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Ethan Embry will do that thing he does at Pensacon

Ethan Embry attends the 36th Annual PaleyFest "Grace and Frankie" at the Dolby Theatre on Saturday, March 16, 2019, in Los Angeles.
Richard Shotwell/Richard Shotwell
Ethan Embry attends the 36th Annual PaleyFest "Grace and Frankie" at the Dolby Theatre on Saturday, March 16, 2019, in Los Angeles.

Since he made his first movie appearances in 1991 in “Dutch” and “Defending your Life,” Ethan Embry has been a steady presence in films and television. He’s best known for roles in “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Empire Records” and as the bass player in “That Thing You Do.” He can currently be seen in the role of Coyote in the final season of the Netflix series “Grace and Frankie.” Embry will be in Pensacola this weekend as a guest at Pensacon.

Ethan Embry: Funny enough, (Lily Tomlin) is really similar to my mom, minus all the mushrooms and marijuana. The way the character handles herself reminded me of my own mother so much: this Southern Californian free-loving hippie. They’re of the same generation. Sort of scatterbrained. So it was really easy actually to see Lily as my mother.

Bob Barrett: When you go to conventions like Pensacon, what do the fans want to know? What part of your career, and it’s such a long career, what part of your career do they go to?

EE: “It always depends on the person, I guess, is how I would answer that. Because having been lucky enough to do this for so long and being graced with being hired by so many different filmmakers. There’s the light-hearted romantic comedy fans, there’s more like the slapstick, Lampoon comedy fans, and then being able to do heavy drama stuff as well. And it’s funny, you brought up “Grace & Frankie”, that’s really the first job, well, that and “That Thing You Do,” I think are the first jobs that encompass all of them. You could be the darkest, goth, heavy metal, head-banging, horror movie lover, and you’re still going to love “That Thing You Do”, and you’re still going to laugh at Lily and Jane on “Grace & Frankie”. But outside of those two it kind of depends on which social category you fall into. Which can be a fun game when you meet somebody to try and pick like ‘Ok what movie do they know?’”

BB: Well I love ‘That Thing You Do.' It was the directorial debut of Tom Hanks and you played the bass player of the group The Wonders, or the Oneders. Your character had no name, you were known as ‘the bass player’ but I understand you came up with one.

EE: “I did! Tom (Hanks) sort of made a joke towards bass players in the 60s. They were, outside of Paul McCartney, they were really not the front-men of the band. It happened a little later as we moved into the late 70s and early 80s where bass players started taking center stage a little more, but back then I guess, at least in Tom Hanks’ eyes, the bass players were just the bass player. You could throw anybody in there, they were just the bass player. So in the script, the character was written as … T. B. Player. So I thought ‘Well I need to have a name. I need something to grab onto, so I named him Tobias. I took the B and the T together. His name was Tobias Player.”

BB: Didn’t you guys get together for a minor league (baseball) promotion in Erie recently?

EE: “We did. I, unfortunately, was working on “Grace & Frankie." And with that show, the cast (are) all nearing their eighth decade or they are living their eighth decade, so we had to be very careful about what we did in our off-time to protect them. So I wasn’t able to go up there. But the other three boys did go up to the Erie Sea Wolves in Erie, Pa. and did a minor league “Wonders’ Day”. Playtone gave the approval to make up Wonders jerseys and they had Wonders bobbleheads. I wish I could have gone because the three of them had an absolutely fantastic weekend up there. But we did get together and did a live-watch YouTube viewing (with) commentary of “That Thing You Do” that Tom Everett Scott and Steve Zahn spearheaded. We did that in the spring of 2020, and I think that was the first time that the four of us got back together all at the same time. It was remotely, but it felt like we were all in the same room with each other. To me, and this kind of ties into the convention thing as well, to me these movies that I did, they’re just periods of my youth. They are these memories of four months of my teen years. And then, when we do things like that to celebrate “That Thing You Do”, or if I go to a convention and I meet people that have a connection to these movies, it sort of brings me back to those glory days, and I really love it. It gives me as much of a gift as it gives the people who have attachments to the projects, which is pretty nice.”

BB: I’m interested in a movie like “That Thing You Do” and “Empire Records," too. I actually saw the director’s cut of “That Thing You Do” which is almost an hour longer than the regular movie.

EE: I still haven’t seen it. I hear it is a pretty long movie, but I’ve never seen it. I’ve got to watch it.

BB: There’s an awful lot of ‘Really, they’re doing that?’ and it has a different ending. But, when you saw the final cut of “That Thing You Do” and “Empire Records” too did you wait ‘Wait, we did a whole lot of stuff that I’m not seeing (on the screen)?’

