By Sean Axmaker
April 8, 2005 - 1:54 AM PDT
To reverse a cliché, Steve Zahn looks taller in person than he does on screen.
You may not place the name, but you'd recognize him in a second from his numerous comic relief roles in such films as That Thing You Do!, Out of Sight, and Happy, Texas. Boyish and square-jawed, with a big, goofy grin, he exudes the same easy-going, laid back vibe in person that his screen characters do, and he peppers his conversation with "you know?" and "man," all with that stoner buddy delivery. But at 5' 9" he looks bigger than I expected, as if the camera has been playing him down all this time, the better to make him the short kooky sidekick of the tall, handsome leading man. It's a character he's played dozens of times since his screen debut in Reality Bites. He's been working almost non-stop since then, and not just as comic relief. His filmography includes dramatic roles in Shattered Glass and Michael Almereyda's contemporized Hamlet, an intense turn in the thriller Joy Ride, and a small role early in Crimson Tide.
With Sahara, the first film in a potential adventure franchise adapted from a novel by Clive Cussler (one of many featuring the deep sea salvage diving hero Dirk Pitt), Zahn adds action hero to the resume. Yes, his character, Al Giordano, is the wisecracking sidekick, but one that gets to join in the heroics with leading man Matthew McConaughey. Zahn was on the road in March in a blitzkrieg promotional tour for the film. I sat down with him during his Seattle stop to talk about the film, his role, and his career as character actor.
Matthew McConaughey and Steve Zahn in Sahara.
Sahara is about deep sea divers in the desert. What's with that?
Yeah, it's kind of interesting, isn't it? NUMA, the National Underwater and Marine Agency, is an actual organization. This is very interesting, you know Clive Cussler? I read a lot, and they were like, "Yeah, it's a Clive Cussler novel," and I was like, "Well, who's Clive Cussler?" And then I started researching it. And then you realize how many people read this guy. This guy is really interesting and his life parallels his books. He has this company called NUMA that goes out and looks for, like, that Civil War submarine that was off the South Carolina coast. [The Hunley, which Clive Cussler located in 1995 and helped recover in 2000.] It was him.
Did you read the novels in preparation for the role?
No. I started reading, and then I stopped and I read this Dirk Pitt Revealed, which is kind of like a book with an in-house interview with Clive. It describes the characters in depth, and their back-stories and all this. But I didn't what to get too screwed up with... you know what I mean? You're shooting a movie, it's a different medium, you can't fully reproduce. I'd much rather go into something as an actor, and just try to make every moment real. Do you know what I mean? Playing a character, but not getting too wrapped up in it.
Did you meet Clive Cussler?
I did. I had to get approved by Clive. I went down to Phoenix, where he lives, and met him and we had about an hour-and-a-half, two-hour meeting. And he let me be Al. He took awhile. [In a low, drawn-out voice] "You don't have dark hair," and I was like, "Well, I could dye it. That's easily done." [Again, low voice] "He was stronger than you." "Yeah? How much did he bench?" [laughs] But he let me do it.
How did you land that role? Did the producers seek you out or did you pursue it?
Matthew [McConaughey] was an executive on it, and he sent me the script and this crazy letter, which was great. I'd never been kind of approached in that way. I was really impressed with the letter, and I read the script immediately and I really was very excited to be offered something in this genre. I mean, I'd never done it before. I thought the characters were good, and I like Matthew. And also it was months of work and I just don't get offered that. I'm not a leading guy. I usually hook up to a film and then, in a month and a half, I'm out, gone. So it was fun.
This is the first sidekick you've played that's also an action hero.
Yeah, true. I've played these parts and fulfilled my duties to the producers or whatever to give them what they want. But, you know, being a character actor enables you to be in different types of movies, and it changes you automatically. It was fun to do the same kind of humor, but in the desert on a camel. You know what I mean? That's what I love about Al. He was opposite his environment, where Dirk is more wrapped up in it. He's poetic about where he is. Al could be in Philly buying a cheese steak, and he's on a camel.
And then when it comes down to it, you pull out the gun, and you are sharpshooting the dynamite.
Yeah, or whatever, you know. He's got his skills definitely honed. He's kind of the mechanic. He's the guy who fixes stuff and bellyaches but ends up going along with it anyway.
In every one of the action scenes, the minute that danger hits, you and Matthew McConaughey suddenly become completely in sync. It's an unspoken sense of teamwork that suggests a whole history of working together under fire.
Yeah, and we knew that that's where you would get our relationship. It would be in that kind of situation, as opposed to saying, "Remember that time in high school when??" And that took a lot of work to figure each other out. We spent a lot of time together and trained together to get a language between us that would come across. And I think it does. I was really happy with it when I saw it. I was worried about it, because you don't know. You do 15 set ups and 20 takes and blah blah blah, and you go, "I don't know. I think we did it, but I just don't know."
Steve Zahn as Rosencrantz and Dechen Thurman as Guildenstern in Hamlet.
Yeah, I wanted to ask about that because the chemistry on screen looks completely effortless. It looks like you guys have spent the last 20 years hanging out together, or more. And we know that actors who are actually in love with each other, married couples, can fall flat when they go on screen. And people who dislike each other off screen can create the most...
Exactly. So how do you create an on screen chemistry?
You can't. It's either there or it is not. And you really have to work hard. It doesn't just happen, it's not something that... well, that's in total contradiction to what I just said, isn't it?
[Pauses and ponders his answer.]
It's all really about in the moment. You can talk about, "Well, we like each other, we spent a lot of time together, we're best friends," yeah, yeah, yeah, that's bullshit. You don't have to be best friends to be best friends in a movie. But the work comes in the moment, when you are rolling. You have to listen to one another and you have to trust the director is going to be able to pull the things out that you do and piece it together in the right way. Do you know what I mean? In that process, that one hour that you are doing that set-up, it's all work. And you can't rely on the fact that you rode four-wheelers two months ago and had a great time getting drunk. That doesn't read. No one can see that shit, you know what I mean? So, what is it? I don't know. It's some magical, artistic thing that happens. And when you feel it's right, it works and you just kind of instinctually, without even saying anything, go with it. And I think Matthew and I, because we spent a lot of time together before, knew each other, knew how to approach each other as people, respect each other's way of working enough to make that work... you know what I'm saying? I've done movies where you just show up on set and all of a sudden you're with another guy and you're acting with them and you don't know anything about them and that's hard.
It's a lot different also than theater, where you spend weeks and weeks rehearsing with people.
Yeah, and I'm used to that. At the beginning, when I first started acting, for years I did theater. I haven't done a play since '94, but I still go to work in the same way, with the same preparation and the same respect for the script and same respect for the director, and I'll be able to do whatever you want within your parameters, just let me go, blah, blah, blah. And some people don't work like that. Doesn't make it great or bad, it's just - you really have to keep loose and keep on your toes. Especially in an action movie, where it has more to do with you timing with the explosion or the helicopter coming through. There's not a lot of room for screwing around. It's really difficult; you really have to keep focused for six months about what you are going to do, and when you get tired after three months, you've got to remember where you were on day one. Even more so than you do on other movies.
"And when you feel it's right, go with it.""It's got to be a fun movie."
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A film critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and a DVD columnist for the Internet Movie Database, Sean Axmaker is also a frequent contributor to MSN Entertainment, Amazing Stories, Asian Cult Cinema, Greencine and StaticMultimedia.com. His reviews and essays are featured in the recently released Scarecrow Movie Guide.
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