Steve Zahn on ‘The White Lotus,’ Life on His Farm, and That Prosthetic

Mark is going through this big existential crisis. He thinks he has cancer, then finds out his dad is gay and died from AIDS. He literally says the words “what is real?” at one point. Have there been any times in your life when you’ve worked through something similar?

Oh God, all the time. Are you kidding? In the last five years, I’ve said it daily. “What is real?” This is what we’re living in right now, it’s absolutely insane. Cynicism is dead.

“What is real?” Yeah. As he’s in this kind of crazy Disney Land for rich people, where everything is fake, everything is false, they’re going to have a new group of people the next week and they’re going to treat them exactly the same way.

There’s been a lot of talk about that very graphic scene in the first episode. We’re actually seeing a body double wearing a prosthetic, but what did you think when you first read it in the script?

Oh, it made me laugh. I was like, “Oh geez, no, this is crazy.” And I remember asking Mike, “You don’t want full frontal, right?” He’s like, “No, no, we’re going to use a prosthetic.” I was like, “Oh, okay, cool.” And then I had to approve it. “Is this good?” I’m like, “Yeah, it’s fine. Great.”

I was going to ask if you were happy with the final product.

The funny thing is, Mike actually stopped by here. He was driving cross country. We were in the barn and I was taking care of my horse—he just had surgery, so I’m a vet. I said, “You know what, man? I didn’t think at all that that would be a thing.” It never occurred to me that people would go, “Penis!” And Mike was like, “Yeah, I didn’t either. I didn’t even think about it.” And then when it happened, it was like, “Oh right. Of course.” We’re kind of fucked up, aren’t we?

Well, I will say, it’s not something you see on TV a lot.

It’s true. And it’s so abrupt. The way he did it was just great. It’s like, “Bam!” First episode. So HBO, isn’t it? I did another show for HBO called Treme, and the first thing you see of me in the entire four years we did was my ass. And I remember telling them, “Hey, don’t get all crazy here. I’m not going to be doing streaking scenes down the street and stuff.”

What do you think happens to your character and his family after he leaves the island?

I want to think that there’s a glimmer of hope, but man, I don’t know. I mean, maybe Mom and Dad get closer, maybe they work. But the kids, man, they’re on their own.

This is a show about some of the luckiest and most privileged people in the world, who are completely incapable of being happy. You’ve worked in Hollywood for a long time—is that attitude something that you’ve encountered a lot and taken as a cautionary tale?

I mean, you see it everywhere. It’s not just in Hollywood. I mean, what happens in my business is, we’re telling stories about people. And sometimes we’re so disconnected from people that the stories we tell are movies about movies. I’m writing now with my partner, and you’re constantly thinking, “Have I seen this before?” But yeah, I think we lose touch, especially nowadays.

What are you writing now?

Rick Gomez is my partner. We started a company called Macaroni Art. We’ve got a script called Hot Fruit that’s being auctioned right now and we’re writing another one right now called She Dances, about a father and daughter going to a national dance competition. It’s kind of a fun chapter of my life being on this side. It’s very different.

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