From the Old Log Theater to Hollywood: The adventures of Steve Zahn in the 21st century

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Minnesota native Steve Zahn, 41, has appeared in more than 30 movies since the early 1990s. He got his big break in the 1994 movie Reality Bites—directed by Ben Stiller and starring another Minnesota-born actor, Winona Ryder—but the Cooper High School and Gustavus Adolphus alum got his first acting gig at the Old Log Theater in Excelsior.

”The Old Log Theater is the oldest professional [theater] house west of the Mississippi,” said Zahn in a phone interview, “and [founder and owner] Don Stoltz is still there. That was my first gig, an eight-month run of Neil Simon’s Biloxi Blues in 1987. I’ll always remember ‘87 because the Twins won the World Series that year.” He tries to bring his wife and children back to Minnesota as often as possible; he owns a cabin here and his parents still live in the Twin Cities area—in fact, in the same house that he grew up in.

This month Zahn has two movies opening a week apart. In the dramedy Sunshine Cleaning (now playing exclusively at the Uptown Theatre) he plays Mac, a cop and former high school beau of Amy Adams’s character Rose—who still has a fling with Mac, although he is married. In the Capraesque comedy The Great Buck Howard (opening this Friday at the Edina Landmark Cinema), he plays Kenny, a limo driver who chauffeurs the washed-up mentalist Buck Howard, wonderfully played by John Malkovich. Both films debuted at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.

“It has been two years since these films were shot and almost completed,” says Zahn. “These days, really great movies can sit for a really long time. Even TV shows I’ve done take a long time to come out. I made Buck Howard even before I made Sunshine Cleaning. These are movies that I’m really proud of them and it’s kind of interesting to me why these take so long to come out. But I can’t worry about that, I just go out and make them. I did a movie with Jennifer Aniston called Management; it comes out May 15th. We did that a year ago before Christmas, and that’s another great movie.” Zahn is currently in New Orleans filming a pilot episode for Treme, a new HBO series by David Simon (creator of The Wire). The series, which is named after an area in New Orleans, is a post-Katrina drama that chronicles the rebuilding of the city through the eyes of local musicians.

“No part is a small part,” says Zahn. “I learned that very early on in theater.” Another thing he learned from theater is that “it’s also important to be in a great show that people want to see. When I read a script and I go, ‘I think this would be a great movie,’ I see who else is involved. Sometimes that’s enough for me. And then, characters are extremely important to me. I wonder if I can do this and make them believable. It’s strange—the movie industry is similar to a small town. I’ve done a lot of stuff, and there’s not a gig now where I go to work on something and I don’t know someone, whether it be a grip, a D.P., or another actor. And as far as working with different actors, Emily [Blunt] and Amy are brilliant—I mean, they are as good as it gets. And Alan Arkin? He’s an icon and a superb actor. I thought director Christine Jeffs was wonderful and the script was great, but it’s very hard to pull off because it’s so simple. The backdrop of the story is kind of absurd and crazy about the two sisters cleaning up dead bodies, but it is very real.”

The Great Buck Howard, also featuring Emily Blunt, marks the third time that Zahn has been attached to Tom Hanks’s production company Playtone. “That Thing You Do was a huge moment in my career, it was a turning point, and those guys at Playtone, Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman, are the reason for that. So whenever, they call, I jump. When Buck Howard came to me, they asked if there any part that stuck out and I said yeah, I want to play Kenny the limo driver. And Malkovich was amazing to work with.”

In supporting roles, Zahn has stolen many scenes from lead actors and actresses—including George Clooney in Out of Sight, Hayden Christensen in Shattered Glass, and Christian Bale in Werner Herzog’s 2006 Rescue Dawn. Zahn received an Independent Spirit Award for his performance in Rescue Dawn; he played an American prisoner, Duane, who, with Bale’s Dieter, tries to escape from a Laos prison. In May, when Management opens, people will finally get to see Zahn his first lead role.

“It’s a really great story,” he says. “I’m really proud of Management. It was one of the best scripts I’ve ever read, by Stephen Belber, who is a great playwright and it’s his directorial debut. It was an amazing shoot, and when I saw the movie, I was so blown away by it. It’s a hard one to explain, and doesn’t really fall into specifically one category. The story is that I work at my folks’ motel and I’m the night manager, and Jennifer plays a corporate art broker. When she stops in, I become very infatuated with her, and she does with me at a certain level. I pursue her in a sweet way—not in a stalker way—and then hi-jinks ensue.

“People might remember me from my comedic roles, earlier in my career when was younger. I still do that stuff and I love doing crazy comedies, but I’m not on any list as the go-to crazy comedy guy. I’m getting more character stuff and as I get older, there is more dramatic material, just as much as there is comedic material. It’s like if you’re a good kicker on a football team, but if you’re on a losing team, you don’t stick. But if you’re the same kicker on a winning team, it’s like you’re the hero. It goes the same with these films. You can be amazing in a movie that doesn’t do well or nobody sees it or it isn’t that good of a movie, but it doesn’t really do anything for you even if your peers and all the other coaches know you’re a good kicker. I just try to be on a winning team.”

Jim Brunzell III (djguamwins@yahoo.com) writes on film for the Daily Planet and hosts KFAI’s Movie Talk.