’90s Flashback: ‘Empire Records’ Ethan Embry on Rex Manning Day and Playing Lily Tomlin’s Son in New Netflix Series

In a wide-ranging Wrap interview, the actor who’s amidst a career resurgence takes an eventful trip down memory lane

Last Updated: April 8, 2015 @ 5:05 PM

Ethan Embry is known by many names to movie fans of a certain age. Some know him as Rusty Griswold, aka Nick Papagiorgio, from “Vegas Vacation.” Others know him as Preston, that “guy with hair who likes to wear t-shirts sometimes,” from “Can’t Hardly Wait.” But it was his turn as Mark “with a k,” the shoplifter-hating store clerk in the ’90s cult classic “Empire Records,” back when he was acting under the name Ethan Randall, that has left an indelible mark on a certain sect of pop culture.

Embry recently sat down with TheWrap at the 101 Coffee Shop in Hollywood to take a walk down memory lane in honor of the 20th anniversary of Rex Manning Day, the (sadly) fictional holiday celebrating the well-coiffed singer played by Maxwell Caulfield in “Empire Records.”

Embry reveals the reason why Rex Manning Day is celebrated on April 8, and the answer may surprise you. He also discusses Tobey Maguire‘s rumored cameo in the film, his crush on Liv Tyler (which continued on to another movie) and why Robin Thicke (not Alan) is the modern day Rex Manning.

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“Can’t Hardly Wait” stars Jennifer Love Hewitt and Ethan Embry

While Embry was beloved by teens back in the ’90s, there was a period when the perils of Hollywood caught up with the young actor and he struggled with addiction. Now sober, he has experienced a career resurgence of sorts, with roles in two of last year’s most acclaimed genre movies, “Cheap Thrills” and “The Guest,” as well as an upcoming turn as Lily Tomlin and Sam Waterston’s son in Netflix’s new original series “Grace and Frankie.” The Netflix series debuts May 8 and is Embry’s highest-profile project in years.

Embry grew up in Los Angeles, the son of a dental technician who was home-schooled along with his siblings by their non-conformist mother, who pulled young Ethan out of public school when teachers wanted to put him on Ritalin the very first day of kindergarten. Gymnastics was a creative outlet for his boundless energy, but he needed something else to occupy his time. Enter center stage, when a local stage production required a gymnast. A self-described natural showboater, he won the part and caught the acting bug. TheWrap will let Embry do most of the talking from here on out.

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Ethan Embry in “Empire Records”

TheWrap: Let’s start at the beginning. You were a child actor, so how’d you get your real start after that play?
Ethan Embry: I got a laugh and that was it. There was an agent there and it’s a really typical story. He signed me on and I did commercials. I’d been in the house my whole childhood. I didn’t go to school, I didn’t have a lot of social environments, so being on set was great and growing up around adults on a grip truck or a camera truck. I’ve always, always loved it, that part of it. Getting up at the crack of dawn and being around these people for a minimum of 12 hours a day. I love it. You create these little families.

So you don’t have any regrets? You wouldn’t have rather had a normal childhood, so to speak?
No. I firmly believe that I wouldn’t do anything differently. There’s times now that I wish I had more of an education. Maybe I should educate myself in certain areas so I could fall back on something if I wanted to. But what I’ve learned about the film industry, and how I’ve kind of built a career for 26 years through it. [Regardless] of the respect level of that career, there’s a place for me in it. I know how movies and television are made. There’s always going to be somewhere in that for me, whether or not it’s acting. It’s less now about wishing I had an outside education, and usually the temptation leads to becoming more proactive in those other elements of the industry, like directing or writing. I need to get over my fear of writing.

As an actor, do you feel you need to write to create opportunities for yourself?
No, but there is an element to that. It’s more, these days, that’s how you direct, that’s how you produce. Unless you find a script that the writer doesn’t want to direct himself, that’s how you get the ball rolling. There is a level of respect that comes with that, if you’re good at it. If an actor writes a script or anybody writes a script and it’s a good example of their talent and people enjoy it, it has possibilities. There’s an instilled level of respect that comes along with it because it’s fucking terrifying.

Is there a secret to longevity in this business?
In my department? I don’t know. I really don’t know. I’m sure there is because there’s a lot of people who have had it. You look at Reese Witherspoon, I don’t know if she could pinpoint why she’s been able to do this since she was 12 or however old she was in “The Man in the Moon” to becoming one of the most successful actresses around.

