Steve Zahn Interview – RESCUE DAWN

     June 29, 2007

While I’ve been a fan of Steve Zahn for a long time, this is the first occasion I’ve seen him absolutely transform himself to play a role. And while he’s always been great as the funny sidekick, in “Rescue Dawn” he plays a POW in a prison camp.

If you haven’t heard of the film yet, “Rescue Dawn” is the new Werner Herzog movie that stars Christian Bale as Dieter Dengler and it’s based on real events and real people.

Here is the synopsis:

Dieter Dengler (CHRISTIAN BALE) dreamed of flying since his childhood in wartime Germany, which is why he volunteered to become a Navy pilot after his family moved to America. The only place he ever wanted to be was in the sky, but now, on his very first top-secret mission over Laos, his plane is shot down to earth. Trapped in an impassable jungle far from U.S. control, Dengler is soon captured by notoriously dangerous Pathet Lao soldiers. Though he quickly realizes he is in the most terrifying and vulnerable of circumstances, he refuses to give an inch.

After a shocking initial ordeal, he is taken to a small Laotian prison camp, where he meets two American soldiers already held captive for a stultifying two years – both nearly broken in spirit. Duane (STEVE ZAHN) can only recommend keeping quiet to stay alive, while the barely sane “Gene from Eugene” (JEREMY DAVIES) insists they are all about to be released any minute now. But Dengler has no intention of sticking around the nightmarish camp, so he begins to dream up an escape plan that takes his fellow prisoners by surprise with its savvy and audacity. Dengler doesn’t even know where he is – but he knows with unwavering certainty that he must not stop fighting for his life. As he makes his way into the jungle, his journey will never let up, as it takes him from the bonds of fraternity to the brink of despair, to one of the most remarkable rescues in modern history.

RESCUE DAWN is written and directed by Werner Herzog, who knew the real Dieter Dengler. Ten years ago, while Dengler was still alive (he died in 2001 of Lou Gehrig’s disease), Herzog made the acclaimed documentary, “Little Dieter Needs To Fly,” about Dengler but wanted to bring his still largely unknown story of escape to the screen in a purely visceral action-adventure.

So to help promote the movie, both the stars and Werner Herzog did roundtable interviews about a month ago. The reason for such an early press day was due to a certain actor’s start date for a sequel to “Batman.”

And while the film was an extremely serious look at the conditions and ordeal that these people had to go through, the interview was easy going and quite funny. Steve talked about what he did to lose all that weight, what conditions were like while filming and he gave a lot of info on upcoming projects and what it’s like to live on a farm outside the Hollywood system. If you’re a fan you’ll dig the interview.

As always, you can either read the transcript below or listen to the interview as an MP3 by clicking here.

“Rescue Dawn” opens on July 4th.

Steve Zahn: I like this stuff [doing press days]. I do, I swear to God. It’s interesting. It is. I live on a farm, for Christ’s sake. It’s like therapy. I don’t get to talk to anybody but my horses. My horses agree with everything I say.

How did you lose the 40 pounds?

I didn’t eat, man. I joined Dr. Swanson’s Quick…fucking…I ran…No, you know what? You know what I started doing? I was like really excited about it, so I was like, “I’m going to do a raw diet,” which I did. And I was just…I just ate raw food, right? And then I was running. Sometimes twice a day, but at least five miles a day. So in Kentucky, you know…It’s humidity, so…but then like after two weeks, I was just out of my mind with the raw thing. And I remember sitting there by myself in the kitchen, like having an argument with the air. “Wait, if I heat up the vegetables, I’m going to get fat? I’m going to eat salmon! How about that? I’m going to eat some salmon!” And I totally gave in. But my mind was so trained I thought that I was like cheating my ass off because I was having a piece of salmon. [laughs] It was like I was getting a hooker and drunk. So I had salmon every night, and then I was cool with that. And then the only cheat I would do is like I’d have a bourbon every other night, or whatever. But I lost a lot of weight. 40 pounds. It was crazy.

