To watch Steve Zahn's powerful performance as a prisoner of war in Rescue Dawn Werner Herzog's Vietnam-era tale of survival behind enemy lines is to witness years of his comic roles vanish in a puff. Gaunt, haunting and doomed, Zahn packs megatons of suffering into his anguished eyes. They're the film's most lingering effect.
And pow Duane Martin is the actor's most stunning role. Zahn, who has spent the past decade-plus playing goofballs in movies like Out of Sight and Daddy Day Care, is very aware of how he's been perceived up to now. "The sidekick dork that was the image of me for so long and still is, to some extent," he says from his home in Kentucky. "But I live on a farm. I hunt and fish, I ride horses, I read military history. Those parts I played for 10 years were so foreign to me, it wasn't even funny."
Working in the stifling heat of Thailand under the notoriously demanding Herzog (who once transported a 300-ton steamship over a mountain for his film Fitzcarraldo), Zahn dropped 40 lbs. (18 kg), reveling in a shoot that took him deep into the wild. "If you go that far with Werner," he says, "out in the middle of the jungle, and you can't get into it, maybe you should find another occupation."
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