Steve Zahn: ‘I’ve never been a slacker. I live on a farm’
The classically trained actor on his new film Cowboys, working with Werner Herzog and being branded a Gen X funny guy
Steve Zahn and Sasha Knight in Cowboys
Maybe it was the Generation X branding that came with the cult slacker movie Reality Bites. Maybe it was the series of (very different) stoners, deadbeats and ne’er-do-wells he has played in Out of Sight, Riding in Cars with Boys, and You’ve Got Mail. But even the Wikipedia entry for Steve Zahn lists “comedian” as his profession.
Speaking via Zoom from his horse farm outside Lexington, Kentucky, the actor bemusedly ponders the confusion. Certainly, he’s a funny man: just not by trade.
“After I trained with the American Repertory Theatre, I went to New York and I thought I’d be a leading man,” says Zahn. “But then I did a play and I was funny in it and I had long hair and I was kind of a burnout. And you do things and people get ideas about you. I still have people come up to me and say: ‘Oh, you’re that stand-up comedian’. But no. I’m an actor.
“It’s interesting that people think of me as this comedic actor. I’ve only done two or three crazy off-the-wall comedies like Strange Wilderness. And I’ve never been a slacker. I live on a farm. You wake up. Period. Horses and dogs don’t care if it’s Christmas. I get up at 5.30am and I’m in bed at 9.30pm. I’m that guy. I only use an alarm when I’m working on a movie. And that’s to wake up later.”
Zahn required little persuasion to take on the role of Troy – a recovering addict with bipolar disorder – in writer-director Anna Kerrigan’s Cowboys. In an arresting opening sequence, Troy absconds with his son Joe (Sasha Knight). The pair ride out into the Montana wilderness, pursued by local detective Faith (Ann Dowd). A series of flashbacks illustrate Troy’s fraught relationship with his ex-wife, Sally (Jillian Bell), Joe’s identification with cowboys, and Sally’s reluctance to accept her transgender son.
Kerrigan’s delicate script refuses to demonise Bell’s worried, religious mother and is especially sensitive in its treatment of childhood gender identification. Each character is simply navigating their family and circumstances to the best of their abilities.
“I think that’s the best way to think about it,” says Zahn. “Everybody in the movie is flawed. Everybody’s rough around the edges. Everybody is just doing the best they can with the hand they were dealt. Just like in life. If you are lucky enough in this world, you can bluff your way with a bad hand. And my character has been dealt a bad hand. He’s got so many problems and issues and he’s trying so hard to manage. He’s complicated. There’s a lot of material out there. But it’s a rarity to get something that is as deeply character-driven as this. It’s exciting but, as an actor, it also puts fear in you.”
Zahn cried when he first read the script. That was reason enough to call up the director. But the required trek towards the Canadian border provided an additional appeal.
“I’m very attracted to stories in which the environment or nature is as much of a central character as the people involved,” says the 53-year-old. “It’s peripheral to the love between the father and son but I loved that it’s something of a western with a poignant, timely subject matter. It’s bound up with American mythology. And it was fun to do.
“It’s fun to film out in the elements. It’s a blast. You don’t have to pretend. You’re on a horse and the mountains are right there in front of you. This is maybe the only time I’ve worked in film that represents what I thought making a movie would be like before I started making movies. All the other times it’s lights and a studio and there are tons of people standing around eating Cheetos and you’re pretending that they’re not there.”
Despite his Hollywood career, Zahn has never been a city boy, exactly. He was born in Marshall, Minnesota, to Zelda, a YMCA administrator, and Carleton, a Lutheran minister.
“My dad was a really fascinating dude,” he says. “He was very well-read. He quoted World War I poetry in his sermons. He wrote all his sermons out. He never repeated himself. He was progressive. He ran soup kitchens. He wasn’t what people usually think of when they think about organised religion.”
At high school Zahn excelled in speech and drama, becoming a two-time state champion at public speaking. He was considering enlisting in the marines when a school trip to London, and the West End production of Les Misérables, convinced him otherwise. After graduating from the Institute for Advanced Theatre Training at Harvard University, he made his professional stage debut in a Minnesota production of Neil Simon’s Biloxi Blues and founded the Malaparte Theatre Company with actor friends Ethan Hawke and Robert Sean Leonard in 1991.
“I really do miss the stage,” he says. “There’s a bit of guilt there over being away from it. I do find film to be just as compelling. It’s like doing a very small play, in that, on the day, you still have an audience plus you have to be able to convey things on a very microscopic level.
“It’s frustrating sometimes because you watch a movie and you’re thinking that the scene coming up was so brilliant. But now it has been butchered for coverage. Or the way that I’m talking and you’re talking. But you never see two people talking on screen in the same shot. It’s like they think people will immediately turn a film off because there isn’t a cut every two seconds.
“And digital has made that worse. It’s so much easier to shoot now. So you don’t have as much prep time. They just want to shoot the rehearsal. I want to rehearse the rehearsal. Back when everything was on film, you rehearsed the scene, you knew exactly what the camera was doing, and what its job was in telling the story.”
He laughs: “Listen to me. I’m like an old man: ‘Back when we had film.’ ”
Despite the early long-hair pigeon-holing, Zahn has enjoyed a varied career that has entailed motion capture (for Bad Ape in 2017’s War for the Planet of the Apes), rave notices for his turn as an outraged local DJ in HBO’s Treme, and a Special Jury Award at the Sundance Film Festival for 1999’s Happy, Texas. There is, however, one role that he’s asked about more than any other.
Zahn, a Werner Herzog superfan, campaigned for the role of Vietnam prisoner of war Duane W Martin in Herzog’s 2007 film Rescue Dawn, a narrative companion piece to the director’s earlier documentary Little Dieter Wants to Fly. To secure the role, the actor lost 20kg by running and eating raw food.
“Werner once got shot in the middle of an interview,” laughs Zahn. “F**k, man: how does that even happen? He’s been in, like, three plane crashes. I remember sitting in a prop plane in Thailand and turning to my buddy sitting next to me and saying: ‘We’re going down, man, and Werner Hertzog is the only one that’s going to live.’
“He is a one-of-a-kind, brilliant man in every sense. I remember every day of that job. We were all in. Whatever he told us to do, we did it. It was a crazy set. But I was with Christian [Bale], who is one of the funniest guys I’ve ever worked with in my life. We were in shackles and they’d just leave us there for, like, a half-hour between takes. I remember once we had to walk down the path, and Christian and I are standing there as they’re setting up the shot. It’s been raining and this monstrous 400-year-old tree slides down the mountain and on to the path. And Werner’s only reaction was to be really pissed because we weren’t rolling.”
When he isn’t on screen, Zahn can be found tending goats and flowerbeds on the ranch he shares with author and theatre artist Robyn Peterman. The couple met when they were performing in a national tour of Bye Bye Birdie and have been married since 1994.
“It’s funny because I’m surrounded by artists on a farm,” says Zahn. “My wife became a writer and now she has a New York Times bestseller and she writes her ass off. She works until three in the morning, and we play tag team because that’s when I’m getting up. My daughter is studying musical theatre, and my son is at theatre school. My neighbours – who are not very close by, but anyway – Ricky across the street is fascinated by my son. My son works on his farm shovelling s**t and using a weed whacker. That’ll make him a good writer some day.
“Hanging around with guys that are a bit rough around the edges will give you a good voice. And if you can get up at six in the morning and shovel s**t, you’re going to be okay in life.”
Cowboys is on Curzon Home Cinema and digital download from May 7th