'Management' Star Steve Zahn: A Hardworking Slacker

Steve Zahn was in one episode of "Friends" with Jennifer Aniston. Now the two play love interests in "Management."
Steve Zahn was in one episode of "Friends" with Jennifer Aniston. Now the two play love interests in "Management." (By Suzanne Hanover/samuel Goldwyn Films)
By Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 15, 2009

Steve Zahn was at his farmhouse in Kentucky when he received a script about a hapless Arizona man who works at his parents' second-rate motel and wants to touch the butt of a pretty guest on a business trip.

"It was one of the better scripts I've ever read," he recalls. "I was truly floored by it."

And that was even before Zahn learned the butt in question would belong to Jennifer Aniston.

In fact, by the time that bit of news came along, Zahn had already flown to Los Angeles to meet with the indie flick's producers and inform them that "I thought they should hire me. . . . I pleaded my case."

It worked, and when he heard that Aniston would be the leading lady, "I was thrilled," he says, "and thought she was perfect for it."

The two have worked together before, as any "Friends" acolyte will recall. Zahn played Phoebe Buffay's ice dancing husband, Duncan, on exactly one episode.

It has been that kind of career for Zahn, a Minnesota native who decided he wanted to be a professional actor during college but "didn't really know the first step," he explains by phone from a New York hotel the morning of the "Management" premiere.

But a lack of pedigree or planning didn't hold him back long. He landed a professional stage show at 19 and made his film debut seven years later when Ben Stiller cast him as Wynona Ryder's gay friend, Sammy, in 1994's "Reality Bites."

It has since been a string of quirky films and oddball characters: "Happy, Texas" (1999), in which he played an ex-con disguised as a gay beauty pageant consultant, Eddie Murphy's sidekick in "Daddy Day Care" four years later. And now, 15 years after his big break in that first slacker classic, he is back at the corner of directionless and lost -- this time with a sapped bank account and dad forever barking at him to clean the scum off the motel pool.

"People always ask, 'Do you ever get pigeonholed?' And yeah, of course, everybody does -- and what a great thing to be pigeonholed in this business," Zahn says of his flaky-guy roles. "But in the same breath it's like, you know, this stoned sidekick which used to be funny is now sad."

In truth, his "Management" character, Mike, is not as cliched or simple as that.

"Mike is very content where he is. He's working in a motel, but he's also helping his parents out while his mother is terminally ill. So you can state it two different ways -- 'cause that's a very manly, grown-up, responsible thing to do," Zahn says. "In our society now, a naivete is considered dumb, and I don't necessarily consider that dumb. I am, in a lot of ways, naive about things that maybe I shouldn't be. But I find . . . peace in that -- in that I don't worry about things that I don't really have control over."

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