A lot of stars blow up and burn brightly and then they fade away. I’ve been impressed with your staying power. 26 years is a long time…
I think that you can pinpoint why people burn out a lot easier than you can pinpoint why people stay. What I’ve noticed is that people price themselves out. They set the expectations too high. It’s about return on investment, because it’s a business, so if you place your price point at a certain level and you aren’t able to deliver that, suddenly you’re damaged goods and the numbers don’t line up.

Is that a sort of self-sabotage, in a sense?
I’ve always loved what I was doing, but sometimes you’re a 16-year-old and you have rebellious tendencies. I got cast in this ’60s project and I was gonna play a hippie. I had long, long hair down to my shoulders. I can’t remember what job I had just finished doing but I just didn’t want to work. But I had a lot of responsibilities. and the way out of that was to shave my head. And I lost the role. And I do that sometimes, I self-sabotage. But just enough to sort of slow the horse. I don’t know why I do it.

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I know you’ve been working steadily in television for years but honestly, it had been a while since I’d seen an Ethan Embry movie. Then you were in not one but two of my Top 10 movies of last year between “Cheap Thrills” and “The Guest.” I won’t call it a comeback since you never went away, but to what do you attribute this career resurgence?
I cleaned myself up. There was definitely a period that I went down a… I drank too much and I used too much. It’s touchy but I’m definitely not ashamed of it, and if you Google Image “Ethan Embry,” it’s very obvious there was a dark period. I really do think that the reason why I’ve been on a good streak lately is because I stopped sabotaging myself in that aspect. I honestly couldn’t pinpoint why I was doing it. You do the work through these programs that are out there and I still can’t exactly pinpoint why, I  just know that I had to stop.

Let’s change gears and talk about some fun stuff now!
I’m glad you saw “Cheap Thrills.” I love that. A lot of the stuff when I was younger, it didn’t really land until 10-15-20 years later and I have this slight fantasy that in 15 years, people will be watching midnight screenings of “Cheap Thrills.” And “The Guest” is so great. I just did one last summer with the same people who produced that, Snoot. It’s called “The Devil’s Candy” and we pushed ourselves. It’s very dark.

Which role do you get recognized for the most?
I think that depends. It really does. If I’m going through a college town, it’s “Vegas Vacation” because of frat boys. If I’m on the East Coast hanging out at a Teamsters’ union, it’s “Brotherhood.” The kids my age and the hipsters have grabbed onto “Empire Records.” Conservatives and dorks really like “Can’t Hardly Wait.” So it really depends, which I love.

Which line of dialogue do people come up to you and quote back to you the most?
Funny enough It’s probably the Vegas Vacation one — “I put a dollar in, I got a car.” The fan of that movie is the type of person that doesn’t give a shit. The diehard fan of “Vegas Vacation” isn’t going to put that bumper up, keep it shut and not say anything.

When I emailed my high school friends to tell them I was interviewing you, I got four emails back that said “NICK PAPAGIORGIO!” in all-caps.
Yes, exactly! And for some reason, let’s face it, it’s a horrible movie. It’s not anywhere as good as the first one or the Christmas one. Those were home runs! So I can only imagine what Anthony Michael Hall and Johnny Galecki, what they get.

Will there ever be an Avengers-style team-up movie featuring all of the Rusty Griswolds — you, Anthony, Johnny and Ed Helms?
Is that [new one] in the can? I was the last Rusty, but I guess Ed Helms is now. I wish they would’ve done something with us having a cameo or something. I don’t know if the other guys did, if Anthony did a pop-in or not.

You were in Vegas with Chevy Chase and Randy Quaid, so you have got to have some stories. Are there any you can tell us?
That was during the Chevy Chase-Howard Stern feud. I never listened to Howard Stern but his fans made it very obvious to me that there was some sort of feud going on. The most memorable moment from that was Rod Steiger from “On the Waterfront,” who was cast as one of the goon dudes who Nick Papagiorgio kinda started mixing with. Him and the director got into a major disagreement about how to do the scene and I remember walking him back to his hotel room after he walked off the set and him just spewing this ‘how to do it and how to protect yourself and I’m Rod Steiger,’ and it was amazing. Unbelievable. And all the while, he was doing it in his electric cart! And then just, spending 3-4 months with Jerry Weintraub in the city that he helped create. I guess he played an important part in taking Elvis to Vegas because he used to work in the music business, if I remember. I might be wrong. He’s right on par with Steve Wynn in Las Vegas, and spending 3-4 months with him in that town… and I was only 17! All the casinos knew that I was only 17. The poker rooms would allow me to play because I wasn’t playing with casino money. So that’s where I’d go. I’d go down and play poker. I still play.

