Steve Zahn and the Secret Formula for Onscreen Chemistry

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By Sean Axmaker

"And when you feel it's right, go with it."

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.

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