A. A Harvard-trained dramatistIt was a Mr. Mom kind of day. Actor Steve Zahn was home in Lexington, Ky., enjoying some downtime on his family farm before heading to New Orleans to begin shooting the second season of the critically acclaimed HBO drama Treme. He had signed up to chaperone his children’s grade school field trip to Old Fort Harrod State Park, which chronicles Kentucky’s frontier days and Civil War history — subjects that history buff Zahn enjoys tremendously. As he shepherded the students around the fort grounds, Zahn suddenly heard, “Hey! Were you in Joe Dirt?”
B. A gifted comedic actor
C. A farmer and devoted father
D. All of the above.
Yet the 43-year-old has been tickling our collective funny bone for 15 years now. Since his breakout role opposite Tom Hanks as the lovable, wisecracking guitarist Lenny in 1996’s That Thing You Do!, Zahn has courted Jennifer Aniston in Management, played sidekick to Matthew McConaughey in Sahara, and tagged along with Jennifer Lopez and George Clooney in Out of Sight. Along the way, he has also developed quite a following among the under-10 set, thanks to his giggle-inducing gigs in such family films as Daddy Day Care, Chicken Little and Diary of a Wimpy Kid.
But while casual fans may not have noticed, Zahn has been balancing his usual comedic turns with more dramatic fare in recent years, to critical praise. In HBO’s Treme, he has found an ideal outlet in which he can play the best of both genres: tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight.
It’s a brisk but sunny afternoon when Zahn sits down to lunch at a New Orleans bistro overlooking Lafayette Square. Today is his day off from the set of Treme, but that doesn’t mean things are quiet: His phone buzzes with texts and his brain with to-dos that await him at home. Tomorrow afternoon, he’ll crank up C-SPAN on his satellite radio, point his car northeast and drive 11 hours back to Kentucky to spend a few days with his family. “A lot of times, I play these hip urban dudes, but they’re the very opposite of me,” Zahn remarks. “I live on a horse farm. I hunt and fish and take care of horses and kids.”
Zahn has made guest appearances on TV shows before: on Friends in his early days; on Monk in recent years. But Treme is his first gig as a series regular. “When they pitched the show to me, they said, ‘It’s about jazz, New Orleans and life after Katrina.’ I thought, ‘That’s a show?’ ” he remembers. “They said, ‘Trust me.’ So I read the pilot and said, ‘Oh my God, how do I get into this?’ ”
Indeed, not only was Treme a show, but it was one helmed by David Simon, the critical darling whose previous program The Wire is widely considered one of the best TV shows of all time and whose sublime storytelling skills earned him a prestigious 2010 MacArthur Fellowship. Little wonder, then, that critics and New Orleanians alike have praised Treme for its nuanced portrayal of a cross-section of fictional New Orleans residents rebuilding their lives in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.