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‘Valley of the Boom’ star Steve Zahn gets into a scam artist’s mind-set

“Valley of the Boom” star Steve Zahn says he doesn’t sleep with his phone by his bed.

Steve Zahn doesn’t remember his first brush with the Internet — couldn’t tell you about the first email he typed, or his first browser search.

But his most recent gig, National Geographic’s “Valley of the Boom,” had him exploring those early years of the World Wide Web. The series, which blended scripted scenes with documentary elements, tells the story of that Wild West period through three tech ventures (Netscape, Pixelon and TheGlobe.com) from that first boom. Zahn portrayed scam artist-turned-dot com founder Michael Fenne, whose company was streaming video startup Pixelon.

“I think, arguably, the Internet is probably the most important invention of all time — over the plane, the train, the car,” Zahn said during a recent visit to the L.A. Times video studio. “If you ask my grandmother [about her] first car, she’d be able to tell you… No one remember how this thing creeped into our lives. I found that fascinating.”

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Steve Zahn as Pixelon founder Michael Fenne in National Geographic’s “Valley of the Boom.”
(Bettina Strauss / National Geographic)
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For Zahn, who is one of film and TV’s most beloved character actors, the role of Fenne is a standout. With striking bleach blond hair, a bombastic personality, a criminal record and an alias (his real name is David Kim Stanley), Fenne is one of the more bizarre figures in the series. And all Zahn really had to model his performance around was an old interview Fenne, then as Stanley, did with TV news figure Chris Cuomo.

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“That was enough,” Zahn said. “I was blown away by that. I thought I would see this boisterous, like really bigger-than-life kind of guy. And what I saw in this interview was this very soft-spoken, very Southern, and very intelligent. I was fascinated by that — this is the guy? … I didn’t have to imitate him. I wasn’t playing Eisenhower or Nixon.”

Zahn also spoke about the character’s impossible-to-overlook hair, the things people will do for money, and even shared some fun moments about working on “Reality Bites” and “Riding in Cars With Boys.” (He ate bacon and talked about movies with Penny Marshall in her bedroom, come on!)

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For the full conversation, check out the video below:

‘Valley of the Boom’ star Steve Zahn visits the Los Angeles Times Studio and shares his passion for the show and memories of the late Penny Marshall.

yvonne.villarreal@latimes.com

Twitter: @villarrealy


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