What to Watch

What to Watch With Steve Zahn

The former Bad Ape, cop, criminal, slacker, pilot, musician — and on — and now Valley of the Boom dot-com founder reveals what he's watching and why you should thank him for Game of Thrones.

by | January 11, 2019 | Comments

TCA WINTER PRESS TOUR 2018 (EXCLUSIVE COVERAGE) - The cast and executive producers of ABC series graced the carpet at Disney | ABC Television Group's Winter Press Tour 2018. (Image Group LA/ABC via Getty Images) STEVE ZAHN
(Photo by Image Group LA/ABC via Getty Images)

Steve Zahn is a quirky chameleon among actors. Over his nearly 30-year acting career, Zahn has played a Navy pilot (Rescue Dawn), a closeted college grad (Reality Bites), radio DJ–social activist (Treme), both police officer (Dallas Buyers Club) and hapless criminal (Out of Sight), a musician (That Thing You Do), reporter (Shattered Glass), and so very many more roles. One of his most celebrated roles was that of endearing Bad Ape in 2017’s War for the Planet of the Apes.

Now he takes on the character of dot-com founder Michael Fenne for National Geographic’s newest series, Valley of the Boom, a documentary-scripted hybrid comedy series unlike anything that’s ever been on television before.


After experimenting with documentary-scripted hybrid drama Mars, which finished airing its second season in December, the network is trying its hand at comedy with a series chronicling the 1990s tech bubble in Silicon Valley, as told through scripted drama as well as documentary interviews with some of the real-life founders.

Zahn has definitely never seen anything like it — he rarely watches television, in fact, choosing instead to immerse himself in news and politics while at home with his family on his Kentucky farm.

He does have a soft spot for documentaries, which he discussed with Rotten Tomatoes when we talked to him about what he’s watching on TV, why he should be credited for Game of Thrones’ success, and breaking the fourth wall in the innovative Valley of the Boom.


What’s appointment viewing for you?

(Photo by Comedy Central)

I am the worst person that you would want to feature on a “What to Watch” list in the history of history. I have literally become my dad where my kids make fun of me about how much news I watch. That’s what I watch, but I can’t help it. It’s so f–king crazy right now. I feel like I’m going to miss out.

I just envy my kids when they can just sit and turn everything off and watch. I’ll literally sit there and watch with my son — he watches South Park religiously, he’s 18 — and that’s kind of the only time I actually pause and laugh. We stand there for like a half hour eating Frosted Mini Wheats, laughing, and then I go back to being neurotic about the end of times.


Well, what’s in your son’s streaming queue?

[Calls to son] Henry, what are you watching? [To Rotten Tomatoes] Eh, he said, “Shut up.” You know what we’re watching right now? We have screeners. I have to watch screeners, so we’re in screenerland.


What shows are on your DVR? Do you watch Game of Thrones or anything?

Making a Murderer (Netflix)
(Photo by Netflix)

Well, I’m not in to the fantasy stuff. I’m a documentary guy. I’ll watch, you know, [they’re] coming out with a new one. Remember the murderer? What’s it called? The big one, the guy in Wisconsin. Making a Murderer. I was working at the time and had to get up at 5:30 in the morning, and I remember watching that ‘til like 3:00 in the morning going, “F–k it. I’ll get two and a half hours sleep and I’ll go to work.’ I was obsessed. I get obsessed with stuff like that.

[As for Game of Thrones], I was working with Pete Dinklage. I was doing a movie with him up in Spokane, Washington, and I knew Peter from theater in New York, and we were hanging out during that movie — like, inseparable. He was offered that while we were doing this movie. He was like, “I don’t know, should I do it? It’s in Ireland.” I’m like, “Yeah, man. You have to do it. What, are you kidding me? It’s going to be great.” So I want to take credit for it. [Laughs]


What’s coming soon that you can’t wait for?

They Shall Not Grow Old (Warner Bros. Pictures)
(Photo by Warner Bros. Pictures)

I haven’t seen that BBC World War I documentary [They Shall Not Grow Old] that Peter Jackson did.


Steve Zahn as conman turned dot com founder Michael Fenne in National Geographic's VALLEY OF THE BOOM. (National Geographic/Bettina Strauss)
(Photo by National Geographic/Bettina Strauss)

Jean Bentley for Rotten Tomatoes: As a news junkie who likes documentaries, what do you think of the documentary-scripted hybrid of Valley of the Boom?

Zahn: Obviously, I’m totally into documentaries and I thought, Oh, this would be challenging and different. When you read it, it’s great because with this format you’re able to take a lot of fat out of a script and just get to the good stuff. That’s what’s really intriguing about it. I think if you did just a drama about the birth of the internet, I don’t know how fascinating that would be, or at least for how long, I don’t know. But six hours? I doubt it.

