Steve Zahn
THE REEL LIFE: Zahn hard at play on Oregon's Deschutes River, November 11, 2007

The Zahn Rules

Or: How to be a Hollywood star and still get outside 267 days a year

Steve Zahn
Adam Spangler

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BELIEVE IT OR NOT, it is possible for a star to escape Hollywood’s soul-sucking celebrity vortex and live a balanced, adventurous life. Exhibit A: the man on the left with the fishing rod. Onscreen, you know Steve Zahn best as the affable team player—OK, fine, sidekick. From Saving Silverman to Sahara, he’s been the ever-trusty (and often hysterical) number two. A little frustrating? Sure. But operating at the spotlight’s edge has its advantages—like nobody noticing when you sneak off set to cast a few flies or get lost in Moroccan sand dunes.

But now Zahn, 40, is nabbing lead roles in serious cinema, which makes for a whole new kind of frustration: less time to play at work. The problems started after his portrayal of an emaciated POW in Werner Herzog’s Vietnam War drama Rescue Dawn (2006) earned him Oscar buzz. Things got worse this past January when he played a young Gus McCrae in the CBS miniseries Comanche Moon, based on Larry McMurtry’s prequel to Lonesome Dove.

So what next? Will serious stardom mean ditching the buddy flick and putting down his fly rod? Not a chance. This month, Zahn flexes his funny bone again with Strange Wilderness, a screwball parody of seventies wildlife shows, directed by Fred Wolf, with performances by Jonah Hill (Knocked Up) and Ernest Borgnine. Think Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom meetsTalladega Nights. Meanwhile, Zahn insists he’ll still find time for all brands of adventure between takes. In fact, he’s got a system for making sure he does, which he happily shared with us. Behold the Zahn Rules.

1. Take advantage of your location.

You go do a movie and you have these crazy opportunities. I’ll always find something—and not touristy things. When we did Sahara, in Morocco, it was “Let’s go get lost in the Merzouga dunes.” I was in Australia shooting a movie and I rented a ’72 Ford pickup and used my per diem to buy firewood. We were in this tiny town, Broken Hill, in the outback. Whenever I had time off, I would just drive out and camp. Right now I’m in Portland, working on a new film with Jennifer Aniston and Woody Harrelson. In a week, we go to inland Oregon. There’s world-class steelhead fishing there.

2. But remember: This is a job.

In the end I’m just a worker. I have to go to work to feed my family. And to buy fishing gear.

3. OK, so it’s not a normal job. Sometimes wild animals are involved.
Strange Wilderness is absolutely absurd. It’s about a guy who has a wildlife show he inherited from his father that’s just atrocious and offensive. But these guys think they’re really good. They’re gonna get canceled, and one of my dad’s buddies reveals that he knows where Bigfoot lives in South America. So we take our show on the road to try and save it by getting the greatest footage in the 21st century: live images of Bigfoot. Nothing but madness went into the movie.

4. Work on the road.
I was actually in Vietnam when I read the script for Strange Wilderness. We had just finished Rescue Dawn, which was crazy—six weeks in a Thai jungle, barefoot. I lost 40 pounds. Me and Christian Bale were basically in an endurance race. I went to Vietnam afterwards and hiked around the DMZ. I was out of cell range, obviously, and my agent was trying to call me: “I’ve got a script you gotta read!” So when I got back to Hanoi, I sat in my hotel room and read it in my underwear. And I thought, Am I just laughing because I’m in Hanoi or is this really, truly that funny? So I read it again and I was like, Oh, my God, I have to do this!

5. Don’t live anywhere near L.A.

My wife and I moved into this cabin in Pennsylvania 15 years ago. Then we bought a farm in New Jersey, right on the Delaware Water Gap. And then I thought, You know, my wife is from Kentucky, I love Kentucky, and it doesn’t really matter. You live an hour outside the city so you can say you are close enough. It’s like people in L.A. saying, “We’ll be near the beach and you can go skiing and go look at rattlesnakes in the desert!” But no one does it. So I was like, Shit, let’s move to Kentucky. We live on a 330-acre horse farm. When I’m not working, I’m just with my kids and my horses, hunting and fishing and camping.

6. At some point, stop doing stoner movies.
I knew I’d have a shot at bigger roles eventually if I chose well and didn’t screw up and do Celebrity Fat Club or whatever. I didn’t ever think, Let me do 15 stoner college movies back to back. That just kind of gradually happened. Luckily, I’ve had longevity and parts change. The 20-year-old stoned dude is funny—at 40 he’s not.

7. Chase parts that will get you on horses.

I knew I wasn’t on the top of the list to play Gus McCrae in Comanche Moon. But I flew down to see Larry McMurtry and he bought my spiel. I shot that last year. I can’t even explain how great it was to be riding a horse eight hours a day.

8. Turn down parts that will get you scuba diving only if your wife says so.

Shit. Not being able to do The Pacific [the miniseries from the team behind Band of Brothers] killed me. I have seven books sitting next to me right now, and they’re all military history. But it just didn’t work out logistically with my family. Now those guys are traipsing around the South Pacific shooting this epic World War II stuff. Sometimes you have to put the scuba diving and snorkeling and your little excursions aside and say, “I can’t. My wife would kill me.”

9. Maybe don’t get too big.

You know, a lot of these things started because I would work half the time on a movie and then hang out. And now that I’m playing more involved roles, I’m more pinned down, which is frustrating. I get just a day off. What are you going to do with that?

10. Above all else, don’t ever do The Love Boat.

But it’s inevitable, buddy. Eventually, we all do The Love Boat. Only I’m going to choose not to. When I’m done, they’ll wonder, What the fuck happened to that guy? He’s fishing.

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