SUBURBIA'S STEVE ZAHN--who plays the drunken, horny, "postmodern idiot savant" named Buff--came back to Minnesota last week to stay with his folks in New Hope, play cards with his cousins, and drive to Bryant-Lake Bowl with a bunch of his old high school friends, all of them packed together in a run-down '73 Suburban. Not your typical movie-star behavior; nor is it another case of an actor retaining a cherished role past the shoot. But Zahn does have a fondness for this slacker character whom he first played in 1990, when Eric Bogosianbrought an early draft of his subUrbia play to Zahn's acting class at the A.R.T. Institute in Boston. (Zahn later reprised the role at New York's Lincoln Center Theater in '94.)
"There's different colors to Buff that I try to reveal [in subUrbia], but they're so subtle," Zahn says, sipping an Amstel Light in the lounge of the Marquette Hotel. "Most of the time Buff is this guy, but there are certain moments when..." His voice trails off, replaced by a sudden blush that conveys both a love for his character and a slightly embarrassed pride in his work. "It's hard to explain," he continues. "I love it when Buff describes his video project as 'like my head and everything, you know, in there that I see.' He's trying to explain something artistic, but he can't quite do it. I think at that moment you know this guy could end up being okay--that if he gets out of Burnfield he'll probably succeed."
Zahn's own departure from New Hope was actually a series of gradual steps. Born in Marshall, raised in Mankato, and graduated from Robbinsdale-Cooper High School with a reputation as "the theater guy," he dropped out of Gustavus Adolphus after a semester because all he wanted to do was act. He took a part in Neil Simon's Biloxi Blues at the Old Log Dinner Theater in Chanhassen before joining the A.R.T., hooking up with Bogosian and fellow thespian-turned-friend Ethan Hawke, and earning substantial roles in Reality Bites and That Thing You Do!. "Now it's all about choices, man, which is cool," says Zahn, who makes his home on a remote farm in New Jersey. "I'm really lucky to be in a position where it's not about just getting a job, but about what job I should take, you know what I mean?"
Having moved miles away from subUrbia's Burnfield, Zahn still thinks it'll be hard to find a more hospitable work environment. He praises director Richard Linklater's decision to rehearse the cast for two weeks on the set--culminating in a full, two-hour run-through of the film, staged for the benefit of the crew. "We [the cast] realized at that point how awesome this project was," Zahn says. "I hope I have other experiences like this, but I also realize that, hey, I might have to create some of them instead of, like, waiting for them to happen."