It really frees us up. There were really no rules, and [creator] Matthew Carnahan was just brilliant with that. He really let us play. It turned in to one of my favorite jobs by far, aside from my putting on a fat suit and a wig. It was like doing a play. It was insane. I was on board at page 10 when it said he does an interpretive dance in the sanctuary of the church. I was like, “Wow, what? This is insane.”

Your character is definitely an interesting guy. How did you channel him?

I was so intrigued and so excited to be offered it, number one, but then the fear sets in. Then you go, “Wow, how am I going to do this?” It’s not like a play where you get four weeks of rehearsal. It sucked. You have to just do it. Matthew was so encouraging and so great. He just said, “Man, you’ve just got to dive in” — which is literally like doing a film. You do any character, it’s, like, the beauty of it: You jump off a cliff into the fog and hope that there’s water below. That’s what you do. Day one of filming has got to be as consistent, as good, as the last day.

It’s frightening, especially with somebody so broad as this guy. So I was constantly trying to find ways of making him less broad, basically, and more accessible to people and vulnerable and all those things that makes characters great, nutty. This guy was so smart. He’s so intelligent, he’s so assertive, and his faith is everything. There were a lot of qualities I felt were admirable.

Some of your costars’ real-life counterparts were interviewed for the documentary parts of the show, but not your character. Did you approach playing him differently because of that?

It gave me a little more room, actually. I was happy about that. They tried to get him, but it didn’t work out. But in the end I was happy that was the case because then you’re not reminded of the real guy. It’s really odd that my character is somewhat kind of a fictional guy and yet he’s not just because of that. All I saw was one interview that he did with Chris Cuomo like in ’98. It was just a very strange short interview, like 15 minutes, but that’s really all I needed. I was really intrigued and blown away by this guy that I assumed was this kind of boisterous dude, larger than life, and then I saw this interview and he was this really kind of meek, soft-spoken, high-pitched guy. Very intelligent. I was like, “Wow. This is the guy?”


Steve Zahn as conman turned dot com founder Michael Fenne in National Geographic's VALLEY OF THE BOOM. (National Geographic/Bettina Strauss)
(Photo by National Geographic/Bettina Strauss)

Going back to the interpretive dance, you frequently break the fourth wall on this show. What was that like?

That was really fun. It was so theatrical, you know? If you just in two sentences explain this to somebody without explaining how we did it, it sounds boring. I mean, a six-hour show about the birth of the Internet is not really that exciting unless you’re, like, an IT guy. When we addressed the camera, it was just quick and it wasn’t like we were just breaking the rules to break the rules, so it was appropriate to the story.

And I don’t know, I haven’t seen anything like this. I guess American Animals is a similar kind of storytelling, which I love, and yet it’s totally different from that in a way. That was more of a film to me than it was a documentary. This is truly kind of split in two, a documentary and a film.

I’m trying to think of other things — like Touching the Void. Have you ever seen Touching the Void? About the climbers. Damn, that’s a good movie. You’ve got to watch that. And that’s a drama. That’s explaining a mountain-climbing expedition that goes awry and it’s phenomenal, but it’s done in the same kind of way where they are basically reenactments of what they’re saying — they’re done with high-quality and good people. It’s not like the History Channel — no offense to the History Channel, but some of those Civil War documentaries [where] you have overweight guys from Ohio reenacting Pickett’s Charge, and it just doesn’t work.

Speaking of documentaries and climbing, have you seen Free Solo?

Dude. It was phenomenal. I’m a big Alex Honnold fan. I’ve been a fan of his for a long time, and I’d go on his website and find out where he was climbing and stuff. I actually went to a screening of Free Solo in New York and met him and I’m so blown away by that guy. That documentary is insane.

I’m pushing that to everybody, by the way. I’m like, “You have to see this. It’s insane.” And Won’t You Be My Neighbor. What a great documentary.

Valley of the Boom airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on Nat Geo.

