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Sahara Reinvents Zahn as Unlikely Action Hero

Ever since he crashed the audition of a local dinner theater's production of Biloxi Blues in his native Minnesota and walked away with the lead role, Steve Zahn has toiled feverishly to earn his reputation as one of America's most gifted character actors. Cast opposite Ethan Hawke in a 1993 stage production of Jonathan Marc "Sherman's Sophistry", he caught the eye of Ben Stiller, then an aspiring filmmaker working on his directorial debut, Reality Bites. Stiller offered Zahn the role of Sammy, Winona Ryder's conflicted gay friend, and when the movie became a cult favorite following its 1994 release, Hollywood took notice.

Since then, Zahn has quietly become one of the hardest-working men in show business, supplementing his ongoing stage work with a colorful variety of film roles, whether starring as an escaped con-turned-beauty pageant consultant in Happy, Texas or playing second fiddle to Martin Lawrence as a disgraced cop in National Security. This month, he will team up with the free-spirited Matthew McConaughey in Sahara, an Indiana Jones-style adventure that reinvents Zahn as a wisecracking daredevil with nerves of steel.

SF Station: It's early, and you just sent your assistant scurrying for a latté. Are you not a morning person?
Steve Zahn: Oh no, I am. I live on a farm, I have little kids, and I'm always up early. I enjoy doing these interviews, especially when I'm in a movie I like, but it's tough sometimes. You get tired.

SFS: What about the movies you don't like?
SZ: It's not like you hate them, but you do them and you put all you had into them, so you have to do the tour and the press. I mean, you did it -- you signed up, did the best you could, and I'm always proud of that. You can always take something good from the experience, but when you do a movie and you really dig it, it's more gratifying. Take Sahara, for example -- I couldn't believe I was shooting it, and I couldn't believe I got it. It fits me, but it's not the kind of movie I expect to land in my lap.

SFS: And yet you seem perfectly suited for the role, so much so that director Breck Eisner has insisted that the film wouldn't work without you.
SZ: Well, he has to say that, but that's Breck, and he was really cool with me right off the bat. He told me that I was his number one choice for the role, and I said, "I'm in." So he was incredible. But the reason why every little thing fell into place so seamlessly is because the movie as a whole just works. When you shoot a movie like this, you get a pulse for it and a sense for it, and you know how it's going to come out. I mean, you can edit something and make it good or bad, funny, whatever. But an action film is such a monumental task, and it gets so chopped up on the editing-room floor. When you work on these little moments to make them believable or comical, and there's so much shit going on behind you, you have no idea how it's going to come out. Will the relationships between all the different characters come across the way they did when we shot them? Who knows?

SFS: How did you react when you saw the final product?
SZ: When I saw the movie, I was blown away by Breck's vision and his impact on the editing. The editing was done beautifully. What he took out, what he added, the funny stuff he kept… I really think you get the relationship between my character and Matthew's without being beaten over the head with sentimental shit.

SFS: So there was some degree of improvisational leeway afforded to the actors?
SZ: Yeah, because we got so involved with the production, and because we all became really comfortable with each other. I'm not usually locked onto a movie so early, so that was a luxury for me. I got to know Matthew pretty well, and we went to London a couple of times during pre-production for weapons training and then we'd go back to my house to watch the Yankees kick ass over Boston. You know, the year before last, when New York actually won Game 7. We were in London for Game 6, and it was crazy. We were up until three in the morning, and I decided to go home because I had season tickets. Matthew was like, "Are you kidding?" And I said, "No, come to my house." So we flew in, got to New York, and Game 7 was about to start. We got into the limo, and the driver couldn't get AM on his radio. I was like, "Dude! I came all the way from Europe to see the game and you can't get radio in the fuckin' car?" I was telling the guy over and over to speed up. I couldn't believe he didn't have AM radio in his limo, and I was all mad and nasty, and Matthew was just laughing at me. So we got to my house and the Yankees were losing 4-1, but they ended up winning the game.

SFS: Besides the occasional mad dash to New York, how else did you prepare for physical demands of this role?
SZ: We did tons of training that wasn't really necessary. I mean, we thought it was, but I can see where a person might say, "It's not necessary for you guys to do Navy SEAL training, weapons and secondary weapons training, choke-hold training." But we worked hard on that stuff. The guy who trained us, he would go out to the French foreign legion's fort in the middle of nowhere, and he would stand on the hillside and order us to take down the entire fort, just the two of us. And it would take us 45 minutes going through the fort Blackhawk Down-style, and at times I was so tired, and I'd whisper to Matthew, "This is crazy." But by the end we were really good at it, and when something happens in the movie, whether we're just press-checking our weapons or whatever, it looks like we know what the hell we're doing, and that's what we wanted, even if it gives the audience just a tiny glimpse of the action.

