Steve Zahn: ‘Magic Time’ in New Orleans
Yesterday afternoon, I had just finished my workout. It’s January, so I’m still doing that. I had some work to do because January also happens to be the busiest time of year for me. That’s when I got a message from Daffy Stardust. I have a big red phone under a glass cloche like Batman for just this sort of thing. When the Duck Phone rings, you drop everything and pick it up. He wanted to know if there was anything in the Movieline archives that would tie into today’s bracket game. He said his write-ups were focusing on supporting actors because he does that sort of thing instead of just looking at Box Office Mojo and Rotten Tomatoes like I generally do. He also let me know that I got the year wrong in yesterday’s weekly recap not once but twice. Towards the end of January, I am running on fumes. As it turns out, Movieline hadn’t talked to most of the people Daffy wanted to spotlight. But they did have this interview with Steve Zahn from April of 2010.
Notice I didn’t say it was from the April issue of 2010. That’s because by this point, the publisher had pulled the plug on the print magazine. A new owner attempted to relaunch Movieline as a website, but it didn’t last. Later, they switched to a YouTube channel which also failed. This interview with Steve Zahn comes at the beginning of Movieline’s brief second life as a website while the actor was appearing on the HBO series, Treme.
Perhaps the only endeavor more difficult than saving post-Katrina New Orleans was creating a television series that intimately captured the perspective of the disaster-torn city. But that is exactly what Steve Zahn and the ensemble cast of HBO’s freshman series Treme have done under the guidance of The Wire‘s David Simon and Eric Overmyer. Zahn portrays a passionate disc jockey and musician whose frustration with the Big Easy’s snail-like rebuilding pace leads to brilliant anti-administration country songs and random displays of passive-aggressive rage. As the series nears the end of its freshman season, Zahn phoned Movieline yesterday from his Kentucky farm to discuss his transition into television, his hope that Treme will cover the BP oil spill and the one biopic he’d love to headline.
Treme is your first commitment to a television series. Was it everything you expected?
Well, I don’t know if you can categorize it as — I think it falls under its own category, right?
That’s a good point.
If I had gone and done another show, I don’t think it would be anything like this. [Treme‘s] story is so unique and the show is so unconventional. It’s different than any of the other jobs I have done. It’s really of its own, I think.
Had you been looking to try something outside of film?
I never really differentiated in my mind. I was just looking for good material. That’s the ultimate goal. Before this, I considered television to be a commitment time-wise — and logistically, it’s kind of impossible for me because I’m a dad, I live on a farm and have responsibilities. So it just did not seem like a viable option. But when I read [the pilot], I was just floored. It was one of the best scripts I think I had ever read. And obviously, the shooting is in New Orleans, which is good for me because it is close to home. And with cable it’s not as long of a [shooting] commitment, so it worked out great.
Let’s talk about your character: Davis is based on a real New Orleans musician and DJ, Davis Rogan. Did you spend a lot of time with the real Davis before shooting?
Quite a bit. I am playing someone that is loosely based on this guy, and a lot of the stories on the show actually happened to him. But I am playing him loosely. It’s not like I’m playing Patton — I didn’t have to get his speech patterns down or anything. Davis is a classic New Orleans eccentric, visionary, artist, and a passionate guy who is driven by his music and his love for the city and it’s culture. He is really a voice for the jazz scene down there, and not only the jazz scene but the music scene in general. He was fired from WWOZ for playing rap music on a New Orleans music show because he said, “We want to play the best music coming out right now, and some of it is rap.” But they fired him because it was a jazz station. So he is really a fascinating guy.
Had you been a fan of New Orleans music before the show?
No, not really, I had some of it in my vast collection of iTunes tunes. I actually have the albums that my character makes fun of on the show. I have, like, The Mardi Gras Collection and Hits From New Orleans — that kind of deal.
Your character gives piano lessons on the show and in one episode, he said that the mark of a real piano player is whether or not they can play Tipitina. Can you play that?
[Laughs] No, that is done with a little editing magic! [The real] Davis is actually an amazing pianist and we talked about that before we started shooting. I already played guitar and was taking hours and hours of piano lessons and not even getting close to where I would feel comfortable. The piano is somewhat of a difficult instrument to play so we decided to have me just playing a guitar with the band. But my character does give lessons on the show. And then I will get a lesson from Davis on what looks good. I’ll just learn a riff or something like that.
