Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here with a very funny and heart-felt interview with Steve Zahn, a man who has built much of his career being the comic relief and built a solid reputation over the years of being both are a reliable funny man and a surprisingly strong actor in more serious roles. You may not even remember all of the films you've seen him in, like REALITY BITES; THAT THING YOU DO!; CRIMSON TIDE; SUBURBIA; YOU'VE GOT MAIL; HAPPY, TEXAS (featuring my personal favorite Zahn performance); SAVING SILVERMAN; OUT OF SITE; JOY RIDE; NATIONAL SECURITY; SHATTERED GLASS; SAHARA; and voice work in DR. DOLITTLE 2 and both STUART LITTLE films. His latest role is the one that will absolutely shock you the most. As real-life POW captive Lt. Duane Martin, Zahn's character befriends Christian Bale's Deiter Dengler in writer-director Werner Herzog's impossible to fathom RESCUE DAWN, about Dengler and Martin's time a prisoners and escapees attempting to make it out of the jungles of Laos. When I came into the room where Zahn was waiting, he was reading one of Chicago's latest newspapers. In particular, he was reading in stunning silence about the driver in Austin who was beaten to death by an angry mob after he bumped into a child with his car. He seemed both stunned the story in general, and with the fact that this occurred in Austin, which is where we begin our conversation begins. He was also chewing on some sort of chewing tobacco that resulted in him occasionally spitting out some sort of black tar-like substance into a depleted water bottle. That might be the most awesome thing I've every seen. I think Zahn's work RESCUE DAWN not only has the potential to change the man's career from this point forward, but it clearly changed his life and perception of what acting and filmmaking could be. It just so happens that his co-star Christian Bale was in town as well (you may have heard he's been shooting THE DARK KNIGHT in Chicago recently), but Zahn felt fairly certain he wouldn't be seeing him during his few hours in town. Read on, if for no other reason than the guy likes to swear.
Question: [Regarding the news story from Austin] …and the car just hit a kid, and people got out to see how the kid was--I don’t know how the kid was--but then the crowd turned and beat the crap out of the driver and killed the passenger.
Publicist: That’s crazy.
C: Didn’t that happen here a few years ago in Chicago?
SZ: I could understand if the guy was raving drunk and couldn’t get…but
Capone: It's not like they tried to get away; they actually stopped the car.
Other writer: …and then they just beat the shit out of them.
Capone: But didn’t something like that happen here a couple years ago on the south side?
Other writer: Oh yeah, they hit a porch or something like that. Something went wrong with the car, and the guy drove off [the road] and hit a porch. I think he did kill a kid.
C: He did, he did.
Other writer: And, they dragged him out of the car and beat him to death.
C: Good grief. That doesn’t happen in Minnesota [where Zahn is from], does it, Steve.
SZ: I don’t know, it might. I haven’t been there since ’87. Not then, and that was back in the da-a-a-y. “Little House,” baby.
Other writer: Now that Prince is out of town…
SZ: It happens in Kentucky [where Zahn currently lives]. The news is just insane. It’s like a “Saturday Night Live” sketch on the news every night, like, so-and-so stabbed his cousin, niece in Kentucky, and they interview him. [With deep Southern drawl] “They drove down in this 4-wheeler…shot out of trailer…” What the fuck is going on? [resumes Southern dialect] “That’s what I said. We ran off and…”
Other writer: Now, when you say it that way, it makes perfect sense, though.
SZ: Exactly. [in Southern dialect] “We shot it…” O-kay.
Question: Obviously, a movie like RESCUE DAWN is a grueling experience. Even watching the movie is a grueling experience, though nothing compared to making it. I was just curious about [working with] Werner Herzog. How familiar were you with his films or with him as a filmmaker before?
SZ: I was a big fan of his prior works. It was very interesting, I mean, if there was a Werner Herzog movie that came up, I would be interested, because it’s Werner Herzog. But, in this case, it was…The documentary LITTLE DIETER NEEDS TO FLY was one of my favorites, and I’m a big documentary buff. I have friends who send each other stuff all the time, and that was one that I always sent people, and, like, ‘You’ve got to see this. It’s remarkable.’ So, when I found out that this project was on the list of things my agent was reading off, the things that were green lit, and things looking for financing or attachments, I jumped, and I said, ‘I have to meet him. You have to get me in, somehow. I don’t know if there's a list, or what the deal is with the movie, but…’ And, Werner was great. [German accent] “Yahh” I remember he called my agent, and the agent called me and said, “Hey, he wants to know what you like to eat.” Immediately, I was, like, ‘What does that mean?’ Will I get the job if I say the right thing? But, I went to his house, and he cooked me a steak. He’s fuckin’ great, you know? I’m, like, drinkin’ wine in a coat I borrowed from the set I was working on. 'I don’t have a suit coat. I’m going to Werner’s now, I’m going to wear a coat and drink wine’. We had a great dinner and talked. I didn’t have to preface anything with, you know, ‘Hey, I do a lot of comedies and…’ He didn’t care about that at all, which was great. And, then, at the next dinner, he said, “You know, I really think I would like you to play Duane." 'I’d be honored.' That was 2003, and then, they finally got the financing, like, five months before we went. So, I immediately dropped everything, started dropping the weight and all that. So, it’s one of those jobs that you just never get, because you want it so bad. And, then, with Christian [Bale] involved, it was just a great… couldn’t wait. I’m so glad and thrilled that it was actually made, and I was there.
