If you came of age in the 90s, you probably grew up loving Ethan Embry. The star of Empire Records, That Thing You Do! and Can’t Hardly Wait went on to forge a busy career as an adult. Among his many projects, he starred in the Showtime hit Brotherhood and had a pivotal, recurring role on ABC’s Once Upon a Time.
Now Embry stars as Coyote, the just-out-of-rehab son of Sol (Sam Waterson) and Frankie (Lily Tomlin) in the Netflix comedy Grace and Frankie. In the series, long time business partners Robert (Martin Sheen) and Sol confess to their wives, Grace (Jane Fonda) and Frankie, that they’ve been having an affair for the last 20 years.
Paste caught up with Embry to talk Grace and Frankie, his long career and his upcoming movie Echoes of War.
Paste Magazine: So, how did you get cast in Grace and Frankie?
Ethan Embry: I got attached in a pretty typical way with this. They sent out a wide casting net and I had the opportunity to go in there and meet Marta [Kaufmann] and Howard [J. Morris], the showrunners, and do an audition for them. At that point it was Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda and Martin Sheen who were attached, and when you see those names it’s kind of a no brainer.
I went in and did the audition and I got lucky enough to be invited to come play with them. It still is the same sort of “pinch myself” feeling that I get when I think about working with those people.
Grace and Frankie is brimming with Oscar and Emmy winners. How familiar were you with their work?
Embry: The one thing that I hang onto with Lily is when I was younger Flirting with Disaster was one of my favorite comedies. That’s still one of my favorite romantic comedies. And then of course growing up watching Martin Sheen stuff—you can start at Apocalypse Now. And Sam Waterson in The Killing Fields, that was one of the most disturbing films I’ve ever seen.
Funny enough Jane Fonda was the one I wasn’t completely familiar with. Of course I know her history, but as far as her work goes that’s the one I was probably the least familiar with. When they invited me to come join them I sat down with my fiancée and my son and watched Nine to Five. It’s so great and actually it’s very relevant to things that are happening right now.
Paste: What did you learn from working with them?
Embry: What’s really respectable about those four is not only what they do as actors but the stances that they take on political and social issues. You might not completely agree with everything they stand behind, but you have to respect the fact that when they back something they stand really firmly. That’s something that I’m trying to figure out myself. They’re really great role models. I have a lot of things I’m aware of in our society today [and] I’m always questioning whether or not my voice should be heard. And looking at what they did in their past and still do to this day, it’s kind of inspiring. Hopefully I’ll not only learn the perfect comedic and dramatic blend from the four of them, but maybe I’ll learn something about that too.
Paste: Obviously the primary purpose of Grace and Frankie is to entertain, but given the fact that it’s about two men who are in love and planning to get married, do you think it might educate viewers too?
Embry: I think the great thing about marriage equality is, just in the past couple years, it’s becoming more and more acceptable in the American public across all demographics. I think it will [raise awareness] in a large part of the audience that’s going to be attracted to this show—that this is normal, there’s nothing strange and off about it.
But it doesn’t beat [the message] over the head either. It just is, which I think is important for people to know. There’s nothing different about two men loving each other. But there was also a lie for 20 years and the show doesn’t gloss over that.
Paste: How would you describe Coyote?
Embry: He wants to do better. He keeps on stepping on his own toes. He’s a recovering addict. He’s kind of the black sheep in the family. Everyone else in the family is financially successful and has the appearance of a together life.
Coyote he’s got nothing. When we meet him, he’s just getting out of rehab, he has no job and he’s living on his brother’s couch. But he’s a good guy. He’d rather not make the waves that he makes in the lives of the people that he loves and he’s trying to do better in that area.
Paste: How do you relate to him?
Embry: I’ve been sober and clean now for four years so I know what that’s like. You constantly think, ‘It’s just me. I’m only doing this to myself.’ That’s a very calming thought. You don’t realize when you’re in it how much you do effect the lives of those around you. Then you wake up, and you do see that and you try to repair and gain some respect and trust back.
