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Past Article

Steve Zahn and the Secret Formula for Onscreen Chemistry
By Sean Axmaker
April 8, 2005 - 1:54 AM PDT

"It's got to be a fun movie."

Did you have to do long-term physical preparations, a lot of physical training for this?

Yeah, we did tons. We did a lot. With the schedule and with this kind of movie, I knew that I had to be in shape just to keep up. The training that I really liked was with Harry Humphries, who did Black Hawk Down. He's a real deal guy, an older guy who's just doing the movie but he's teaching you in the same way he would teach a S.W.A.T. team. Matthew and I did a lot of weapons training and clearing rooms and learning how to do that. Not that it really meant that we would do that throughout the movie. But like Black Hawk Down, you see these guys and their silent language and how they hold and move. It helped us work together in an indirect way, and we got really good at it after awhile.

Whenever the action scenes started, it's like both of your characters revert back to some training drilled into you from some past life.

That's good to hear, that's really what we wanted. "What are the things you do?" and Harry would go, "When I pick up a gun, I immediately press check it. I check for a weapon, and this is how I would hold it and this is where I would look, and always check to see if it's loaded, check the thing, blow it out, boom. If there's a jam in your gun, rack it. You tap and you rack, and do it instinctually, because when you are shooting, even if it jams, you tap and rack and then it fires again; you look great on film, you look like you know what you are fucking doing, even if it's subconscious." And we really worked hard and trained long enough to where we, without thinking about it, were doing stuff like this. It was just instinctual. I wanted to be able to be loosey goosey and then pick up the gun and look like I knew what I was doing. And that hopefully would have conveyed a backstory.

And at the same time, you haven't lost that original part of your character; you're still throwing shit back and forth.

Exactly. It's got to be a fun movie. I love that about the movie. I love that it's this epic, it's not a CGI-athon, which I fucking hate, and I love the fact that it's all heavy-handed real, and then, just when you get to start questioning it, you go, "Oh come on, that would never work." We find a sailing ship in the desert and we're cruising to the Allman Brothers. And you're going, "Oh great, it's fake and it's a movie and wow!" Thanks to Breck [Eisner, the director], you don't question it and you're on to the next thing.

PenÚlope Cruz, Matthew McConaughey and Steve Zahn in Sahara.

So what kind of an acting challenge was it to call Matthew McConaughey "Dirk" the whole movie?

[Laughs] Dirk. It's the crappiest name. "Hey, Dirk!" [laughs]. Matthew, he's so witty, he's so quick and he's a really smart dude, but I got to tell you, he kept calling me Alfonso. "Hey, Alfonso!" And I was just like, alright, whatever, Alfonso. And I swear to God, it was the last week of six months together and he said something about, "You know, it's weird, your name, Al, Alfonso." And I said, "What? Albert!" And he went, [suddenly quiet] "Oh, my God, it's Albert, it's not..." and I said, "Yeah, it's Al! Albert! Dude!" And he said was like, "Oh my God, maybe we could loop all Alberts. I should have been calling you Albert." It was so funny. I was like, "Dude, I can't believe you missed that one. I mean, you get everything." It slipped by. [laughs] Dirk. What's Clive thinking? He named his kid Dirk. It's like Dwayne.

A quick look at your vita here shows you haven't stopped working in the past ten years. You have a wife and a kid and a farm. How do you keep a real life when you are working all the time?

I do work, but I have a lot of moments of downtime, too. In the end I'm probably home half the time. Last year, no, last year was crazy. But sometimes I'll have eight months off. Before Daddy Day Care I was like, "I need to make some money, I can't get a gig." And then that came along and then things started to pick up again. So you go through waves. But when I'm home, I'm home all the time with my kids, with my wife, with the farm. I figure someone goes to work 9 to 5, it all evens out in the end. I'm there just as much and maybe the time I'm there is more valuable because I'm concentrated fully on the kids. Making waffles, changing diapers.

Do you make a good waffle?

I make a kick-ass waffle... frozen. Eggos, man. Are you kidding me? At 6:30, I ain't making no fucking waffles. "You got it!" [makes sound of frozen waffle going into toaster]

You've done a wide range of roles in your career, but your big successes have always been the comic relief kinds of roles. Do you worry about being typecast?

No, I am. It's a pleasure and a privilege. I really look at it as a career, and not what movies I'm doing this year. I remember not getting offered Dude, Where's My Car? and going, "Wow, I've graduated from college." So it changes as you grow older just for obvious reasons. And to be typecast and make money and make people happy and people dig what you do, what a great thing, man. I don't want to compete with Jude Law, nor should I. Could I act them? Sure. But do people want me to act them? Probably not, you know. As much as I would want to do it, you know what I mean? I think people fuck up there and they do what they want to do. And that's fine, but remember, it's all about telling a story, it's all about entertaining people in one way or another. And some people are successful at it. I mean, Tom Hanks is great. There are examples of people who have gone both ways. If that opportunity comes, then it comes. Tom Hanks did wacky old Turner And Hooch comedies forever and then, eventually, when the time was right, he did it. And it wasn't like he was doing it intentionally, it just kind of happened, because he became an older man and it worked. So maybe I'll play the crazy sidekicks throughout my whole life and that will be fine. Or maybe I'll do sidekick parts and in five years it will be a different thing. I don't know, maybe. I don't have a plan, I just want to do the next good thing for me.

Rosario Dawson, Cas Anvar and Steve Zahn in Shattered Glass.

There are obviously real advantages to having an instant screen persona, and that's something you bring to all your comic roles, but are there disadvantages when you are trying to get a part, to be that recognizable?

Yeah, I guess, but it depends on the director, man. I mean some directors can see through that and know that you can do it. I guess it hurts you on a studio level, when you're working with kind of numbers people that are making the list. It depends on how much control a director has. First time director, studio film, comedy, there's this list of people and I'm not on the list for the lead guys. I'm on the list for these guys over here. And that's fine, whatever. But in a situation with a more powerful director, I have more opportunity. You trust that they go, "Oh yeah, but he's more than that." And that happens.

Do you have to campaign for parts or do you have enough parts coming to you that you can pick and choose?

Yeah, you've got to campaign. I don't care if you've just won an Oscar, you still have to campaign for parts. You just have to be on top of it. Hopefully you're on their list and hopefully you can meet the director. It never ends, that never ends; it's never like you're sitting in the backyard on your lawn chair with your beer just kicked back waiting for the call. I think if you're really in it, and if you're really an actor, you're always trying to get the good movie, to tell the good story. I do a lot of independent films, which is great, but then you go bust your ass and most of the time people don't see it. But I still love doing them because they are usually really good. If you get too caught up in where you sit in this scheme of things, you're on the wrong track. It's got to be about the story. That's what I think my job is. I'm there to service the story. How do I make that scene better? I go do a scene, of course I'm thinking about how I'm coming off, but I think I will come off great if the scene is great, if you laugh at what we are doing. Not if I'm cool or not if I'm really funny the way I do it. It has to work as a scene, and that comes from theater. I know, I just went off on a tangent. So, whatever. It's kind of out of your hands.

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"And when you feel it's right, go with it."
"It's got to be a fun movie."

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Sean Axmaker
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 His reviews and essays are featured in the recently released Scarecrow Movie Guide.

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