Q: It seems to me that one of the coolest aspects of the movie was the bond between you and Christian Bale. I think I’ve always liked it when you see, like, a sports team, or you see two men who are so passionate about something. There’s nothing sexual about it, but they’re so overwhelmed with emotion that they just…
SZ: Yeah, I know. I know exactly what you’re saying, and I’m the same. One of the most moving parts of the documentary is when Dieter…did you see the documentary LITTLE DIETER?
C: A while ago, yeah.
SZ: Remember when he’s sitting by the bridge? That was so-o-o-o good. I asked Werner questions about that documentary. Remember, Dieter’s sitting on the edge of the Mekong, and he’s talking about Duane, and he’s talking about Duane’s death. And, it’s so-o-o-o beautiful the way he talks about his relationship to him and how he was closer to him than he was to his mother or his brother, and that they not only needed each other’s companionship and protection, but they needed each other’s warmth and when they’d sleep at night, you know… And, that’s an image that I always wanted in the movie that we never got, was this image of us sleeping in the jungle. But, that’s something that I always thought about after. It’s like these two…an old couple, almost like, trying to find a way to survive. I think one moment that stand out, when the choppers fly over and we think we’re going to be saved, it was such a great moment, I remember. That was one of my favorite days, ’cause it was something that we didn’t even plan. It was just ‘what are we going to do’ kind of thing. ‘Should we jump’ or, you know, and we just…it was just one of those moments where we were on the ground, like, hugging and doing the scene, and we knew it wasn’t necessarily being covered. Werner doesn’t cover. If that moment happened in any other movie, you would have spent half a day on coverage of that with crud on faces and crying and…I don’t even know if it comes across like that, but it didn’t matter. It was so great, you know? At that moment, that was shooting early in the movie, and they knew at that point that we had something and that it was great. It was real, and it was simple.
C: With one actor in particular, but throughout Werner’s career, you hear about him pushing his actors up to, and maybe even beyond, what they’re aware they’re capable of--physically and emotionally. Was that at play here? Was he pushing you into places that you just couldn’t even have fathomed, not just in terms of the heat and the jungle…That scene where Duane had that meltdown, because he thinks he can’t take it anymore, I mean, I believed that. I thought that could be you.
SZ: Yeah, it wasn’t hard to get to those points, because of Werner, because of the way he runs his set, and because there are no distractions. There are no bowls of M&Ms, and chairs, and make up. And, there’s not those little areas, those things so that people can gather, and get bored, and start playing high school grab-ass. There’s none of that shit on that set. You’re either there working, or you’re not there, because you’re going to get screamed at. I loved that about Werner. Out with all that excess bullshit, with anything that you don’t need in order to make a movie. And, the pushing isn’t like you hear a story [about] him pulling a gun or something. It’s not like that. It’s, like, we’re all excited to work for him, and because he…you know, we’re going to float down the river through the rapids. He doesn’t tell you where to go, he puts on a rope, and does it, and goes, “Okay, we know what we’re doing now.” He always did it. I’ve never worked with anybody who’s that hands on. And so, through that, you just gain this ultimate respect, beyond the respect that you already have because of his work, you know, and there’s this trust. It’s not until the end of the dare, that you realize, ‘Man, I really…I don’t know if I would have done that for other guys. I don’t think…I got kids. I got the world to live, man. I don’t know, man.’ You know what I’m saying?
C: You kind of broached it, but I was actually going to follow it up with a question, like, whether he did really get rid of all the creature comforts that are usually associated with a film set.
