Matthew McConaughey, Penelope Cruz and Steve Zahn talk Sahara!

Meet the new action entourage of Sahara. Matthew McConaughey stars as Dirk Pitt, Clive Cussler's dashing action hero. Penelope Cruz plays Eva Rojas, a doctor who gets caught up in a government conspiracy. Steve Zahn plays Al Giordino, Pitt's faithful sidekick who fixes things and cracks jokes.

McConaughey had been looking for a franchise character for a long time and Dirk Pitt fit all of his criteria. "Dirk starts off as a guy who you're like, 'Wow, if I ever was in a situation like that I hope that I'd handle it like that,'" McConaughey said. "But at the same time he always has a plan, the plan never ends up going how he wished it would. As much as he's a McGyver, he'd tell you that he's really lucky. I'll tell you what it is, ten years ago I was saying, 'Where's Ali Fox in Mosquito Coast in more of a fun adventure?' Well, I found Dirk Pitt. It was like looking at this guy and how he handles situations, the fun that he has with them. Look at how he can go wrestle the proverbial alligator, but dance with the Queen on Saturday night. Look at how he can sit down as a scientist and talk with the president or talk to the chemist at noon on Monday and walk right out of there and all of a sudden be over in shantytown dealing with the gold bullion smugglers and he's out with the pirates. So he's a scavenger of the deep and he's at home in both of those places. In that way he's a great outlaw. He's a great outlaw, but he's a good guy."

The opportunity to do Dirk Pitt films around the world also suits McConaughey's natural sense of adventure, beginning right away with the Africa-set Sahara. "My favorite thing to do in life is go off to places. I've been to Mali a couple of times. I've been to Peru a couple of times and just go off with a backpack, get lost, don't speak the language, they don't know me, I don't know them and stay there long enough where I feel like I could live there for the rest of my life. Then I know it's okay for me to go back home."

McConaughey had turned down other franchises in the past. "You go, 'Well, that would work, but I'd want to do that once. I don't know if I'd want to put the shoes on again in the end.' It helps with this that Clive Cussler wrote some good books. It does have a life and I do love Dirk Pitt that much and it's something that brings out a lot of my strengths and a lot of things that make me and my spirit burn bright. That helps a lot. And every time we come back we're in a different exotic land. We're pulling a different antiquity out of the bottom of the ocean. I'm going to have some other hair brained idea of treasure that I'm hunting personally that I think is out there that no one else believes exists. I'm going to meet another beautiful woman who's off trying to solve conflict and hopefully we'll end up in a nice place like we did this one."

As the love interest, Penelope Cruz may have a one-time deal for Sahara, but she got the most out of her work. Her first action role in her entire career, Cruz underwent intense physical training. "I had to train six times a week," she said. "For example, for the camel scene, I trained a couple of months before we were able to do it. Everything you see there is us, next to the train. We did that for three days. We had to go 40 kilometers per hour, in a special order. I had to be in the middle and we had to start moving when the train was five minutes behind us. It was amazing choreography, but it was a great adventure for us. At the beginning, I had nightmares about it. I wanted to convince [director] Breck [Eisner] to do it with a double, but I wasn't feeling good about myself, saying no. So, I just trained and trained and trained for two months, until we had total control of the camels. All of that is us. I hope people notice that it's us because we worked very hard for that."

Though Eva has a few damsel in distress moments, she holds her own with the team. "What I liked about this character is that she's a strong woman. She's smart and she has a sense of humor. She saves the hero, as many times as the hero saves her. I loved that because, for this kind of action adventure movie, it's for the whole family and it's funny. Sometimes, in films I've read before, the character of the woman wasn't interesting enough. But, in this one, I felt that she was one more [person] on the team. She had something to say. She was there for a reason. I really loved the character. That's why I hadn't done a movie of this genre before. This was the first time I found the character to be interesting enough for me."

Cruz also saw a little bit of herself in Eva. "She's very stubborn. I consider myself stubborn too. I identify with the character that way. She loses part of her team and she ends up alone with these two guys that she doesn't know, but they end up needing each other and helping each other. The mystery they are trying to solve turns out to be almost the same one, but they don't know that at the beginning. She trusts her instincts. People tell her that she's crazy and that her theories aren't going to be right, but she ends up being right."

Steve Zahn wanted to make sure Giordino was not just a forgettable sidekick. "So much of the time they're these fops who are always trying to catch up and falling down and you just want the lead to shoot him in the head," Zahn said. "It just limits your humor, you know? In this, they're a team. They're together. It's not one guy or the other. All these characters have a real through line and they're believable. And I think they're people you can relate to. And that's what we really worked hard at. That's what I really worked hard at. They've got to be real. They've got to be real. We got the explosions, we've got the helicopter, we've got the camels, and we've got the tanks. But that's not enough. I think we're barraged with movies where it's not important that the people are real people. They can be perfect bodies and do the 62 flips and catch knives and then talk in iambic pentameter for a second before they throw it back. That's great and it has its place, but I just think that this kind of movie's lost. It hasn't been around for a while. Maybe I'm wrong."

When it came to the film's action, Zahn got in the thick of it. "We had to do a week training program with the boat guys to learn the boats and look cool driving the boats. And then you get on the set to actually shoot it and they're shooting back at you as you as you're driving. There's 12 people strapped in on the front and buoys where the rocks are and all of a sudden it's not abut playing the part. Oh my God, I'm in control of everybody's safety so you really had to have your game on. I learned it's not just about working out and being in shape. It's about being there and being able to do everything that's asked of you."

While many of the film's stunts could have been recreated near Los Angeles or in a blue screen studio, Zahn was impressed that almost everything was done for real. "I guess we could have shot this in Wisconsin and I guess you could have got the wizard machine going, but I'll tell you what. When you're acting and you're pretending there's bees, you're pretending. You're not acting anymore because it's all about looking right as opposed to this movie where no, there's a real helicopter chasing us so you get a real reaction. When we got ambushed on that road that was the first time I thought, ‘This is awesome.' All these horses stopped 10 feet from us and were rearing up. Then, out of that and being able to truly react to it you can do things with each other and then humor comes or whatever are those little things are that help us to relate to people."

Sahara opens Friday.