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Steve Zahn Is Not Gonna Overthink This

You won’t find a more chill dude than this beloved character actor, who talks to MEL about being a modern dad, staying naive and how his beta-male ‘White Lotus’ character epitomizes a lot of guys’ dilemma

When I speak to Steve Zahn on Thursday afternoon, we’re just a few days away from the finale of The White Lotus, the acclaimed, much-buzzed-about HBO series that follows a group of mostly white, well-to-do vacationers enjoying their privilege at an exclusive Hawaiian resort. Zahn plays Mark, a flustered husband and father who’s the epitome of the beta male: His wife Nicole (Connie Britton) is a high-powered executive at a popular search-engine company — she makes way more money than he does — and his kids don’t respect him. Then, of course, there’s the looming terror that his enlarged testicles are proof that he has cancer, the disease he thinks killed his father when he was about Mark’s age. His is but one story that threads through Mike White’s increasingly gripping, thoughtful study of identity and exploitation. I’ve seen the final episode in preparation for talking with Zahn, and the first thing I tell him is how good the series was.

“Yeah,” he replies, “isn’t it great?”

The 53-year-old actor says that with a mixture of marvel and parental pride — almost as if he didn’t have anything to do with The White Lotus’ greatness. “Beginning to end, and in every way — I mean, it’s really a good-quality show.”

What becomes obvious quickly is that this is how Steve Zahn sounds about everything. Laidback, unpretentious, not given to bold proclamations, exceedingly sweet, he’s calling from his farm outside of Lexington, Kentucky, where he and his wife, actress-turned-author Robyn Peterman, have raised their family for the last twentysomething years. Thanks to The White Lotus, Zahn is receiving some of the best reviews of his career, which stretches back to Reality Bites, his breakthrough as an onscreen actor, and enjoying a rarity for him: an instant smash hit. (“Yeah, I’ve never been in a watercooler show,” he tells me.) Across the decades of work he’s done — whether in That Thing You Do! or Out of Sight or Shattered Glass or Treme or whichever is your personal favorite of his many roles — he’s gotten used to being part of good projects that, for whatever reason, didn’t quite find their audience. The White Lotus has, although he’s only vaguely aware of it. His life is on that farm, while Hollywood is somewhere else.

“It’s kind of great how people discover things years later as they get older,” he says while reflecting on the fact that, say, That Thing You Do! is now considered a beloved classic. “It’s the great thing about doing kids’ movies, because you’re constantly being reintroduced to a new generation that know you as Frank Heffley” — the dad he played in the film version of Diary of a Wimpy Kid — “or know you as the Star Trek guy on Daddy Day Care. And then later, those people go, ‘Oh, wait, he’s done a lot of [other stuff] — he used to be the pothead guy!’ It’s like reading a book: Read a book that someone told you about 30 years ago, and it’s still great.”

Zahn’s okay with you catching up with his body of work over time — it’ll be there waiting for you. He speaks like a man who knows he’s got it good. Let the rest of the world obsess over the scene from the first episode of The White Lotus where we see Mark’s penis and balls — it’s a prosthetic and, frankly, he’s sorta shocked that it never occurred to him that that would be such a big deal for other people. We talked a little about that, but we focused primarily on the crisis of masculinity that Mark goes through over the course of the series. Fatherhood, marriage, competitiveness and straight men’s place in the world all came up as well. The more you talk to Steve Zahn, the more he puts you at ease. He’s what being happy sounds like.

When The White Lotus came your way, did you and Mike White discuss what it was specifically that he thought you could bring to Mark? 

Mike and I kind of work the same way. There wasn’t a lot of mystery — the scripts were amazing, and every character was thought out and interesting and had depth and [was] bruised and vulnerable. I mean, you knew the path to take. Then it was just about smaller stuff — it was conversations about tone, about “What level of funny are we on here? What is everybody else doing?” We all knew right off the bat that you just really wanted it to be, for lack of a better word, real. Just to be real and believable people.

You’ve been asked enough about the prosthetic balls, so I won’t go through all that again. But now having seen the whole series, not only is that scene a great introduction to that character, it really highlights Mark’s core dilemma, which is his struggle with reclaiming his masculinity. It comes up again and again in The White Lotus — what he learns about his dad, how he feels like a beta in comparison to his super-successful wife, his relationship with his son. I was curious how you charted that crisis of masculinity that he goes through.

I’d love to sit here and say I plotted out this whole thing. I’m really an actor that concentrates on the moment — and really relies on a director and a good script and an editor that it’s going to make sense. My job is to make that moment believable and unique and whatever. 