SZ: There were none. And, I’ve done little movies before where you didn’t have trailers or whatever, but [in this case] there wasn’t anything. Christian and I, thankfully--and it wouldn’t have mattered in the final product--but Christian and I work the same way. When it’s ‘cut’, cut, and we joke and have a good time, man. That fucker’s fun. He’s one of the funniest guys I’ve ever worked with. God, just laughing, we laughed so hard, you know, we’re tired and punchy, but we didn’t go back to our trailers and have to be reminded that we were barefoot and hungry. We just hung out on set and leaned against rocks and fell asleep. There were times we’d fall asleep next to the river. We were so tired, just fall asleep, both of us, and then I woke up, and he woke up, and there was a sound, and there was a camera shooting a few feet in front of us, and Werner was behind it, and he was shooting us sleeping. And, then the makeup person was, like, “He was shooting for, like, 10 minutes.” And, he changed the ‘mag’. It was, like, ‘That’s awesome’. You never knew, and you never when he was going to cover something--or not. We stopped asking, “Can we take or put our shoes on now?”, you know, “Can you see our feet?” We just stopped asking, ’cause it was, like, “Well, we don’t know.”
Q: One of the things that I think is really interesting about it is that even though it is obviously a narrative film, as opposed to LITTLE DIETER, he’s shooting an entire film almost as if it really is an actual documentary. I noticed there was an article in The New Yorker about a year ago about the production of the movie, and some of the production people seemed to think that because he wasn’t shooting it like a normal movie with coverage and stuff like that, they didn’t think that he knew what he was doing, for some ungodly reason. But, I was curious more from an acting standpoint, I mean, do you then have to adjust what you do?
SZ: Yes. Well, that’s your job…is to come in and tell the story, depending on what your circumstances are, how somebody works. There was that friction. There were people there that weren’t being used in the way that they thought they should be used, and that was frustrating to them. Now, you can either question that and say, ‘He’s an idiot’, or you can give into it, even if you think he’s an idiot, go ‘Okay, this is how we’re working. And, it’s unconventional, but I’m just going to go with it’. And, you’re going to be alright, you know, because then at least you’re going to be free to…
Q: You would think that with 30-odd years of filmmaking behind him that at some point he would know what he is doing.
SZ: Yeah. [But] there are times when you were, like, ‘Man, this could be the emperor's new clothes, dude…you don’t know what…are you kidding me, you’re not going to cover that?’ There were times when I said that to him. I said, “You got to cover this! It’s not going to make any sense, man, if you don’t know where we’re coming from.” But, what was great about is, there are holes in this movie that are illogical, like, wait, where did that happen, how did they not get the shoes to the…whatever. It doesn’t matter. And, that’s the thing you can’t explain to people. He’s a genius in post. You look at a documentary, and you can do anything to it. I think that’s how…well, now I know. He didn’t care about continuity. It didn’t matter. He just thinks about those moments, which is beautiful. It’s not about tying it all together.
Q: And, it doesn’t play like it’s just a mish-mash, I mean, the movie really does hold together.
SZ: It does. It is fascinating that it was minimal, I’ve got to say. That whole first scene where we’re introduced to Dieter, we shot that in one hour, two hours. You kiddin’ me!
Q: That’s a pretty long scene.
SZ: The introduction. It’s a hu-u-u-ge scene. It’s the introduction of every character. And, I couldn’t believe it. I remember walking out, going, ‘Okay, I know you have a style, but for the introduction?…you don’t even know it’s me for 10 fuckin’ minutes’. But, there’s something great about it. And, I was frustrated that day. I remember going, like, ‘I don’t know if this is going to work’, you know, back and forth, but it works. It works, because it’s…I don’t know, it just does.
Q: Some of the really great moments, I think, in the movie are these close-up shots of your face. We can see all this emotion. You don’t need to say anything, we know totally what you’re thinking, and what’s going on. It reminded me a lot of …I think you did a Lifetime movie once where you were playing an art teacher for this girl who had been raped.
SZ: SPEAK. It’s a good movie. I was blown away by it.
Q: Yeah, I liked it a lot. At the end of the movie, she opens up this door of a little closet and shows you all of her art work she’s done, and they hold on your face for a real long time, and the emotion pouring out of it is so amazing. And, so I’m just wondering, when you’re acting, are there certain techniques that you’ve taken with you that allow you to get certain performances or express certain emotions?
SZ: Well, I’ve never been one to…I don’t know, everybody does it differently, but if you can’t feel what’s happening, then…
[At this moment, a publicist's phone goes off with a "Theme from Rocky" ringtone. Steven immediate reacts by throwing his arm in the victoriously.]
SZ: [laughing[ ‘Wow’ that’s so stupid…Ah-ha, that’s so dumb!]
Publicist: I don’t know how to get it off.
