Wednesday, December 5, 2012

In Character: Steve Zahn

I firmly believe that Steve Zahn is one of the most criminally ignored comedians currently working in film and television. But perhaps comedian isn’t fair. It isn’t like the guy tours between film roles doing stand-up around the country. In fact, I’m not entirely sure he would refer to himself as one. But either way, dude is funny as hell, and his humor deserves to be discussed about more.

Now for the flip. Occasionally in his roles, Zahn is given all too brief moments to fully assert his drama, which always produces memorable results. He’s believable in his comedy, and authentic in his pain.

Five Essential Roles
That Thing You Do! (1996)
Lenny Haise
“Take us there, Skitch.”

Although Zahn had popped up briefly but notably in a handful of roles before That Thing You Do!, Lenny Haise proved to be his big breakout. As the guitarist and back up singer for The Wonders, Zahn provides Tom Hanks’ film with the perfect amount of ‘60s farce. Damn near everything that comes out of Lenny’s mouth is delivered to achieve a laugh. Whether he’s arguing the case for the luxury of a tiny mobile camper, or playing Go Fish with some winos, this is the performance that deserved to put Zahn on the map.

Out of Sight (1998)
Glenn Michaels
Much like That Thing You Do! (and, well, the majority of his other roles) Zahn’s work in Out of Sight is designed to heighten the comic relief. Playing a consummate fuckup like Glenn Michaels works seamlessly for Zahn – the shaggy hair, the ridiculous sun glasses, the stoner cadence – the dude can simply play a moron like no one else.

But, perhaps what’s most notable in this performance is that great flip I mentioned earlier. Zahn’s tearful, terrified reaction to watching Don Cheadle’s Maurice senselessly butcher a family makes way for the film’s most heartfelt moment. We don’t witness the crime, but it’s written all over Zahn’s face. That’s acting.

Happy, Texas (1999)
Wayne Wayne Wayne Jr.
In his best out-and-out comedic performance to date, Zahn, along with Jeremy Northam, play escaped convicts who are hilariously mistook for gay partners consulting beauty pageant contestants in Texas. The set-up is a little tired (expect the whole false-gay-man-befriends-attractive-woman-only-because-she-thinks-he’s-gay bit) but Zahn seriously makes this case of mistaken identity soar with absurdity.

Two things make this performance sing: first is the way Wayne influences a new female love interest, at one point telling her “That whole gay thing is just like a hobby,” and second, the fact that Wayne slowly grows to develop a taste for beauty pageant consulting is handled in a way very few actors could pull off. Happy, Texas is Zahn at his Zahniest. 

Joy Ride (2001)
Fuller Thomas
There’s a scene midway through the endlessly enjoyable thriller romp, Joy Ride, in which Steve Zahn threatens to kill a would-be criminal with his finger.

By this point in the film, Fuller and his brother Lewis (Paul Walker) are aware that they’re being stalked by a man called Rusty Nail. Knowing Rusty to be close, the brothers quickly stop for gas, with Fuller pumping as Lewis goes inside to make a call. Suddenly, a creepy dude in an ICE truck pulls up, immediately causing Fuller to assume it’s Rusty Nail. The brothers leave the station and the ICE man peruses them diligently. One thing leads to another, and before long, the ICE man has the brothers pinned down with nowhere to go. The ICE man approaches the car, and Zahn yells at the top of his lungs for the man to “Stay the fuck back! We gotta gun!” while holding his thumb and index finger in a gun shape.

The man taps on the window and hands Lewis’ credit card (which he mistakenly left at the station) back to him. The scene is scary tense, and crazy funny. Perfectly Zahn.

Treme (2010-present)
Davis McAlary
I’m one of about four people I know who actually watches David Simon’s masterful HBO drama Treme, which is a shame on many levels. A main one being Steve Zahn’s hilariously helpless Davis McAlary.

Davis is a part time DJ trying to crack into the music game by making good on a continued hustle. Heavily influenced and motivated by the New Orleans culture that raised him, Davis is always looking to cook up controversy by sticking it to the man.

As is often the case for Simon’s best characters, there is so much more going on to Davis than meets the eye. It isn’t until midway through the first season, for instance, that we learn Davis’ bohemian lifestyle is strictly by choice, not necessity, as he comes from an insanely wealthy family (whose financial help he refuses). Davis is the kind of guy who drinks too much beer, smokes too much weed, flexes too many ideas, and can out-articulate anyone in any situation. He’s a moron, but he’s also kind of a genius. It’s as “Steve Zahn” a Steve Zahn performance as there is.

