”It’s Wednesday and you go to an amusement park,” begins Steve Zahn, offering an analogy to describe making That Thing You Do! ”And no one’s there. And there’s no lines, man! You just go from the Corkscrew to the Chigger to the roller coaster without any lines!” His joyride glee certainly comes across on celluloid. As girl-crazy guitarist Lenny Haise, the putty-faced Zahn puts over the one-liners that score the film’s biggest laughs.
At 28, Zahn has reason to be giddy over the role’s bona fide breakout potential. It comes after years of stage work and memorable, if slender, supporting parts, most notably as Winona Ryder’s gay buddy Sammy Gray in Reality Bites and Lisa Kudrow’s not gay ice-dancing husband on Friends. ”It’s like, ‘What’d you do in Crimson Tide?”’ laughs the Marshall, Minn., native about his victimization in the 1995 thriller. ”’Oh yeah, you’re the guy who gets the pipe in the head!”’
Zahn isn’t swooning over possible stardom, though. Content perfecting his gazpacho recipe in ”the wilds of west-central New Jersey,” where he lives with his wife, actress Robyn Peterman (Broadway’s Damn Yankees), he will next be seen as a skateboarding Zen stoner in the big-screen version of Eric Bogosian’s ode to slackdom, subUrbia (a role Zahn also filled Off Broadway). Yet for all his dudeness, Zahn takes his acting seriously. He trained at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., before founding New York’s Malaparte Theater Company with pal Ethan Hawke. An avid acoustic guitarist and bluegrass enthusiast, Zahn praises director Tom Hanks’ insistence that That Thing’s foursome rehearse for a month as a band before shooting began. Once on set, he says, ”It was like being seniors when the freshmen come in.”
It also meant the band mates had time to bond. ”Steve’s like stress relief,” exclaims Wonders drummer Tom Everett Scott, who still keeps in close touch. ”So I have to hang out with him.”