The­hu­man con­di­tion

ForSteve Zahn, the dystopian chaos on dis­play in his new film War for the Planet of the Apes is a clear metaphor for the cur­rent dis­con­tents in the US. ‘It’s all to do with the lack of em­pa­thy,’ he tell­sDon­ald Clarke

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - COVER STORY -

“Peo­ple come up to me and say: ‘Do you still act?’” Steve Zahn says. “I get that once a week. I think, f*ck you! But we live down in Ken­tucky. So peo­ple au­to­mat­i­cally think it all must have gone south for me. Ha ha.”

Yeah, tell them where to go. I get no sense that this en­er­getic, ec­cen­tric ac­tor – who, im­plau­si­bly, reaches 50 later this year – has been ab­sent from our screens in re­cent years. He was great in last year’s Os­car-nom­i­nated Cap­tain Fan­tas­tic. We’ll soon see him in Lean on Pete, An­drew Haigh’s fol­low up to 45 Years. But I sup­pose you don’t ex­pect to meet movie stars on farms in ru­ral Ken­tucky.

“We have al­ways lived in the coun­try,” he says in his quirky, an­gu­lar way. “I met my wife in 1990 when I was on the na­tional tour of Bye, Bye Birdie. We moved out of the city 13 years ago and it’s the best thing I ever did. Over­heads are lower. I don’t have to work when I don’t want to.”

Zahn has re­cently been lured from the scythes and sheep dip to play a sig­nif­i­cant char­ac­ter role in the ex­cel­lent War for the

Planet of the Apes. Zahn cre­ates an older, good-na­tured – but oc­ca­sion­ally bum­bling – chim­panzee who be­friends the pri­mate he­roes of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

Ev­ery­thing you see on screen was acted out by Steve us­ing the mo­tion-cap­ture tech­niques that Andy Serkis, who re­turns as the charis­matic Cae­sar, has made so much his own.

“These six months have been the most painful of my life,” he says. “Peo­ple have this no­tion: ‘Oh, it’s just CGI’. I thought maybe it would be that. I got there and re­alised: my God, I ac­tu­ally have to be­come an ape.

“That moth­erf*cker Andy Serkis is one of the great­est ac­tors I’ve ever worked with. Peo­ple say ‘mo­tion-cap­ture act­ing’. It’s pure act­ing. It’s harder.”

This is surely not where Steve Zahn ex­pected to end up. Clas­si­cally trained with the Amer­i­can Reper­tory The­atre (ART) at Har­vard, he imag­ined a life on the stage in dif­fi­cult, mod­estly paid pro­duc­tions. There are no the­atri­cal pre­de­ces­sors in his fam­ily, but his dad, a Lutheran min­is­ter, be­lieves that he and Zahn

I think a lot of this can be at­trib­uted to so­cial me­dia. There is this tech­nol­ogy that’s been de­vel­oped and it’s new to every­body. So your par­ents can’t teach you man­ners about it

are – if viewed from a cer­tain oblique an­gle – both in the busi­ness of com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

“He worked in uni­ver­si­ties as a chap­lain,” Zahn re­mem­bers. “They were very in­volved with refugee fam­i­lies and things like that. My par­ents were rea­soned and deep thinkers. My dad is an in­tel­lec­tual and a lit­er­ary man.”

His par­ents were on board when their son lunged to­wards se­ri­ous act­ing. He grad­u­ated from high school in Min­nesota and then spent a spell act­ing pro- fes­sion­ally in his home state. He trav­elled to Lon­don and soaked up the best pro­duc­tions in the West End. Even­tu­ally, a pal per­suaded him to try for the Har­vard pro­gramme.

“You don’t go to ART if you want to be a movie star,” he says. “You go there if you have am­bi­tions to be a great ac­tor. It was all Peter Brook and Anne Bog­art. It was move­ment class and all that. It wasn’t un­til I was work­ing with other ac­tors that I thought to ask about movies. Then I got an agent and he sent me out on films. But I couldn’t get ar­rested on TV.”

