LOS ANGELES — Just when we’ve recovered from watching Bob Dylan shill for Chrysler comes another jolt from a famous Minnesota native: Steve Zahn is doing a TV show. A network TV show.
Has the poster boy for independent films such as “Dallas Buyers Club,” “Reality Bites” and “Shattered Glass” sold out?
“We all do things for money,” said Zahn, sipping ice water in a near-empty hotel bar last month. “A friend of mine always says there’s only one Paul Newman. Then again, he did do ‘The Towering Inferno.’”
“Mind Games,” which debuts Tuesday on ABC, is not a big-budget disaster project. It’s also far from being a disaster.
Zahn plays Clark Edwards, an expert in human behavior with more than a few behavioral tics of his own. He’s a bipolar academic who refuses to take his medication, which leads to outrageous bursts of joy and anger that make it tough to run a quasi-detective agency with his con-artist brother (Christian Slater).
The fast-paced, often frantic dialogue is smarter and funnier than what you’re used to seeing on a prime-time series. Creator Kyle Killen is clearly more interested in the characters than diving into the procedural of the week.
“I was baffled that a network wanted to do this,” Zahn said. “I was convinced there was no way the show was going to be picked up. I had heard nightmares from other actors about how executives can create barriers you can’t get out of. That didn’t happen with this. This was really open and free.”
Wariness of brass interference isn’t the only reason Zahn, 46, avoided committing to a network series in the past. He worried that it would have taken time away from his children and their life on a horse farm in Kentucky.
“I didn’t want to be that dad that was gone,” he said. “I really liked being able to do a movie and then come back and be a short-order cook and a bus driver. Now my kids are older and they’re OK.”
Perhaps others could have found a way to balance a personal life with the professional obligations of a network lead actor. But Zahn has a reputation for being fully committed to his roles, whether it’s losing 40 pounds to play a POW in “Rescue Dawn” or becoming an expert on New Orleans music for his role as a DJ in HBO’s “Treme.”
In “Mind Games,” Zahn’s character averages about a dozen rants per episode and is often hurling furniture across the room or dancing in excitement over a new idea. It’s as demanding a role as any on television, with Zahn often having to go home and memorize nine pages of dialogue after a 12-hour workday.
Timothy Busfield, who acted with Zahn in the film “National Security” and works on “Games” as an executive producer and director, said he believes that Zahn benefited by being directed by such top talents as Steven Soderbergh (“Out of Sight”), Ben Stiller (“Reality Bites”) and Tom Hanks (“That Thing You Do!”) early in his career.
“He’s one of the most professional people I’ve ever worked with,” said Busfield, an Emmy winner for the 1980s series “thirtysomething.” “A lot of guys in this business want to just be the center of attention, but he got started by working with some really good people, and I think they taught him a lot about process.”
Busfield laughed as he recalled a recent shoot in which he may have been over-coaching the cast. Zahn finally told him to shut up because he was making everyone nervous.
“There’s nothing cruel in his nature, but he’s a taskmaster,” Busfield said. “The toughest thing is to get Steve off the clock.”
All the hard work could pay off — especially if it could finally shake an old persona from Zahn’s early days in film.
“It’s odd,” he said. “I spent a decade playing stoners. Now I’m a genius.”