How long did it take to do that?

Four and a half months. So I did it slow, you know? I didn’t crazy crash. I really did it in a good way. Because I knew that it was going to be a really hard shoot, and I had to have some strength to be able to do this stuff. Otherwise, what’s the point? You just look like it, big deal.

How long was the shoot?

I think for me, it was like seven weeks or six weeks. It was a little shorter, because Dieter has all that stuff prior to being brought to the camp which I’m not involved with. But after I shot, I was wrapping, he had to keep shooting, and I was like, “See ya! Have fun!” I went to Vietnam. It was great.

Did you guys trade weight loss secrets?

Yeah. [laughs] Christian, he was like, “I’m going to just smoke a cigarette.” He was just starving himself. I remember just starving himself, and I was like, “Dude…” You know, he did The Machinist, obviously. I was like…He wasn’t at that point. I was like, “You know what I’m doing? I’m just eating all day, but little like bananas and stuff.” He’s like, “Yeah, I’m going to do that, too.” And then we like told the craft…”craft service,” there wasn’t any craft service! We didn’t have trailer or chairs or anything. And we told one of the dudes, we said, “Hey, can we have some bananas? We want some bananas.” And they were like, “Oh. Wow. Whew.” I’m like, “Come on, man, they grow here wild!” And then we had to ask like five times. I swear to God, we had to ask all day, and it was like, “Did you get bananas yet?” He’s like, “No.” “What the fuck? Look, man, we want bananas! I don’t have a trailer or chair! I want some fucking bananas!” And so he brought the bananas finally in like a bunch, and we were like…We wouldn’t let anybody touch our bananas. And you know what? Those bananas, by the way…You can’t even get those here, the small bananas? There’s a whole thing about like the big bananas you can get. The little bananas don’t even taste like bananas, they’re so good. Awesome.

So you both were on a banana diet?

Yeah. You know, it was just fuel, basically. There wasn’t any extra food, it was just fuel to get through.

As an actor, what attracts you to this role that couldn’t have seemed fun? Is it to tell the story that people don’t know?

Yeah. I mean, I was extremely passionate about it. When I heard about it…I loved the documentary. I was a huge fan. I love Werner’s work, and that was my favorite, his documentaries. And I told so many people about it prior to…You know, years before this. And so when I heard about it, I was just, “I have to meet him. I have to tell him.” I found that so inspiring, that story, and so moving. And I was like, “I’d love to be a part of that.” And I knew I wouldn’t be on some producer’s list for that, for a POW in Vietnam. But I’m getting to that age where things are changing a bit. And so he met me, and he made me a steak at his house. It was really unique and different, you know? And we talked, and we had wine, and we looked at maps. And then he invited me back, and we had another dinner. And it was really loose and nice because we had gotten through that first [meeting]. And then at the end of that, he said, “You know, I don’t think you’re Dieter. I think you’re Duane. I think you should be Duane.” And I said, “Whatever you say. I would be honored to play…To just work with you. I’d be honored to do this movie.” And it’s hard to express to someone your passion for a subject matter, but I really have a lot of passion for it. I am a nonfiction reader, I love military history, history in general, European history. And so I was very excited.

What did he tell you about Duane? He didn’t know him.

He didn’t know very much. He talked a bit about Dieter talking about him. You know…He said he went to try to find his wife and he found her in Denver and tried to talk to her, and she was just not over his death yet. It was really uncomfortable, and he said that there wasn’t much. And I really…Now thinking about it today, actually, and not previous to today, I thought, “You know, maybe it’s good that I never found anybody.” Because I found a couple of the guys who survived the crash that he was in. He flew in a helicopter, which was a rescue and recovery. And the other guys survived and weren’t captured and he was. But they couldn’t give me any information that would help me as an actor. You know, it was just basically, “Well, he’s a guy from Denver, he’s a good guy.” And I think Dieter’s information, Dieter’s impression is probably deeper than anybody he’s ever met in his life. They even said, like, “We were closer than we were to our parents or our brothers or sisters.” It was like, they were so close. And that’s another thing that I loved about the story. It was so compassionate towards one another in a real primitive, simple level. Like they needed each other’s companionship and warmth. You know, they spooned in the jungle. And I thought that was beautiful, that image, and like something you don’t see in a war picture. And it really isn’t a war picture. It turns into a story of just about nature and about the will to make it another ten feet because your body is dead–literally dead. And at the end there, and the real story, and what we tried to act was they just couldn’t even walk, you know. They were so delirious.

