Steve Zahn is a smart guy. Over the course of nearly three decades he’s garnered recognition for playing an array of stoners, slackers, screw-ups, and oddballs, but once you start talking to him, you realize that’s all an expertly executed act. In real life, he speaks slowly and deliberately, thinking through his answers and waxing poetic about everything from the farm he owns in Kentucky to the experimental theater he practiced early in his career. If you know him as the wacky guy from That Thing You Do, Saving Silverman, or the Diary of a Wimpy Kid films, meeting him is confusing at first.
However, if you know Zahn from his roles in dramatic outings like Rescue Dawn and his latest, War for the Planet of the Apes, his intensity makes all the sense in the world. In the new film, the 49-year-old actor plays Bad Ape, a chimp who is actually quite good but assumes that’s his name after years of abuse. Though there’s plenty of humor in Bad Ape’s part, he’s also a figure of pathos and tragedy. In a way, that balance is a nice reflection of Zahn’s approach to his career. We caught up with Zahn at the New York offices to talk about the craft of acting, the difficulties of Skype auditions, and how he can identify what movie you recognize him from before you even say it.
How’s the farm?
What do you guys farm out there?
We have horses and goats. We’ve been there for 13 years, outside Lexington, Kentucky. I just don’t want this business to define my life.
What else defines your life?
I like to fish. I’m an outdoorsman. I love to hunt and fish. I’m huge on spring and summer gardening. I’m really proud of my perennial beds. That’s a passion of mine.
What’s doing well in you perennial bed right now?
Well, everything’s doing great right now. My daylilies are insane. I have great irises. I have a wide variety. I have many, many big beds. Raised beds. It’s insane, y’know?
And I read somewhere that you made an appearance in some local Kentucky theater a little while back.
Yeah, my wife and I started a theater company. Local community theater. We do musicals and we do acting classes, and it’s a real vibrant community with great talent and it’s as fulfilling as anything I do. But someone got sick, so I had to jump in and get permission from [Actors’] Equity to hit the stage in this Christmas show. That’s what we do. I took a year off after Apes.
But you shot that pilot where you’re a small-town sheriff, The Crossing.
That was a pilot we did in March. So out of 15 months, it was 14 months off. Y’know, an actor takes six months off and it turns into a year, because you call them in month seven and go, “I’m ready!” and they go, “Okay.” “Is there anything out there?” “No. But good to have you back!”
How did you become a part of Apes?
I got a call from my manager saying that they were interested in me in a movie, and I was shooting a show down in Puerto Rico at the time — 14-hour-days kind of thing — and was like, “Yeah, okay, what is it?” And he was like “Planet of the Apes.” And I was like, “Really? To play what?” “To play a new ape.” I got really excited, of course. It’s Planet of the Apes! And then I read the part, and it’s a great part, and I thought, Wow! This is great! I had a Skype conversation with [director] Matt Reeves for, like, an hour and 15 minutes. We just talked about [Sergio] Leone movies and Westerns, and then he asked me if I’d read for him and I said, “Of course, I’d love to.” I think there’s an idea that once you’ve worked for a while, there are just piles of scripts on your desk, and offers. But really anything of value, anything that’s good, you need to fight for. So I did this crazy Skype audition with Matt. Auditioning or reading for people in general can just be kind of weird to begin with, because it’s not acting.
How is it not acting?
Well, you’re not interacting with anyone. You’re reading with someone. There’s a script in front of you and you’re kind of pretending to pretend. There’s a flavor of what you might do. I remember, back in the day in New York, going to auditions and you’re reading with an assistant at some casting agency and they might not be actors, so your impulse as an actor is to make that exchange, that’s the play of the day. I’m not doing the movie, I’m doing what we’re doing right now, even if it’s contradictory to my idea of what we’re going to do, ultimately. It’s a weird process. But then to do it on Skype, I mean, just talking to your kid on Skype is weird. It’s just looking at yourself, and you end up calling each other because it’s too bizarre. I mean, my kid, Henry, the first time we ever Skyped, he looked at it and he was like — at the time, I think he was 9 — he goes, “Hey!” I go, “Hey!” He immediately drops his pants and shows me his ass. I’m like, “Of course, that’s the first thing you do.”
Matt didn’t do that to you, I hope.
No, Matt didn’t. But I auditioned with him and it was great! I did 30 percent what I thought a chimpanzee would do. I didn’t go full-on. I kind of did this thing [wiggles his body back and forth] and I entered the frame and I really worked on it. I got to say, for three days, that’s all I did, was try to perfect this scene. He liked it, and I’m in the movie.
