Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Heath Holland On...Steve Zahn

by Heath Holland
I really love Steve Zahn.

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!
He popped up in a few things over the next couple of years, but the next major spike on the Zahn-o-meter came when he appeared as Glenn, a criminal who is in way over his head in 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.
I never watched a ton of late night television, but I do remember seeing that Zahn was going to be appearing on Jay Leno’s show one night and tuning in to check him out. He didn’t disappoint, and when he demonstrated that he could click his heels together (something I’ve always wanted to do but just can’t), my eternal affection was forever won. The years that followed produced some really good movies as well as some pretty bad ones. There were serious movies with good performances, but there were some really bad ones, too. I have to admit soft spots for Happy Texas, which is about two criminals pretending to be gay and hosting a beauty pageant, and Forces of Nature which is the romantic comedy starring Ben Affleck and Sandra Bullock in which we learn the two actors have zero chemistry with each other. Still, Steve Zahn, baby! He makes it watchable.

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!
So yeah, he’s been in quite a few bad movies; but he’s been in plenty of good ones too, like Joy Ride and Rescue Dawn. Most of the time he’s in mediocre, forgettable movies that he manages to make better. Making so-so movies worth sitting through is his superhero power. Take, for example, the TV miniseries prequel to Lonesome Dove, called Comanche Moon. I consider Lonesome Dove to be one of the greatest westerns of all time, so any sequel or prequel is going to most likely fail miserably, but casting Zahn as a young Robert Duvall actually makes this thing worth watching. The same can be said for Bandidas, a pop western that puts Penelope Cruz and Salma Hayek in starring gunslinger roles. I know the idea was to make a “sexy” outlaw western, and the gimmick wears thin pretty quickly, but Steve Zahn’s charming supporting character does not. Zahn also starred with Penelope Cruz in 2005’s Sahara, an adaptation of a Clive Cussler adventure novel that I’m pretty sure no one has watched since it came out ten years ago. The movie tries to paint Matthew McConaughey as an Indiana Jones-type, but the only thing about the movie that worked for me was that it had SZ in it. Later he appeared in another McConaughey movie with a much better reputation, 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.
Recently my daughter has been watching the Diary of a Wimpy Kid movies, which have my man SZ in a supporting role as said wimpy kid’s dad. She seems to really love them, brings them up a lot, and sometimes quotes them. Occasionally one of these movies (there are three of them!) will be on the television and I’ll see the Steve-meister in this flick that I wouldn’t normally give the time of day. Whenever this happens, I think two things: 1) it can’t be that bad if it has Steve Zahn in it, and 2) kid, just you wait until you get older and start to realize how incredible the dad in these movies really is. Hey, maybe I should show her Out of Sight for her tenth birthday! On second thought, maybe I should wait just a little bit longer. Like, until she’s twelve.


  1. Amen on the Steve Zahn love, Heath. I actually think one of his top performances was in the little seen A Perfect Getaway (2009). Without spoiling it, (I know it's over 6 years old but I don't want to ruin it for anybody), that was a great showcase for his chameleon skills as the tone shifts from comedy to thriller many times. Zahn's performance alone sold me on it. He easily stole the movie from the bigger stars Timothy Olyphant & Milla Jovovich.

  2. I actually own that movie and have never watched it. I thought it might have been another one of those captive torture movies, so I put it on the shelf and forgot about it. I might have to dig it out...

  3. Well said. He really makes anything he's in way better. I hopped on the Zahn-Train in 2001 with Saving Silverman. He is truly funny in it.

  4. Hell, he's one of the good parts of Reality Bites.

  5. I haven't checked my Zahn-o-meter in years, perhaps I will when I think about whether SZ is so much better than Jimmy Stewart or not

  6. I love the scene in Happy Texas where he gives the little girl bar fight pointers. And he doesn't shy away from playing permanently damaged characters (Riding In Cars With Boys). While I was reading this, a friend looked over my shoulder at the images and blurted out "THAT GUY! I love that guy!" So yeah, SZ.