Steve Zahn says that he doesn’t feel like he’s ready to accept a lifetime cinema achievement award. But after 25 years of acting in films, he’s coming home to Minnesota to get one anyway.
The Twin Cities Film Fest will honor him Thursday at the organization’s sold-out fall preview gala, which opens the new season.
Zahn, who was born in Marshall and grew up in Mankato and New Hope, says it seems premature.
Talking about the accolade, he sounded a bit like the adorable, confused characters he often plays. “I don’t think of myself as, like, 50, you know?” he said.
Zahn, who turns 51 in November, has made 53 films to date.
“Inside the business, it’s odd to look back and go, ‘I guess I have worked for a while and I have quite a résumé.’ ”
In fact, he has racked up a formidable body of work that runs the gamut from saps, slackers and sidekicks to dramatic, comic and romantic leads, always leaving a mark.
In Werner Herzog’s “Rescue Dawn,” his starring turn beside Christian Bale, where he lost 40 pounds to play a starving Vietnam POW, inspired the New York Times to declare him a “revelation.” He has voiced computer-animated characters in Disney’s “Chicken Little” and “The Good Dinosaur.” He performed hunched down in a motion capture jumpsuit for 20th Century Fox’s “Battle for the Planet of the Apes.”
Tom Hanks cast him as a wisecracking pop star in his directing debut “That Thing You Do!” in which Zahn played lead guitar and sang. He has starred in three “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” films. He works frequently in television, including leading or recurring roles on ABC’s “Mind Games” and “Modern Family,” Amazon’s “Mad Dogs” and four seasons on HBO’s acclaimed drama “Treme.”
Still, in an industry as age-aware as film, he said it does feel odd to “go to a set and being, like, the oldest guy. It’s weird. It seems to have happened overnight. But then I think it wasn’t that long ago, like 1850, when I’d be dead.“
Be reassured, fans, that he plans to keep acting “until the day I drop. It’s the only thing I can do other than trim trees and dig holes. It was either that or be an outfitter at the Boundary Waters. For real.”
Zahn, a two-time Minnesota state speech champion, acted in plays at Robbinsdale Cooper High School. After graduation he attended Gustavus Adolphus College, but dropped out after a trip with the dance troupe to see London theater convinced him that he could do as good as that.
He snuck into auditions for the Old Log Theatre’s production of Neil Simon’s “Biloxi Blues” and got the job by playacting that he was a member of Actors’ Equity. He left his job at a tool-and-die machine shop and spent the next eight months of 1987 onstage.
Some New York cast members saw his potential and encouraged him to enroll in Massachusetts-based American Repertory Theater’s two-year training program. His work off-Broadway impressed director Ben Stiller, who cast him in his feature film debut, 1994’s “Reality Bites.”
Zahn, who loves to be paid for pretending, never had any other plans beyond a fantasy to join the Marine Corps. Evidently it has worked out for him. For 14 years he and his wife and two children have lived on a 360-acre horse farm outside the one-block town of Midway, Ky., where he runs the local community theater. When a good offer comes in, he leaves for a while.
“The beauty of acting is that it’s not like most other jobs. Parts don’t dry up, they just redefine themselves. You go from playing the stoner to playing the soccer coach to playing the principal. Pretty soon I’ll be playing some old guy. It reinvents itself all the time and it’s kind of exciting. ‘Oh, I get to play that now.’ But on another level, it’s kind of a bummer. ‘Oh, wait. Dammit, I can’t play Hamlet. I’m way too old.’
“Then all of a sudden, things start grinding in your head and you’re looking for the next story, the next character. And then it gets exciting the same way as when you got your first gig.”
That enthusiasm defines Zahn’s work on screen, said Jatin Setia, Twin Cities Film Fest executive director.
“He’s an actor who has defied expectations for decades. He’s always kept surprising us, breaking out of his comfort zone to find a way to both make us laugh and cry,” Setia said. “For movie audiences, his career is one worth celebration,” he added, praising Zahn’s “perseverance and longevity.”
While Zahn has experienced his share of flops, he tries to take it all in stride. The ABC series “The Crossing,” where he led the cast as a small-town sheriff facing a doomsday scenario, debuted in March and was not renewed.
“If it was picked up, great! If it wasn’t, great! I get to stay home and relax.”
That sounds like a pretty good lifetime achievement right there.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186