But I love the idea that this guy, whose dad was the guy that went hiking and camping and “We’re going to do this and that” — then, that’s completely thrown away, and he’s lost. I know people like this — what they want is a great thing. [Mark] wants his relationship with his son to be this incredible thing where they’re going to be buddies for life and his son’s going to respect him — and, yet, it’s kind of too late, man. [Mark] can’t buy his boat and everything’s going to be fine — he just doesn’t know what he needs. And that’s what, I think, makes it so you feel sorry for him — that’s what I wanted [viewers to] feel toward him. Like, “Goddamn, he just didn’t do it soon enough.” He’s trying to input ideas of what he thinks masculinity and relationships are — and it’s sad, you know?

Mark has these moments of being truly pathetic. There’s a real vulnerability to that guy. How do you tap into that and be that open and weak as Mark?

I think I naturally have always gravitated toward finding those things in all the characters I play — I read a character and I go, “Oh, here’s somebody that you can really rip open their chest and look at their insides.” I mean, literally you see his balls — there’s nothing more vulnerable and open and revealing than that. 

There’s plenty of ways to play this guy. He could have been a complete asshole. His Achilles’ heel is that he’s honest, and his honesty is what gets him in trouble. He doesn’t think about what he’s saying — he’s not calculated in that way, which is his charm, which is what makes him great. But he kind of represents all guys now, doesn’t he? In a way, I mean, it’s like what is masculinity? What are those instinctual, primal things that are a part of all of us? You can’t deny those, right? They’re there, so how do you navigate through this world we live in now? It was so fascinating to me. 

Zahn in The White Lotus, as Mark Mossbacher, with his TV son Quinn, played by Fred Hechinger

Those interactions Mark has with his son are so touching, in part because they show a father awkwardly trying to express love to his boy. You’re a dad, and you have two kids in their late teens/early 20s — that’s about the same age as the kids Mark has. These questions of modern masculinity — how do you talk about that with your son and daughter?

We just naturally steered clear of “Hey, be tough.” It was like, “No, be compassionate. Be smart. Be open.” My son just dropped out of school — I did, too, and I commend him for it. He’s a brilliant dude, and I was like, “Now, be open. If you’re not open to people, if you’re not someone that people want to hang out with, the opportunities will not come. Now, you’re going to get screwed sometimes, but so be it” — and he’s already experiencing that. But it’s like, “Talk to people. Hang out. Don’t be judgmental” — all those things that are easier said than done. 

Mark is kind of like that, but for some reason there’s this gap between teaching his kids that. Maybe he’s not the guy in the family [to do that]. I don’t think he’s the guy that really regulates that — I think [Mark’s wife Nicole] is. I don’t know, it’s interesting times. I mean, what is our instinct? To go hunt? That’s why we play fucking golf — I don’t play golf, but replace “hunting” with some kind of weird thing that we go do, and we’re obsessed with it. You can go buy a steak in a fucking grocery store. What’s the point of us any more?

It’s a real theme of the series: Where do the Marks of the world fit in now? I think a lot of straight white males are experiencing what he’s feeling: “I’ve had it really good, and now maybe things are going to be more equal.” That can be a strange feeling when you’ve been on top of the heap forever.

Right, it’s this transition. It’s like, “Okay, well, you don’t have to hunt anymore, thanks a lot, but now maybe you can nurture a little bit more.” You have the ability to do that — it’s instinctual. 

Mike wrote an incredible [show about the] things that we don’t talk about, things that people are afraid to talk about. And he does it in a way that’s wrapped up in humor [and] this beautiful resort and sexy people. And it always goes [back] to the ocean — he always shows some kind of natural thing as a way of telling us that we’re so insignificant, we’re so ridiculous with our problems. [During the shoot] we would go snorkeling, and you would be wrapped up in COVID and the world and everything — and then the beauty of shooting at this place was “I’m going to go snorkel for two hours.” You’d see a tortoise that’s, like, 120 years old that was alive when Pearl Harbor was bombed. And you’re like, “Fuck, man. This is liberating. I am really nothing.” 

Is that part of the reason why you live on what sounds like a huge, amazing farm in Kentucky? To be closer to nature and be this small little thing in that bigger world?

Yeah, totally. I always tell people, I don’t have anything against New York and L.A. — I lived there, both — but I just like it dark at night. And there is something about growing tomatoes or taking care of horses that’s a complete distraction from the things that… I’m not reminded about where I sit in the grand scheme of things in Hollywood when I’m home. I don’t drive by billboards, see a premiere or have meetings with people that mean nothing other than getting lunch. So I rarely think about it, which keeps me in a place where, when I get a gig, I go to work in the same way I did in 1986. There’s no change. I think staying naïve is kind of great. 

