When my phone rang early Monday afternoon, I had expected a rep on the other end of the line, waiting to connect me to her client. Instead, what welcomed me was the warm and familiar voice of Ethan Embry, an actor I had admired for decades, who had starred in several of my favorite "coming of age" movies, like Empire Records, That Thing You Do and Can't Hardly Wait, to name a few.
"Sorry I'm late," he said. "I got into an impromptu wrestling match with my son." I assured him that the extra minute and a half of waiting time was more than worth it.
***Spoilers for the Season 6 premiere of The Walking Dead lie ahead***
Most recently, Ethan snagged a memorable, albeit brief, role on my favorite show, The Walking Dead. Embry played Carter, an Alexandria resident that we had not been introduced to last year, but who was unwilling to fall over and let Rick lead them to what he believed would be their ultimate demise.
When I asked Ethan what it was like to join a show that had such an established storyline and beloved cast, he had nothing but the nicest things to say.
The cast and the filmmakers, they make it so easy for people to come in. They're very, very welcoming, incredibly inclusive. And I didn’t feel for a second that I had to prove myself at all, or that I was anything less than a guest. You know they welcomed me into their home, and in turn in makes you, not only as a actor, but as a person, feel welcome and wanted, which makes you loosen up and you’re able to do the best work that you can.
That's not to say that it wasn't an intimidating prospect, landing a starring role on the series premiere of the most-watched show on television:
It’s scary I mean especially the premiere episode, tens of millions of people are going to be watching and to feel included and welcome, it helps you not to feel any of that, you really do lose yourself. And also, aside from that, the world that they create there, it’s so big. They’ve turned this entire town into a zombie apocalypse.
When I commented on how incredible it must have been to actually get to witness this magic in motion, he echoed my awed sentiments.
The first day I was filming, I was standing on this country Georgian road, waiting for the zombies to come over this hill and it was so surreal, and it's hard to get used to. I remember asking Andy if he ever does [get used to it], and he said it really took a while, even for him, because it’s so realistic. They do most of the effects, called practical effects, where they actually build them and they actually occur, with very little CGI involved.
As a fan, the difference truly is in the details, so the impact of the practical effects were not lost on me.
Embry's role on The Walking Dead was brief, even for their standards. He met his maker at the mouth of a walker at the very end of the 90-minute episode. A fate he was well aware of when he signed on.
I knew it was one episode right from the get go, and that my face would be partially removed. And, I was right on board immediately. I’ve been wanting to be on the show for a while now, and just getting that invite was so great. It was an unexpected gift, and the timing worked out perfectly, as I did this right before I started filming Season 2 of Grace and Frankie. Right in between the two seasons. No matter how long you’re going to be invited to stay, no matter how small or how large, it’s such a rare show in itself, and to be invited to go on it and be a part of it is an even rarer opportunity.
If you saw last night's episode, you know that Carter had some impactful scenes, including one where he plots to kill Rick, and one where he faces off with him. When I asked Embry what it was like to be the one with the balls to face down the Ricktator, he accredited the successful scenes to Andrew Lincoln's professionalism.
He’s amazing, working with Andy (Lincoln) is, I think the man is great. He’s figured out the perfect balance of really taking it seriously and working hard, but still creating a fun work environment. I think a lot of the good feeling on that set is a result of his leadership. Cuz yeah, he’s the leader of the plan and the Ricktatorship, and Andy will probably be the last person to admit it, but he’s also a leader on the set and he does it very humbly and, it was just a really good feeling,
If you're dying to know what Embry's favorite part of his role on the TWD was, you may be as surprised by his answer as I was!
The death (laughs)! There’s this one part when I'm laying down and they’re still pumping blood out of my cheek, and it’s starting to pool in my right eye and my eyes are open and it’s still gushing and I’m looking at Rick and I’m screaming and it was so gory and great. I had a full blown gusher. Carter’s blood pressure was on point, it was like a zit of blood was popped and it went spewing everywhere.
