuck.

Q: You seem to have been pursuing more serious roles? Do you have a hard time getting them?
SZ: It’s not necessarily… I mean, I don’t have the luxury of picking. And anything good you kind of have to pursue. But in a weird way, Riding in Cars with Boys, that’s not a hysterical part…

Q: Or Suburbia?
SZ: Suburbia. It’s a funny character, but a very tragic…

Q: It’s dark.
SZ: It’s a very dark film. Shattered Glass. Speak, pretty serious. But what I’m getting at is…

Q: Is there a perception of you that carried over from your comedic roles?
SZ: Oh yeah, there’s a definite perception. I find that fascinating actually. You know, I come to New York, I do theater, I’m an actor… then I do my first comedy and I’m funny and all of the sudden I’m a fucking stand up comedian. Which I love! I love doing comedies. I did Strange Wilderness, I mean, I’m talking a week after I finished this. I went to Vietnam and I traveled, and then my agents were calling me and saying, ‘There’s this script, you’re gonna love it because it’s crazy and we don’t think it’s funny, and you’re gonna love it.’ And I read it and I was laughing so hard, and I’m like, ‘God, am I laughing because I’m in Hynoi in my underwear reading it?’ Or I’m in my hotel room, and I’m like, ‘Or is it just really funny?’ And so I did it. And it was great to go from one to the other. But I guess my point is, I would love to do more roles like this. And I will, because I’ve always concentrated on… if there’s any goal I’ve had. And longevity, the 21 year old burnout is funny. The 41 year old burnout is not funny. And as you grow older, the roles vary. They start broadening and you start doing some different things. And it’s interesting, how it kind of morphs by itself without you kind of… I think if you put too much energy into changing your perception, it’s very obvious to people, and people aren’t stupid, and they don’t buy it. If it naturally progresses, then great. If not, then whatever. See, I like to fish and hunt as much as I like to do movies, so fuck, whatever.

Q: You chose to live on a farm rather than in Hollywood, or even New York. Can you talk about that?
SZ: I don’t live on a farm because it’s some artistic decision or because I hate LA or New York, I live on a farm because I like to… farm. And I like to hunt, and fish, and I like it to be dark at night. And I’ve lived in New York, and I’ve spent lots of time… I basically lived in LA, just never had an address there. But I got to a point where I was like, ‘Shit, am I a better actor for living in a big city?’ And the other thing is, when you’re in the city and you’re not working, you kind of feel like you’re working. And it kind of screws with you. You kind of feel like you’re more important because people recognize you, and you feel like, ‘Oh geez, I’m busy!’ And you’re not working. When I’m on the farm and I’m not working, I’m not fucking working, and no one gives a shit who I am, and… I don’t know, I stay naïve, and I don’t know what I’m missing, which is just great.

Q: Do you plan to balance your career with film and theater?
SZ: I haven’t done theater in a long time.

Q: Do you miss it?
SZ: I do. I miss it a lot. But I find I love doing film. And I have kids and a farm and responsibility. And theater is like, ‘We want you to do eight months, eight shows a week, you have Mondays off and you can’t go home, and we’re not going pay you anything.’

Q: But you still miss it?
SZ: I love the theater. But now I’m like, ‘I’m going to go be a soldier… and get paid nothing.’ [laughs].

MGM releases Rescue Dawn in theatres on July 4th.

Continue Reading
You may also like...
Click to comment

More in Retro

To Top