Steve Zahn perfects the power of ‘Mind Games’

Written By By LORI RACKL TV Critic Posted: 02/25/2014, 02:17am

Steve Zahn is tired.

It’s the last day of filming on “Mind Games,” ABC’s midseason drama set and shot in Chicago.

“Doing a network show is a grueling schedule,” Zahn said during a late January interview at Cinespace Chicago Film Studios on the Near West Side.

Zahn thought the show’s Chicago location would make for a relatively easy commute to his horse farm in Kentucky. Instead, he spent most weekends holed up in his Lincoln Park apartment, learning his many lines and occasionally surfacing to get Italian food at Tarantino’s.

Zahn (“Treme,” “Monk”) plays Clark Edwards, a former college professor and an expert in the field of human behavior. Christian Slater co-stars as Clark’s brother, Ross, a former con artist. Together they start a business that uses psychological manipulation behind the scenes to solve clients’ problems.

Want your boss to give you that job promotion? Need the insurance company to reverse its decision and cover your kid’s experimental treatment? Edwards and Associates, at your service.

The mind games they use on the show to influence outcomes are rooted in real science. It can be complicated stuff, and the task of explaining it falls to Zahn’s character, a brilliant academic.

“He’s had to memorize tons of dialogue, scientific jargon,” Slater said about his co-star. “I play Ross, the ex-con, who really doesn’t have to know any of this stuff. I spend a lot of my time saying, ‘What? What are you talking about?’ ”

Zahn’s character also is bipolar, which poses its own set of challenges.

“You’ve got to memorize [lines] at a certain pace,” he said. “A lot of times his mouth can’t keep up with his train of thought.”

The team of manipulators includes a chameleon-like actress (Megalyn Echikunwoke, “That ‘70s Show”), a geeky psychology grad student (Gregory Marcel, “The Mentalist”) and a bean-counter from East Garfield Park (Cedric Sanders, “All Things Fall Apart”). Joining a little later in the 12-episode season is Northwestern University grad Jaime Ray Newman (“Red Widow”) as a beautiful ex-con who befriended Ross in a prison work-release program.

“The show is about a group of people who are really underqualified to play God, but they’ve set up a business where they do just that,” creator Kyle Killen (“Awake,” “Lone Star”) said at a TV critics press tour last month. “It lets us play that moral gray area and discuss what’s fair and what’s not in terms of guiding other people.”

It also gives the writers a lot of freedom while playing within the confines of the procedural sandbox, where a new case comes and goes each episode.

“It’s not like a legal or medical show where it’s all going to be medical cases or court cases,” Killen said. “Almost anything can walk through their door and people can say, ‘Someone is saying no to this. Can you help me get them to say yes?’ So part of the fun of it has been the variety of things that they get to take on.”

Something that hasn’t been so fun: Chicago’s unusually brutal winter.

“The other night we were shooting outside in a blizzard, tears streaming down our faces from the cold,” said Slater, who did many scenes dressed as if it were autumn, even though the thermometer was in the single digits.

“It’s been a long but fun six months,” the actor said, adding that he’s learned a lot about human behavior — and how to manipulate it.

Has he used any of these Jedi mind tricks in real life?

“Maybe not consciously,” he said. “In a certain respect, I’ve been playing mind games probably my entire career.”


Twitter: @lorirackl

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