Best of the Best
Rescue Dawn (2007)
I’m not entirely sure what drove Zahn to fight so hard for this role, or why director Werner Herzog opted to give him a shot, but goddamn, what he does here is so far removed from anything he’s done before, it’s simply a revelation.

As a terrified, space-out prisoner of war in a hellacious Vietnamese camp, Duane is Zahn at his most consistently dramatic. Never once does the actor dare venture into comedic territory, opting instead to completely immerse himself into a scared shitless shell of a man.

There’s a scene in this film in which Christian Bale’s Dieter is finally able to execute the escape he’s been planning so diligently. Right as things start to get heavy, Duane keels over and vomits on the ground. It’s a moment of instinctual hardship that instantly draws pity. And later, as Dieter and Duane try to survive the harsh Vietnam jungle, we watch as Duane slips further and further into madness. The finest scene of Zahn’s career has him sitting starved and wide-eyed, whispering for Dieter to keep his voice down. “Shhhh, Duane, I’m not speaking,” Dieter gently says. I get chills just thinking about that moment.

Other Notable Roles
In Shattered Glass
Reality Bites (1994)
SubUrbia  (1996)
You’ve Got Mail (1998)
Hamlet (2000)
Riding in Cars with Boys (2001)
Saving Silverman (2001)
Shattered Glass (2003)
Sahara (2005)
Management (2008)
Sunshine Cleaning (2008)
A Perfect Getaway (2009)

Previous installments of In Character include:
Steve Buscemi
John Cazale
Don Cheadle
Patricia Clarkson
Cliff Curtis
Jeff Daniels
Viola Davis
Michael Clarke Duncan
Chiwetel Ejiofor
William Fichtner
Brendan Gleeson
Bruce Greenwood
Philip Baker Hall
Woody Harrelson
John Hawkes
Philip Seymour Hoffman
Richard Jenkins
Erland Josephson
Elias Koteas
Heath Ledger
the Cast of Lincoln
William H. Macy
Christopher McDonald
David Morse
Emily Mortimer
Gary Oldman
Guy Pearce
Kevin Pollak
Joe Pantoliano
John C. Reilly
Sam Rockwell
Campbell Scott
Michael Shannon
David Strathairn
Danny Trejo
Stanley Tucci
Shea Whigham
Ray Winstone
Jeffrey Wright


  1. Zahn's definitely one of those actors who makes a movie better. (I personally like him in Shattered Glass.)

    1. Completely agree. I really like that scene I screen grabbed from. Dawson pressuring him to let her help with the story and he's like, "Uhhh, no. Go away."

  2. "If I see Glenn Michaels there wearing his sunglasses, I'm gonna step on 'em. I might not even take 'em off first."

    A great introduction to a character we won't see for a little while yet, and everything Zahn does from there on is gold.

    I saw Happy, Texas (you left out his full name - Wayne Wayne Wayne, Jr - classic) at the cinema off the back of Out of Sight purely to see Zahn - I honestly may have been the only person in Australia who did so, it was lucky to last a week.

    Same reasoning with Joyride, and he hasn't let me down since.

    Another shining addition to In Character Alex.

    1. Thanks Cam! Glad you're such a Zahn fan. I'll definitely see a movie just because he's in it; man never fails to get a solid laugh.

      I do wish he was given more opportunity to do dramatic work, but oh well.

      Also, just an FYI, I actually always list the character name under the role I choose. Would NEVER pass up a moment to reprint Wayne Wayne Wayne Jr. Ha.

    2. Hahaha, sorry man, I've never noticed the character names above the photo before, I always just go straight to reading your critique.

      You're right about his dramatic work too, I thought he was a huge chance to get an Oscar nom for Rescue Dawn, he played haunted so well (which is captured in the still you've provided). It was disappointing to see his performance not widely recognized.

    3. It's all good man, I just really appreciate you reading period!

      I was seriously gunning for a Zahn Oscar nom for that performance. And then it just kind of fell of the radar and was never discussed again. Serious bummer.

  3. I have seen Rescue Dawn a few times (a fantastic, criminally unseen movie in its own right) and could not agree with you more on Zhan’s' performance, he more than held his own with Bale and is a worthy addition to the fantastic 'In Character' list. Keep them coming!

    1. Wow, thanks so much, Ed!

      I rewatched part of Rescue Dawn today (haven't seen it in a few years), and was really shaken up by Zahn's work. It's just THAT good. Floored me.