Paste: Did your personal experience help inform your performance?
Embry: I have no idea where Coyote’s going, but you try to look at what he’s already been through. Because there are certain elements of my life that could match up to a certain degree with those then, yes, I can identify with them. He’s very different from Ethan. I think the reasons why he went through what he did are very different than the reasons why I went through what I did. But as an actor you just try to find similarities in the path. The lighter side of Ethan is probably very similar to the lighter side of Coyote. I think Ethan goes a little darker than he does. Ethan’s more the FX version of Coyote. He’s not so polished.
Paste: You started acting when you were 13. How did your career begin?
Embry: My mom did a really, really good job when her kids were young discovering what we were good at. And she never pushed or forced, but she nurtured us at becoming good at what we enjoyed doing. She noticed it was in my blood. When I was younger I was doing it because it was fun. I truly love being on the set. I probably can’t pinpoint what it is about it that attracted me so much. It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I asked myself if I wanted to keep doing this, and made the decision that this is what I do, this is how I identify myself. I used to have a hard time identifying myself as an actor but now I fully embrace it. It’s what I do. It’s who I am. It’s probably what I’ll continue to do, if they keep me letting me.
Paste: How did you deal with fame at such a young age?
Embry: My history is different than a lot of other people’s and I think I’m really lucky. I never had that real, big hit. I never had the name notoriety that a lot of other people my age had at that time.
With Reese Witherspoon, right out of the bat—boom—she was really young really popular. Macaulay Culkin—boom—really popular, really young. I continued to work but I never saw myself as having that same recognizability. And I think that helped me in so far as how I handled it. I never saw myself as famous. I never saw myself as a celebrity. I still don’t. I’m just a working actor.
Paste: How much harder do you think it is for young actors today?
Embry: There’s no buffer between them and the public and I think if I had social media in my late teens and twenties, if people could have seen the mistakes that I was making—that’s rough man, because the internet is forever.
Paste: Even though, as you say, you never had that really big hit, so many of the movies you were a part of remain so popular today. When you were making Empire Records and Can’t Hardly Wait did you have any idea that they would have the longevity they’ve had?
Embry: We weren’t even aware of the popularity of Empire Records until last year. The whole cast, the director, we were dumbfounded because it wasn’t successful when it came out. I don’t think I totally understand the popularity of Can’t Hardly Wait yet because, again, it wasn’t as successful as American Pie. My life at the time didn’t feel the effect of it. But I love the fact that they’re still around; I prefer that over the immediate popularity. There’s a film that came out last year that I did—Cheap Thrills—and I would love nothing more than for people to be watching it 20 years from now.
Paste: Tell me about your new movie Echoes of War, which opens May 15.
Embry:It’s about a soldier that’s returning home at the end of the Civil War. He’s returning to a home that has also been changed, trying to re-assimilate into his daily life again. It’s beautifully acted, just amazing performances. One thing I’m curious about is if [viewers are] willing to invest in it. Because it takes its time. It moves a lot slower. I’m really curious to see how people respond to it.
Paste: With the movie, the TV show and the 20th anniversary of Empire Records, it kind of feels like Ethan Embry is having a moment.
Embry: I am really happy right now with the way work is going, and over the years I have experienced these ebbs and flows. These feasts and famines. Right now I’m really happy with where it’s at. That being said I will not be shocked if in the future I’m back in that place where I’m getting gasoline and the guy next to me at the pump says, ‘Dude you should be working more, bro.’
Paste: To what do you attribute your current career feast?
Embry: If I knew more of why I was working more now, I’d do it all the time. I have a slight idea. I’ve stopped some of the self-destructive stuff that I’ve been doing and I think that does nothing but benefit. That being said, I don’t think that’s the full reason for it. I don’t know what the magic formula is. It’s such a strange business. I feel at times I’m getting towed around as opposed to driving. I tend to fair better the less I try to control it. The more I’m along for the ride, the better the outcome.
Amy Amatangelo is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and a regular contributor to Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter or her blog.