Steve Zahn has had his fair share of on-screen victories in everything from “Saving Silverman” to “War for the Planet of the Apes.” But he just can’t seem to defeat the demons who apparently are house-sitting his Minnesota cabin.
“I just got off the phone with my insurance company. The furnace blew up,” said Zahn, who was facing the very same crisis when we last spoke four years ago. “The toilets are frozen solid. My brother-in-law is up there right now, taking them out.”
Zahn’s latest character also seems to be in the midst of a can’t-win battle. In “The Crossing,” which debuts Monday on ABC, he plays Jude Ellis, a sheriff who has abandoned the Big City for small-town America, where he expects to face nothing more strenuous than a Pilates class.
No such luck.
By the premiere’s first commercial break, his team has discovered dozens of bodies on the beach. The survivors insist they are from the future and have migrated back in time to forge a better life and to warn of an impending apocalypse. Ellis handles the doomsday scenario with a few double takes, but mostly quiet confidence.
After a career dominated by Barney Fife roles, Zahn has finally been cast as Andy Taylor.
“I thought it was a unique role that I had not played before, which is one of the big reasons I was interested in it,” said Zahn, who recently turned 50. “When you’re young, you get pigeonholed, which is understandable. You’re 24, you’re 29, and you don’t look any different. You’re still the stoner. But as you age, it becomes more interesting.”
Zahn’s reputation for injecting comedy into otherwise skimpy parts — watch “Reality Bites” and “You’ve Got Mail” to refresh your memory — was one reason the network wanted him.
“To ground some of the bigger sci-fi concepts of the show, you want a person who could react incredulously to what’s happening and cut the action with a little humor,” said creator Jay Beattie. “So when the network mentioned Steve’s name, it instantly felt right.”
In many ways, Zahn may have more in common with Ellis than any other character on his résumé. Like the sheriff, the actor escaped the hubbub of urban America years ago, spending the vast majority of his time on his horse farm outside Midway, Ky., and his cabin near Pine City, Minn.
“I’m not a sci-fi kid of guy, to be honest. I’ve never watched an episode of ‘Star Trek.’ For real,” said Zahn who was born in Marshall, Minn., and grew up in Mankato and New Hope. “So when I read this, I thought, ‘What would happen if this happened in Midway? How would I react? How would we all react?’ I mean, why is Harrison Ford a big star? Because you think he’s going to die. Because you believe he might not succeed. So that’s what I’m playing. The other stuff I don’t even pay attention to.”
Living off the grid, at least by Hollywood standards, has certainly cost him some roles over the years. But he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I can’t speak for other people, but it’s where I want to live. I like it dark at night,” said Zahn, who shot the 11-part series in British Columbia. “I punch out and go back to a normal, regular life. I think a lot of times in a big city, you’re working even when you’re not. That doesn’t necessarily make you a better actor, but it fills the time gap. My gap is on a tractor.”