Having grown up watching Empire Records and Can’t Hardly Wait on repeat, Ethan Embry is nearly unrecognizable as Vince in the Drafthouse Films release Cheap Thrills. Whereas Mark and Preston are both lovable dorks, Vince is a badass through and through.
The film features Pat Healy as Craig, a loving father and husband desperate to earn a living for his family. Trouble is, he faces eviction and loses his job in one fell swoop. While drowning his sorrows at a bar, he bumps into his old high school buddy, Vince (Embry), and the pair is invited to join a wealthy couple (David Koechner and Sara Paxton) for drinks. Soon thereafter, Craig and Vince find themselves partaking in one reckless dare after the next, amusing the couple by proving how far they’re willing to go for money.
Gone are the days of Mark’s adorable curly locks and Preston’s puppy-love charm. If you’ve caught any of his more recent work, like Vacancy and Brotherhood, it’s clear Embry made some major changes. With Cheap Thrills currently available via On Demand and heading towards a March 21 theatrical release, Embry took the time to discuss what prompted that transformation, how that scored him the part in Cheap Thrills and more.
Movies.com: To start, can you tell us about how you were cast in Cheap Thrills? Did they come to you with an offer?
Ethan Embry: At the time, it had been a very tough year financially for me, and they sent me this script through my agent because the producer went to high school with my brother, so there was that connection, and then the director had seen the Showtime show Brotherhood that I did, which is also a departure from the stuff that I was doing in the '90s. More serious, more dramatic. He had seen that, and when I read it originally, I actually identified more with Craig, with Pat Healy’s character, because of the situation that I was in myself.
I’m a father. And it brought up these questions of, what would I do to get out of the situation that I was in? How far would I go? I went in and I sat with Evan [Katz] and the producers, and they called me up later that day and said, "We actually want you to read it again and think about going in for Vince." It’s funny, when I’m walking around right now talking to you, I still feel like a teenage boy, like the scrawny f****ing little kid from Empire Records. I don’t feel like what people see me as sometimes now and he said, "No, you’re definitely more a Vince character." So I went back and read it again and found ways to identify with that and jumped on board.
Movies.com: It’s funny you say that because even though we've seen loads of your more recent work, it's hard to not always think of you as Mark from Empire and Preston from Can’t Hardly Wait.
Embry: Yeah, I think the reason why they had originally thought that I would be better for this role was seeing Brotherhood. In that I played a dirty cop and I was 240 pounds. I was f*cking huge! And he’s really an imposing and violent character in it too, so he had seen that and tied me into Vince. He said if they had cast me as the every man’s man, the size of the man that they would have to get to play the muscle, would be – like the Rock can’t act. [Laughs]
Movies.com: That’d be a totally different movie!
Embry: Right! Exactly! The way he talked me into it was by saying, "If we cast you as the underdog, the size of the guy that we’d have to get to play Vince, it’s really hard to find a good actor built like that."
Movies.com: Was there a point over the years when you deliberately started going after these tougher, more badass types of roles?
Embry: It’s not necessarily that it’s the tougher guy that attracts me. It’s substantial films, you know? Substantial characters and yeah, it was a conscious decision. When I was 16, I did White Squall, which was my first real dramatic film and it was so much fun to do that and to be around that environment. It just seemed more substantial. You go and you make a living, but it also feels like you’re doing something at the same time.
Movies.com: How much of a transition is that for you as a performer? Clearly any actor has to have range, but did you have to switch up your techniques at all to adjust to that?
Embry: It wasn’t conscious. For this one it was funny because it’s the first time I really combined the dramatic stuff that I’d been doing with comedy. So for this it was a back-and-forth thing. I actually looked at each scene and thought, "Okay, so, is this guy approaching this comedically with the timing? Or am I approaching this dramatically where I don’t think about things like timing at all and I just go for what is actually real?" So this one’s kind of a blend of both in a sense.
Movies.com: How about connecting to the character? You mentioned connecting to Craig more than Vince, so was there anything in particular about Vince you had to hold close to really get into his head?
