While I’ve been a fan of Steve Zahn for a long time, this is the first occasion I’ve seen him absolutely transform himself to play a role. And while he’s always been great as the funny sidekick, in “Rescue Dawn” he plays a POW in a prison camp.
If you haven’t heard of the film yet, “Rescue Dawn” is the new Werner Herzog movie that stars Christian Bale as Dieter Dengler and it’s based on real events and real people.
Here is the synopsis:
Dieter Dengler (CHRISTIAN BALE) dreamed of flying since his childhood in wartime Germany, which is why he volunteered to become a Navy pilot after his family moved to America. The only place he ever wanted to be was in the sky, but now, on his very first top-secret mission over Laos, his plane is shot down to earth. Trapped in an impassable jungle far from U.S. control, Dengler is soon captured by notoriously dangerous Pathet Lao soldiers. Though he quickly realizes he is in the most terrifying and vulnerable of circumstances, he refuses to give an inch.
After a shocking initial ordeal, he is taken to a small Laotian prison camp, where he meets two American soldiers already held captive for a stultifying two years – both nearly broken in spirit. Duane (STEVE ZAHN) can only recommend keeping quiet to stay alive, while the barely sane “Gene from Eugene” (JEREMY DAVIES) insists they are all about to be released any minute now. But Dengler has no intention of sticking around the nightmarish camp, so he begins to dream up an escape plan that takes his fellow prisoners by surprise with its savvy and audacity. Dengler doesn’t even know where he is – but he knows with unwavering certainty that he must not stop fighting for his life. As he makes his way into the jungle, his journey will never let up, as it takes him from the bonds of fraternity to the brink of despair, to one of the most remarkable rescues in modern history.
RESCUE DAWN is written and directed by Werner Herzog, who knew the real Dieter Dengler. Ten years ago, while Dengler was still alive (he died in 2001 of Lou Gehrig’s disease), Herzog made the acclaimed documentary, “Little Dieter Needs To Fly,” about Dengler but wanted to bring his still largely unknown story of escape to the screen in a purely visceral action-adventure.
So to help promote the movie, both the stars and Werner Herzog did roundtable interviews about a month ago. The reason for such an early press day was due to a certain actor’s start date for a sequel to “Batman.”
And while the film was an extremely serious look at the conditions and ordeal that these people had to go through, the interview was easy going and quite funny. Steve talked about what he did to lose all that weight, what conditions were like while filming and he gave a lot of info on upcoming projects and what it’s like to live on a farm outside the Hollywood system. If you’re a fan you’ll dig the interview.
As always, you can either read the transcript below or listen to the interview as an MP3 by clicking here.
“Rescue Dawn” opens on July 4th.
Steve Zahn: I like this stuff [doing press days]. I do, I swear to God. It's interesting. It is. I live on a farm, for Christ's sake. It's like therapy. I don't get to talk to anybody but my horses. My horses agree with everything I say.
How did you lose the 40 pounds?
I didn't eat, man. I joined Dr. Swanson's Quick...fucking...I ran...No, you know what? You know what I started doing? I was like really excited about it, so I was like, "I'm going to do a raw diet," which I did. And I was just...I just ate raw food, right? And then I was running. Sometimes twice a day, but at least five miles a day. So in Kentucky, you know...It's humidity, so...but then like after two weeks, I was just out of my mind with the raw thing. And I remember sitting there by myself in the kitchen, like having an argument with the air. "Wait, if I heat up the vegetables, I'm going to get fat? I'm going to eat salmon! How about that? I'm going to eat some salmon!" And I totally gave in. But my mind was so trained I thought that I was like cheating my ass off because I was having a piece of salmon. [laughs] It was like I was getting a hooker and drunk. So I had salmon every night, and then I was cool with that. And then the only cheat I would do is like I'd have a bourbon every other night, or whatever. But I lost a lot of weight. 40 pounds. It was crazy.
How long did it take to do that?
Four and a half months. So I did it slow, you know? I didn't crazy crash. I really did it in a good way. Because I knew that it was going to be a really hard shoot, and I had to have some strength to be able to do this stuff. Otherwise, what's the point? You just look like it, big deal.
How long was the shoot?
I think for me, it was like seven weeks or six weeks. It was a little shorter, because Dieter has all that stuff prior to being brought to the camp which I'm not involved with. But after I shot, I was wrapping, he had to keep shooting, and I was like, "See ya! Have fun!" I went to Vietnam. It was great.
Did you guys trade weight loss secrets?