Here I interjected that his description also sounds like a testament to Greg Nicotero and his team as far as effects go.
They’re brilliant, and that’s obviously why Greg Nicotero is a huge part of the creative element of the show because of what they bring to it. And you couldn’t do it without them, they’re the best in the business. And you also understand why people use computers so often now because there’s only so many people that can pull it off these days and they’re it.
I was in the makeup trailer for two hours and I have this footage (I'm going to see if they'll let me release it at some point) and it’s me sitting in the makeup trailer with one of the hero zombies and for two and a half hours you see me getting a face prosthetic on and her getting completely transformed into a zombie. This is just in one trailer, and there's three or four people in one trailer and six completely different trailers.
As an enormous Deadhead, I had to know what it was like to work with the likes of Norman Reedus, Melissa McBride, Lauren Cohan and the rest of the crew.
They’re so great and welcoming. You work for a couple hours and they break for lunch, and you’re sort of standing there wondering as the new kid in school where to sit and they just invite you over and immediately welcome you into it and include you, and they fill you in on what they're talking about from last season and just really involve you. It left me really... I was really taken aback by how much they made me feel apart of it because, again they didn’t have to, and it made it an even more special experience for me. And it made me believe that the success of this show couldn’t have gone to a better cast.
I cannot tell you how lovely it is to hear great things about a cast that you love.
When I asked Embry how this had matched up against other experiences he has had, he said it definitely stands out.
This is the first time that I’ve actually been a fan of something when I was invited to come and work on it, that’s another element of it that I hold close. Normally when you’re working you have no idea how it’s going to be perceived. We had no idea that Empire Records was going to turn into what it did, and still didn't, really, up until just a few years ago! To know what you’re walking into ahead of time is pretty special and you respect the moment even more.
"So actors fanboy, too, is what you're saying?", I asked him.
Absolutely! When I finally get to work with Tom Hardy I’m going to freak out.
When I suggested that maybe he could make that happen in the next Mad Max film, we went on a bit of a tangent. In fact, he would TOTALLY be on board being the guitar-playing bungee dude, playing in the apocalypse. I also told him how Mad Max was the first thing that popped in my mind when he mentioned the practical effects, and he agreed.
[With the practical effects], you feel all the gore. Like last night, when the zombie is pushing through the semis and his skin is pulled away, all of that was done right on set. The only thing they did with the computer was add a little shine. There’s the technical aspect and the artistry of the special effects and the make up and then the work that goes behind the character development. They’ve figured out the perfect balance.
They're very different. With a film, you get the story in one package, you go into it knowing what you’re making. In TV, you have no idea where it’s gonna go. And I think that’s one of the things… cuz if you look... most of the stuff these days that’s compelling is on television. These things that are becoming social phenomenons, like The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones, are on TV because I think the writers also realized how in depth they can get with the storytelling and how long of a ride they can take their audience on.
It’s a completely different element than I had when I was younger. It was so rare to do film and TV. Michael J Fox was one of the rarities, where he could star in a hit television show and also be a movie star. And now there is a cross over where some of our best actors are coming FROM television. Television is now a place that you can go for the original content, they’re taking bigger risks. That’s my opinion of the matter. And also, as an actor, the character development of where you can take a character over five years is so much more than you can do in an hour and ha half.
And it would be hard to pull off these Andrew Lincoln and Bryan Cranston evolutions in one short pop. You need years to do that.
It was at this point that we segued into some questions about Grace and Frankie, a Netflix original in which he plays the adopted son of Lily Tomlin and Sam Waterston. What's it like working with legends such as Tomlin, Waterston, Jane Fonda and Martin Sheen? Terrifying.
It’s terrifying at first, and I’m just now starting to become comfortable with it, you know? Because they’re the best, they really are. They're masters and they’ve been masters for decades, every single one of them, and knowing that you have to try and not think about it and you have to humanize these legends. I've had a really lucky run lately, being brought onto that show and being brought into that environment, too, is one of those special moments. It’s really rare to assemble a cast like that and it’s another gift I’ve been given recently.