What’s it like for you to do all this CGI acting, where you have to have the jumpsuit on?
To be honest, what makes it so terrifying is that there’s no difference other than you’re wearing a jumpsuit with a helmet and a camera in a backpack, which takes about a minute to get used to. And then you view the others as apes. I thought that there would be these hurdles. We’ve all done CGI where you’re in front of a green screen pretending you’re on the Titanic or wherever, you know? You’re pretending double — that you’re this person you’re not, and you’re in a different environment. But this was all on location. The technology has come along so far that when you see us on horses, we’re on horses. We’re by a waterfall? We’re actually by the waterfall. If it looks cold, it was cold. It was the most physical job I think I’ve ever done.
Because you’re hunched down the whole time, right?
Yeah, and the process of learning how to do this was with Terry Notary, who plays [the ape named] Rocket. He was the coach on set. The guy is phenomenal. We sat down in chairs looking at each other, breathing, and talking about core and talking about strength and talking about presence and how we hold ourselves as humans, but apes don’t, but they’re not lazy — just breaking it down. I got terrified because I realized that this was a lot more involved than I thought.
Right, it’s not like when you’re acting in Diary of a Wimpy Kid.
Exactly. It’s hard to play a cop, but it’s really hard to play a cop that’s a chimp. Maybe I was just kind of dumb, but I came into it and really started watching Andy [Serkis] and those guys and, you know, I really take offense when people go, “He’s such a great motion-capture actor.” I go, “No, he’s one of the greatest actors I’ve ever worked with.” Matt Reeves is this incredible director who’s totally passionate and connected to this story. You sit and you explore these tiny moments in this huge blockbuster movie. Usually, you’re acting for time; there’s always this emphasis, whether or not you have people pointing at their watches, you know this big machine has to keep moving. So to spend hours on these little, beautiful moments between two characters just really surprised me and it’s become one of my favorite jobs that I’ve ever done. It reminded me of doing this experimental theater I did at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge in 1989. Doing this crazy, kind of stylized theater that was rooted in truth and honesty.
What role do you get recognized the most for on the street?
I don’t know. It’s interesting. It depends on … You’re kind of a part of people’s subconscious and it’s weird to see it pop out. Sometimes it’s just something like, during the holidays, That Thing You Do is running on a loop on HBO, you know what I mean? I’d say Saving Silverman or Sahara or That Thing You Do.
Saving Silverman, interesting. I wouldn’t have called that.
Yeah, that’s a big one. It’s interesting because that movie was a flop. It was horribly critically panned and did no money.
Not You’ve Got Mail?
Yeah, I guess sometimes.
It’s just such an enduring movie, so I assumed.
You can usually tell when somebody comes up, you can guess what they recognize you from. [Mimes seeing someone coming toward him.] “That’s a You’ve Got Mail.”
How can you tell if someone is a You’ve Got Mail recognizer?
If it’s a woman. It’s a chick flick!
Did you dream about being an actor when you were a kid?
No. But I loved to act. It was something that I enjoyed doing. I remember seeing my sister in a play when I was very young, and I remember telling my folks, “I want to do that.” In sixth grade, I was in the high-school production of The Wizard of Oz as a munchkin, and one day, Dr. Lamby, I think his name was, was yelling at all the cast and he pulled me aside and screamed, “This is the only guy up there doing anything!” [Laughs] I was the guy in high school; I was the guy who was good at it. The first college I went to, I remember taking a trip to London with a dance group and it was January, between the semesters, and I got credit for going to see London theater. I remember seeing Les Miserables with the original cast — this was in ’87 — and I was blown away by it. I went to the bathroom at intermission and everyone was peeing and talking about how great the show was, and I remember thinking I don’t want to be out here.
I remember sitting through the second act thinking, I’m good as that guy standing on the barricade. It wasn’t like I wanted to be a star, it was just that I knew that I can. I wanted to be a part of the circus. My mentor and teacher was in London at the time and we had dinner that night and I told him, “I’m dropping out and just going to do theater.” He was so excited. That was it. I didn’t know what the fuck I was going to do. I was working in a machine shop, tool-and-die, and I got this eight-month run of Biloxi Blues. It was my first gig. I worked with New York actors in it. It was good, it got good reviews, and one of them encouraged me to go train. And one of them had worked for Anne Bogart and said, “Hey, they’re starting up the A.R.T.” and I thought it was awesome and got in.
In those early years, how close did you ever come to saying, “Screw it, this isn’t working out, I should try something else”?