Was that the way Duane died?

Yeah. Exactly. Everything in this movie is the way it…We just couldn’t do all the things that were in the story. But everything in it is from…You know, you just watch the documentary and it talks about it all.

How did you do your research for this?

Well, I did it prior. Like once I found out, I immediately dove into it. And just…You know, I started on the computer, and I read. I had read so many books about POW camps. So I had already, in a weird way, just in my personal life, had done so much research. I had so much knowledge about these guys and different kinds of camps. And the camps that were in Laos or Cambodia or North Vietnam were different. A VC-run camp was different than a Laotian-run camp than an NVA-camp which was up north. So I had a lot of…just out of my interest. So that kind of research I didn’t have to do. But interestingly enough, I kind of did my own research with myself and how far I could go with losing weight, and as an actor…I don’t know, I just never played someone like this before. Not meaning in this…like it was a comedy or a straight…it was just this type of character. Somebody who was really alive, who isn’t around anymore.

How do you mentally prepare yourself for playing this kind of role?

I don’t know. I just really…I was…I don’t know. Again, I just had so much compassion for him. It was easy to…In that environment, being there, and being in that state of mind, because of all the work that I had done prior, it was not a hard thing to just flip into that. And being with someone as remarkable as Christian Bale, who’s such an amazing actor…It makes it easy. It makes it fun. It’s not easy, but you know what I’m saying. It makes the job just a blast and fun. It’s not work, you know?

Any injuries?

Yeah, but the level of injuries just changes. The injuries we would get on this, you didn’t even bring it up. But like if you were on something on a lot here, it’d be like, “Close down the lot!” [laughs] “What happened? Get the nurse!” You know. You were just banged up.

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I could almost smell you guys through the screen. You really looked dirty.

Yeah, we were. I mean, again, we weren’t sitting in trailers. When it rained, it downpoured, we just sat where we sat. This is the first movie I’ve ever been on where they’re setting up over there, it’s taking two hours, which is just rare…I mean, we were literally on those rice paddy dikes, and we were just laying back. And our feet were over the edges in the mud. And the mud was so awesome. It was just this weird-texture mud in those paddies. You know, you just found yourself…It’s like looking at a fire for an hour. You were just like [makes squishing sound]. And I just remember us laying there, and these huge hills that’d just come down into this rice paddy, and these people working their rice while we were shooting this movie and just going, “This is incredible, man. This is just so unique. I can’t believe we are here. Those people don’t…They don’t give…Not only do they give a shit, they don’t even know what the f…” And then Werner had some of these local people…Like, “I like how he looks, have him come in.” And you’re like, “Okay, wait. This guy knows that we’re telling a story? Don’t tell him we’re taping a movie, he doesn’t even know what that is.” I’m serious! It’s like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa.” With Werner, there were things like that all the time, which were great. But it was nice, it was different.

Did you joke a lot on the set?