Who wrote Shame, Shame, Shame?
Well, David Simon and Davis Rogan — I think they all kind of put that together.
You are a musician and you have played a few musical characters — in That Thing You Do! and Saving Silverman specifically. Would you ever consider playing a rock icon in a big biopic?
Is there one artist or musician in particular —
See, I just immediately started thinking about who I would fit best. If I could play anyone, I think I’d like to be, you know, in The Life and Times of Steve Earle — someone like that.
Davis is a really uninhibited character, and you’ve played your fair share of uninhibited characters in the past. As an actor, is there a certain point in your career when you get to the point where you can just be free without consequence? Or is that ability — to get into a yoga position completely nude and not worry about who is watching — just something that you are born with?
Yeah. Well, [Davis] can be grating and a complete asshole, but I mean, you said the words yourself: I am playing a character. I am not really thinking about consequences or how it comes off except for in the structure of the show. I am just doing my job, and if I have to do things that are against the grain, that’s kind of the fun of it. But yeah, I have always gravitated towards parts like this — roles that are unique and real but had a sense of humor. It’s always fascinating, you know. I am on a short list for characters like this, yet here I live on a farm. I hunt and fish and listen to Steve Earle. I really am kind of the opposite of these guys.
If you are drawn to these kinds of characters in film and television, do you find that you are drawn to people with those same characteristics in real life? Is there any relationship between the roles you are interested in and the people that interest you?
I don’t know. I just find them all interesting — as a voyeur, as an outsider. I look at my character [on Treme] and think, “Wow, what a fascinating dude.” He’s just kind of driven by his own thing and can be blinded by it at times. He gets in people’s ways and yet there is something appealing about him on another level. And some people really hate him.
But what I absolutely love about him is that that’s the real guy in New Orleans. There are lots of people like that down there. It is such an incredible, unbelievable city. It’s one of those places that you can’t describe to someone. You really have to go and be a part of it and really do it — you know what I mean? I have been around the world a couple of times and I have never been to a city quite like it.
Did you get a lot of feedback from the people of New Orleans while you were shooting?
Are you kidding? [Laughs] Oh my God. It was constant. Everyone was aware of this show. And now, there is not a person in that town that hasn’t heard of the show. People watch it in bars there like they are watching an NFL playoff game. They sit in packed bars completely quiet, just listening. It is incredible. I was in New Orleans for the first three weeks that the show aired and every week, I went somewhere different to watch. Before it aired, people were very skeptical of it. They were supportive, too, but they were like, “Hey, I hope you get it right.” Because they have been portrayed so poorly in the past — with crazy accents and they were always written sort of from an outsider’s perspective. New Orleans was always used as a backdrop in projects instead of as the soul of a show.
So the main thing for us was that we had to get it right. More than half of the people from the show are from there. Even the cast, you know — Jacques Morial plays Jacques Morial, Dr. John is Dr. John, Kermit Ruffins is Kermit Ruffins. The Rebirth Brass Band plays the Rebirth Brass Band.
The show was picked up for a second season almost immediately after the premiere. Do you worry about upholding this precedent of portraying post-Katrina New Orleans as truthfully as possible?
I think the beauty of this show is that [the writers] are real patient and it’s like reading a novel. It’s slow and it takes time to get to know characters and to develop story lines, and if you take your time, it works. That way, you don’t have to write in zombie attacks in order to keep people interested. It’s like real life.
There may not be zombie attacks in real life, but there are other crises that are affecting Louisiana, like the BP oil spill. Hopefully the show will go into its fifth season so Treme can explore that catastrophe.
Yeah, how crazy would that be if the show went that far? That would be maybe the last show of the last season would be, maybe. Actually, I was [in New Orleans] for Jazz Fest when it happened. It was burning that week and people weren’t really focused on the spill because it was Jazz Fest, you know? New Orleans during Jazz Fest is pretty much like New Orleans during Mardi Gras. It’s like the town just shuts down. I was unaware of anything going on outside that city for like three weeks when I was down there for Mardi Gras. I remember on Mardi Gras day actually — on Tuesday — people were calling me, like my agent. I would look at the phone and be like, “Who the F*CK is calling me at 8 a.m. in the morning on Christmas? Don’t they know it’s f*cking Christmas?”
But then you realize, “Oh sh*t, the entire country is just having another boring Tuesday. And here in New Orleans, it’s like magic time.”