Steve Zahn is the platonic ideal of “That Guy You Know From That Thing.” Though he’s been in pretty much every type of Hollywood movie imaginable, from Stuart Little to Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn, the 53-year-old Minnesota-raised actor is probably best known for incarnating the quintessential Gen X smart-aleck and sidekick archetype, alternately playing the stoner (Treme), the escaped criminal (Happy, Texas), the doofus best friend (Saving Silverman), the wisecracking bandmate (That Thing You Do!), and the awkward, closeted twenty-something (Reality Bites). In every role, Zahn brings a certain vibe that’s distinctly his own: The characters he plays are decidedly manic, loudmouthed, and full of wounded energy, but there’s a vulnerability and likability to them too. For lack of a better term, this is “the Zahn Factor,” and every film and TV show is better with it.
Just take Zahn on summer’s HBO hit The White Lotus, a biting and unsettling comedy about a mysterious Hawaiian resort and the tense class dynamics underlying the interactions between its spoiled guests and overworked staff. Alongside show creator and writer Mike White, a master of subversive satire and shuddering cringe known for his work on series like Enlightened, Zahn rounds out an incredible cast of fan favorites: Connie Britton, Jennifer Coolidge, Murray Bartlett, Sydney Sweeney, Jake Lacy, and Lukas Gage. Even with this all-star cast, the Zahn Factor is extremely strong. It’s perhaps the purest and most seamless evolution of the actor's best roles: the washed up, out-of-touch dad in a midlife crisis.
On The White Lotus, Zahn plays Mark Mossbacher, a bumbling father of two whose job is irrelevant and barely mentioned on the show because his wife Nicole (Britton) is so much more successful as the CFO of a search engine. As the show progresses, Mark’s insecurity is slowly unraveled as he feels second fiddle to his partner. That it’s so easy to imagine his wife thinks he’s a loser and his kids think he’s a dork gives Zahn free license to lean into his comedic flair for physicality and shuddering awkwardness. Even as Mark attempts to win over his family and assert himself, his efforts only backfire, leaving him only further away from his goal of being respected. The result is utter hilarity, even as we feel bad for him. Though many of Zahn’s characters have been classic cases of arrested development, Mark seems like what happens when those archetypes are forced to settle down.
“I started doing these parts where I was the stoner for like 10 years and it was like, okay, I guess I'm that guy,” said Zahn in GQ. “I've evolved man, I'm not that guy anymore. I'm a character actor, and I'm proud to be one. That's my job. I can go be in a small movie in a really cool part or I can be a lead. I have no complaints. Now I'm the dad in everything!”
At the start of the series, Mark is scared he might be diagnosed with testicular cancer. Every time he appears on screen, he’s somehow either mentioning or sneaking off to check on the size of his balls. When the health scare turns out to be unfounded, Mark feels he has a new lease on life and tries to connect with his teenage son. It goes poorly, as his kid really only cares about playing Nintendo Switch or watching porn on his cell phone.
Zahn’s manic presence makes for moments of perfect tragicomedy, such as when Mark makes faux-philosophical speeches during his forced father-son bonding time or when a shocking revelation about why his father died propels him to go on a day-bender at the poolside bar. As an actor, few are as capable as capturing the combined humor and pathos of being pathetically intoxicated. There’s a scene where he, several beverages deep, is talking to newlywed Rachel (Alexandra Daddario) about marriage; when Rachel asks if the spark in his marriage is still there, he laughs, earnestly, in her face. He then proceeds to describe sex 30 years into a marriage like a Fear Factor contestant having to eat a live bowl of worms. Mark is so far gone that he barely flinches when his son overhears this comparison.
Later in the season, when his daughter's friend Paula (Brittany O’Grady) gets upset watching the hotel’s native-Hawaiian employees perform traditional dances for a guest, Mark’s response is thoughtless at best. “Obviously, imperialism was bad,” he says. “But it’s humanity. Welcome to history. Welcome to America.”
When Paula grills him on what he stands for as a person, Mark is unable to answer; his eyes dart across the room as he fumbles to come up with a response that never materializes. The moment is both a testament to Mike White’s sharp-as-a-knife writing and to the almost enthusiastic way with which Zahn embraces the flailing obliviousness of his characters. “I've always been attracted to that,” said Zahn in an interview with GQ. “Characters who are vulnerable and should have a lot of vulnerability. I mean that's why we like them right?”
No matter the quality of the movie or TV series, the best character actors have a knack for stealing the entire show. This is Zahn in a nutshell, an actor who managed to be memorable even in films like Daddy Day Care, which the late Roger Ebert called “a woeful miscalculation. Or, take the 2008 bro comedy Strange Wilderness, which currently has a two percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and features a scene where a wild turkey bites Zahn’s character’s penis; as dumb as it was, it would have been undoubtedly worse without Zahn present. Even when he works in dramatic roles, like when he lost 40 pounds to play a prisoner of war in Werner Herzog’s Rescue Down, or when he played an ape in 2017’s War For the Planet of the Apes, his charming personality adds some levity to the gravity of his scenes.
Zahn can do it all, whether it’s playing a loudmouthed radio DJ and musician on the gritty, post-Katrina New Orleans drama series Treme, or a CGI cat in Stuart Little. He still channels that screwup energy of his past work that made him the best Gen X sideman, but the onscreen existential crises his character goes through on The White Lotus show that the loser father is the most powerful iteration of this phenomenon yet.