I still think of myself as a 24-year-old,” says Steve Zahn. “But I realise when I get on set that I’m a veteran, the old guy.” It’s a mistake that viewers are liable to make just as easily: to many, Zahn is still the fresh-faced young actor whose role in Reality Bites came to epitomise the Gen X slacker. Now 53, he still draws on that same easy-going charm onscreen, just with more world-weariness thrown in. “It was kind of nice before, when you were just in the moment, and everything was just a party,” he says. “It gets a little more complicated as you get older.”
Zahn speaks to me, somewhat incongruously, from one of his grown children’s vacant bedrooms, a picture of the Grinch hanging on the wall behind his head. He lives with his family on a 360-acre Kentucky horse farm, a circumstance that has insulated him from some of the worst realities of the pandemic (“It’s been like living in 1870,” he jokes). His background in farming – being an all-round “outdoors guy” – proved particularly useful when it came to filming the forthcoming independent film Cowboys. Zahn plays Troy, the father of a young transgender boy called Joe (Sasha Knight). Frustrated by his separated wife’s (Jillian Bell) refusal to accept their son’s identity, Troy takes Joe off into the American wilderness as a police detective (Ann Dowd) follows in hot pursuit.
The film’s director, Anna Kerrigan, has spoken in interviews about the casting of Knight, a trans actor, saying it was “never an option” to cast a cisgender person in the role. Although the past decade has seen cis stars win acclaim for playing trans characters – including Jared Leto in 2013’s Dallas Buyers Club, in which Zahn also appeared, and Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl (2015) – there is, suggests Zahn, a cultural change occurring when it comes to casting. “Just in the last year, even, there’s been a huge shift,” he says. “People are just hyper-aware of that sort of thing.” But Knight’s gender identity, he continues, is not the sole focus of the film. “It’s kind of on the periphery,” he says, “which I think makes it even more powerful and more poignant.”
In what might be Cowboys’ most impactful scene, Knight’s character Joe comes out to his father. We see Troy try to process the revelation, cycling through amusement and confusion before quickly settling into empathy and understanding. “I know that I would react in a similar way,” says Zahn. “If it doesn’t scare the cows, who cares? As a parent, you’re just a parent. You have to refrain from trying to tell them what path to take, let them figure that out. You’re there to support and try to give them the best journey that they can have.”
It’s a stark tonal departure from some of the roles Zahn used to take on. After the success of Reality Bites in 1994, Zahn was often pigeonholed as a slacker sidekick, in films such as You’ve Got Mail and Out of Sight, but it turns out that he enjoyed being the underdog. “[Being typecast] never really bothered me,” he says. “You know, those parts are fun. Those parts are the ones that attracted me to scripts. When I was being sent out for lead parts and losing them to Billy Crudup, I oftentimes go ‘What about this guy instead? I’d rather play this guy.’
“Eventually, Dude, Where’s My Car? came out and I was like, ‘Oh, I didn’t even read for that? Awesome.’”
The best, most-rounded iteration of Zahn’s slacker/stoner persona came in 2010, with the wonderful HBO TV series Treme. In the show, set in post-Katrina New Orleans, Zahn played Davis McAlary, a small-time DJ, stoner and jazz obsessive who, at one point, runs for political office on a platform of cannabis legalisation. “New Orleans represents the United States more than any other city,” says Zahn, animatedly. “In New York, there’s no neighbourhoods any more. It’s gentrified and built up and too expensive for people. But New Orleans, you have the same neighbourhoods that have been there since pre-civil war, man. The same people that all kind of mingle together. Different classes, and races, and somehow that city works together in a very unique way.”
Treme was almost unprecedented in its pursuit of verisimilitude, deploying non-actors wherever possible. Zahn recalls having to physically hold trumpeter Kermit Ruffins in place during takes to prevent him from drifting off his mark and describes a time when he was standing in a circle with some of his castmates, passing around a fake joint. Elvis Costello (who guested on the show) walked up to them and took a hit, before shooting Zahn a perplexed look and walking off, having apparently not clocked they were still on set.
“That’s how cool it was,” says Zahn. “If you walk on a set, and you don’t even know you’re on a set. I was like, this show is unique, man. Usually, there’s no way you’d get near. You’d know. It was just raw dog and fun; I felt like half the time I was in a documentary about New Orleans.”
Aside from Treme, Zahn has had lead roles in a number of other short-lived series, including the ABC sci-fi The Crossing, comedy-drama Mind Games and the US remake of Mad Dogs. But he is routinely recognised as Phoebe’s husband from an episode of Friends, who memorably “comes out” as heterosexual. “It still makes me laugh,” he says of the scene. “It’s insane, how people still mention it... that’s four days out of my life.
“If you’re doing a network show, it’s completely different,” he continues. “It’s a machine. You do 10 pages a day, and it’s not as much about the work, it’s about memorising it and getting it done. You’re working 14-hour days; it’s a crazy structure. It’s like, what is the business model here? For us to be completely exhausted?”
It’s partly why Zahn often turns to indie films such as Cowboys, which put greater emphasis on the creative process. Cowboys is a contemporary spin on the western genre – a less comic Hunt for the Wilderpeople, with a coming out narrative woven in. It also features some of the very best work of Zahn’s career, playing a reckless but well-meaning man who understands his son more, it seems, than just about anyone else. Did his own experiences of fatherhood inform the role? “Oh God, yes,” Zahn replies. “If being a father doesn’t influence your work then you’re dead inside.”
“It’s who I am. That’s all I do. Right now I’m in dadland. I just play dads – different kinds of dads. Dressed-up dads. Dads with beards. Drunk dads in Mexico.” He laughs. “Then I’ll be a grandfather. There’s a natural progression with age: if you keep hitting your mark and show up not being an asshole, you keep working.”
For all the jokes about “stonerland” and “dadland”, Zahn is clearly someone who feels his position in the industry shifting. He has credited Tom Hanks’s mentorship while directing him in That Thing You Do! (1996) and finds himself taking a similarly nurturing approach to young actors, such as his 10-year-old Cowboys co-star Knight.
“I find myself dealing with my co-stars in the same way I deal with my kids,” he says. “Meaning, I’m kind of the activities director, the guy that’s fun to hang out with. I try to lighten it to the point where I can take advantage of that to make sure that the performance we’re doing is real and light.
“Your choices as a young actor are more important,” Zahn adds. “I can go do stuff that’s for the money and I’ll be forgiven, because of the s*** I’ve done before. But when you’re young, you’ve gotta do good material. Don’t necessarily run for the money or the big TV show, depending on what you want. If you want 10 million Instagram followers, then, f***, don’t talk to me…”
Whether he’d be forgiven or not, Zahn is not someone you’d exactly associate with selling out; bar a mo-capped role in 2017’s War for the Planet of the Apes, he has swerved pretty much all the major modern movie franchises. “Maybe I miss out on a lot of stuff because of where I live out here,” he muses, “but I don’t know what I’m missing, so, whatever... I’m always drawn to these movies that pay no money with great characters in them because I’m an actor. And ultimately, you bite the bullet, and budget the rest of the year.
“I did a bunch of independent stuff before the pandemic, and thought, ‘Well, OK, next year I’ve got to go make some money. I’ll focus on paying for college. And then the pandemic hit, and I was like, like, f***, what am I going to do?” He laughs again. “I guess it’s time to have a yard sale.”
Cowboys is on Curzon Home Cinema and digital download from 7 May