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Ethan Embry in “Vegas Vacation”

Do you still play?
Growing up in California, you can wake up first thing in the morning and go surfing. And then while you’re waiting for the sun to go down you can go skating. And then you can get in a car and do night snowboarding. So 2-3 times a year in the ’90s, we would do that. And then on the way home, hit the Bicycle Club. Nothing like their Chicken Finger basket…

So let’s talk about “Empire Records.” It’s the film’s 20th anniversary this year and April 8th is Rex Manning Day. What are some of your fondest memories of that shoot and being with that cast?
I was thinking about the the other day. My mom has a photo album from the shoot, I should’ve brought it. The way that Allan Moyle set that whole situation up for us… we went out and had 30 days of rehearsal. We weren’t actually rehearsing the scenes, we were just hanging out and spending time together in that environment. The houses we stayed in were on Wrightsville Beach and it was like summer camp. I remember having the hugest crush on Liv [Tyler]. I think we all did. I got really, really close with Brendan Sexton because we were the two youngest.

Since we’re timing this to Rex Manning Day, what do you remember about working with Maxwell Caulfield?
Max is a great guy. Great dude. It’s funny, do you know how the whole Rex Manning Day thing happened? I was just talking to the writer, Carol [Heikkinen], and she was saying it’s in one of the drafts. April 8th is the same day they found Kurt Cobain’s body. It’s not the day he died. We shot that the same year they found him, so it represents the death of a rock star. Nobody ever says it in the movie. Nobody ever says April 8th. It’s a flyer on the door that says Rex Manning Day, April 8th. I can’t believe people actually grabbed onto that and it turned into that. I had no idea until last year. I don’t know how long this has been going on. I was talking to Johnny [Whitworth] about it and he had no idea. Then people started playing it in these outdoor cinemas on the weekends. They had a screening at Cinespia. I had absolutely no idea!

Were there any cast romances you can recall?
I don’t think there were any romances but Renee [Zellweger] and Rory [Cochrane] had just shot “Love and a .45” so they were a couple when we were shooting. I don’t think there were any straight romances, but I could be completely naive to it. I just remember having the biggest crush on [Liv]. Ever. Which was very difficult, because then we went to shoot “That Thing You Do” and I still had a fucking crush on her.

I had a crush on her from those Aerosmith videos.
How could you not? And I don’t think I’d even seen it until after I met her, and the crush was already going.

Did you guys have any inkling that people like Renee were going to blow up?
Liv had the most buzz. We all loved Renee’s work on “Love and a .45.” Rory had a lot of buzz behind him too because of “Dazed and Confused.”

What happened to Tobey Maguire’s deleted scenes?
I don’t remember him coming out. I remember seeing him at an audition and I remember smoking a cigarette with him while we were both waiting to go in. I had totally forgotten that he was out there until people started talking about it again. The best way to describe that is, he wanted to figure some shit out, and I don’t know if people know about his upbringing and his story prior to becoming successful. Totally understandable that one would want to sit back and assess. Alan [Riche] and Tony [Ludwig], our producers, also totally understood. And when he went back and reassessed what he wanted to do, he obviously did a really good job at it. He figured out who he wanted to be and what he wanted to do.

So you don’t know if he actually shot a role or what his role was?
People say that you can see him at the party. I think that was our first day of shooting. I’ve never been able to find him. Supposedly, Allan really wanted Tobey in it, so I think what he ended up doing, and I could be confusing this with “White Squall” because they did the same thing, was take one character and split it into two. I think he was up there for Mark and then they took that Mark character and split it into two, I think. It had totally slipped my mind for years that [Tobey] was up there.

Why do you think AJ did glue those quarters down?
He doesn’t have to explain his art to you, man. It’s ’90s, the whole decorating the floor [thing]. I had a friend who was a street artist and he came in and spray-painted my floor that was concrete and then we shellacked it. So ‘90s.

Do you have a favorite song on the soundtrack? Mine is Sponge’s “Plowed,” the one with the sick guitar riff.
Last year I got the vinyl. It’s really good. I’ve gotta look at it to see what the name of it is.

Which singer today is deserving of a Rex Manning Day?
Oooh! Alan Thicke.

There should be an Alan Thicke Day?
Now, that being said, I don’t think there should be, but if a modern singer was to assume the role of Rex Manning, if iTunes had a Rex Manning Day and a fucking douchebag showed up to sign t-shirts for it, I think Robin Thicke would pull the role.

