Who doesn’t love Steve Zahn? He’s starred in a myriad of classics over his decades long career – Reality Bites, Out of Sight, Dallas Buyer’s Club, You’ve Got Mail, to name but a few – that have helped shape our cinematic adolescence, and while he always manages to disappear into his roles, never making it about himself, he is consistently memorable. It stands to reason then that masters such as Tony Scott, Steven Soderbergh, and even Werner Herzog have chosen to work with him, time and time again.
Simply put, Zahn has always done great work, and with his turn on season one of ultimate phenom, The White Lotus, and now his new Showtime miniseries, George and Tammy, starring Jessica Chastain and Michael Shannon, the Minnesota native is hitting a new stride. Personally, we’d like to see him in everything.
Here, the actor discusses his new series, the hardest role he’s ever taken on (turns out, playing an ape is harder than it looks), and the indelible advice he received from Tom Hanks, which he gives his own children to this day.
LEO: What can you tell us about your new show George and Tammy, and your role as George Richey – who is not the George in the title.
STEVE ZAHN: That’s right, George and Tammy are George Jones and Tammy Wynette, and it’s about their tumultuous relationship together as a couple over the years; and it spans three decades. George Richey, who I play, was a great songwriter in Nashville for years, wrote a lot of hits, and wrote for both George and Tammy. And at first, Richey was married to Tammy’s assistant, her confidant, but eventually Jones and Tammy split and Richie became kind of a manager, and then Tammy’s last husband. So it’s an incestuous group of people.
They are all based on real people, and there are aspects of Richey’s life that are somewhat questionable. Does your approach to playing such a character change if it’s someone real versus someone completely fictional?
That’s a great question. It doesn’t change the way I play someone because it is a script. I am playing a character. And what I do is, I don’t focus on this person’s life, their existence, I concentrate on the moments that I’m hired to portray. And ultimately, when I get into those moments, I’m trying to make it the most interesting scene that works and upholds the story moving along, whether you think it’s real or true or not. But there is definitely a little bit more pressure playing someone who is a real person. George Richey is not portrayed in the best light in our story, but I’m hired as an actor to come in and play a part, and the written George Richey is the one I play.
It’s not a documentary, it’s a show.
Right, it’s a show that has to entertain and have hills and valleys. And it’s also based on a book written by George and Tammy’s biological daughter. It’s really interesting playing somebody before the age of the internet, because there’s really very little [out there]. Like I really dove into trying to find out as much about this cat as I could, and really there’s not a lot there that you can just pull up in a Google search, which I find fascinating.
You’ve done a lot of television, but it seems like you’ve been doing a lot more since your turn in Treme. Do you prefer the medium, or is it a case of better written projects coming along at certain times?
I think it’s kind of both. We have a limited series, which I really like to do because there’s just more time to sit, there’s more to chew on, it’s attracted really good writing, but I also love doing movies. It’s just a matter of adhering to a story and a character. Right now, I’m down in Charleston doing The Righteous Gemstones with Danny McBride and it’s so much fun. It’s some of the most fun I’ve had in a long time, but then I’m gonna go do a movie in Kentucky – a little tiny movie, because movies now are either a $200 million budget or $3 million. My bread and butter used to be doing the $20, $25 million budgeted movies that don’t really exist anymore.
I remember being a young actor in New York and we all liked to do theater. And we just wanted to be in Mean Streets and The Deer Hunter and whatever, and then you would get a pilot – and you would want to get that pilot money but want it to not go. Like, “Oh, shit, if I get something that goes for like 10 years, I’m fucked.” There used to be stigma, where if you did TV, that was what you did. There was no going to the other side. It was really people like Clooney who were kind of the first to do both and be successful at both.
You’ve worked with so many great directors – Tony Scott, Steve Soderbergh, Tom Hanks, Nora Ephron, Ben Stiller, Matt Reeves, even Werner Herzog! Is there a favorite amongst them?
I can’t pick a favorite, I have so many directors that were amazing. I will say though, that because of where I was in my career and what the movie was at the time [That Thing You Do], Tom Hanks probably taught me and my coworkers the most. Understanding why and when and how, and don’t waste it here and use it here. Don’t stand up so quick, cause the camera doesn’t follow. Little things that no one teaches anyone. And Tom really took us under his wing, and really took that responsibility. We had the talk in the trailer about not being late. That was huge and then he was like, “No, it’s not for my movie. It’s for every movie. Don’t ever be late. You set the tone. If you’re late, everyone’s gonna be late. If you’re grumpy, everyone’s gonna be grumpy.” It was just real simple shit, but it’s really true, and I remind myself all the time. I tell my kids, show up early. Don’t be a dick. And over-prepare. You have to over-prepare; it is the key. And most people will say that they over-prepare, but 80% of them are full of shit. If you don’t know your lines while you’re cooking, you don’t know your lines. And that was what Tom was all about.
You recently played a part in The Last Movie Stars, which was directed by Ethan Hawke. You both go way back to the Malaparte Theater Company in ’91. What’s it like being directed by a friend?
By far it’s more fun to be directed by someone you know. It’s so great, especially someone like Ethan. Also, I started a company [Macaroni Art] with my good friend, Rick Gomez, who’s an amazing director and we’ve been doing things together. That kind of a relationship, it just makes it so much easier. You can be so much more direct. There’s no sniffing each other’s ass and trying to figure out how we work. You can get right to the point. And the little film I’m doing next in Kentucky is Ethan’s directing it. He wrote it. It’s about Flannery O’Connor and Maya [Hawke] is going to do it and it’s gonna be great. And I live there, so it’s doubly great.
Was it through Ethan that you got Reality Bites or was that a coincidence?
Ethan and I were doing a Jonathan Marc Sherman play at the time called Sophistry, and Ben Stiller came to see the play. So that’s my connection. So yes, because of Ethan, but I think it’s also because Ben saw the show and was like, “Holy shit, that’s great.” It’s kind of an old school story, right? You’re in a play in New York and the director sees you. It’s kind of great.
I read that you said that playing Bad Ape in War for the Planet of the Apes was the hardest role you’ve ever had to play, but I also read that you lost 40 pounds for Rescue Dawn. So, what is the hardest role you’ve ever had to play?
I really think Planet of the Apes. Because of the physical aspect of what we had to do on top of working with an incredible director who rehearses like you’re doing a Chekhov. That was a really difficult job and it was also so fulfilling and awesome and fun and I loved it, but it definitely was hard. I’ve never been so petrified in my life. The first day I had to do a scene with these people that had been playing apes for years. I have to come in and squat and be a chimpanzee! And yeah, losing weight is hard, but once it’s done, at least it’s done as opposed to constantly playing an ape every day, take after take, scene after scene.
Outside of family, is there anyone who has been the biggest influence on you and your career?
I would say Frank Plute. He was my director in high school. And Ertwin Jones-Hermerding. Those are two teachers I had that were really influential. They’re both gone now. When I was in college, I went to London with this dance group and stayed there for three weeks and just saw theater, and I remember deciding that I was going to drop out of college and become an actor. And I visited Frank and we went to dinner, and I told him that and it was like this fatherly, “Yes, yes! That’s what you have to do.” He was an incredible man.
CHECK OUT STEVE
As George Richey in Showtime’s George and Tammy
As Sammy Gray in director Ben Stiller’s Reality Bites
As Lenny in director Tom Hanks’ That Thing You Do!
As Frank Heffley in Diary of a Wimpy Kid
As Duane in director Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn
As Mark Mossbacher in Mike White’s The White Lotus