STEVE ZAHN Biography - Other artists & entretainers


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Steve Zahn’s father is a Lutheran minister, his mother works at the YMCA, and his wife’s dad is J. Peterman, creator of the famed catalog that once offered choice stuff like those jodhpurs as worn by Meryl Streep in Out of Africa. Does this sound like a Seinfeld episode already? No wonder Zahn’s so funny. In suburban Minnesota, where he grew up, he and his buddies would buy a couple of gallons of Dr. Pepper, sneak down to the basement and watch old episodes of Lassie with the sound off, taking parts. Or they’d pile into Zahn’s Chevette and drive into a snowdrift – to see how far they could go in and still get out again, a process known as “snowbanking.” It was probably fun, in Minnesota.


“We were ahead of our time, man,” says Zahn, now in his early 30s, sounding like a guy so relaxed he died and went to slacker heaven. “We were Beavis and Butt-Head.” He dropped out of college, studied modern dance and worked in a machine shop for a year as a gofer. “If you made it through a year with all your fingers you got an extra buck an hour,” he says. “There are guys who are still there and I don’t forget that. I’m lucky, man.”


He trained with the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA, then moved to New York, where he began to work in theater and was soon getting small parts in films. For some years now he’s been one of those actors whose name we can’t quite remember but whose performances we love. Oh, that guy. In Out of Sight he played the dim-witted crook on whom Jennifer Lopez has mercy. In You’ve Got Mail he was the bookstore clerk suspected by Meg Ryan of being a psycho. He was Ben Affleck’s best friend in Forces of Nature and the lead guitarist in Tom Hanks’ directorial debut, That Thing You Do! Zahn has made a specialty out of playing intensely comic characters who have no idea that they might be funny.


“That’s what I love, people taking themselves absolutely seriously in ridiculous situations – that’s funny,” he says. It is a notion taken to delirious extreme in Zahn’s newest film, Happy, Texas. He and British actor Jeremy Northam play escaped convicts Wayne Wayne Wayne Jr. and Harry Sawyer, who find themselves in a dust-bowl town where they are mistaken for a pair of gay beauty-pageant organizers. The plot clearly owes something to Some Like It Hot, though Zahn and Northam play it straighter than Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis did. The movie, directed by first timer Mark Illsley, was (along with The Blair Witch Project) the big hit of this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It’s a skillful confection, and hugely entertaining.


Making an art out of portraying dysfunctional losers and likable freaks, Steve Zahn worked for years before getting his due as one of the most engaging and unconventionally gifted actors in Hollywood. Hailing from Marshall, MN, where he was born in 1968, Zahn was first introduced to improvisational acting in high school. Following a year at Gustavus-Adolphus College, Steve Zahn was accepted at the prestigious American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA, where he trained for two years. After completing his tenure there, Zahn settled in Hoboken, NJ, and tried to support himself with acting in New York, working a variety of odd jobs on the side. Steve Zahn found work in various theater productions, including a 13-month road tour of Bye, Bye Birdie, which provided both steady employment and an introduction to his wife, who was a dancer in the musical.