No one was blasé about making this movie, and there's nothing that we did that [co-star] Penelope [Cruz] didn't do. And not to be sexist, but that just doesn't happen. She was unbelievable, and I can vouch for it. When we raced our camels in the desert, I was more afraid than she was. I mean, these camels were crazy. They were trained to run alongside the oncoming trains, and when the scene started, the camels were going nuts waiting for the trains. So Penelope just slaps her camel and -- BOOM! -- she's off, hightailing it over this hill. Matthew and I had no clue where she was going, and we were trying to keep the camels off the track, because the train's coming. And our camels were spinning in circles, then his takes off in one direction, mine takes off in another, and we somehow met up at the end of the shot. Then the director says, "Yeah, that wasn't our best shot, guys."

SFS: Most Hollywood films are shot on specially constructed sets and studio lots, but Sahara took you to the cities and small desert towns of Morocco. Was that a new experience for you?
SZ: It was unique because I'd never done anything like it, and neither have most people that are my age. Everything's CGI now -- they'll shoot the locations, but then they'll add this kooky crap, and I can't stand it. Some people dig it, obviously. They're huge, these action movies with hordes of digitally animated warthogs, and I'm not referring to Lord of the Rings, which was brilliant. [Phone rings; Brief whispering ensues.] That was my wife. I have to call the plumber. You can be a big star, a celebrity, but someone always has to call the plumber…

And those big movies? Those movies aren't made. People don't want to spend the time. They don't want to set up eight cameras and have 150 horses – not that it's expensive, but because it's a pain in the ass. That shot at the end [of Sahara] with all those horses, when we had to stand on the ironclad? We had to come out and turn around, and there are hundreds of horses running around in back of us amid the wreckage of the burning helicopter, and I couldn't believe we weren't allowed to watch them. We were filming the movie, but we wanted to watch it at the same time. It was truly incredible, and it's too bad that's not how movies are made. With CGI, it changes the tone of a movie -- you can get in and out of anything. You don't need to write, and the characters don't have to make sense. I just can't believe that stuff, it's all a part of some fake world. Some people buy it, but I don't. I might be old-fashioned, but that's why I love this movie.

SFS: What attracted you to the character, an action hero without all the stereotypical trappings of an action hero?
SZ: Initially, I just laughed. I had never read Clive Cussler before, and I read the story, and it was so goofy. There are two regular guys, not exactly James Bonds, and they're in a world of shit. That was kind of interesting and funny, and then there's my character, who's really cynical and low-key. So it was fun to play this guy who basically contradicts the nature of his environment, and that's something I try to do with most of my characters. This is a guy who could easily be at a mall in upstate New York, and here he is, racing camels and wearing a turban. Matthew's character is deep, he knows the language of the river, and he can talk to the people -- he's poetic -- and my character, he just fixes shit, and he never gets caught up in that.

SFS: Sahara is based on a specific Clive Cussler story, but these same characters appear in dozens of his books. Could there be a sequel in the works?
SZ: The studio bought the rights to three of his books, so they obviously want it to be a franchise, but it's got to make money. Any franchise has to make some fuckin' money. I don't know how much it has to make. I don't know that shit, and I don't really care about it. I do care about this one because I really want to make another one, so this is special for me. I usually make a movie, talk about it, and then I'm off to my next project. I'm a character actor; I don't have that much riding on my movies. That's the beauty of being a character actor -- you don't have the weight of the movie on your shoulders, and you go off to do another gig. But I care about this one. I've cared about other movies before, but not enough to sit up at midnight to check out the box-office receipts.

SFS: So this one ranks among your personal favorites?
SZ: Yeah, definitely. I loved Out of Sight. I loved Happy, Texas. When I saw Out of Sight, I couldn't believe I was in it. It was great during the shooting, but what [director] Steve [Soderbergh] does after filming is fuckin' incredible. That guy's a genius. And Happy, Texas -- a million-dollar budget, and everybody did it because it was a great script, so it was a wonderful experience. And subUrbia, Joyride and That Thing You Do! I enjoyed all of those movies, and this one is right up there. This one is special.