Gary Thompson | Steve Zahn: Oh, THAT'S the guy's name

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IF YOU were fishing the Broadhead some years ago and saw a guy who looked like Steve Zahn sloshing around with his fly rod, that really was him.

Zahn lived in a Pocono cabin while getting his start on the New York stage in the early '90s. He's a Minnesota native and outdoorsman who says he likes to "sleep where it's dark."

"I'm a redneck, man," said the busy character actor, whose latest movie is Werner Herzog's Vietnam-era prison saga "Rescue Dawn."

"I live on a farm. I hunt. I fish, I barbecue, I drive my kids to school.

"People are always like, 'Why don't you live in L.A.?' like I have something against it. I got nothing against Hollywood. I just like to fish," said Zahn, who now lives in rural Kentucky, and is the first actor I've ever interviewed who brought a pouch of Redman to the Four Seasons.

So how does a redneck deer hunter get from Minnesota to Harvard's American Repertory theater, where Zahn learned his craft?

"The reason I'm an actor today is because of my junior high experience, and the fact that I had teachers who were theater people, and there was a budget for that, and it thrived, and everybody went to the school musical because it was really good," he said.

"That's why I'm an actor, not because I watched 'A Bridge Too Far,' and thought, 'I could be that guy.' I never thought I could be that guy. Even when I was in New York, working on stage, I never thought I could be a film actor."

Zahn's reputation as a capable performer spread to Hollywood, though, and the offers trickled in. Though he couldn't point to a single breakthrough role, he said "That Thing You Do" was a great experience and a turning point.

"There are movies that I've done since that I haven't seen and I can't remember making, and I'm sober. I've always been sober. I've never been a screw-up."

He also made a powerful friend in producer/director/star Tom Hanks, and his turn as Funny Sidekick Guy was vivid enough to earn him similar roles in a half-dozen other films ("Sahara," "Joy Ride," "Saving Silverman," "National Security"). Though he's never been a screw-up, he plays one often enough.

That's one reason that Zahn pursued his role in "Rescue Dawn" with such zeal. It's a heavily dramatic, deadly serious role - his character is based on a downed pilot imprisoned in Laos along with pilot Dieter Dengler, the man who leads an escape attempt that forms the dramatic core of the movie.

Zahn said that, in a way, he's been preparing for this role since childhood.

"I was the kid in Ten Below, Minnesota, who was out in the snow at night playing Battle of the Bulge. Or sitting in my dad's lap on Sunday night watching Laurence Olivier narrate 'World at War,' " Zahn said.

The actor was obsessed with World War II movies and literature, and came across Dengler's autobiography, "Little Dieter Must Fly," at an early age. He knew and loved Herzog's documentary, based on Dengler's book, and almost went bananas when he heard that Herzog was going to make a dramatic film about Dengler's experiences.

"When I heard that he was possibly going to make the movie and was looking for financing, I had to meet him," said Zahn. "I contacted him and said, 'Look, you're going to hire the wrong guy if you do not hire me.' I knew I had a connection to it that I could access easily. I remember telling Werner, 'I know this exactly. I'm your guy. You don't have to pay me - although I wouldn't mind if you did.' "

The pitch worked, and Zahn turns in what is probably the first heartbreaking work of his film career. Whether it changes folks' perception of him in Hollywood or beyond doesn't much matter to him.

"If I can be the guy that people sort of recognize when they do the People Who Died thing at the end of the Academy Awards, I'd be happy with that. They show my picture and people say, 'Oh, THAT'S the guy's name. He was great. How many movies did that f----- make?'

"That's how I'd like to be remembered." *