November 01, 1999 12:00 PM

>Steve Zahn

In Hollywood, you’re only as good as your last picture, which is why Steve Zahn lives in Warren County, N.J. “There’s something a lot more honest about small towns,” says Zahn, who owns a working farm with his wife, actress Robyn Peterman. “You’re not judged by your job, it’s how you do your work and what kind of a person you are. It’s refreshing.”

By any yardstick, Zahn, 31, is thriving. An actor who has made a career of small but vivid turns in films, including Out of Sight and You’ve Got Mail, Zahn is winning raves—including an award at January’s Sundance Film Festival—for his performance as an escaped con masquerading as a gay beauty-pageant director in Happy, Texas. Zahn said he loved shooting the comedy in part because it was done in, yes, a small town (Peru, Calif.). “I’m just comfortable in that environment,” says Zahn, who grew up in the small city of Marshall, Minn. “I like cows.”

Besides snubbing L.A., Zahn, who next plays Rosencrantz in a version of Hamlet (with Zahn’s Reality Bites costar Ethan Hawke as the great Dane) due in February, has little patience for peers who take their jobs for granted. “I’ve been on [sets] where people obviously have never had a paper route and don’t know what real work is,” says Zahn. “This can truly be the most incredible job. If you don’t attempt to make it the most fun job in the world, then you should be ashamed of yourself.”

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