EE: Oh it’s always like that. It’s always like that. I always say editing is a huge, like 80% of the impact on the film. You can shoot a horror movie and in the editing room you can turn it into a comedy, or vice versa, you can think you’re making a comedy and when the director and the editor get in there they can turn it into a horror movie. That last (part of the) creative process of editing is really where you put the image of the movie together. It’s pretty rare that everything you shoot will end up in the final draft. Which I think is why those director’s cuts are so compelling to people that love certain films. To watch alternate storylines that were never included in the final product.

BB: I enjoyed when you showed up on “The Walking Dead” and had your face eaten. What was that like?

EE: I loved that, man! The thing that I always take from that project is how great the family was on that show. And by family I mean the production crew, the cast, everybody involved really appreciated what they had. They knew that they had something special that was very important to a lot of people and not a single one of them took it for granted. I showed up, I was there for maybe two or three weeks and immediately, because you’re now a part of it you are brought into the family. (They were a) very welcoming, very open group. Which makes me look back and think they deserve every ounce of success that they’ve gotten. To be so generous. So it was great, also a very good experience.

BB: As that episode was going I saw you were plotting against Rick Grimes and I said ‘Well, this guy’s not gonna last!’

EE: I wanted to be a part of the show so bad. I read the pilot for the sheriff friend of his…

BB: Oh, Shane?

EE: Yeah, Shane. I read for him, and then I read for the red-haired, mustached dude, what’s his name?

BB: Oh, Abraham.

EE: Abraham, yeah. So I had been battling to get on that show for a long time because “28 Days Later” is my favorite feature film, or was at the time. And so as soon as they invited me, it didn’t matter that (my character) died right away. I was like ‘Ok I’m gonna be a part of this, so take your opportunity while you can’. Of course, I wish (my character) would have lived. To hang out with those people for six months, for six years? Wooo!

BB: One of your earliest roles, I think you were 12 or 13 years old when you made the film ‘Dutch’ with Ed O’Neil. How was working with Ed, you worked with him later, too in the TV series ‘Dragnet’, how was working with Ed? How was that relationship like with a veteran actor and you being so young?

EE: I’ve always seen Ed sort of like my dad of the industry. Because I had done commercials for a couple of years and done a few small parts here and there in films and TV, but that was my first very important role. And I remember the first day that we started shooting, Ed took me into his trailer for lunch. And he sat me down and he said ‘Hey, I just want to tell you, a lot of people are going to treat you different, they’re going to fawn over you, and they’re going to let you get away with things that you shouldn’t. But I need you to remember that you’re no more important than anybody else on this (crew) that we cannot make this movie without every single person, and you’re not above anybody. This is just a regular job, so keep your head straight.’ I try to remember that as much as possible. I think it’s easier to remember now in my older years. I got to see (Ed) right before COVID. It was his last day of ‘Modern Family’ and the lady that was doing our hair and makeup on ‘Grace & Frankie’ also did his hair and makeup on ‘Modern Family’ and she brought me over to the set and shoot the s--- with him. Can you say s--- on public radio?

BB: I guess we’ll find out, won’t we?

EE: (laughs) Getting to hang out with him again a couple of years ago was great. He’s a good man, a very good man.

BB: Well with a dad like Ed O’Neil and a mom like Lily Tomlin you’ve got it made.

EE: I should be OK. I need to keep reminding myself and not panic. Because I’m currently unemployed, so I’m in panic mode.

BB: It doesn’t look like you’ve been unemployed very often.

EE: Yeah, (those stretches of unemployment) feel a lot longer than they look on paper. That’s the other thing about this job. I’m a working actor, I’m not a movie star and I don’t make a crazy amount of money. I make a middle-class life. And it’s feast and famine that you have to get used to. I had a job for seven years (on ‘Grace & Frankie’) so I was just in a feast. And now that’s done, we ended that last November, and (we are not quite sure) how long the famine period will be. So you tighten your belt. You look at your car with 150 thousand miles on it and it’s ‘Nope, not going to do anything about that yet.'"

BB: You’ve done some voice work, too. Some ‘Spider-man’ some ‘Batman Beyond. Any of that coming up that we should know about?

EE: Voicework, that’s a hard world to get into. That’s a very exclusive club. And I stupidly let my invitation to that club expire when I was young. And I do think that getting back into that would be a smart move. It’s one of those things where you have to prove, you have to keep cracking at it. You’ve got to hit the pavement and stay determined and you’ll do a thousand auditions before you get your first job. And you just keep doing them, keep doing them.

Ethan Embry will be a celebrity guest this weekend at Pensacon.

Bob Barrett has been a radio broadcaster since the mid 1970s and has worked at stations from northern New York to south Florida and, oddly, has been able to make a living that way. He began work in public radio in 2001. Over the years he has produced nationally syndicated programs such as The Environment Show and The Health Show for Northeast Public Radio's National Productions.