That’s not quite true. Among his first high-pro­file roles was as Phoebe’s ice-dancer hus­band on

Friends. The part was not large enough to make him any sort of in­stant celebrity. But once he be­came fa­mous it be­gan to res­onate.

“Yeah, I had this one four-day gig on Friends,” he says. “It’s so weird how that has sur­vived. Peo­ple still re­fer to it now. There are en­tire movies I’ve done that of­fer no­body that ref­er­ence. That’s crazy. I’ve worked with Jen­nifer Anis­ton since and it’s amaz­ing how she’s able to shake all that stuff off.”

That was 1995. A year later he was charm­ingly in­gen­u­ous in Tom Hanks’s rock’n’roll romp

That Thing You Do! There­after, he carved out a niche as the dorky guy who of­ten con­ceals a warm heart. He did some­thing of that sort in Steven Soder­bergh’s Out of Sight. He was Chris­tian Bale’s side­kick in Werner Her­zog’s char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally un­hinged Res­cue Dawn.

Zahn has proved ver­sa­tile, but hav­ing a “type” as an ac­tor is no bad thing. In­deed, there are prob­a­bly screen­writ­ers, at this very mo­ment, de­scrib­ing char­ac­ters as “a Steve Zahn sort”.

“Peo­ple got to know me very grad­u­ally,” he says. “It was lit­tle things. It’s still like that. That

Thing you Do! was a big thing. It’s al­ways been very grad­ual. Like I say, peo­ple still ask me if I’m still act­ing. ‘I’ve seen all your movies. What are you do­ing now?’ ”

He and his wife, the ac­tor and writer Robyn Peter­man, seem happy to be away from the hus­tle and the bus­tle. They served their time as job­bing ac­tors in New York City. Now, they can live life at their own pace with their two chil­dren.

Zahn sees the dystopian chaos in War for the Planet of the

Apes as a metaphor for the cur­rent dis­con­tents in the United States. Woody Har­rel­son plays a de­ranged despot. Need we say more?

“It’s very rel­e­vant to what’s go­ing on now,” he says. “It’s all to do with the lack of em­pa­thy and so on. I am a bit of a his­tory buff and I’ll tell you what I think. I think a lot of this can be at­trib­uted to so­cial me­dia. There is this tech­nol­ogy that’s been de­vel­oped and it’s new to every­body. So your par­ents can’t teach you man­ners about it.”

Zahn isn’t the sort to get ag­gres­sive. There’s an ir­re­press­ible cheer­i­ness to him. But he’s cer­tainly an­i­mated.

“I re­mem­ber sit­ting in a restau­rant and there is this fam­ily with their kids and they’re tak­ing pic­tures with their phone. No­body’s say­ing: ‘What the f*ck are you do­ing? Put your phone down.’ Now every­body has this voice. They all have a view. They all have this false… What?” Rec­ti­tude? “Yes. That’s it. I am not in­volved at all with that.”

This is in­ter­est­ing. These days, pub­li­cists urge film stars to get on Twit­ter and Face­book. If you’re not In­sta­gram­ming your por­ridge then you are in dan­ger of slip­ping from the con­ver­sa­tion.

“I don’t have a pub­li­cist. But, yeah, when­ever you do TV shows – if it’s net­work – then that’s when they’ll say: ‘Oh come on. We’ll do it for you.’ And that’s even worse. I am not into that and I never will be.”

Yet Zahn is not an an­ti­so­cial chap. He has, in ear­lier in­ter­views, talked about how much he en­joys the press jun­kets. There are worse ways of earn­ing a liv­ing. It is so ab­surdly hot in Lon­don to­day that I had to buy a new shirt lest I en­tered look­ing sweatier than Stan­ley Kowal­ski. But the so­fas are plush and the cater­ing is gen­er­ous.

“Yeah. Peo­ple com­plain,” he laughs. “I think, Have you ever done roof­ing? Some real work? Fly into an­other coun­try and spend time talk­ing about your­self? Who wouldn’t want that?” War for the Planet of the Apes is out now and is re­viewed on pages 10-11

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