When I commented on how gracious and humble he was, he gave me his adorable goofy laugh and brushed me off, but believe me when I say, it was a major moment for this '90s kid to hear that famous laugh.
Continuing with that thought, he said:
To me it kind of goes back to like, working with Lily she’s such a sweetheart, and she’s been doing it since the ‘60s so, I wanna say, it’s been over 40 years, and even with all of her great talent and how captivating she is, one of the reasons why she has continued for so long is because she’s a great person to be around. You’re going to hang out with her on set for 16 hours a day and you just really like to be around her.
Expanding a bit on Grace and Frankie he said:
It’s great material and I think the things that they’re touching on, I’ve heard Jane in interviews and on set people talk about how important it is to them to touch on issues that are important right now, and they’ve managed to bring a focus on so many different ones,not just marriage equality, but blowing ageism out of the water. ("Hell yeah," I said, "those ladies are FIERCE")! The ladies and the men, they carry the show! And also sexism, women's issues, they’re blowing that out of the water, too. Yet it’s not preachy, it just highlights it and shows you and then moves on.
His role on Grace and Frankie as recovering addict Coyote is a first for him, though he didn't feel like it necessarily required extra research.
Growing up in Hollywood I’ve been around it and I’ve had to stop certain things in my life also, so to a certain extent, I know where Coyote is coming from, so I think, with any other acting job, you take your experience in life and either amplify it or turn it down as needed. And that, to me, the bigger part of Coyote so far is that he just wants to do better. He knows he can do better than he’s done in the past and he wants to please instead of cause conflict. And to me, that’s what I gravitate toward for him. But again, I think addiction and recovery is an important subject, and I think it’s one of the things that it’s hard to find the comedy in, but maybe that’s something I can help them bring a focus to, as well. Beause we've touched on it a little bit and a lot of the characters are popping meds throughout the show. But it’s a tough one because of how damaging addiction is, it’s a touchy subject to find a comedy in; but if anyone can, Marta Kauffman and Howard Morris will be the ones to do it.
When I unabashedly expressed my love for the series, he promptly teased with tiny second season nuggets, swearing that it's going to be even better than the first. When I asked if there was an air date yet, he said he was not sure, but he assumed it would be early next year.
Since he's experienced just about every medium there is, I was curious about what the perks and/or downfalls of working on a platform like Netflix, as opposed to a typical network show, were. According to Embry, not all that much.
When you’re making the program, I don’t think there is any real difference. You're still just trying to make the best content that you can. But I think that working on a platform like Netflix, they're the ones that are taking chances right now, they're the ones putting out material that other places... It’s evident why Grace and Frankie is there because Netflix is the spot that they're really changing the way we view TV. They're in the forefront and I really think that, pretty soon, networks are going to be gone by wayside. Like the music industry they’re going to have to change with the times. They're the ones pushing the envelope, and they’re right [to do so], they’re the spot that let two women in their 70s headline a show, and it works, it works so good. Hopefully the rest of them follow suit. They’re at their prime now, both of them [Fonda and Tomlin], they just hit their peak.
Before he flittered off to do his next interview, I was able to get one last question in: If he had to pick, could he pick a favorite project, or a favorite person that he's ever worked with? His answer did not disappoint.
Purely because it’s the first thing that pops into my head but… Jeff Bridges was AMAZING (they worked together in White Squall) and immediately after Ed O’Neal (Dutch). Those two men were gracious and kind and taught me a lot about, not just acting but also being a man.
It was an absolute joy to get to speak so freely with an actor I've adored for so many years. When I heard the first notes of that famous giggle that enamored me so many years ago in Empire Records, I knew this would be an interview I'd not soon forget.
I cannot wait to see what the future has in store for this talented and gracious star. Don't miss a moment of Ethan Embry in the brilliant Grace and Frankie, I promise you won't regret that adventure.