Tag Cloud

medical drama Lifetime Animation crime thriller Nickelodeon Martial Arts Set visit Creative Arts Emmys American Society of Cinematographers First Look Fox News joker Discovery Channel IFC Films Biopics hist Opinion facebook BBC Fox Searchlight Comedy Central Shondaland Disney Mary Poppins Returns halloween Turner Classic Movies italian Britbox dceu Reality USA twilight Family cancelled TV series crossover Sneak Peek Pirates YA crime drama Spring TV dark movies worst movies children's TV Film Festival true crime adventure TIFF Tomatazos Pop TV Mary poppins Photos latino Amazon Studios sag awards YouTube Premium ABC Paramount Hear Us Out independent deadpool Black Mirror cults harry potter hollywood Arrowverse theme song psycho 21st Century Fox WGN asian-american boxing Marvel Columbia Pictures Superheroe blockbuster Spike halloween tv PaleyFest jamie lee curtis superhero Chernobyl spy thriller Mindy Kaling Amazon Schedule best hispanic Trophy Talk mutant Elton John TV Lucasfilm fresh cancelled Binge Guide series BAFTA Vudu ghosts comic Year in Review Horror The Academy sequels El Rey all-time A&E 71st Emmy Awards Cosplay transformers Holidays police drama Action USA Network Ellie Kemper Certified Fresh thriller spain directors vampires Kids & Family japanese Paramount Network Hallmark Christmas movies Writers Guild of America Film ITV CW Seed DC Comics zero dark thirty OWN sitcom See It Skip It TV renewals Sundance Tumblr mockumentary cats APB war die hard foreign Lionsgate Baby Yoda BET ABC Family documentary Brie Larson Travel Channel universal monsters Sony Pictures 007 72 Emmy Awards discovery rotten movies we love Ghostbusters romance Universal MCU kids Adult Swim BET Awards biography festivals Trailer A24 Comics on TV SDCC TruTV ESPN franchise TV Land Summer Quiz Crunchyroll GLAAD Winter TV obituary NBC name the review Mary Tyler Moore Song of Ice and Fire FX on Hulu 2019 FX tv talk Apple TV Plus social media sports films emmy awards laika sequel criterion Avengers Epix PBS Western Fantasy History DC Universe indiana jones 2016 black Freeform versus Rom-Com Interview RT21 Music canceled TV shows Trivia Black History Month game show archives Chilling Adventures of Sabrina movie Endgame Star Trek Thanksgiving Box Office Mudbound Cartoon Network 45 Pixar NYCC 24 frames Rocky dramedy diversity comic books scorecard President Funimation anthology Marvel Television Comic Book travel AMC slashers Lifetime Christmas movies GoT Calendar FXX Drama a nightmare on elm street Acorn TV CMT zombies HBO based on movie DGA Dark Horse Comics elevated horror BBC One Valentine's Day Christmas Starz 20th Century Fox free movies TCA 2017 casting Fall TV parents Disney streaming service Comedy Grammys Awards Tour Country Reality Competition Marathons satire doctor who cinemax justice league VH1 festival game of thrones Emmy Nominations Ovation Superheroes television Disney Plus Premiere Dates Amazon Prime zombie book comiccon 2015 what to watch critics chucky Super Bowl Best and Worst Pet Sematary Food Network Television Academy Pride Month Winners Peacock TCM Character Guide Star Wars richard e. Grant BBC America FOX reviews binge Turner MSNBC Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Warner Bros. The Purge Holiday Infographic comedies DC streaming service Awards 99% classics toy story australia MTV Shudder Apple TV+ Showtime TCA 4/20 politics Podcast period drama spinoff witnail stand-up comedy christmas movies political drama ID award winner TCA Winter 2020 The CW video on demand nbcuniversal indie Hulu YouTube cops Esquire south america TCA Awards mission: impossible Spectrum Originals unscripted Nat Geo 2017 robots stop motion dragons nature OneApp The Walking Dead finale Watching Series IFC Apple blaxploitation Election spider-man comics National Geographic Bravo Disney Channel streaming child's play 2018 space Musical DirecTV Teen singing competition video teaser animated rotten documentaries boxoffice adaptation Disney+ Disney Plus Women's History Month VOD CBS worst Television Critics Association Rock X-Men Polls and Games Syfy LGBT natural history Alien anime VICE cancelled TV shows dc Marvel Studios cooking james bond screen actors guild cancelled television Pop golden globes Crackle green book CNN breaking bad dogs GIFs romantic comedy french HBO Max Academy Awards screenings SundanceTV serial killer Cannes Logo strong female leads Amazon Prime Video Captain marvel toronto PlayStation LGBTQ revenge RT History composers spanish language Rocketman Heroines First Reviews Hallmark disaster psychological thriller Netflix Christmas movies fast and furious cars football Musicals werewolf Sci-Fi ratings SXSW cartoon 2020 Sundance Now quibi HBO Go reboot crime Tubi rt archives nfl New York Comic Con miniseries Nominations Video Games venice science fiction Anna Paquin Red Carpet stoner Netflix TBS Emmys Walt Disney Pictures WarnerMedia The Arrangement Stephen King batman Tarantino YouTube Red Oscars Classic Film E! San Diego Comic-Con talk show TLC scary movies Extras CBS All Access Masterpiece TNT historical drama Mystery E3 The Witch Toys canceled supernatural technology spanish renewed TV shows concert Sundance TV news remakes Countdown aliens docudrama