Your first meaningful encounter with Steve Zahn, in The White Lotus, Mike White’s dazzling opus to oblivious entitlement, is a close-up of his balls. Zahn, playing a dad of two, is dealing with a health scare related to his swollen testes. And his brush with presumed near-death leads him to make repeated awkward, bumbling attempts to bond with his wary kids, who find him about as appealing and entertaining as pubic lice. You’re wincing for him, this well-intentioned guy who keeps trying but just can’t get it right.
Zahn shot the series smack-dab in the middle of COVID-19, when productions were being shut down daily, if not hourly. But at that point, after spending months on his farm in Kentucky, Zahn would have filmed Love Island if it meant a change of scene. Instead, he got to hang out at four-star resort with Connie Britton, who plays his wife.
“I really would have gone out and done anything at that point. I still have to go work. And luckily, you know, I get the script that Mike White wrote and I read it and I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is really good,'” says Zahn. “He picked me. It was fall, it was October and I’m flying to Hawaii, which was frightening, but I flew to Hawaii and the Four Seasons in Maui was closed. So it was a set. We couldn’t leave the property, but there was a beach and the whole crew stayed at the hotel. It was really this kind of crazy little bubble that we were in. And then you feel guilty — you were in this kind of paradise doing this incredible work.”
Zahn, the master of dad roles — from Daddy Daycare to Diary of a Wimpy Kid — talks to Fatherly about raising his own brood, his superhuman ability to grow a beard, and his memory of Reality Bites.
How does it feel to re-emerge after COVID?
I’m lucky because I live on a farm in Kentucky. I didn’t work for eight months, but on a farm, it was weird. I think it’s always weird to reemerge in a weird way, living out there. When I go do a job, I love that kind of circus aspect of it and the camaraderie and going out to dinner and running lines — I’m addicted to it. And then when I’m done, I might not see somebody outside of my family for two days.
I can’t help but notice your very impressive beard. Is that due to COVID as well?
I grew a beard faster than anybody. It’s gnarly. It’s insane. My wife hates it and I was like, ‘I’m unemployed right now. So I’m going to grow it out.’ She’s like, ‘You should really shave it — you look a lot better.’ But what if tomorrow somebody calls and says, ‘Will you play this pirate?’ And I had a beard and now it’s gone.
Good point. In The White Lotus, you play a dad whose kids find him cringey. Your own two kids are all grown up, What kind of dad are you?
I’ve always been the same. They morph and change and become individuals. You get to witness that. You stay the same idiot. I’m the activities director. I’ve always been that guy. I filled the day full of stuff to do. When it’s about fun, they come to me. When it’s about needing to find out what’s going, or they want encouragement, they go to mom. I’m the fucking idiot.
We both have our roles. I’m really happy with that role. So when I’m working, she’s in control. She knows everything. When I come home, we tag team, she writes, I shop, clean, do all the other stuff. So it works out great. That’s what I love about getting older. You just less opinionated about stuff and you’re more open to people.
You’ve played a lot of very memorable dads throughout your career.
I had little kids and my kids just assumed that everybody was an actor. I did a Diary of a Wimpy Kid because those were the books we read every night. I got that script. And then I found out they were going to make a movie. I know that if they do this right, this will be huge. My son was like nine at the time, my daughter’s seven. If this is popular, I’m going to be a God at the pickup line at school. To this day, I have people — you get a whole new generation of people who know who you are.
How’s life on the farm? Must be nice to not live on either coast.
I like to fish, I like to grow things. I like quiet. I like to ride horses and take care of them. But I just love the work too . I just love to create. I hate it when actors talk about work. But if it’s done right, there’s nothing better. And you forget about not being paid or being paid — half the jobs you’re not paid.
It’s hard to believe, but Reality Bites, your breakout movie, turned 27 this year. How do you look back on that?
That was the first movie. That was an incredible experience. Ethan (Hawke) and I were already really good friends because we had done theater together in New York and we were pals, which made it that much better of an experience because I was sharing it with someone I knew. Otherwise I’d be so nervous. I was already really nervous. In theater, you learn the technical things. You don’t go into blind. With film you do. It’s assumed that you understand your mark and all these really kind of simple things. You have to teach someone how to do it properly. And then in film, no one teaches you. I learned quickly as opposed to pretending that I knew.
I remember going into it and it was so much fun and then coming home and I was just as poor. I’m in a big movie. And I’m just as poor.
The White Lotus is streaming on HBO.