Ethan Embry began his career at the age of 13, co-starring with Ed O’Neill in the 1991 John Hughes film, Dutch. Since then, he has shifted into an accomplished film and TV actor through his work in White Squall, the comedy cult favorite Empire Records, and ABC’s Once Upon a Time. Now, following the twisted Cheap Thrills, Embry appears in the werewolf horror flick, Late Phases. So we chatted with him about his favorite movies, the similarities between horror and comedy, and why he’s reluctant to watch his own films.
No matter how much my vibe changes I think this one probably stays on [the list] consistently and that’s Midnight Express. That one is always in my top five. I think it goes through all the emotions. It puts you on the edge of your seat, it breaks your heart, it scares the crap out of you. I even laugh a little when they do that yoga scene. That’s the one thing I’ve never really understood. Do you remember that part? When they do naked yoga together? I understand what they’re conveying, that these two people find companionship and peace inside of all the insanity going on around them. The blond guy and your main character, Billy, have this, like… it’s not romantic, but it’s very… it is sensual in a way, this yoga scene, together, and the way they shot it with the light coming through the window. It always makes me chuckle. But yeah, Midnight Express, man, it’s always on the top five.
A little earlier, I got on a binge of Korean thrillers and… Oldboy. As far as Korean thrillers go, Oldboy and I Saw the Devil exchange places [as] my favorite Korean film. [For the remake of Oldboy], they manage to completely ruin it. And I don’t know how they managed to so thoroughly ruin it, but they… They could have just re-shot it shot-for-shot and have the American screenplay be the subtitles of the Korean film and it would have been a fantastic movie. And they managed to poop all over celluloid. But the original one, phew. I highly recommend that whole… There’s a trilogy. It’s Oldboy, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance and, what’s the third one [Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance]? It’s a Vengeance trilogy and I love them all three. But that whole Vengeance series is amazing. Those Koreans know how to scare you.
Oh yeah, one of my favorite movies is The Host. Did you see that one?
Great film. Yup, great film. Yup. They perfectly do thriller without the overly gruesome slasher, you know? I think that I Saw the Devil… it is one of my favorites, I don’t know that I’d put it in my top five, but it’s so incredibly graphic but it still manages to fall under “thriller,” although it’s probably the goriest film I’ve ever seen.
They do a lot of things better than us and then we try to recreate it and it’s miserable.
It’s because they don’t hold back. They really just don’t. It’s been said that the society is oppressed and socially they live in a more censored world, but when their art comes out, all of that censorship and boundaries that their society puts on them just come flooding out in their films and other forms of art.
I think we have to throw out the ones that we grew up with, which would be The Neverending Story, which is also interchangeable with The Dark Crystal. Can we do that? Can we name two movies that take one place [laughing]?
As a tie? Well, we can say that one is a runner-up, how’s that?
Right! Okay, close runner-up. There you go, there you go, yeah. Because I think, as a film, I think Neverending Story is a better film than Dark Crystal. Um… but if you watch the making of The Dark Crystal, which comes on that super-limited-edition DVD that was released a couple years ago, and you watch that one hour documentary of the making of The Dark Crystal, you have a whole new respect for the Gelfings. But I think I’ve seen Neverending Story probably as many times as I’ve seen Midnight Express. Sometimes I watch Neverending Story just to cleanse myself of what Midnight Express has left me with.
For a comedy, I’d say probably Election you know? Frickin’ Alexander Payne, dude? Come on. Yeah, Matthew Broderick, Reese Witherspoon? So good. The perfect blend of real and absurd. Completely buyable characters… just turned up a couple notches. And these completely realistic scenarios and situations just turned up just a couple notches. Complete believable absurdity. It’s not just over the top.
You believe these people could actually exist.
Yeah. Which makes it all the more funnier. Or more funner? I don’t know. I don’t know what the correct word would be for that one. I, myself, unlike the characters in Election, didn’t go to high school.
You’re living vicariously through them.
Yeah, and that’s the other thing. I would want my high school experience to be like that, you know? I would want to be the um… God, what’s the kid’s name? Klein. He was in so many of the movies in the 1990s.
Yeah, Chris Klein, yeah. Right? Isn’t it Chris Klein? Love that kid. Great kid, too.