When you say “staying naïve,” what does this entail?

I think I have a little more trust [that] it’s just going to go the way it’s going to go. If you just keep showing up on time, know your shit, have an opinion and don’t be an asshole, you’ll have great experiences and you will work with amazing people that will inspire you and make you better. I mean, that’s kind of hippy-dippy, but it’s true. I’m not very calculating. [Laughs]

When you were a younger actor, were you more calculating?

No, I’ve always been like this. And I regret, in hindsight, being in certain spots in my career where I could have taken advantage of being in those spots a little bit more, which maybe would have done something different. But I don’t really know what those things are — I know the spots, but I don’t know what that would have done, or if that would have made me happier. So, if I don’t know, then who cares, right?

I’ve always been just kind of like, “What’s next week?” Like, right now I’ve got a full beard — I’m a character acting waiting for somebody to tell me to shave it or keep it. My wife, it drives her crazy — she’s like, “Shave that, it looks like hell.” I’m like, “Yeah, but…” It’s like Who Am I This Time? Have you ever seen that — Who Am I This Time? It was kind of like this afterschool special with Susan Sarandon, and she’s a teacher in a small town, and Chris Walken is a guy that works in the hardware store. It’s about a community theater, and they do a production of Streetcar, and he’s this introvert that doesn’t talk to anybody. But, then, when he gets on stage, he’s like, Stanley plus 150. [Laughs] If you’ve never seen it, watch it. 

So you’re like Christopher Walken in that movie. In real life, you’re soft-spoken, but when you do the work, you do the work.

Yeah, when I’m here, I don’t think of myself as an actor. I’m just a farmer, just buying feed or fixing shit. It’s endless.

I grew up in downstate Illinois, where there’s also a lot of farming. I came of age with Farm Aid, which raised awareness for how financially difficult that line of work is. I’m assuming you don’t make your living farming, but I’m curious from your own observations of your neighbors, just how challenging is it for someone whose livelihood is dependent on farming?

Oh, talk about stress, especially if you’re growing crops. If you’re in Illinois and you’ve got corn and soybeans — I mean, every day they’re looking at the weather, wondering if you can even get to harvest.

There’s one thing I pride myself on — it’s not like I hire people to do stuff here. I don’t just walk around and enjoy looking at stuff. I actually do it. And even on my small scale, you really understand the value of things. My son is an amazing writer, and he works at the thoroughbred farm that’s next to us. And I’m more proud of the fact that he goes to work, and he’s really valuable there, and he hangs out with all these guys that he wouldn’t have hung out with if he didn’t. He learned how to work. And I said, “Dude, as long as you keep your head on, you keep writing, you’re going to be fine. I don’t care what school you go to.” It’s knowing how to work — people don’t know how to work.

I tell young actors, “Over-prepare, and show up before your [call time]. And don’t be a dick. You will work forever.” I always think I’ll work as long as I want to work just because of that. The magic is the magic. 

Zahn getting the news about how his father really died in The White Lotus

On The White Lotus, Rachel asks Mark what the secret to his long marriage is. His answer isn’t very encouraging, of course, but you yourself have been married since the mid-1990s. What do you think the secret is?

It’s all work, for sure. It’s about letting the other person flourish in whatever they flourish in. We always joke, like, we forget our anniversary all the time, and I love that. I think that’s really healthy. But my wife is a brilliant person who’s funny. She quit acting and started writing, and now she’s a New York Times bestseller. And thank god during COVID, she can sit on the back porch and write. But, yeah, it’s like, find that person that makes you laugh.

It sounds like you approach your acting like your relationship: You don’t overthink things that are working.

Yeah, that’s it. I mean, “What’s for dinner?” That’s kind of it. I guess I’m kind of lazy at heart.

I’m assuming you’re joking when you say that. But then again, there’s something to be said for having the confidence to say, “This is good. I don’t need to analyze it to death.” 

I think that’s the key. During COVID, a lot of actors I knew didn’t really freak out because we’re used to not working and being in positions where we’re like, “Okay, well, maybe I got to have a yard sale, then.” But it’s never debilitating. And you know that you can freak out and then the next day get a call and you’re like, “Ah, I’m going to Germany next week,” and it’s over — the angst, the anxiety, all that stuff is over in a split second. 

