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Steve Zahn with Elvis Costello on the set of Treme
Skip Bolen / HBO

“It’s often the kiss of death, going in and showing a passion for something,” Zahn says. “But I had such a strong connection to this subject. I’ve researched this stuff my whole life. Veterans are my sports heroes. When I meet someone who landed on Iwo Jima, or who landed on D-Day, those are the guys I want a picture and autograph with. Werner saw that right away.”

  • Image about Steve Zahn
Steve Zahn in this year’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules
Since then, he’s scored other dramatic roles for which few would have put him on the short list. He filled Robert Duvall’s big cowboy boots quite well as a young Gus McCrae in 2008’s Comanche Moon, the prequel to the legendary Lonesome Dove miniseries. And his “gotcha” turn as nerdy screenwriter Cliff in 2009’s honeymoon thriller, A Perfect Getaway, kept viewers on the edge of their seats.
But these days, Zahn doesn’t distinguish so much between drama and comedy when picking projects. “It’s really about longevity,” he says. “When I was younger, I worked with a lot of older actors — guys like Tom Hanks — and that’s what they told me. ‘Just do good work. Work, and do it well. Don’t put too much thought into what it is and what it can do for you and how it will be perceived before you even make it. You don’t have control over those other things. Learn your stuff. Do it well. Show up on time. You’ll work.’ I’m still working, knock on wood.”

In those occasional lapses when Zahn isn’t working (knock on wood), he’s not lacking for stimulation. He’s content to relax at his old Kentucky home and catch up on family time with his children — Henry, 11, and Audrey, 9 — and his wife, actress Robyn Peterman-Zahn. “I just hang out. I’m a playmate,” he says. “My wife has the disciplinary role.” They often saddle up their favorite horses — Dude or Sally, maybe Red or Spirit — and hit the trails on their 330-acre farm, sometimes with his father-in-law, John Peterman, along for the ride. (That’s J. Peterman, as in the catalog magnate made famous on Seinfeld.)

Zahn certainly gets recognized when he’s at home — even if it is for Joe Dirt. But his wife, Robyn, a Lexington native, is in the local limelight far more often, thanks to her role as artistic director of Lexington’s Paragon Music Theatre. His children have followed in their parents’ footsteps onto the stage, too, appearing as members of the von Trapp brood in Paragon’s production of The Sound of Music. “You know, they’re kids — they could have just walked out and been cute, and I would have been proud like any dad,” Zahn says. “But to see them get it, to really be someone else and be so good at it, I was so proud.”

This summer, when school is out, Paragon has ended its run of Gypsy and season two of Treme has wrapped filming, the family will head to France for a three-week driving vacation. Zahn doesn’t have any new projects lined up at the moment, just a whole heap of recent and upcoming releases. Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules debuted in March. Knights of Badassdom, a humorous horror/fantasy flick, is set to hit theaters toward the end of the year. And by that time — if all goes well — he’ll be reporting to work for season three of Treme. Zahn knows how lucky he is to be working on such a high-caliber show.

“A mentor of mine, actor Alvin Epstein, said, ‘You’re going to work your entire life, and maybe two jobs — maybe three, if you’re lucky — will be those perfect jobs,’ ” he says. “He was right. They’re not all supposed to be the best jobs ever.

That Thing You Do! was perfect because of Tom Hanks, because of the guys involved, the incredible crew and set. It was the way things should be done. Rescue Dawn was perfect for another reason, because it stretched everything and took you to the limit in every way, shape and form. … Treme is special too. I’m proud to be in such a great show. I know this will be one of those professional experiences I look back on and say, ‘That was one of them.’ ”