Since his big break in 1994’s “Reality Bites,” Indiewood mainstay Steve Zahn’s been best known as a supporting player (thanks to scene-stealing performances in “Out of Sight,” “Rescue Dawn” and studio fare like “Riding in Cars With Boys”), so it’s refreshing to see his sunny, faux-dopey charm lead the pack. In “Management” — the directorial debut of “Tape” playwright/screenwriter Stephen Belber — Zahn stars as Mike, a socially stunted oddball who works the late shift for his parents’ Arizona desert motel. In walks Sue (Jennifer Aniston), a corporate art saleswoman staying for two nights, with whom Mike ineptly flirts by bringing champagne to her room after hours. A fateful butt groping and spontaneous bout of laundry room sex later, Mike begins a long-distance romantic journey to win her over forever, even after she reunites with her punk-rock yogurt mogul of an ex (Woody Harrelson). By phone, Zahn and I talked about his favorite forms of meditation, strange ways to pick up girls, and why he doesn’t feel like a creepy stalker.
Where’s the line drawn between creepy stalking and romantic passion?
Honesty. The guy’s so honest, pure, simple, vulnerable and unpretentious, and that’s what gives [the script] validity.. I was really blown away by the script in that sense, because all the characters are complex in a very real way, and you just don’t read that anymore. Once you have that believable core, you can really go anywhere with it, and that’s what I love about the movie. At times, it’s this very simple, heavy drama. Then five minutes later, it’s slapstick and absurd.
What’s the most peculiar pick-up line or stunt you’ve pulled to get a woman’s attention?
I once hitchhiked down to Rochester, Minnesota — my girlfriend’s town — in a chicken suit for no apparent reason. But it worked. That’s kind of similar to Mike. [laughs] I figured if I was hitchhiking, no one would pick me up, but who the fuck is going to kill you in a chicken suit? I didn’t have a car, [but] I just had to get there because I loved her. It was more about the ride than it was showing up. It served two purposes.
Have you ever obsessed over a girl after just a fleeting encounter?
Of course! Honestly, my wife, when I met her… we were doing a play, a Broadway tour of “Bye Bye Birdie” in 1991, with Tommy Tune and Ann Reinking. All these dancers were in this thing, and I was like, “Greeeeat.” They didn’t really float my boat, you know? Then she came in two weeks late, she was swearin’ and smokin’, and I was like, “That’s the girl right there.” I coordinated my moving around backstage according to when she was going to move around backstage, so I could brush by her, stick out my chest. It fuckin’ worked, man. [laughs]
Jennifer Aniston’s character Sue is very eco-minded. Fess up, how green do you live?
Hey, I live on a farm [in Kentucky]. I just planted the family vegetables yesterday. You name it, I grow it. I have gardens coming out of my butt. I have raised beds, perennial beds, cut flower beds. I have an island on a pond that’s just covered in peonies. I have an herb garden, tons of vegetables, raspberries. I have everything. I’m a green guy. My hands will prove it. If you were here, I’d show you my hands and you’d go, “Yeah, man.”
Were you raised with these skills?
I lived in Minnesota in a small town. [All of] my family farms, so I was very familiar with that. I did a lot of farm work as a kid. When we were in New York, we actually moved out to a farm in a Delaware water gap and lived there for ten years. So we were always out in the country. We lived in the city for, like, two years, but that was it. I love New York, but I just about went crazy trying to get into the Lincoln Tunnel yesterday. I don’t experience that at all anymore, unless I’m getting behind a tractor.
Do you, like your character Mike, practice yoga or meditate?
I cut fields. You ever done that? Let me tell you something, that’s called “forced fuckin’ meditation.” You sit on a tractor, going one mile an hour for, like, ten hours? That’s about as good as it gets. You have to just think about shit. [I think about] everything, from the Tet Offensive [and] Vietnam to naked women, you name it. Is there a God? What’s that bird? Then ten minutes of absolutely nothing, no thoughts — which guys have the capability of, that’s an amazing thing. Then it’s like, food. But you can’t get too involved, otherwise you’ll cut your arm off. PlayStation 3 is another form of meditation. Come on, when you’re on set, all day? That’s what I do in my trailer, I just play PlayStation 3. If I have to wait for six hours, my assistant and I will just play “NHL Hockey.”
That’s your game of choice?
Yeah, “NHL Hockey 2001.” [laughs] The new ones, you have to be a pro to play the frickin’ game.