Funny, irreverent and often playing cynical losers, Steve Zahn gets to show us a more romantic side to his cynical alter ego in "Management", as the nighttime manager of a small motel run by his dying mother.
Things change when he meets a closed off art salesgirl played by Jennifer Anniston. Both the film and his character take on very different directions. The actor talked exclusively to Paul Fischer.
Question: We first met on the set of Race to the Sun in Australia so many years ago. Are you aware of your own growth? I mean, at the time, you weren’t known for doing comedic characters.
Zahn: Yeah, but my growth has always been just so gradual, you know what I mean? I mean, you know, it’s always – the good thing about it is, it’s always been kind of upward, you know what I mean? But it’s just been – it’s never been to the point of where – you know, all of a sudden I’m like, “I’m getting a headache. What altitude are we at? Oh, shit! We’re at fucking 11,000. That’s why I got a fuckin’ headache.” You know. It’s not like, you know, I was driving and all of a sudden I saw the Himalayas, and I’m like, “I’m – I’m up there, buddy.” You know? It’s just like – it’s just kind of interesting. And people’s perception is that, you know, “Oh, you probably can’t shop anywhere. You’ve done 50 movies.” And I’m like, “Yeah, I can pretty much shop everywhere.” You know?
Question: Now what really impressed me about Management was that it starts out being this very kind of kooky comedy, in which your character is so sort of – just doesn’t know what he’s doing. And then there’s this metamorphosis. Was that part of the attraction for you?
Zahn: Oh, yeah, definitely. I mean, I don’t think I’d ever read kind of a pure character before, like that. Just so simple, and accessible, who had the inability to lie and be sarcastic and whose progression was very slow. And was affected – you know, primarily with Sue. But also, we’re just so used to kind of a formula. And the formula’s a lot faster, and a lot broader. The changes happen in huge scenes, that we all are aware of. And this is just kind of like – it just kind of skips along, you know? And it read like that, and the movie’s like that. That’s another thing that I think is very interesting. I mean, the movie looks like it read.
Question: This is a guy who’s trapped in a life of ordinariness. And I was wondering if there was any aspect of him that you could identify with.
Zahn: Oh, a lot. I mean, you know – there’s so much. Just this kind of ordinary – I mean, I live on a farm in Kentucky. I don’t live a fancy life at all, you know? I was that guy that worked at hotels, and just kind of did what I was told, and was happy to do it. And didn’t really think beyond the day, you know? And I still don’t. So, that’s a big thing that I kind of – you know, I felt similar. It’s interesting, because I’ve had a career out of playing cynical people. You know? I’m the character that comments on the movie for the audience. That’s been my job in a lot of movies. And that’s kind of like, the perception. And yet, I feel more connected to this than I do any of those characters. Which is interesting. I mean, it’s kind of – you know. I mean, the two characters that I felt most connected to and most compassion towards is probably Mike and Duane, the guy I played in Rescue Dawn. And yet those are two characters that are completely – I’m not on any producer’s list for those kinds of movies. So it’s just kind of odd. I mean, I don’t know. And yet, it’s not like I don’t like playing the other characters. It’s just interesting, you know?
Question: I guess it’s one of the first times we’ve seen you as a romantic lead in a movie, especially one opposite Jennifer Aniston. Are you kind of surprised, in a way, that at this particular stage in your career, you’ve been able to get a role like this?
Zahn: I guess so. I mean, you know, when I first got into the business and started reading for movies and stuff, a long time ago, I was kind of reading for – you know, I was the ingénue. And then I started doing these comedies, and I’d do a play and I was a stoner, and then I was the comedy stoner guy. You know? And then for a while there I was like, “You know, I should – why am I not in romantic comedies? Isn’t this kind of – shouldn’t this be”—and then I just kind of – you know, “No, I guess not.” But as I grow older, I find it very interesting that the roles that I’m playing are changing kind of – it’s very rapidly changing. And I think – I don’t know. Yeah, it is very surprising.
Question: You live on a farm in Kentucky. You obviously shun the sort of LA Hollywood thing. Is that an advantage to you? Does it give you a feeling of being grounded more, of not living in LA?
Zahn: No. I mean, I think you’re either grounded or you’re not. It doesn’t matter where you live, or who your parents are, or whatever. I mean, that doesn’t – you can’t seek being grounded. But at the same time, if anything, I have a disadvantage business-wise. I’m sure I miss out on a lot of stuff. But I don’t know what that stuff is, so I don’t really care.
Question: Yet you’re incredibly busy.
Zahn: Well, yeah. Well, the thing about it that I think is important is, I’m living proof that you don’t have to go to the parties and dinners and stuff to work. And that – you know, living in – but I really believe that ultimately, the thing I’m concerned about and think about, is acting. And I don’t think living in a city makes you a better actor. You know? And I just live in the country, not in opposition to any place other than that’s where I want to live. I like it dark at night, you know what I mean? Question: Do you find yourself getting more selective in what you take on? What gets you out?