Embry: What I couldn’t connect with originally was just the physicality of it, just the way that I originally saw him when I read it. I read him as much bigger and much more imposing, so it was as simple as actually going to the gym and lifting, trying to accomplish that. But the aggressions, I mean, I have that. Of course I have that in me. It takes a lot for me to cross that line, but if you Google, "Ethan Embry Gunshot Mugging," you’ll see that I have the capability of becoming a violent person. [Laughs] I think we all do.
Movies.com: Is that something that changed in you personally and maybe facilitated the change in the type of roles you were going for?
Embry: I grew up in a trailer park. My dad made, at the most, $15,000 a year to feed five mouths so when I was going off and playing, like in Dutch, these multimillionaire Ivy Leagues, that was stranger to me than the roles that I’m playing now. Now I feel like I can identify more with who I’m playing.
Movies.com: How do you even wrap your head around that when you’re so young and have such a different reality?
Embry: Opiates. [Laughs] You just do it. That’s the thing: all of this stuff, I didn’t even realize that until a few years ago. I did a lot of self-examination and looking back because when you’re young like that, you’re just going. You’re just going from A to B, and soaking in as much as you can, and for me anyway I didn’t even realize that until I actually made a point to look back a few years ago, and I only recently came to that conclusion.
Movies.com: How do you feel about your old work now? You do realize that many of us still adore Empire and Can’t Hardly Wait and can quote both more than we care to admit.
Embry: Just last year with that whole looking back, self-examination, was the first time that I sat and watched Empire Records and Can’t Hardly Wait, so it was the first time I’d seen either of them, really, and they are what they are. I would never not want to have experienced that. It’s funny, you can actually see me grow up, you know? I love the fact that they’re popular now. I think one of the reasons why I managed to remain as normal as I have been able to is because it really took 15 years for any of it to become as popular as it has become. When Empire Records came out, nobody saw that for the first 10 years and it’s only now that it’s starting to be what it is.
Movies.com: Back to Cheap Thrills, obviously we have to know the craziest thing you’ve ever done for money?
Embry: Just look at my past career. [Laughs] I have done a lot of crazy things in real life, but not a lot of them have been for monetary gain. It’s funny, I’ve never made a dollar doing anything but acting. I think the craziest things I’ve done for money are probably on film.
Movies.com: How about in the film? Is there anything Vince goes through that’d be a breaking point for you if you were playing this game in real life?
Embry: There is no breaking point, in my opinion. Each and every single one of us, depending on the situation that we’re in and depending on the person that is involved. I do not think that there is a breaking point. It just depends on the situation… I think that we are all capable. It just depends on who else is involved and what’s the situation that we’re in. It’s all circumstantial.
Movies.com: And if someone doesn’t come to that conclusion, they’re probably lying...
Embry: Yeah, they’re just not being honest. And those are actually the people that you should fear the most. The ones that are incapable of honestly looking and seeing themselves in that light, those are the ones that you fear the most because that’s what Craig is. He’s incapable of looking at himself and seeing who he really is and look at what he f***ing accomplishes.
Movies.com: Can you tell us about working with Pat? We heard things got pretty intense between you two on set.
Embry: Now things are great. We’ve spent numerous days together since then, but when we were making that, we had one week to prepare and communicate what we were doing with the film, and then three weeks to shoot the film. For me, my character had a lot of animosity towards Craig and there was a lot of resentment, so instead of what I normally do which is look at things that I like about a person and go off that, I was purposely and actively looking for the things about Pat that I did not like and going with them, and he was doing the same.
Movies.com: Do you need a major detox after something like that?
Embry: Oh, yeah! We didn’t speak for a year, and then I sent him a text and I said, "You’re really, really great and we did something really f***ing special," and ever since then, we’ve only seen the good in each other and it’s great. You do what you’ve gotta do. You f***in’ work. It’s work.
Movies.com: One imagines in making a movie about crazy dares, life might imitate art a bit. Was there anything like that going on when you weren’t shooting?
Embry: We didn’t have any time. The whole thing was a dare, if you think about it, you know? We were all daring each other to make this movie. [Laughs] Everything was going so fast. I’ve never shot a film in this few amount of days. When we were there, we were working and that in a sense was a dare. Like, "I dare you to f***ing last through this!"
BONUS: As part of the dare campaign promoting Cheap Thrills, watch the Ethan Embry of today impersonate the Ethan Embry from Empire Records below.
MORE FROM AROUND THE WEB: