Monday, January 22, 2007


There are those actors you first witness on an insurance spot or in a walk-on role on Friends or with three lines in some indie thing on IFC and you know immediately that this person is destined for greatness.

No matter how much Steve Zahn tries to avoid it, stardom is in his future. Zahn shies away from the Young Hollywood scene with a vengeance. In fact, he lives about as far away from LA as you can get --- on a farm in New Jersey with his wife, actress Robin Peterman and prefers it that way. But the more Zahn denies Hollywood, the more it seems to want him.

The scripts and offers to continue to pour in. In the past year, he has been attached as a major character to Mission: Impossible 2 and American Psycho, both of which he was forced to turn down because of scheduling conflicts with even more big ticket commitments. Steve Zahn is definitely one to watch.

Zahn’s first memorable role was as Winona Ryder’s sexually repressed gay pal Sammy Gray in the Gen X complain-a-thon Reality Bites (1995). Director Ben Stiller “discovered” Zahn while attending Ethan Hawke’s performance in a play at a small theatre company in Manhattan. As it turns out, Zahn and Hawke were partners in the company and Zahn co-starred in the play. Stiller was smitten and cast Zahn in the role of Sammy on the spot.

For the next couple of years, Zahn appeared in bit parts in Crimson Tide and various indie films as well as a notable gig as Phoebe’s ice-dancing husband on TV’s Friends. Then, Tom Hanks and Jonathan Demme tapped the likeable actor to play Lenny, the wisecracking, girl-happy bass guitarist in That Thing You Do! His scene-stealing performance apparently endeared him to Hanks, who worked with Zahn two more times over the next couple of years. Zahn portrayed Elliott See in the Hanks-produced mini-series From The Earth To The Moon and, of course, played Meg Ryan’s bookstore buddy, George Pappas in You’ve Got Mail.

After That Thing You Do!, Zahn was offered an opportunity few actors get. Richard Linklater cast him as the blue-haired, skateboarding slacker punk Buff in Eric Bogosian’s SubUrbia, a role Zahn originated in workshops while a student at Cambridge and later played in its premiere at Lincoln Center. Zahn engendered the moronic character with a surprising charm, the same charisma all his characters, no matter how flawed, possess.

His breakout role may prove to be last year’s Out of Sight, Steven Soderbergh's stylish caper flick with George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez. Zahn played the sunglass-wearing stoner Glenn, a completely unfit and bumbling thief counterpointed against Clooney’s suave masterthief. Zahn earned high praise from critics and the attention of Hollywood. His docket filled with projects: the mistaken-identity crime comedy Safe Men, the Ben Affleck/Sandra Bullock romantic comedy Forces of Nature, and the Sundance Grand Jury Prize-nominated Happy, Texas, for which Zahn actually won the Special Jury Award for comedic performance.

What’s next for the happy-go-lucky actor? This year, he’ll teams up with old theatre chum Ethan Hawke for another feature film version Hamlet in which Zahn will play Rosencrantz and he’ll voice the character of Scout in Stuart Little. You know you’re on your way when you get to be the voice of a cartoon.

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