Oh, we were. Christian is one of the funniest guys I’ve ever worked with, I swear to God. He’s just a fun guy. And we would just laugh. You know, when you’re just tired and you’re just punchy…We were in that kind of weird state. I think partially because we weren’t eating. I mean, it was like you’re stoned all day. It was like, “Whatever, man! Where are we going? Climbing up the waterfall!” And we would just joke. There were times, I remember when Werner would like go, “All right…” [laughs] We were so tired, and he was like, “Here’s what I want you to do.” And he’d go into the jungle, and he would walk. And he would do this thing, he would go like this. [demonstrates funny walk ] And Christian and I would be walking. And he would do the whole walk like for a minute. And we were laughing so hard! And then he didn’t know what we were laughing at. And then we had to do it. And I’m like, “Dude, don’t do it. Don’t.” And Christian would start walking like this. We’re both walking like this and looking at each other. I’m like laughing so hard. And you can’t see it on film, it looks, like, so dramatic. There was one time, too, that we just broke. Rarely did we break during the scenes because that’s the nature that you didn’t get to that part. But there was one in particular where he was pounding the nails trying to…”Okay, when he’s playing his flute.” I don’t know if it’s in the movie. I can’t remember. He’s like, “When…” I forget his name. Like Little Hitler or whatever. “…is playing his flute, that’s when you do it so that they can’t hear you.” And every time… [laughs] Every time, I’d go, “What?” Every time Christian would turn to me and go like, “Wait till Little Hitler is playing his flute.” And I’d just bust out. “Is playing his flute?” Which is a double meaning. “I can’t believe you’re saying flute, man!” “Playing his flute.” Like it’s so…Or, wait. I told him? Did I tell him? [high pitched voice] “Every time he plays his flute!” Werner was like, “Stop it!” And then finally we were all laughing so hard he was laughing. Which isn’t a funny story, but…

This is almost like a love story at points…

Yeah, it really is. I agree.

This wasn’t like a lot of your comedic sidekick roles…

No, not at all.

Can you talk about the connection between you and Christian?

Oh, it was just very simple. I mean, there were moments…There was one in particular. [laughs] I’m forgetting what room I’m in. “Have I said the same story three times in this room?” “I think he’s drunk.” There’s the moment where I’ve given up completely, and I’m sitting there. And this was shot early on. And the chopper’s coming. He gets up, and I get up, and they see us. And we hug and we’re jumping and we’re like…This moment when they let us go…You know, this great little movie where you can really do a moment like that, and we’re on the ground crying. And I remember both of us just going, “That was awesome. If we can reproduce that, this is going to be good, man.” We both felt it. Unfortunately, in a movie like that, it doesn’t really…You know, you didn’t light it, it was backlit, we were chasing the sun and it doesn’t really play. But it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter, because you get it, that they really do love each other, you know? I mean, I don’t know…

How big was the crew? 150 people?

No. It was pretty small. The Thai were great, a great crew. I don’t know how many but a small crew. It wasn’t very big.

Where would you sleep. Were there tents outside?

No. We stayed …we were in Mae Hon Son for a long time, Chiang Mai we had a hotel there. Some of them were surprisingly great and some of them weren’t very good at all. I think Krabi was the nicest. We stayed near the beach and it was beautiful. On a day off you pay some dude to take you to some island that no one was on, just sand.. man, you’d sit in the sun. But, it was right after the tsunami, you know. It’s one of the first things I thought of when that tsunami hit, Werner was like, ‘you know our sets are all there’. We were supposed to be there during that. We were going to shoot at that time. But, that was the nicest but we had this red, this orange dirt on our feet from shooting and the hotel was getting so pissed because everybody was coming home and tracking this in. It would get on the towels and they said ‘we’re gonna charge you for the towels because we can’t get the orange dirt off’. So, there was a station when we got out of our vans where you had to do this scrub down outside the front of this beautiful hotel.

You’ve got such a great sense of humor. Did you ever tease Christian about being Batman?

Oh yeah, constantly, sure. Yeah, we gave each other a lot of crap.

Have you been watching this whole Sahara thing closely?

To be honest with you, I don’t really deal with it. I live on a farm in Kentucky and I go make the movies and I go home and, hopefully, out of just being bummed out about wanting things to do better than they did. I just kind of like punch out. I do this and hope for the best and then go on to do the next thing. I wrote off the sequel a long time ago. I didn’t know it was still an issue.

