by Heath Holland
Let me clarify: I mean that I REALLY love Steve Zahn, you guys. Just like with another one of my favorite actors, Jason Lee, I’ve sat through movies that I never thought I’d watch because Steve Zahn was in them, and I was HAPPY to do it. And for a guy who has such a distinctive appearance and Midwestern accent, he’s something of a chameleon, popping up in the expected comedy roles, but also in horror, drama, and even crime movies. It seems really unfair to me that he’s forever destined to play the best friend or the dad or the goofy brother, because I think he’s one of our great everymen actors who can embody just about any role and make it feel real. He’s like Jimmy Stewart. That’s right, I just compared Steve Zahn to Jimmy Stewart, but that might not be fair…Steve Zahn is way better than Jimmy Stewart.
The guy first hit my radar in 1996 when he appeared as Lenny in Tom Hanks’ fabulous chronicle of a sixties one hit wonder That Thing You Do! I know I’m not the only one who loves this movie, but I might be the only one who watches it with such unbridled adoration of Zahn’s performance. I lean forward with a goofy grin on my face in anticipation of his delivery of lines like “A man in a really nice camper wants to put our song on the radio! Give me a pen, I’m signin’—you’re signin’—we’re all signin’!” I’m signin’ too, Steve Zahn…the deed that allows you unlimited access to my HEART!
Steven Soderbergh’s film Out of Sight. This is one of the very few movies adapted from an Elmore Leonard book or story to actually retain the tone and voice of its source material without losing much in the translation (in other words, that doesn’t suck), and I love everything about it. Another successful Elmore Leonard adaptation—and the most famous, for sure—is Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, but I’ve got to be honest with you: I hold these two movies in pretty much the same regard. Some days I would pick Out of Sight over Jackie Brown as my favorite adaptation, and other days I wouldn’t. Thankfully I don’t have to choose. I can have chocolate cake AND carrot cake. At least both cakes are covered in blood and are filled with 1970s swagger.
Zahn’s performance in Out of Sight is really fantastic, and so is his facial hair. He’s a small-time criminal who falls in with some really dangerous people, and he conveys a drug-fueled haziness, but also enough clarity and instinct to realize that he’s in big trouble if he doesn’t do something quickly to escape the predicament that he’s in. Glenn is desperate, and I remember being really struck that night in 1998 as I sat in the theater by the realization that he was capable of doing really serious work. This was Lenny from That Thing You Do! proving to me and the rest of the world that he was a really good actor and could handle meatier material. I’d met my friend and his girlfriend that night and we were watching the movie together, but his girlfriend got bored, so they left half-way through. I was torn between being mesmerized by the movie unfolding on the screen in front of me and the disappointment in my friend for bailing during an amazing movie. All these years later, I still hold Out of Sight in extremely high regard. I don’t really talk to that friend anymore.
Daddy Day Care is pretty widely acknowledged as being a dull Eddie Murphy vehicle, but there’s nothing dull about Steve Zahn’s role as an avid Star Trek fan. As a Trek enthusiast myself, I was really happy to see Zahn playing this character as someone who wasn’t a total loser. Does the movie paint with a broad brush? Yep, but it could have made him look like a non-functioning weirdo like so many other movies have done over the years. He must be friends with the director, Steve Carr, because he’s also in another Eddie Murphy movie from that director, Doctor Doolittle 2. Loss for movie fans, win for SZ!
Dallas Buyers Club.
Now here we are almost twenty years since I first became a fan, and Steve Zahn is not only still a working actor in Hollywood (a fact which is itself amazing in this movie climate) but he’s in a ton of projects. He was a main player on HBO’s Treme, has a recurring role on Modern Family, and he’s still in plenty of A-list films and television shows, too. He’s a voice in the upcoming The Good Dinosaur and he’s got three movies either in the can or in post-production, one of them being the next Planet of the Apes sequel. He’s kind of EVERYWHERE, and I can’t help but feel really proud for the guy because he’s one of MY guys, one of those people that I’ve been paying special attention to for a very long time and quietly cheering for. Success for Steve Zahn kind of feels like success for nice guys everywhere.