Steve Zahn's affable, stammery charm has earned him an enviable track record in comedy films, but lately he's also blossomed into a fine serious actor. He juggles work in weighty films such as the journalism expose "Shattered Glass" and Werner Herzog's Vietnam prisoner of war drama "Rescue Dawn" with such upbeat fare as "Happy, Texas" and "Strange Wilderness," opening today (review forthcoming).

Zahn, long a sidekick, performs a rare full-fledged leading role as a hapless nature-show host whose crew includes Jonah Hill ("Superbad") and Justin Long ("Live Free or Die Hard.") The stoner cameraman and the lazy gofer are "the kinds of parts I would have played when I was their age," he said. Playing the goofy burnout now at age 40 would be "sad. Tragic!"

"The parts change as I get older. The longevity is the important thing, making good choices," he said. "Every job's a challenge to get, I'll be honest with you. I don't have the luxury of saying, 'These are the next 12 things.'

"I remember coming to a point a couple of years ago where I realized it's important to be picking good stuff. So I try to find something that I think would make a good movie and, more importantly, a character that's intriguing and I can play well. Then after that, if it's a flop or a hit, it's out of my control. It's about trying to be good at what you do whether it's a $150 million budget or an $850,000 budget. I just try to keep going."

Zahn, a two-time Minnesota state speech champion, stumbled into acting after a period of drift following graduation from New Hope's Cooper High School. He crashed the auditions for the Old Log Theater production of Neil Simon's "Biloxi Blues," got the job, and spent eight months of 1987 onstage. "It was crazy for my first gig," he recalled. "My job before that was in a machine shop, and here I was, pretending every night and getting paid."

His early notices were positive enough, and his co-stars encouraging enough, to persuade him to try his luck on the East Coast. After several years of eating ramen noodles off-Broadway, where he formed a small theater company with Ethan Hawke, Zahn lit out for Hollywood. "I just went with it, staying as naïve as I was, and it worked for me," he recalled. Ben Stiller cast Zahn as a slacker in "Reality Bites," Tom Hanks cast him as a wisecracking guitarist in his writing/directing debut "That Thing You Do!" and his comic persona was more or less established.

"I gravitate to ensemble comedy," Zahn said. "That makes it easier. There's less pressure!" He read the script of "Strange Wilderness" in a Hanoi hotel room shortly after completing "Rescue Dawn," recovering from the drastic dieting and exposure to the elements that he endured to play an emaciated POW.

"Wilderness," from Adam Sandler's Happy Madison production company, weaves clips from old shows such as "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom" into the story of a failing outdoors show's search for Bigfoot. The idea tickled him like no screenplay he'd seen in years.

"These little excerpts are during the movie," Zahn said. "It's hysterical. You're paying $7 to see it and then you're watching, like, seals."

"I laughed so hard and after, I thought maybe it's just because I'm tired and I made this crazy movie. So I read it again and I thought 'This could be so funny'." Director Fred Wolf and his co-writer Peter Gaulke are "Saturday Night Live" veterans "from the era when Sandler and [Chris] Farley were there, the good old days," Zahn said. "Truly brilliant comedians. Comedy is so hard to do yet they don't get the same acclaim as the 'Rescue Dawns.' It's absurd.

"I'll always be perceived as that kind of crazy guy. But I'm 40 now so I'll get more parts like the coach or the POW. And that's fine."

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186