Scene, Sunday, July 8, 2007

Steve Zahn looks terrible in his latest film. And he’s proud of that.

“It started with losing the weight, 40 pounds,” he said. “We were banged up. And we were barefoot the entire time.

“It started out as an actor thing, but I really felt like if I didn’t push myself I couldn’t do this role.”

The actor, best known for comedic turns in films like “Happy, Texas,” is sunburned and emaciated for most of his time on screen as a POW in “Rescue Dawn.” His beard looks like it was trimmed with a rusty piece of metal. He limps and stutters in almost every scene.

Zahn, who debuted the movie at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland in June, said ultimately he hopes his work shows what his character, Air Force 1st Lt. Duane Martin, and other prisoners of war endured at the hands of their enemy.

The movie, starring Christian Bale, follows the real-life capture and escape of POW Dieter Dengler, a German immigrant turned Navy pilot who was shot down in Laos during a top secret 1966 bombing mission.

Dengler spent nearly five months in the hands of Pathet Lao soldiers before leading the other U.S. prisoners in a revolt and into the jungle. After weeks in the jungle, he was the only man still alive when U.S. rescuers arrived.

Director Werner Herzog filmed a documentary on the story in 1997, but focused solely on Dengler’s experience and life. The new movie spends more time on the other prisoners, their failing mental states and their tragic ends.

Martin, a member of the 38th air rescue and recovery squadron, spent more than two years trapped in the prison camp, suffering through frequent beatings, meager rations, and mental anguish. Little is written about his life beyond what Dengler relayed, but Zahn said he became “haunted” with the character.

“I was amazed that in this age of information, you could put his name into a computer and just basically get only what happened to him in Laos,” he said.

Martin managed to survive the prison break with Dengler but was killed by a villager after 18 days of wandering through the jungle. Zahn and Bale spent weeks in the overgrown river thickets trying to replicate that journey, stumbling and scraping themselves as crews recorded their moves.

“We didn’t have chairs with air conditioning and little umbrellas,” he said. “I don’t want to sound like a spoiled actor, but we didn’t get any of that. You stayed in it the entire time. And that was great.”

Zahn said he was thrilled to be working on a military movie: Previously, he missed out on a role in “Saving Private Ryan” despite palling around with Tom Hanks on the set of “That Thing You Do,” and other projects forced him to pass up a role in Hanks’ “Band of Brothers” production.

“When I was a kid my ceiling was littered with fighters and bombers and World War II planes,” he said. “All I read is military history. So this was an opportunity I was looking for.”

He’ll return to the comedic side later this year in “Strange Wilderness,” as a wilderness TV show host who goes searching for Bigfoot to boost ratings. He will also star in the USA Network’s “Comanche Moon,” a prequel to “Lonesome Dove.”

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