The adjectives most often used to describe Steve Zahn are probably “wacky” and “stoned,” but the first two whipped out in this newspaper were “sensitive” and “consistent.”
They’re from theater critic Peter Vaughan’s review of “Biloxi Blues” at Old Log Theatre in 1987. Zahn, a state champion in speech who alternated in lead musical roles at Robbinsdale Cooper High School with future Guthrie mainstay Robert Berdahl, was only a couple of years removed from playing Harold Hill in “The Music Man” in school when he landed the Old Log gig. He didn’t stick around long, moving to New York and Los Angeles and landing parts quickly (including a national tour of “Bye Bye Birdie” that came to the Ordway).
Sensitive and consistent though he may be, the actor quickly developed a reputation as someone a director could cut to when a laugh was in order. Zahn hasn’t played a ton of movie leads, but not having to stick around for every scene of a three-month shooting schedule gives him the freedom to pop in for three or four weeks instead, allowing him to rack up 81 credits in less than 30 years.
He’s a free-spirited best friend or a wacky neighbor or a goofy weed dealer in a lot of his roles. But Zahn has said he’s the “exact opposite” of that guy.
Vaughan may have had a point all those years ago, because Zahn is not a one-trick pony. He’s adept at suggesting the sadness that lies behind most of the best comedy, and having established a shtick, he has sought opportunities to contradict it. GQ magazine called him “the nation’s most pre-eminent character actor.”
Tommy Lee Jones and Regina King may have something to say about that, but it’s true that Zahn can do a lot with a little. In interviews, the actor has expressed frustration about missing opportunities that could have made a difference for his career; he lost “Courage Under Fire” to Matt Damon and didn’t accept HBO’s “Band of Brothers” because “Joy Ride” was a better paycheck. But even though Zahn (who now lives in Kentucky and occasionally does local theater there) works a lot, he can’t do everything he’s offered.
Sometimes it seems like he tries to. He often ends up in projects that aren’t worth his time (let’s pretend Adam Sandler’s “The Ridiculous 6” never happened), but a résumé as jam-packed as Zahn’s is bound to include a lot of terrific movies, some of which are blockbusters and some you’ve probably never heard of.
Unless you saw Zahn’s Harold Hill, this is probably your first look at him, and it remains one of his best roles. Zahn’s frequently baked character seems like a punchline, and he makes some of the script’s funniest jokes even better with his skewed timing. But the Marshall, Minn., native really comes through in the tender closing scenes, when it’s revealed his character uses humor as a defense mechanism so he won’t become the joke.
In a movie where even the tiniest parts are played by stars making big impressions (Samuel L. Jackson and Viola Davis may have less than five minutes on screen, combined), Zahn stands out as a stoner whom George Clooney and Ving Rhames should not have trusted to drive their getaway car. Scott Frank’s zesty screenplay provides Zahn a couple of showy, whiny speeches, but his best moment is a silent one handed to him by director Steven Soderbergh and ace editor Anne Coates: In a boxing gym, Clooney reminds Zahn what a jerk he has been and Zahn responds with an uncomfortable, he’s-not-wrong frown.
There was a time I worked writer/director John Dahl’s gonzo heist comedy “Red Rock West” into virtually every conversation (“Yes, Peanut Butter Cup Blizzards are delicious, but they’d be even better if you ate them while watching ‘Red Rock West’ ”), but this gripping gem by Dahl is even less known. Zahn plays one of two brothers who prank a truck driver, who spends the next 90 minutes trying to kill them. Zahn’s frantic energy perfectly suits this scary/funny thrill ride (after you watch, check out the dandy alternate ending on YouTube).
This tough/tender road movie makes savvy use of Zahn’s genial persona. It’s about a kid who steals a horse that was about to be slaughtered, beginning a cross-country odyssey that brings him in contact with a series of strangers. Zahn plays a man without a home who befriends our hero but becomes a completely different person when he drinks.
Although he is one in real life, Zahn rarely has played dads. His, yes, sensitive work with the young actors who play his sons in this sentimental adaptation of Jeff Kinney’s novel (which also became a Children’s Theatre Company musical) grounds the slapstick comedy in something real.
That thing Zahn does is play guitar in Tom Hanks’ candy-coated comedy about a ’60s garage band. He’s doing his own singing, too, as fans from his high school musical days already knew.
Casting directors often take advantage of Zahn’s slightly zonked quality, but some of his most interesting work is when he plays against it. This one’s a drama inspired by Stephen Glass, a New Republic journalist whose work turned out to be almost entirely fake. Zahn plays the dogged reporter who unmasks Glass, and supplies “Shattered Glass” with a fascinating tension; you keep expecting the actor to slide into his goofball sweet spot but he never does.