Steve Zahn was running a few minutes late because he was tending to a horse who had had surgery and needed bandages redressed. “Life on a farm is serene,” says Zahn, “until your horse goes lame and you have to turn into a vet.” The actor has spent the past two decades living in rural Kentucky — and 2020 marked the longest stretch of a project not pulling him away from the homestead. So when he got a call to star with Connie Britton, Natasha Rothwell and Murray Bartlett in HBO’s The White Lotus, a darkly comic miniseries (from Enlightened‘s Mike White) about haves and have-nots colliding at a Hawaiian resort, he needed little convincing. Zahn, 53, spoke about the show, prosthetic penises and his traumatic history of shooting underwater.
Were you anxious to get back to work?
I was sitting on this farm for eight months, living in 1850, and worrying about not working. I would’ve done anything, really. To have this brilliant script fall into my lap and have it be in Hawaii? It was green lights all the way. We were at the Maui Four Seasons. It was closed, so we were truly in a bubble. It felt like film camp.
How does this show compare to your own family’s vacations?
Total opposite. Don’t get me wrong. I like to sit on the beach and drink a beer, but [the hotel in the show] is not my speed. When my son graduated from high school, we went to France. We just drove around Normandy doing this World War II tour.
Are you a history buff? I remember that you campaigned for Kentucky Senate hopeful Amy McGrath wearing Revolutionary War garb.
Oh, yeah. I have so many costumes, so I look for opportunities to wear them. I had that made in New Orleans for Mardi Gras. I wear it every Fourth of July when I light off fireworks. I get in the back of the Kawasaki Mule and have my son drive me around with an American flag, down my neighbor’s driveway, screaming, “The fireworks are coming!”
Forgive me if this is crude, but your character has a revealing moment in the first episode. Was that a prosthetic penis you wore?
I didn’t even have to do that part. It’s somebody else wearing a prosthetic. That’s about as absurd as it gets, right?
Did you get to enjoy Hawaii at all?
It was limited, like the car ride from the airport to the hotel. Although we did scuba dive. [Co-star] Fred [Hechinger] and I both got our PADI [scuba] license. Neither of us were really into it. (Laughs.) Our instructor was a little bewildered. Ninety-nine percent of the time, people are excited, but I was like, “How many ways can I die underwater?” I had a bad experience shooting Crimson Tide. There’s a scene where we’re all drowning in the sub. They told us we’d be underwater for 30 seconds. Thirty seconds doesn’t seem long. But when you’re acting that you’re dying, it gets difficult. They said, “If you feel like you need help, just cross your arms and we’ll come get you.” First take, everybody crossed their arms.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the July 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.