But, yeah, I’m not a lazy-ass at heart. Trust me, I get up at six every morning without an alarm, and I work my ass off. [Laughs]

I’ve seen other interviews where you’ve talked about waking up that early. It’s what really separates you from the Gen-X cliché of the stoned slacker that you played so often in your early career. Was it alienating to be part of a generation whose mindset was not your own?

I always thought it was amusing — I [wasn’t] the poster child, but I kind of represented a certain thing in people’s head. Like, I was this kind of dumb pot-smoker guy for a while. And yet, my life was completely opposite that. Not that I never smoked pot, but I was a guy who — I wanted to be in a World War II movie so bad. I would have paid to be in it. That’s me. And it was kind of fun being able to play people that I’m completely opposite of. But being in a western, to me, is like being 12 years old and fulfilling some goal. 

You considered being a Marine when you were a kid. Was it a patriotic notion of wanting to give back to your country?

I thought it was that. I’ve always been fascinated with it. My dad’s a minister, and he would get me up out of bed and we’d watch The World at War Sunday night. I would sit riveted and listen to those old guys talk. If you watch it now, it’s pretty boring, but I was always fascinated with it. 

But I realize now, I was an actor wanting to be a Marine — I just didn’t know I was an actor at the time. I wanted to be the guy in the movie. I’m glad I realized that and said, “No, I’d rather go pretend to be one.” 

You mentioned your father: Mark is so focused on being a good dad that it made me wonder about your dad.

My dad was a Lutheran minister up in Minnesota. There’s a lot of Lutherans [there] — there’s like a Lutheran church on every corner. And my dad, he was really an amazing preacher. My folks, they’re really good people, and they just help people. They were very liberal — we helped refugees and we had soup kitchens, and it was just about helping. 

His sermons were brilliant. He’s a very artistic-minded guy, very poetic. I think a lot of [my interest in acting] came from him, to be honest with you. He’s the guy that bought me George Carlin’s Class Clown album when I was, like, 11. My dad loves language. He showed us Laurel and Hardy movies on a projector on Friday nights. He was a chaplain at the university, Mankato State, and we watched Laurel and Hardy. He introduced us to a lot of stuff. 

Was he excited about you getting serious about acting?

Oh, totally. I dropped out of the first college I was at, and I told them, “Yeah, I’m going to drop out and I’m going to be an actor.” And they were like, “Oh, that’s great.” 

It sounds like you come from a family that’s pretty chill. 

It’s that German, Swedish, Minnesota, laidback… I don’t know, yeah. I never got pressure from my folks once about being an actor. Not one time did I get sat down, like, “Hey, you really serious about this?” They knew I was. I got it from my parents’ friends more than I ever got it from my folks, who were very supportive and awesome.

You and other up-and-coming actors like Ethan Hawke formed a theater company together when you were all starting out. Back then, was it hard not to be competitive with one another in terms of landing roles in Hollywood?

Yeah, but everybody’s competitive on one level or another. But it didn’t drive anything. I mean, we did different things — we had different sensibilities — and we just loved each other. All those guys kind of respected each other. 

My daughter is going to a conservatory in five days — I’m going to move her in and do all that — and I told her, “You’re going to run into people that are going to be really competitive, but don’t fall into that, because it’ll blind you. There’s plenty of opportunities. There’s tons of parts. Just learn and be open. [Being competitive] can destroy you.” 

But, I mean, I was envious that [Hawke] could get paid a lot of money and he got to do Alive and be on a glacier. A Midnight Clear, I thought that movie was great. I was like, “Ah, god, I’d die to do that, you’re so lucky.”

I think about That Thing You Do!: You’re in this movie that’s directed by Tom Hanks, it gets good reviews… and then it kinda just dies at the box office. People have discovered that movie since then, and you’ve talked in the past about coming to terms with the fact that some things are out of your control. But how is that not really disappointing in the moment? 

Yeah, it’s definitely a disappointment. I mean, that was less of a disappointment than, like, Happy, Texas or movies that I thought would really have legs that just didn’t even get the opportunity. That Thing You Do!, I mean, whatever: It wasn’t No. 1 that first weekend, and everybody was a little bummed out and hung their head. But 25 years later, the four of us are going up to Erie, PA [on September 4th] to throw out the ball at a minor league game — they’re having Wonders Night. [Laughs] I don’t know what movie beat us that weekend, but I guarantee those guys aren’t getting together in three weeks. So, you know, what movie was better?

Happy, Texas felt like a real turning-point moment in independent cinema where a film gets purchased for a ton at Sundance, there’s all this hype and then it sinks like a stone commercially. It seemed like that film triggered a backlash against those types of Park City sensations — people got more suspicious of them.

