The lone and level sands

Steve Zahn finds beauty and tranquility on location for 'Sahara'

Niels Strandskov

In the many roles Steve Zahn has played, the actor has never looked like he’s phoning it in. On the contrary, Zahn’s effervescence sparkles through even his more serious parts, though never at the expense of his believability.

The Minnesota native currently divides his time between his farm in Kentucky and movie sets in Hollywood and elsewhere. Three weeks ago, he began a publicity tour for his new film, “Sahara,” and spoke to The Minnesota Daily about the industry, extreme-location shooting and his acting style.

“Sahara” is only the second feature based on the ever-popular works of novelist Clive Cussler, whose dashing marine explorer Dirk Pitt has found the treasure, saved the world and gotten the girl in a score of novels.

This yarn finds Pitt, played by Matthew McConaughey, on the hunt for Confederate gold in Mali, menaced by a dictator and a hazardous waste speculator. With him is his faithful pal Al Giordino (Zahn), who provides a wise-cracking commentary through even the most dangerous situations.

Zahn happily admitted he’s done this kind of thing before. “These are the parts I play,” he said, “the sidekick parts that are always commenting on what’s going on.”

Being a sidekick didn’t excuse Zahn from striving just as much as the leading man. The cast and crew of “Sahara” spent several months on location in Morocco. “We drove most of it,” Zahn quipped.

McConaughey and Zahn spent time with a former Navy SEAL, learning the skills their characters possess in short order. “We worked out hard for this,” Zahn said.

That training paid off in several ways. “You end up spending a lot of time together. You learn things about the other person, and that helps you later on when you’re shooting,” Zahn said.

The actor admitted the scenario for “Sahara” is absurd. As he pointed out, however, that’s the whole reason to go to a movie like this. Suspending your disbelief is a difficult, but amusing, challenge action-adventure fans love to take up.

Referring to past efforts he declined to name, Zahn joked, “People say: ‘Why’d you do that movie? It sucked!’ And I say, ‘Hey man, when I read it, it was great.’ “

Luckily for Zahn, “Sahara” makes the transition from script to finished film skillfully. The movie resists the temptation to squish Africa into one, undifferentiated mass. Nor does it fall into the trap of seeing African people as mere victims or colonialist stereotypes.

The Mali of “Sahara” is a nation with serious problems but also with the means to begin solving them. If other movies in this genre spent the time necessary to make their supporting casts this believable, the action-adventure genre might command more respect.

As it is, combining respectful portrayals with Zahn’s trademark sparkle, “Sahara” is a serious adventure that never gets dull.