Zahn: I don’t know. There are times when I am. But there are times when I need to work, too. I mean, I don’t work non-stop, and have a pile of scripts where I’m like, “Yeah, maybe. Definitely.” You know, I need to work. I need to go do jobs. The good thing is that I think other people – producers – you know, I get offered kind of interesting things. And the stuff I get offered aren’t necessarily big blockbuster movies. But they tend to be some smaller, good stuff. And when I read a lot of scripts, and there’s a lot of stuff flying around, they don’t call me and say, “This is the movie, and this is the budget.” They go, “Here’s the movie.” And just – you know, nine out of ten times, the movie that I really like is the one that’s a $5 million budget.
Question: You’ve often been drawn to the indie world. Is that where the more interesting characters are?
Zahn: I guess so. I mean, it’s hard to find independent now. I mean, it’s really – it depends on who you’re talking to. And if it’s truly independent. You know what I mean? I mean, there are satellite kind of off-studios, that are independent financed. And some independent movies just means it’s the same company, you just don’t get paid. You know? But, yeah. I think that for me, independent movie, a true independent movie is a movie where there’s freedom. You haven’t got distribution yet. The point is to make a great movie that people are going to want to distribute. You know? And so the emphasis is on that movie. It’s not on – you’re not jumping ahead.
Question: Now, Steve, you’ve got quite a lot of stuff in the pipeline. What have you finished that you’re particularly excited about?
Zahn: I’m going to go do this – “Treme”, this HBO series that just got picked up.
Question: That’s Agnieszka Holland, isn’t it? Did she direct the pilot?
Zahn: Yeah. She directed the pilot. It’s David Simon, who did The Wire and Generation Kill on HBO. It’s his – you know, he produced and wrote that. And it’s really good.
Question: What kind of character did you play in that?
Zahn: It takes place, like, two months after Katrina. And it’s kind of the rebuilding of the culture and life there, after through the eyes of these jazz musicians. And the Treme is a neighborhood off the French Quarter. And I play this kind of really smart deejay guitarist songwriter. But he’s really an infamous guy there, and is – you know, angry and bitter, but is just really eccentric. Kind of the voice of the jazz scene, you know? He’s their spokesperson.
Question: How much preparation did you do for that? I mean, in terms of –
Zahn: A lot. I went down for two weeks, and I – he’s really into this second line dancing and everything. And, I was so blown away by it. I mean, really, six weeks of just kind of hanging. More prep for this than anything I’ve ever done.
Question: Do they have an air date yet?
Zahn: No. Not yet. I have no idea. We’re going to start shooting – because we have to shoot after the hurricane season, for insurance reasons, I guess. I don’t know. But we start in November. So I would imagine, like – you know, either in the winter some time, or in the spring. I don’t know.
Question: What about Getaway?
Zahn: A Perfect Getaway. Yeah, that comes out in August.
Question: That’s a Twohy.
Zahn: David Twohy, yeah. He wrote that. It’s a brilliant script. And he directed that.
Question: Now, this is a thriller, I take it?
Zahn: Yeah. It’s a real good old-fashioned thriller.
Question: And you’re Milla Jovovich’s lover?
Zahn: Yeah. We’re husband and wife. Newlyweds.
Question: So, you’ve gone from Aniston to Jovovich. Interesting.
Zahn: Yeah. [LAUGHTER] I mean, you know, in the same breath, you know, I I have, like, been tied down to a bed with Penelope Cruz and Salma Hayek making out with me. You know, both of them were kind of in love with me in Banditas. But it’s always this kind of crazy character, you know? So in a way, I’ve played the romantic lead, but it’s just not been as hard core as this, definitely.
Question: What about working behind the scenes? How much interest do you have in adopting a different creative stance?
Zahn: Yeah, I don’t know. I mean, I think that might happen. It’s just – I find acting still so rewarding and challenging. And part of it is just kind of my other life, that is just as challenging and rewarding. And that’s like, my kids. My farm. You know, I really – I live for that. You know?
Question: Is it a working farm?
Zahn: Yeah. It’s a horse farm. It’s outside Lexington. You know. We’re in the midst of all the thoroughbred farms, but we have quarterhorses and goats and sheep. And – yeah. I mean, we do it all ourselves. We don’t have help. We’re – and I love going on a press junket, because I don’t have to shovel shit and feed horses. So. [LAUGHTER] You know, my wife does it. I flew in yesterday, and I literally woke up at, like, 5:30, and was shoveling horse shit. And then I drove to Cincinnati, got on the plane, flew in. And then I was at this big, like – my agency. And there’s 20 agents sitting at a table. And I sat there, and they asked me a question. And I paused and I looked at them all, and I was like, “Did you know that this morning, I shoveled shit into a wheelbarrow? And now you just asked me that question here at this big table.”
Question: Is that surreal?
Zahn: It’s so – that’s why I said it. It’s like, complete – it’s so surreal. And I hope that never goes away, you know what I mean?