  4. Would you do an In Character on Bill Nighy one post? He is not the best of the best character actors but he is one of my personal favorites. Great comments by the way- I loved Zahn in "That Thing You Do".

    1. Oh Nighy is an excellent choice, great pick! Glad you liked the Zahn piece, thanks so much for stopping by and commenting. Expect Nighy soon!

  5. Steve Zahn is an actor I love. Though he's been in bad films where he's not used properly. He does find a way to keep his performance engaging.

    One film that I kind of think is underrated if you don't take it seriously is Bandidas w/ Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz. It's not a great movie. It's very silly but it's looks very fun where Zahn gets to play off those 2 ladies and expose himself in front of them where he gets good comments from both ladies.

    And I love his role as Lenny in That Thing You Do!. He's so funny. It's a film that if it's on, I'll watch it. I can never get tired of that film.

    1. I'm so glad you're such a Zahn fan. And I couldn't agree more: while not always in the best flicks, he always manages to stand out.

      Bandidas, never seen it, gotta check it out.

      Also agree, if That Thing You Do! is on, I'll watch it. "Captain Geech and the Shrimp Shack Shooters."

    2. BTW, will Jonathan Demme ever release Weekend at Party Pier?

      That looks like such a fun movie.

  6. Love this guy! He was terrific in Rescue Dawn and I adored him in Out of Sight and all of Clooney's lines about his stupid sun glasses :)

    I really need to check out Treme, it's the only HBO show I have no clue about.

    1. Nice! Treme is a show I cannot speak highly enough of. If you've seen The Wire, then you're "ready" for it, meaning you're ready for David Simon's slow, purposeful style. First season was good, second season was remarkable, third season was great. It's getting shit canned after half of a fourth season. Such a shame.

  7. This guy is great! And I've only seen Rescue Dawn and Out of Sight from your picks. Man, his work in Rescue Dawn was phenomenal. How can someone give a performance like that and get almost no recognition? I'm guessing no one saw the film, and the studio just didn't campaign it. At least the Independent Spirit Awards were kind enough to take notice.

    1. I love (read: LOVE) Werner Herzog to death, but that man gives fuck all about making money, so he honestly doesn't give two shits about the distribution on his films. He doesn't campaign for awards and doesn't care how many screens show his movies. So I think that seriously hurt Rescue Dawn, which is arguably the most marketable narrative film of his career.

      Sigh. Either way, so glad to hear you're a Zahn fan. Man kills it in Dawn.

  8. Zahn is fantastic in everything he touches. Especially Rescue Dawn.

  9. Hey what happened to Emily Watson :P

    1. I thought you might say that! I actually already had the Zahn one written up, so expect Watson next Wednesday. Shit, I still have to rewatch Hilary and Jackie.

  10. You know how you sometimes identify an actor by a specific part, no matter how many other roles he has played? that's probably me and Steve Zahn as Lenny in That thing you do! I love him and that movie! Great write-up, as usual!

    1. Thanks! I agree, although I love Zahn in many, many roles, he'll always be Lenny for me. LOVE that role.

  11. Oh man, I am so happy you mentioned his work in Treme here. That is a tremendously underrated show, and Davis is one of its best characters.

    1. Holy shit, you watch Treme!! Fuck, I love finding fans of that show. There must be, what, five of us now?

      I really dig what David Simon does there. Such a bummer it's getting shit canned in the middle of its next season.

  12. I have to admit i have never been a huge fan of Steve Zahn's comedic work. Movies like Strange Wilderness, National Security and Sahara really didn't do it for me. So that is why i was so surprised by how amazing he was in Rescue Dawn. There have often been comedians that can turn out great dramatic performances as well, but nothing like what Zahn did in that movie. Like you said, it was simply a revelation. I still can't believe how overlooked that movie and it's performances were that year. I guess since it was released in the summer and most award shows can't remember movies older than a few months is what really did it. It really does feel like those award shows are more about politics and campaigning than actually determining the best movies and performances of the year. I'm sorry i went on a little rant there, but that just really annoys me.

    1. Hey man, rant away - I'm right there with you. At this point, the Oscars are roughly 95% politics and status, that's it. Rarely does the BEST film or performance win (or even land a nomination). Zahn really went somewhere new with Rescue Dawn and he should've been recognized accordingly. Same with the film, one that I've always adored. That's still my favorite Christian Bale (and Jeremy Davies) performance as well. Superb all around.