SZ: Yeah! What else do you need to emote, I mean, you’re always feeling it. I was Duane. I was playing a real guy, you know? What else do you need to get to a point where you can sit up and freak out about it. ‘I can’t take it. This is fucked up.’ I mean, how many times do you want me to do it? I can…I’m not thinking about, you know, my dead grandfather. That would be a distraction. And, if you have to do that, then you ought to bail out and look for another job. You know what I’m sayin’? I really loved doing something where you didn’t have to talk all the time. I really mean that. I love movies like NEVER CRY WOLF or JEREMIAH JOHNSON, you know, these things where you’re, like…the story’s told because of the trees, the environment, and the journey. It was really fun. It was really nice. And, the eyes were very expressive, and you get that from the D.P., too, because you’re so dirty, you don’t even know who’s who. But, you see the eyes. A lot is expressed through that. And, because there wasn’t a lot of coverage, when they were close, or when there were those moments where they were tighter, it’s prominent. It slows down, whereas in some movies, it’s just coverage, coverage, coverage. Jesus Christ, back and forth, boring.
C: You mentioned before how you didn’t have to explain to Herzog how you’d mostly done comedies up to that point. But those have been the kind of roles people know you for, the guy who sort of injects humor--and there’s a lot of that in this movie, too, actually, quite a lot of humor.
SZ: Yeah, there is some levity.
C: Are you okay with that? Being that guy? Is that alright with you?
SZ: Sure, whatever. For real.
C: Is this film an attempt to take a step in a very different direction?
SZ: I really don’t care. Look, if I wasn’t confident and didn’t think I could do this stuff, then maybe it would piss me off, but…I just want to have longevity, I just want to work in this industry. I love making films, and I feel that if I keep going, you know…I mean, look, the 22-year-old pot head is funny, the 42-year-old pot head isn’t, and I’m going to play those parts as I get older. You evolve. I did a Western, you know what I mean? And, I think they automatically move around, and you’ll have different kinds of parts and different challenges. But, if somebody comes up to me and says, “Do SAVING SILVERMAN, man” I’m, like, O-o-o-kay, I love that. That’s fine. I’m not going to change their perception. I’m always going to be that guy to him, no matter what the fuck I do, you know. And, I think there are some actors who have shot themselves in the foot by being insistent that they’re not that person, but what the fuck, that’s what you’re great at, that’s alright.
Q: From the standpoint of the physical material, were there any things you had to do that you were particularly dreading? For example, the scene in the river, you mentioned that you did it with ropes…
Q: Okay, but something like that, in the river where even though precautions are taken, you’re still floating in rapid water…
SZ: Yeah, it’s cold. Yeah, water with rocks. And, I was, like, ‘Can we wear…’ We were barefoot in this river and rocks. That was a lot, crossing streams and stuff. It was, like, ‘Oh, fuck, where am I stepping?’ It wouldn’t take much to snap your legs or whatever. You know what I dreaded…those were days that you got your adrenaline pumping, so it was okay. It was cold as shit, but it was the days in that damn hut, being chained together. I dreaded that. [Heaves a sigh] Got to go in there and claustrophobic, and all these guys and sweating, and we’re going to be in there all afternoon. The other stuff was kind of fun, you know. At least, you’re moving around and stuff. I remember once when we slid down the hill…some of that was the stunt guy. There was very little stunt work, but we were sitting there, and the stunt coordinator said, “We want to cable these guys in.” And Werner said, “Absolutely not. It’s not that far. We’re going to take an hour to put in the ropes, and you can see it.” He goes, “Well, you can get that out later.” And, Werner said, “I don’t care, I don’t want to fake it, fake it, fake it. I will not do the scene, if you’ve got to do that.” He was pissed. And, it really was in our court. And, I just remember the stunt coordinator looking at us, and you have a relationship with everybody, and you aren’t the stunt guy. If I get hurt, it’s his ass. But, I just remember…Christian and I--and this happened many times--we just look at each other, and we go, “I’m alright, Are you okay?” “Sure. Make sure you got somebody down there so I don’t hit that big-ass rock.” “You got it.” “Alright, let’s just shoot. Go.” And, we would do it. Werner loved that. We didn’t want to sit there and get cabled in either. Sometimes, that stuff is necessary and important, and then, sometimes it’s really not. It’s very interesting, though. I’ve never been on a film where that kind of stuff happens.
#2: You’ve done action things before, something like SAHARA, where obviously they have stunt people…
SZ: Oh, yeah.