Yeah, but that movie didn’t even get a shot. It was fully released in, I want to say, two theaters. There’s a whole story behind that, and some of it I don’t know, but there was a contract where they said [it would get a wide release] and it didn’t. I was doing press for it, and I was like, “Wait a second. What’s going on?” Like, you get a call from your mom going, “Hey, it’s not [listed] in the paper.” So that was the situation where the life of that movie was on VHS — it slowly garnered an audience, but it took 20 years. People feel special when they [tell me], “I love Happy, Texas.” And you’re like, “Oh, great! That’s awesome.” Or Safe Men: “I love Safe Men.” “Oh, man, you’re one of four people who love that movie.”

You live in a predominantly red state, but you’ve campaigned for Democrats like Amy McGrath. How frustrating is it to work hard for candidates that probably aren’t going to win?

I usually don’t talk a lot of politics, but I’m very political. And, obviously, I went out and canvassed for Amy McGrath. Yeah, it’s tough. I mean, Kentucky’s an interesting state because, on a national level, it’s red, but on a local level and on a state level…  We’ve always, traditionally, had Democratic governors — and a two-time openly gay mayor in Lexington. It’s a pretty progressive state if you go to Louisville and Lexington — it’s just the outskirts tend to be more conservative.   

Now, most of my friends are pretty conservative — my farmer friends and the people I hang out with here. It’s very concerning and gets more concerning every day, where dialogue and conversation and debate are kind of dead. And I loved doing that, [but] it’s kind of gone right now.

Is there any part of you that thinks they’re thinking, “Oh, this Hollywood guy and his liberal ideas…”?

Yeah, and then we start talking about tractors or hunting duck. As far as the stereotypes, I think it’s a little harder to peg me, you know what I mean? [Laughs] But it’s cool to drive around in a 2004 diesel truck with “8645” on the back. You don’t see many of those [bumper stickers].

My truck has got a four-inch lift. I look like the biggest redneck of all time. I like to keep people guessing. But most of my friends — conservative, liberal — most people are good people. Most people. If you sit down and talk to them, and you talk about an issue, most people are pretty reasonable. And that’s what’s sad about the whole thing, because now we’re just labeling everything — it’s all about labels. And I kind of just refuse to label anything or be labeled. [Accusatory voice] “Who are you?” “I don’t know, man. The older I get, the less I know.”

It seems like that’s an important lesson to learn as you get older.

Yeah. “That guy’s really wise over there.” “Why?” “Because he’s not talking?” I mean, two people screaming at each other, from 20 feet away, [they] both look like idiots. 

We’ve been in this pandemic for a while. Do you feel like you’ve learned anything about yourself?

Yeah, that I’m pretty content. I mean, being immobile and hanging out — I really didn’t have much anxiety. I’m grateful for that. 

Zahn having a drink — and discussing his fathers sexuality — with White Lotus manager Armond (played by Murray Bartlett)

With The White Lotus, it must be nice, too, to actually be part of something that people “get” right away for once. It’s a success right now — you don’t have to wait for 25 years for audiences to discover it.

Yeah, I’ve never been in a watercooler show. But here’s what’s crazy: I’m on this farm and I talk to you, and when I hang up, I will not think about it at all. If I was somewhere else, maybe I’d have more people coming up [to me about the show]: “Oh my god, who’s dead?!? But my neighbors — Ricky over here, he doesn’t know. He doesn’t care.

So you’re saying that when the first episode came out and everybody else was freaking out thinking they’d seen your penis and testicles, you just had no idea?

Mike White was driving cross-country, and he’s like, “Hey, can I come to the farm?” I was like, “Yeah, come stay.” I’ve been dealing with my horse that had surgery, and I was down there and he was watching me. And I stopped and said, “Dude, you know what’s crazy? I didn’t even think for a second that the fact that there was a camera on my balls would even be a thing. Isn’t that weird?” And he was like, “I didn’t either.” I don’t even think about it.

Okay, so, it’s about 5:45 over there right now. When we get off the phone, what is the rest of your day gonna look like?

I got to feed. I’ll feed at, like, 6:30. Feed my horses. I’ve got to feed my goats. And it’s really hot here, so I got to go out and check all the automatic waterers and make sure it’s clean water. Then I’ll do the dishes and get set for the morning. Pre-set the dog crap. And then I’ll cook. When I’m home with my wife, I do everything. And when I’m gone, she does everything. I shop, I clean, I do laundry: “What do you want for dinner?” That kind of thing. I’ve got my Big Green Egg and I get that going. We’re at it seven days a week.