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Steve Zahn on the joy of making hay

Friday, October 05, 2001

By Ron Weiskind Post-Gazette Movie Editor

TORONTO -- In 1991, a year before Steve Zahn made his first movie, the actor came to Pittsburgh in a touring production of "Bye, Bye Birdie" starring Tommy Tune.

"Zahn seems on the verge of vibrating to death at any moment," critic Donald Rosenberg wrote in The Pittsburgh Press.

A decade older and presumably wiser, Zahn has used that energy on screen to create a gallery of wild and crazy guys, most notably the stoned burglar in "Out of Sight" and the escaped convict posing as a gay beauty-pageant consultant in "Happy, Texas."

In his latest movie, "Joy Ride," he plays yet another character who forgot to pay his brain bill. Fuller Thomas, fresh out of jail, accepts a ride home from his little brother, Lewis (Paul Walker). It turns out Fuller amuses himself at other people's expense. He bullies Lewis into playing an embarrassing practical joke on a trucker with the handle Rusty Nail, who then sets out to give the boys a permanent case of lockjaw.

In person, at the Toronto International Film Festival, Zahn has that same wide-eyed look he brings to his movie characters and the same casual mode of dress, like a guy who just came to town from the farm to have a few beers. In fact, he lives on a hundred acres in New Jersey where, he says, "I make hay." And the sun has been shining as his career grows.

"I like flawed people," he says. "I've always been attracted to real people, and real people screw up and are naive and vulnerable, and that makes me laugh."

That goes for Fuller Thomas, too, but he goes out of his way to take advantage of someone else's weakness.

"Fuller is a very smart guy who obviously doesn't care about the people he runs into. He's concerned about himself, and that's pretty much it. Here's where he gets his lesson.

"That's what I love about it, too. It's not a road-rage movie where some crazy freak is chasing them," he says. "This is our fault. We're responsible. We have to deal with the consequences."

Zahn might have to. He lives near a truck stop.

"In a year, I'm sure I'll get a lot of crap up there. 'Hey, aren't you the guy? I'm gonna get you!' Truckers are great, though, man. They're the first ones to pull over and help you when you're broke down."

A native of Minnesota, Zahn began performing in high school. He dropped out of college in his first year to try his luck at acting. He did theater in Minneapolis and then trained at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass. His first major movie role was in Ben Stiller's Generation X comedy "Reality Bites."

Zahn seems to exult in being a regular guy, even after all the acclaim he received for "Happy, Texas," including an Independent Spirit Award as best supporting actor.

"I don't even notice the changes much. I live on a farm, I go to work and I work real hard and I love to act so much, and that's what I concentrate on. I got a new baler, that's how my life has changed. I'm going to put up horse fencing.

"Yeah, more people recognize me. But you're in control of that getting out of hand. It is funny, though. If you had told me in high school, hey, when you're 33 you're going to have done 23 movies, all of them substantial, nice parts in them, I would have thought, man, I'm not going to be able to do anything. I'm going to be rich as hell, untouchable.

"But you know what?" he says, breaking into a laugh. "I'm still waiting. Which is kind of great, you know?"

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