Steve Zahn was at his farmhouse in Kentucky when he received a script about a hapless Arizona man who works at his parents' second-rate motel and wants to touch the rear of a pretty guest.
"It was one of the better scripts I've ever read," he recalls. "I was truly floored by it." And that was before Zahn learned the rear would belong to Jennifer Aniston.
In fact, by the time that news came out, Zahn already had flown to Los Angeles to meet with the indie flick's producers and inform them that "I thought they should hire me. ... I pleaded my case."
It worked, and when he heard that Aniston would be the leading lady, "I was thrilled," he says, "and thought she was perfect for it."
The two have worked together before, as any "Friends" acolyte will recall. Zahn played Phoebe's ice-dancing husband, Duncan, on exactly one episode.
It has been that kind of career for Zahn, a Minnesota native who decided he wanted to be an actor during college but "didn't really know the first step," he says the morning of the "Management" premiere. But a lack of planning didn't hold him back. He landed a professional stage show at 19 and made his film debut seven years later when Ben Stiller cast him as Wynona Ryder's gay friend in 1994's "Reality Bites."
It has since been a string of quirky films and oddball characters: "Happy, Texas" (1999), in which he played an ex-con disguised as a gay beauty pageant consultant, Eddie Murphy's sidekick in "Daddy Day Care" four years later. And now, 15 years after his big break in that first slacker classic, he is back at the corner of directionless and lost — this time with a sapped bank account and dad forever barking at him to clean the scum off the motel pool.
"People always ask, 'Do you ever get pigeonholed?' And yeah, of course, everybody does, and what a great thing to be pigeonholed in this business," Zahn says of his flaky-guy roles.
But his "Management" character, Mike, is not cliched or simple. "Mike is very content where he is. He's working in a motel, but he's also helping his parents out while his mother is terminally ill. ... That's a very manly, grown-up, responsible thing to do," Zahn says. "In our society now, a naivete is considered dumb, and I don't necessarily consider that dumb. I am, in a lot of ways, naive about things. ... But I find peace in that — in that I don't worry about things that I don't really have control over."
Before shooting began, Zahn says, he, Aniston and the cast had "the luxury" of a week to rehearse and get to know one another. "By the time we finished rehearsal, we were very happy. I think all of us ... knew that it was going to work."
"Management" ranks as one of Zahn's favorites. In his years in the industry, he has appeared in 35 films. "It's always been gradual, and there's been a lot of valleys ... where you're like, 'I gotta sell my car,' " he says with a laugh. "People just assume you own a small European country and have a posse."
That's not the case. His life in Kentucky is very low-key and centered on his two kids with wife Robyn Peterman, daughter of the catalog magnate J. Peterman. Before moving there five years ago, they lived for a decade on a New Jersey farm an hour outside New York, telling themselves "we've got the Met, we've got the best Italian food, we've got the theater," all in spitting distance. But the reality was, "we made macaroni and cheese." So they decided to move to Kentucky.