Never. Because I really felt that it was the only thing I could really do. It was either do that or dig holes or join the Marine Corps. I knew I could do it well. It never got to that point. Trust me, I had moments in New York where I would become bitter.
But you never went, This isn’t the life for me.
No. When I haven’t worked for a while, I get antsy. It’s not about, I need to get my face out there so I can get more jobs. It’s like, I just wanna be on set. And you know, maybe that’s partially living on a farm and just wanting to be around funny people. But I love the culture. I loved being an actor in New York, it was so exciting. For years, there’s no money. The first movie I did, Reality Bites, I came back home and I was poorer than when I started.
Were there moments when you were frustrated that you kept getting comedic parts?
No, I thought it was great. I loved doing that stuff. Look, I just knew that that would change. When I was at A.R.T., I was an ingenue. I played Cléante in The Miser. I was that guy. I didn’t have some master plan. I just wanted to kick ass in the next thing I did. Then I realized, you know, if you’re the stoner, guess what, you’re the stoner for a while. Whatever. That’s a compliment, right?
I assume people started to think you were a big stoner, right?
[Laughs] Oh, yeah! I just hung out with Sam Rockwell, he’s a great friend of mine and one of the greatest actors alive. He’s a New Yorker man. He’s a city guy. And yet, he plays all these kind of adorable rednecks. And I always get these stoner, urban types. You know, the disc jockey at the station that talks fast or whatever. [Laughs] And I’m totally opposite that, y’know? Sam’s afraid of horses; I own them and take care of them.
You weren’t really a slacker.
I mean, I’m the guy who gets up at six without an alarm clock. I was always that guy.
Do you feel like lately you’re trying to transition into more dramatic roles?
No, no, I just think they come. I mean, I’ve played a lot of dramatic roles. And I think sometimes people … It’s funny. People go, “I’ve seen everything you’ve done.” And I go, “I haven’t. Really?”
Right, people pick and choose the roles they identify you with. Rescue Dawn wasn’t exactly a comedy.
Yeah, that’s pretty dramatic. Riding in Cars With Boys is dramatic. Obviously Bad Ape is a very tragic character. It’s weird because I don’t get sent the comedies. I love doing comedies, they’re so fun, but I don’t get those scripts.
No. Like the all-out comedy.
Oh, as opposed to non-comedy films where you’re the comedic character.
And yet, I don’t get the commander of the U-Boat, either.
I, for one, would love to see you play the commander of a U-Boat.
[Laughs] Yeah, they’re gonna remake Das Boot. I mean, they started remaking movies that are like ten years old. It’s like, “Hey, remember this?” And you’re like, “Yeah, I haven’t even seen it! You’re gonna remake it already?”
The role that introduced me to you was that of Lenny, the goofball bandmate in That Thing You Do. It’s a really good little movie.
It’s a great movie!
What’s a distinctive memory you have from shooting it?
Oh, I have so many. I remember every day of that shoot. All the [musical] performances. The performance at the state fair was great. That was fun. I remember the scene where I’m playing cards with the guys. That was something we shot at the end of the day, and Tom [Hanks] kept having ideas like, “You’re playing crazy eights!” I’d be like, “Oh, that’d be great!” I remember all this stuff we did, like just eating the candy on the plane and how Tom would just encourage all this kind of great, funny, stupid shit. It was great. I remember rehearsing as a band for like a month straight. It was great.
There are some movies you forget. But that movie? I remember every day. That was one of those movies that you get spoiled. You don’t appreciate it at the time, ’cause you’re just learning stuff, and then you assume that they’re all gonna be like that. And then you go, Oh my God, that was an incredible experience. Tom taught us so much stuff. I owe Tom Hanks so much, as far as the things I’ve learned. And it’s not even about acting. I learned all that stuff too. But just, you know, your responsibility as a leader on set, your responsibilities. Show up early, know your shit, have an opinion, don’t be a dick. That kind of stuff that I think maybe people take for granted. Do something. Just work. It might not be the job that you wanna do, artistically. But make it great.
What does Steve Zahn do to unwind at the end of the day?
Feed my horses. Have a bourbon. Just one.
Are you famous in your area? Or do you just blend in?
Well, we live outside a little town called Midway, and it’s a block long, the downtown.
So everybody’s famous because everybody knows everybody?
Well, actually, Sam Shepard lives out there.
Yeah, Lexington is a cool little spot. Don’t tell anyone! I still have people, when I go to football games, that come up and welcome me to their town and hope I have a good time. [Laughs] Because there’s just no way that I’m actually going to live there, right? People are like, “Are you …?” And I’m like, “No! What would I be doing here?”