• Image about Steve Zahn
Daymon Gardner

The show, the second season of which is currently unfurling Sunday nights on HBO, takes its title from the Treme neighborhood, a center of African-American culture and music in New Orleans. That music serves as far more than a soundtrack; real local artists such as trumpeter Kermit Ruffins often play themselves (see page 23) as they perform on the show and interact with the characters, especially Zahn’s character, a rebellious DJ named Davis McAlary who’s tied into the music scene.

  • Image about Steve Zahn
Steve Zahn with Christian Bale in Rescue Dawn
©Sony Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection
“It’s almost like acting in a documentary,” Zahn says. “It makes you think in a completely different way as an actor. Usually, you’re trying to make everything that’s pretend look natural and real. But in Treme, it is real, and you’re trying to fit your [fictional] self into it.”

Zahn’s character generated endless chatter in the blogosphere among viewers who found his antics in season one, well, annoying. But Davis also had good moments — great, redeeming moments, even. Show creator Simon credits Zahn with being able to pull off the complex role. “Only Steve could purposefully drive the Davis character to the very edge of infuriating and then bring him back from that edge to a place where discerning viewers actually hope for him to survive, to thrive and even to get the girl,” he explains. “It’s not comic just for the sake of comic. And it’s not a joke for joke’s sake. There are moments in the life of Davis McAlary that are sweet and soft and heartbreaking, and they are as necessary as the brass and excess — much like New Orleans itself. We needed an actor who could bring all of that. We got the one we needed.”

For moviegoers who’ve seen only some of Zahn’s goofier comedies like Strange Wilderness or Saving Silverman, his versatility may come as a surprise. Yet this Minnesota native trained at the prestigious American Repertory Theater at Harvard, and believe it or not, he came thisclose to making his name early on as a dramatic heavyweight. Back in 1996, he was one of two finalists for the meaty role of army medic and heroin addict Specialist Ilario in the 1996 movie Courage Under Fire. “It was between me and this guy I’d never heard of,” he says with a chuckle.

The “other guy” was Matt Damon, whose performance turned heads and launched his Hollywood career. “I was crushed when I didn’t get it,” Zahn remembers. “Not because I wasn’t going to be in a movie with Denzel Washington, but because I was so interested in the subject.” But less than 24 hours after losing Courage Under Fire to Damon, Zahn was offered the role of Lenny in That Thing You Do! — a performance that similarly turned heads and launched his Hollywood career as a comic sidekick.

A few years later, Zahn had to decline another juicy dramatic role, this time in the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers. The choice was simple: Witness the birth of his first child or spend months filming in Europe. Though he’s happy with the choice he made, having to miss such an opportunity still pains Zahn, who inhales history books and whose childhood record collection included the Patton soundtrack. “It’s still a bummer. I still have a pang when I see a Band of Brothers DVD cover or poster,” he says.

He did get to sharpen his dramatic chops here and there — in films like 2001’s Riding in Cars with Boys and 2003’s Shattered Glass. But it wasn’t until 2006, when he dropped 40 pounds to play an emaciated POW in the Vietnam-era drama Rescue Dawn, that serious attention was finally paid to his serious work. Zahn and co-star Christian Bale went barefoot and hungry for most of the grueling shoot in the jungles of Thailand, as director Werner Herzog insisted on keeping distractions — such as footwear and trailers and catering — to a minimum.