You know, I really get into… I can just throw it out there, because it was a great… it really was really good, but Shut Up, Little Man. It’s a documentary. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s about these two guys that move into an apartment in San Francisco. And their next-door neighbors are the worst neighbors you can possibly imagine. It’s these two older gay gentlemen that have the worst relationship that anyone could ever have. And they spend all hours of the day just screaming at each other. And so these two guys started recording these arguments.
I remember in the 1990s, back before the Internet, if you wanted these odd, like, socially passed-around… Remember like Faces of Death? You could get a VHS copy of it? And so this was… You could go to certain independent record stores and they’d have a small collection of these bootlegged cassette tapes of their arguments. And I remember when we were doing Empire Records was the first time I heard these. And it’s the story of the guys that recorded… They track down the two guys that recorded all these things that were passed around through our generation. It’s a pretty amazing documentary. It’s pretty good.
You have a sentimental memory of hearing these tapes. I’ve never heard them.
Yeah they were passed around. I remember I got hold of those and listened to them. And there was a Chuck Berry sex tape that I had on VHS. [Laughing] Before YouTube and before the internet, you know, there would be these little pieces of gold we would get. Like folklore, you know? So there is a nostalgic element.
Late Phases is really good.
I have to see it. I still haven’t seen it.
Sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I’ll go a really long time before I watch the stuff that I’m in.
Why is that?
Because it’s fun to see it with an audience. Because then I get a really good gauge of the film itself, you know?
Ever just go buy a ticket and watch it in the theater?
Oh yeah, I love that. Because you get a really good gauge of what the film is. But since this is mostly screening on the East Coast…
And digital download.
Yeah, yeah. You can get it… If I wanted to I could log on and just watch it. It just makes me a little self-conscious to sit there by myself, you know? And I’ve learned not to listen to that, because that’s the least… I think my appraisal is the least honest one. Especially after working with those… like Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin have the same thing. It’s just, it’s an actor’s curse. And it doesn’t way. And I’ve stopped listening to it and that results in my stopping watching sometimes.
But this movie is good.
People are liking it.
Oh yeah! Dude, Lance Guest is rad! My favorite thing about Late Phases, having not seen it, is the classic filmmaking, the way they went about doing things with lost art forms, like building the monsters. Having these true craftsmen come in and make these handmade suits. They spent months and months. And the makeup that they did on Nick [Damici], the lead. You know, they aged him a good 25-30 years. And they did that every single morning. And it looks amazing. They don’t do that s— anymore. Those are lost art forms that have been replaced by people who are really good at typing up ones and zeros.
Yeah. Yeah. And it stays true to that classic filmmaking art. Also, if you’re a werewolf fan, it stays true to that genre as well because, he doesn’t have more abs than nipples, you know?
So is horror one of the more fun genres to be on set doing?
I think it is. I keep saying it, but, I do what I do because we’re trying to elicit an emotion in our audience. Some sort of emotional reaction. Thriller and comedy, those are, to me… If you can make a person laugh, or if you can scare the s— out of them, that’s the strongest reaction. To me, breaking an audience’s heart is very elusive and it almost has to be done accidentally. I haven’t figured out that formula, how to pull on those heartstrings. But I can scare ’em. And I can make ’em laugh. Being on a thriller or a horror set too, there’s a lot of, like with the monsters and the scares and whatnot, there’s a lot of practical techniques. It’s very, very technical to get certain scares right. And doing that stuff.
Comedy is the same.
Yeah, yeah. Comedy, with the timing. Yeah, yeah. With horror, it’s more of a team effort though, because you have to sell things to the camera. Like there’s… I don’t know if you saw Cheap Thrills, the last horror film that I did, that end scene. If we’re going to make the whole audience jump back, I have to sell it, the camera has to sell it, you throw in some sound design. It’s a real team effort to get that jump across. And that’s so much fun for me, to be a part of that. For comedy, it’s all up to me. Unless it’s physical comedy. But to be a part of that team effort to be on a horror or a thriller, it’s my favorite part of filmmaking.
And it’s got a fresh score, which is rare for a horror movie. I was just telling someone if a horror film is even in the 30s, to me, that’s a good score for a horror film. But you’ve got a fresh score here.
Yeah, we’re doing alright. Because, the thing with Late Phases, when we were making it, we wanted to make a film before we made a horror film. We wanted it to stand on its own without the blood and gore. And I think that most of the complaints I’ve heard about it is, they’re expecting more of the gore. That the gore happens and then where does it go until the end? So it’s that… I mean, opinions always vary. Some people want more, some people love where it’s at.