Didn’t you want to see it become a franchise?

Oh, sure. I thought it was fun but I don’t know how that works but somebody’s obviously pretty mad.

Have you done anything since shooting this film?

Yeah. I did ‘Strange Wilderness’. I read this script. I was in Vietnam the next week after I wrapped this and they kept calling me and I was on this ‘Men’s Journal’ kayaking thing up in northern Vietnam and it was great after this gig to do something like that. They tried to get ahold of me for three days and they called me and were like ‘you have to read this script. It’s really funny and you have to say yes or no and you have literally five hours’. I was in the hotel room in Hanoi reading this comedy and laughing so hard and trying to figure out ‘is it funny ‘cause I’m in Hanoi in my underwear [laughter] or is it funny?’ I was like ‘I have to do this. I’m laughing so hard’. It’s called ‘Strange Wilderness’ that Happy Madison produced and it Fred Wolf the director and Peter Gaulke writing. It’s so funny. It really is funny and it comes out September 7th. And I have “Comanche Moon”, the prequel to “Lonesome Dove” by Larry McMurtry And Simon Wincer, the director of “Lonesome Dove” and the producers are back. I play Gus McCrae twenty years younger, which is an honor and that comes out in October. Then I have “The Great Buck Howard”. John Malkovich plays a magician and..

You haven’t been busy.

No, I honestly haven’t. Then I did this ‘Sunshine Cleaning’ with Alan Arkin and Emily Blunt and Amy Adams and we just finished that. I play a detective. Pretty straight, not funny. I play a detective. I’m having an affair with Amy Adams and her and her sister, Emily, I kind of get them in on cleaning up after murders and suicides and that’s kind of the backdrop for this strange family movie. Very interesting, very funny.

What’s coming up?

Maybe. It sounds like I’m so busy but, I swear to God, I have been making waffles for my kids, which I do when I’m at home, I take the brunt of all that shit. I’ve been doing that for about [crazy voice] nine of ten months now. They’re low budgets. You can go do ‘um in like two weeks and you’re done. So I’ve been like bus driver, field trips, bringin’ in cookies for snacks? I’m there. I’m the dude. I’m at gymnastics with all the moms and they’re like [southern accent] ‘do you think Tyler should play football this year and play full pads? I think that’s ridiculous!’ I’m like ‘fuck, I don’t know’.

Are you ready for a re-make of “Mr. Mom”?

Oh, totally. I’m so ready to work that it’s unbelievable. Ahhhhh! It’s like ‘is there any shit out there? I’ll do shit, something just bad! Fuck!

What was that thing you might do?

Playtone, they are doing the Pacific version of ‘Band of Brothers’ and they’ve offered me Chesty B. Puller, a Lt. Colonel in the Marine Corps. I’d really love to do that.

Have you talked to Christian about possibly being in ‘Batman’?

Maybe I’m in it.

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“That Thing You Do” by Playtone is coming out on DVD. You are in a separate part of the extras without anybody else.. with a mustache.

I’d do anything for those guys. They are instrumental in me sitting right here. But, I was doing “Comanche Moon” in New Mexico and they were like ‘we will fly you down. We will give you one of these [points at somebody’s I-Pod]. I’m like ‘no, it’s not about giving me shit. I have one day off. We’re doing a six hour mini-series and we’re doing like six scenes a day and Gus McCrae talks through every scene, constantly. I can’t do it’. I couldn’t get out of there so they came up and we did it up there.

What’s your reaction to the success of the film after so long?

A lot of my films are like this. I’ve never had something like, the next week it’s the biggest movie. I’ve never had that. I’ve always just had these creepers that just open modestly, open poorly, open pretty good but then have these lives. Like ‘Reality Bites’ or ‘Happy, Texas’ or ‘Out of Sight’ that just kind of live for a while and people respond to them. ‘That Thing You Do’ is one of those that a lot of musicians, a lot of bands, a lot of dudes like that.

