For much of the 1990s and 2000s, Steve Zahn all but cornered the market on playing affable, goofy stoners. “Reality Bites,” “SubUrbia,” “Out of Sight” — if the character toked, chances are Zahn got the part. But this summer, on HBO’s water-cooler hit “White Lotus,” the 53-year-old actor and part-time farmer (he lives most of the year in Kentucky) finally landed a roll with some party-sized cojones (seriously, check them out in episode one).
Zahn plays Mark Mossbacher, a hangdog dad who, after a false-alarm brush with testicular cancer, sinks into a mid-life meltdown while vacationing at an exclusive Hawaiian resort with his super-successful tech CFO wife and his snotty teenage kids, along with a coterie of other mostly despicable wealthy guests.
The role wasn’t a sure thing — Zahn had to audition for it with the series’ creator Mike White — but over the course of the last six weeks, until the show’s season finale on August 15, he made it pretty impossible to imagine anyone else in the part. Below, Zahn speaks about how he landed the job, what he really thinks of his character’s unfiltered outburst and how he had to sign off on his prosthetic penis.
There’s a lot to get into with “White Lotus” — how the show deals with white privilege and woke-ness and class conflict — but I’ve got to start by asking you about your penis. Was that really you in that full-frontal scene in episode one?
No, that was my body double. I remember when I got the script asking Mike if I was going to have to do full frontal. And he’s like, “No, it’s going to be a prosthetic.” I asked if I was going to have to wear it and he goes, “Well, it’s two hours in the makeup chair and we don’t see your face so we don’t need you to.” But I did have to approve the prosthetic that they used. He showed it to me first. And I was like, “Yeah, that’ll do.”
You didn’t ask for an upgrade?
No, I was like, “OK, great.”
Not to drill too deeply into this subject, but if they were using a body double, why bother with a prosthetic? Why not just film the scene naturally?
You’d have to ask the intimacy coordinator that question. I come from the old school where we were actually naked when we were naked. I mean, my ass is in so many movies and shows it’s not even funny.
Let’s move onto loftier subjects. Your character in “White Lotus” says a lot of stuff that most people in real life are afraid to say out loud. There’s his speech about how nobody willingly gives up their white privilege and other moments when he says things you’re just not supposed to say nowadays. What sort of reactions are you getting from people? Are they taking it as satire or are they taking it seriously?
Well, it’s hard for me to gauge reactions because I live on a farm in Kentucky. I’m not really connected. That’s why this whole experience of being in a water-cooler show has been so odd, because most of the time I’m not thinking about it until I pick up a phone and talk to someone like you. If I lived in New York, I would probably have tons of people approaching me about “White Lotus.” But I haven’t had one person come up to me in Kentucky and say, “Oh, I loved ‘White Lotus.’” But it’s interesting the way the world is right now — we all have conversations in private about things that we’re not supposed to talk about on Facebook. And that’s what my character is doing. Remember, when Mark is talking about these things, he’s either with his family or he’s drunk. Which is the only way you can talk about this stuff right now.
You mentioned your farm. You’ve been living there for nearly 20 years. What’s your life like? What do you do all day?
It’s great, it’s beautiful. My wife, Robyn Peterman, is a writer, so she writes all day. She’s a crazy 10-hour-a-day writer. So when I’m home, I take care of all the shopping and cleaning and cooking and cut down trees and I take care of the animals — we’ve got horses and dogs and cats. It’s a unique, weird existence. I mean I’m just a hermit most of the time. I’m just cutting weeds with a weed whacker, waiting for my next acting gig. And growing a beard. I’ve got a big beard right now.
But you get a lot of work in Hollywood…
It’s just unbelievable how lucky I’ve been. But it’s interesting to see how perceptions change as you age. I started out getting a lot of slacker roles and now it’s more dad roles. People rediscover you in a way. To me, I’ve never disappeared, so I find that a little amusing. Some people ask me, “Hey, are you still doing that acting thing?” And I’m like, “No, I gave it up for digging holes.”
Well, I’m sure they’re not asking you that now. I’m guessing when you leave Kentucky you get recognized all the time.
With the full beard, people aren’t really registering who I am. I just moved my daughter into college and my wife asked me if anybody recognized me. No, they didn’t. No one came up to me. But when I do get recognized, it’s always interesting what people recognize me from. You become part of someone’s subconscious and you represent what they see in their brain. For some people, I’m the guy from “Saving Silverman.” For others I’m Gus in “Comanche Moon.” Every once in awhile somebody will tell me they’ve seen every movie I’ve been in. And I’m always like, “Oh wow, that’s crazy. I haven’t.”
In a way, you’re living the best of both worlds. Your famous in New York and L.A., but in Kentucky you’re just another farmer. That must be kind of nice.
I totally agree. One of the greatest jobs I’ve ever had was “Planet of the Apes.” It was the ultimate actor mask. You could play a part and no one would recognize you for it. It’s the goal of an actor to shape-shift in front of people. The less people know about you, the better.
Let’s get back to “White Lotus” for a second. You’re whacking weeds on your farm when suddenly this script from HBO gets delivered?
When I read the pilot, I was totally in. I mean, I thought it was brilliant. But it wasn’t a flat-out offer. I auditioned for it, which I was happy to do. I actually like auditioning. It’s sometimes tough to just show up on a set when you’ve been offered something but you haven’t proven yourself. You’re always thinking there’s somebody sitting behind the monitor going, “I hope this was a good decision.” But with “White Lotus,” it was a long process, because there was quite a lot of buzz around the project. A couple of weeks after I auditioned, I was like, “Hey, what happened to that Hawaii gig?” I remember thinking it was gone. But [my agents] were like, “Oh, no, it’s very much there.”
You shot it last winter, in the thick of the pandemic. What was that like?
We were isolated from the world on this property in Hawaii and couldn’t leave. We were tested three days a week. And there were strict rules with masks on set. The only place where you didn’t have to wear a mask was on the beach. Which was weird because you’d go down there and not recognize anyone without their masks on. You’d ask people to cover their mouth so that you could recognize them. But it was a surreal experience knowing how desperate and bad it was out there in the world. And here we were in Hawaii, body surfing in our little bubble.
I imagine that brought the cast closer together.
We became extremely tight on this thing. The only cast I’ve ever been closer to was during “That Thing You Do!” It was just a unique combination of people who all got along but also the COVID factor of being isolated from the world on this property that we couldn’t leave. It really brought us together. And I think it made the show better.
HBO has announced plans for a second season of “White Lotus” with a whole new cast. That means you’ll be looking for work again. Any other projects lined up?
No, just weed whacking. And growing my beard. The longer my beard is, the longer I’ve been out of work.