Actor Steve Zahn was on the phone with the assistant director for one of his film projects, trying to work out some scheduling.
"They said, 'We'll call you back,' and I said, 'Yeah, well I'm standing here in a dance rehearsal in a Christmas tree outfit, with about 50 girls dancing around me, so I don't know if I'll have time to talk to you," Zahn says, laughing.
Zahn, who lives in Lexington, is a busy actor, currently shooting the HBO series Treme and the feature film Dallas Buyers Club , with Matthew McConaughey and Jennifer Garner. But he is squeezing in some time this holiday season to play a featured role in The Rep's production of Smackdown for the Christmas Crown. It runs Friday through Sunday at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center.
The show is an original musical by Zahn's wife, Lexington native Robyn Peterman-Zahn, the daughter of clothier John Peterman. The Rep is co-directed by the couple and choreographer Diana Evans Pulliam.
But all that did not necessarily mean Zahn would get onstage in a local production, a rarity for the smattering of film actors who have called Central Kentucky home. Another actor was scheduled to play the part of One-Man-Christmas-Show-Man but had to bow out because of health issues, which have since been resolved with no long-term problems.
"At the time, it was really scary," Zahn says.
Peterman-Zahn adds, "His health was far more important than our show."
Zahn says, "We were like, 'What do we do?' and Robyn said, 'Well, can you do it?'"
The two biggest hurdles to clear were Actors Equity, the stage actors union, of which Zahn is a member, and Zahn's crazy-busy filming schedule for Treme and Dallas Buyers Club, both of which are being filmed in New Orleans.
It turned out that Equity, which has rules about what shows its members may act in, needed only paperwork to get Zahn a guest-artist contract.
"It didn't cost a lot of money," Zahn says. "It was just red tape."
Filming has been more of a challenge. Take this week, the week Smackdown opens.
"I have Monday on the movie, Tuesday on Treme, Wednesday on the movie, Thursday on Treme, then fly here and hopefully be at the theater to do the tech rehearsal," Zahn says. "I'll do the tech rehearsal, do the show Friday, Saturday and Sunday. At 9:30 p.m. Sunday, get into a car with a driver. Drive all night to New Orleans and sleep in the car, shoot the last scene I have in the movie, then go to Treme in the afternoon and shoot into the night.
"After that, I have no clue. I have a couple days more work on Treme before we break for Christmas. But that's a tough week."
Zahn says he thinks the effort is worth it to be back onstage. This will be his first stage role since he was in the 1994 production of Eric Bogosian's subUrbia at Lincoln Center in New York.
Zahn, 45, who grew up in Minnesota, says he got his start as a stage actor and met Peterman-Zahn on a national tour of Bye Bye Birdie in 1991. The couple moved to Lexington in 2004 to raise their two children. Professional theater, which would require the actor to be in a major city like New York or Chicago for an extended period, doesn't work into that life.
"I get offered plays all the time, but the thing is, I'm a dad now," Zahn says. "There will come a time when I can do a play and commit to something long-term and just have Monday off."
So with a little longing for the theater in his heart, Zahn is enjoying this brief opportunity to be onstage and "hitting my light."
The theater directors say One-Man-Christmas-Show-Man is an ideal role for an actor who can't commit to a demanding rehearsal schedule, because the character is a featured role and sort of lives in his own world, not interacting with many other characters.
Smackdown, which The Rep debuted last year, is set up as a Central Kentucky Christmas variety show sometime between the 1950s and the present day. (Additions to this year's show include references to new University of Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops.)
The plot, such as it is, centers on the competition for a prize called the Christmas Crown between The Bobbies, a girl group, and The Billies, a boy group that has a troubling David Hasselhoff fixation. Most of the music comes from their renditions of Christmas standards that are sometimes simultaneously comic and sweet.
Weaving in and out of the action is One-Man-Christmas-Show-Man, a ghost of a character who is looking for a production of A Christmas Carol at the beginning and slowly gets into the show at hand, including some rap and a dramatic recitation of You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.
"He and I work together in a shorthand anyway, and it's been fun," says Peterman-Zahn, who is directing the show. "This show really is a combination of all of us."
Zahn agrees: "It really is — the absurdity, the clean dances, the insane humor ... ."
"What am I, the absurd or insane?" Peterman-Zahn asks.
"You're the insane humor," Zahn replies. "I'm the absurdity."
"Just checking," Peterman-Zahn says, laughing.
"It's so fun to do this show with people," Zahn says, "and then it's fun to take notes from Robyn."
Peterman-Zahn grins, "I get to boss you around."
Despite the fun, Zahn acknowledges some nerves about getting onstage again as a "film actor," which he identifies himself as, correcting people who call him a "movie star," ("There's a difference," Zahn says.)
"When I did theater before, I was just a guy that walked out onstage, and the slate was clean, and I could morph and be whoever I wanted," Zahn says. "Now it's different, where I have to be really good, because there are people saying, 'Let's see how good "movie guy" is.'"
Peterman-Zahn says "movie guy" is elevating the level of the whole show.
"To watch him do this with such uninhibited joy, I love it," she says. "He's raising the bar for everyone."
Zahn is happy to do it.
"I'm more excited about this than the (Treme) episode I'm working on now," he says.
Somehow, Zahn will fit all of it in before Christmas.