Yeah. [laughs] Christian, he was like, "I'm going to just smoke a cigarette." He was just starving himself. I remember just starving himself, and I was like, "Dude..." You know, he did The Machinist, obviously. I was like...He wasn't at that point. I was like, "You know what I'm doing? I'm just eating all day, but little like bananas and stuff." He's like, "Yeah, I'm going to do that, too." And then we like told the craft..."craft service," there wasn't any craft service! We didn't have trailer or chairs or anything. And we told one of the dudes, we said, "Hey, can we have some bananas? We want some bananas." And they were like, "Oh. Wow. Whew." I'm like, "Come on, man, they grow here wild!" And then we had to ask like five times. I swear to God, we had to ask all day, and it was like, "Did you get bananas yet?" He's like, "No." "What the fuck? Look, man, we want bananas! I don't have a trailer or chair! I want some fucking bananas!" And so he brought the bananas finally in like a bunch, and we were like...We wouldn't let anybody touch our bananas. And you know what? Those bananas, by the way...You can't even get those here, the small bananas? There's a whole thing about like the big bananas you can get. The little bananas don't even taste like bananas, they're so good. Awesome.
So you both were on a banana diet?
Yeah. You know, it was just fuel, basically. There wasn't any extra food, it was just fuel to get through.
As an actor, what attracts you to this role that couldn't have seemed fun? Is it to tell the story that people don't know?
Yeah. I mean, I was extremely passionate about it. When I heard about it...I loved the documentary. I was a huge fan. I love Werner's work, and that was my favorite, his documentaries. And I told so many people about it prior to...You know, years before this. And so when I heard about it, I was just, "I have to meet him. I have to tell him." I found that so inspiring, that story, and so moving. And I was like, "I'd love to be a part of that." And I knew I wouldn't be on some producer's list for that, for a POW in Vietnam. But I'm getting to that age where things are changing a bit. And so he met me, and he made me a steak at his house. It was really unique and different, you know? And we talked, and we had wine, and we looked at maps. And then he invited me back, and we had another dinner. And it was really loose and nice because we had gotten through that first [meeting]. And then at the end of that, he said, "You know, I don't think you're Dieter. I think you're Duane. I think you should be Duane." And I said, "Whatever you say. I would be honored to play...To just work with you. I'd be honored to do this movie." And it's hard to express to someone your passion for a subject matter, but I really have a lot of passion for it. I am a nonfiction reader, I love military history, history in general, European history. And so I was very excited.
What did he tell you about Duane? He didn't know him.
He didn't know very much. He talked a bit about Dieter talking about him. You know...He said he went to try to find his wife and he found her in Denver and tried to talk to her, and she was just not over his death yet. It was really uncomfortable, and he said that there wasn't much. And I really...Now thinking about it today, actually, and not previous to today, I thought, "You know, maybe it's good that I never found anybody." Because I found a couple of the guys who survived the crash that he was in. He flew in a helicopter, which was a rescue and recovery. And the other guys survived and weren't captured and he was. But they couldn't give me any information that would help me as an actor. You know, it was just basically, "Well, he's a guy from Denver, he's a good guy." And I think Dieter's information, Dieter's impression is probably deeper than anybody he's ever met in his life. They even said, like, "We were closer than we were to our parents or our brothers or sisters." It was like, they were so close. And that's another thing that I loved about the story. It was so compassionate towards one another in a real primitive, simple level. Like they needed each other's companionship and warmth. You know, they spooned in the jungle. And I thought that was beautiful, that image, and like something you don't see in a war picture. And it really isn't a war picture. It turns into a story of just about nature and about the will to make it another ten feet because your body is dead--literally dead. And at the end there, and the real story, and what we tried to act was they just couldn't even walk, you know. They were so delirious.
Was that the way Duane died?
Yeah. Exactly. Everything in this movie is the way it...We just couldn't do all the things that were in the story. But everything in it is from...You know, you just watch the documentary and it talks about it all.
How did you do your research for this?
Well, I did it prior. Like once I found out, I immediately dove into it. And just...You know, I started on the computer, and I read. I had read so many books about POW camps. So I had already, in a weird way, just in my personal life, had done so much research. I had so much knowledge about these guys and different kinds of camps. And the camps that were in Laos or Cambodia or North Vietnam were different. A VC-run camp was different than a Laotian-run camp than an NVA-camp which was up north. So I had a lot of...just out of my interest. So that kind of research I didn't have to do. But interestingly enough, I kind of did my own research with myself and how far I could go with losing weight, and as an actor...I don't know, I just never played someone like this before. Not meaning in this...like it was a comedy or a straight...it was just this type of character. Somebody who was really alive, who isn't around anymore.
How do you mentally prepare yourself for playing this kind of role?
I don't know. I just really...I was...I don't know. Again, I just had so much compassion for him. It was easy to...In that environment, being there, and being in that state of mind, because of all the work that I had done prior, it was not a hard thing to just flip into that. And being with someone as remarkable as Christian Bale, who's such an amazing actor...It makes it easy. It makes it fun. It's not easy, but you know what I'm saying. It makes the job just a blast and fun. It's not work, you know?
Yeah, but the level of injuries just changes. The injuries we would get on this, you didn't even bring it up. But like if you were on something on a lot here, it'd be like, "Close down the lot!" [laughs] "What happened? Get the nurse!" You know. You were just banged up.
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