Do you hear the song now and cringe?

I don’t mind it now but my kids actually dance to it. I’m like ‘that’s me!’ but I love going to see music in bars and stuff and they’re like ‘come on up. We’re gonna play it’. You understand, I can’t remember. I couldn’t play one note from that.

What would your dream project be?

This was. I’ve been so lucky, I swear, in the last year and a half, doing a Western. Not only that, playing Gus McCrae, Duvall’s part from the original which was, I think, the best character in the Western genre. Then playing in ‘Rescue Dawn’ with Werner Herzog and going possibly to play Lt. Colonel Chesty B. Puller one of the most decorated Marine officer in history. Are you kidding me? I’m really happy with the way it’s gone.

Playing Robert Duvall younger, did you watch his performance over and over?

Oh sure. I really respect it. I’ve seen that so many times. So it was hard for me. I want to do it. I have to because it’s such an honor but it scares the hell out of me. I don’t want to mimic him. I don’t want to do a caricature of Robert Duvall but, at the same time, people are expecting certain things. So, I did mimic him to a certain extent but it’s 20 years younger and it’s different and I’m really happy with it. Karl Urban played Call and he’s wonderful. He does the same thing. We really dealt with it very delicately and I’m really proud of it.

So you’ve just finished a Western and Christian has done “3:10 to Yuma”. Did you talk about that?

Yeah. I tried to get on that but…. I didn’t. They didn’t want to hire me.

What do you have on your farm? Cattle?

I just make hay and I have horses and goats and sheep and dogs. I’d like cattle but I don’t have time.

Why live there and not here in Hollywood?

I like to fish. I like it dark at night. I don’t dislike it here. I love comin’ here and doin’ this. I really do but that’s my speed and I’ve always been happy.

Do you maintain a lot of friendships with people in Hollywood.

Yeah but, obviously, if I lived here…. I’m not in a certain clique or group of people. I might have a different career if I lived here but I keep workin’. It works. I don’t know how but I don’t even like to think about it.

I was going to ask about the Pacific and Band of Brothers and the success of that. Have they talked to you about what they are planning on doing?

No, they just talked to me about just doing it and being a part of it. They offered me the first one and I couldn’t do it which really bummed me out. I couldn’t get myself to watch that thing for years but I really loved it when I saw it. It was one of my biggest regrets, not doing that?

Do you have a big part in the new one?

Yeah.. I think.

Will that get you out of the house for like two months?

[smiling] Yeah, man! Maybe they’ll all come with me. “Get off the tank! Get off the tank, dude’ a bunch of kids crawling all over the friggin’ place.

It took them a while to get that off the ground. Did they say what the hold-up was?

No. HBO is dying to do it. I think Playtone is very busy. They’re doing a lot of stuff. They’re doing a John Adams thing right now. They’ve got a lot of stuff going on and those are huge projects. And this is a logistical nightmare, shooting in northern Australia. I can’t imagine trying to get it going, let alone a five million dollar movie.

I was noticing in the credits for ‘Rescue Dawn’, you’re the only one of the actors who had an assistant so I was wondering, when you’re out there in the jungle what does an assistant do for you out there?

You know what we do? We go back to the hotel at night and get a couple of beers and just play 2001 NHL Hockey. That’s why I have an assistant. ‘Hook it up to the TV. Make it happen’. Nate’s been my assistant for a long time and I love him to death and he’s wonderful. It’s hard running the farm and the family and all that and so it’s helpful to me. Whether somebody else has one or not, I don’t care. It really is helpful to me. I don’t think of it as a luxury. I think of it as a complete necessity and it helps me through. I get so homesick so it’s nice to have this person that wasn’t my buddy but has become my buddy there to hang out with. Otherwise, I’d go out of my mind. So, I really try to get him worked in. Other people have other things, they might get more money or get other things and all I care about is getting home and I want my assistant there.

When’s the big announcement for “Pacific”.

Oh, I don’t know. Soon.

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