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Steve Zahn talks craft and Kentucky at UK’s Singletary Center

Steve Zahn took the stage acting like an ape before sitting down for his interview. Actor Steve Zahn sat down with University of Kentucky Art Museum director Stuart Horodner for an on-stage interview in the Singletary Center for the Arts recital hall to benefit the museum's free admission program.
Steve Zahn took the stage acting like an ape before sitting down for his interview. Actor Steve Zahn sat down with University of Kentucky Art Museum director Stuart Horodner for an on-stage interview in the Singletary Center for the Arts recital hall to benefit the museum's free admission program. rcopley@herald-leader.com

University of Kentucky Art Museum director Stuart Horodner introduced actor Steve Zahn Thursday evening, and a blur shot across the back of the stage in the Singletary Center for the Arts recital hall.

It took another pass, and then came to the front of the stage revealing Zahn on all fours, with arm extensions, leaping, grunting and pounding his chest like an ape.

“It felt weird just walking out,” Zahn said after losing the extensions and standing upright.

Later in the conversation, he said the ape act actually reminded him of acting exercises during his years training at the Harvard University-based American Repertory Theatre, as well as going on set for the forthcoming War for the Planet of the Apes, slated for release in 2017.

Zahn was at the Singletary Center for an on-stage conversation with Horodner to benefit the UK Art Museum’s free admission program. Horodner said that the idea for the event came from conversations he had with Zahn when he ran into him at Third Street Stuff coffee shop.

The conversation focused on Zahn’s craft as an actor, using quotes from artists such as actor Daniel Day Lewis and author Joan Didion as well as clips from Zahn’s films such as Rescue Dawn (2006), Happy, Texas (1999) and the HBO series Treme (2010-13) as jumping off points for conversations.

But the first clip Horodner showed drew the biggest reaction from Zahn – footage of John Malkovich and Gary Sinise in an American Playhouse production of Sam Shepard’s True West. As the clip rolled, Zahn crawled up on the back of his chair and emulated Malkovich’s genstures, occasionally looking over at Horodner.

“It was like someone was talking to me in gibberish, and I understood,” Zahn said of watching the 1984 production on videotape for the first time, when he was still living with his parents in Minnesota. “I’d never seen anything like it.”

He said that today, he could text fellow actor Sam Rockwell a line from the play, and Rockwell would text him back the next line. In the conversation that was billed as 45 minutes but ran more than an hour, Zahn traced his career from those early days to today, recalling collaborations with actors such as Ethan Hawke and Jack Black and directors such Werner Herzog, who he said he lobbied to be in Rescue Dawn.

He recalled losing 40 pounds for that film, running around Midway and eating raw vegetables – “Then I was like, ‘What, are you going to get fat if you steam them?’”

Zahn talked about his wife, native Kentuckian Robyn Peterman Zahn, who he met on a national tour of the musical Bye Bye Birdie, with rapturous admiration. He recounted how she became a novelist when she read a bad novel and decided to write one herself, penning her initial published book in two weeks and getting two offers for it.

“To be able to change your brain and do something completely different artistic, that is something Ethan Hawke, Sam, and there’s so many people that inspire me, that I wish I could be like, and she’s one of them,” Zahn said.

Horodner’s cue to talk about Kentucky was an object Zahn had given him after finding it in a field adjacent to his house. Zahn recalled wanting to move to Kentucky, and said wherever he goes to work, he always wants to come home.

“I go to places to work and people say, ‘Isn’t it great here?’ and I can’t tell them, ‘You have no idea where I live. It’s paradise,’” Zahn said. “I’ve been all around the world I’ve lived in cities for months at a time, and I’ve really got to say, this is a gem here.”

Follow Rich Copley on Facebook and Twitter, @copiousnotes.

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