#2: And, everything is covered…
SZ: There’s, like, a second unit shooting at the same time. And, even that was, like…I remember my stunt double, he's the Brit, and he couldn’t hold a gun. He looked like my sister. [laughs] And, the Navy SEAL, the guy who was training us, I said, "You gotta take him out back and show him." When you’re out back, you can nail it. You can hold it. It’s not that hard…just look like, you know…[demonstrates the grip]. He just looked at me. And, I was, like, you Brits don't have any guns! Where I grow up, we're shooting squirrels and shit.” And, so on the days that he had to shoot, I was, like, “What are you doing today?” It was a day off, we had, like, two days off. And he said, “Awww, we’re going to shoot the helicopters.” And I said, "No, I’m doing it." I don't want to look like a pussy.
Q: Herzog’s approach to the movie seems totally appropriate, because you’re a P.O.W in this camp, and so the whole feel is to feel disoriented or out of control. So, filming without planning certain stuff or without coverage seems almost essential.
SZ: Oh yeah. I agree, It makes it so claustrophobic and so real time, It’s so wonderful how this movie turns into this survival movie. It’s not a war movie. People ask questions about political blah-blah. I go, “I don’t know. I didn’t see any…I don’t get any of that.” And, if it was a different director, you probably would, but anything’s political. Shit. It depends on what your mood is and when you see it, but the movie is about these guys. That’s it.
C: You haven’t mentioned him yet, but [co-star] Jeremy Davies is always a guy who has scared me, quite frankly. The fact that he’s has played Charles Manson, and looks like Charles Manson in this movie probably isn’t helping. What is he like to work with? It seems like he may have a much different style.
SZ: Oh, yeah. [His style] is a lot different
C: That first time you see him without his shirt on, man, it makes…
SZ: It’s frightening. I lost 40 lb. and I couldn’t be shirtless with him, ’cause I looked too good. I looked cut. I was, like, [showing off his arms] …lost all that weight. And, I got this fucker? It’s, like, you have to be naked in the morning…yeah, I looked awesome, I looked fuckin' hot. And, then I’ve got to take my clothes off and I'm Paul Walker [next to him]. He's like my uncle.
C: What’s he like to work with?
SZ: He’s very different. He kind of stays in it a lot. He’s very meticulous. He lo-o-o-ves a lot of takes, which…Werner doesn’t do a lot of takes. I’m talkin’ two takes. I remember sittin’ down, he was, like, “What is wrong with this guy?” I said, “Dude, take it easy, ’cause you ain’t gonna get your eleven takes, I’m telling you that now. Don’t fight it. Get ready to do what you have to do in that first take, and hopefully it’s good on that first, because you might not even get take 2.” If he likes how it looks--and it’s interesting, Dieter is Werner's best friend in life--and so much of the time he’s more concerned about, like, vines and trees and [mimics Werner’s accent] “It was a beautiful view down the mountain.” “Yeah, but I forgot what I was saying.” That doesn’t matter—[Herzog speak] “the mystery of the movie.” The mystery of the movie?! Alright, dude!
Q: The movie’s been done for a while, and there was a problem getting it released. And, for something you’ve worked so hard on, is it frustrating because it’s taken so long?
SZ: Fuck yeah, dude. There was a time when if you had a movie that sat on the shelf for two years, that meant it sucked. That’s not the case anymore. I have, like, five movies on the shelf--six of them…one of them was kind of released; that sucked. And that’s why it wasn’t released. The other five or so are awesome. I’ve seem them. And, it’s just kind of weird just recently that it started happening. These were all shot years ago; I was extremely frustrated. At one point I thought RESCUE DAWN wasn’t even going to be done, like they wouldn’t have enough money for post. I didn’t know what was going on. I remember going out on my back porch, and I just sat down and [mimics crying] ’cause I thought, fuck, I put all this work into it, I feel so strong about it, and now it’s not going to be seen. I said, “Fuck!” It wasn’t enough just to do it, you know? And, so that was a bad night. And, then it’s out, and I’m so glad that, at least, some people are going to see it. Hopefully, a lot of people will see it. At least, it’s out.
C: The studio must have some confidence in the film since it’s coming out in the summer.
SZ: Yeah, they have a lot of confidence by putting it out in the summer. They do. I’ve never done anything where there was such positive feedback from really smart people. You can tell whether people think it’s stupid or not, he’s gotten a really good response, and I’m really excited about it.
C: Are you going to have a chance to see Christian while you’re in town?
SZ: Nah, I got to leave in, like, three hours. I know he's shooting on the street somewhere.
C: Okay, well, he’s around here somewhere.
Q: Was BANDIDAS the dumb movie you mentioned, because I kind of liked that one?
SZ: It's alright, it just totally...
Q: But I’m, like, the resident Luc Besson junkie.