Ah, so Robin Thicke? Not Alan Thicke.
Robin Thicke! The dick. The asshole. The dick. Who’s Alan Thicke?

Alan Thicke is his father from “Growing Pains.”
Oh, no! He’s fine. Everybody loves Alan Thicke!

Last “Empire Records” question. Would Anthony LaPaglia have made a good Tony Soprano? Because he was supposed to do it…
The guy’s brilliant. Great actor. But you can’t picture anybody else in that role.

It’s one of the great “What Ifs” in this business.
There’s a couple of those.

Speaking of iconic roles, you played Electro on the “Spider-Man” TV series. What did you think of Jamie Foxx’s take on the character and how can Sony save the franchise?
I haven’t seen the new ones. Are they good?

No. They’re horrible.
I mean, Sam Raimi, man. You can’t beat him.

Are you a Spidey fan? Do you read comics at all?
No, I don’t read comics. And bringing it back to Tobey, I think those first three were really good. Those were great films. I don’t know what they wanted to re-do them. But Batman, I get. I get it. That’s not to slam [Michael] Keaton or [Val] Kilmer or, who else played Batman? [George] Clooney? No disrespect to those three gentlemen but I understand why someone said, ‘let’s bring in Christopher Nolan and re-do the Batman series,’ because they made it so much better.

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Ethan Embry with Brooklyn Decker in “Grace and Frankie”

Let’s talk about “Grace and Frankie” for a bit. You’re surrounded by a cast of legends on this show. Where do you fit in?
I play Lily Tomlin and Sam Waterston’s son. The show, when it starts out, the first scene is Martin Sheen and Sam coming out and saying that after their 40 years of marriage, they’re getting divorced and they’re going to marry each other, leaving Jane [Fonda] and Lily alone. So from the very beginning, the whole foundation is just shattered. Those four characters, when they thought they’d been working their whole lives building up to this period where they can just sit back and enjoy the fruits of their labors, now they have to reassemble all the pieces. Not just financially and logistically, like who’s living where, but also emotionally. Who are you, what do you represent? My character, when that all happens, it coincides with him getting out of rehab, probably for the umpteenth time. There’s a line where Brooklyn Decker says, ‘nobody is who they say they are. I can’t trust anybody anymore.’ It’s not so much that there’s a lot of lying going on as much as it as a lot of re-figuring out who we are and what role we play, I guess.

Is this played for laughs? Is it a dramedy?
That’s the thing. Some of the biggest laughs I’ve ever had at the table read and then when we did the last episode, there were tears. Those four are masters of dramatic acting but it’s surprising how funny Martin Sheen is. I didn’t expect it from him, or Sam. I love “Newsroom” and that energy he can have – that’s the guy I fell in love with during this show. And Lily is a comedic queen. Watching what Sam pulled out and does for this guy… and they’re playing it straight. They weren’t going for laughs. They just happen. It’s very, very organic. [Series co-creator/EP] Marta [Kauffman] sat us down, the corps that played the sons and daughters, and told us, ‘don’t go for laughs. Play it straight and if we need it to be funnier, we’ll let you know, but don’t start there.’ And we’ll guide you from that. It’s a testament to Marta to be able to inject these honest scenes with so much comedy. I haven’t seen any of it yet but I will be really surprised if they don’t hit it out of the fucking park.

Do you binge watch shows on Netflix?
Yeah. As far as actual Netflix goes, we do “Orange Is the New Black” and “House of Cards.” There’s another one on there that’s amazing called “Happy Valley.” It’s not one Netflix produced but it’s so good.

Are you excited to work on an emerging platform like Netflix or would you rather work on a traditional network or cable show?
I think it’s the way it’s gonna be. Watching TV like this started with TiVo really, because to get involved with a certain show where every show leads into the next, you had to be there for it. If you missed something, you missed something. There was no way to control when you watch the show. TiVo came out and suddenly people could program and record and then watch it. They could watch a show that came out on Sunday on a Wednesday, and that was the first time you could really do that. Netflix let you watch a show like “The Wire” having never been a subscriber to HBO. It is really interesting having a show that actually starts like that. They don’t do any of the press leading up to it. It doesn’t hit until it hits. There isn’t this slow-brew to it that gets the ball rolling. They just put the ball out there and see who tosses it around. It is very different but I think I prefer it. Because we get to do the whole season and we don’t have to sit and watch numbers crawl or fall. We just get to do what we do and see the results of it later.

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Ethan Embry in “Grace and Frankie”

How come Hollywood doesn’t make a lot of teen movies anymore? Is it that teenagers aren’t bankable? Do teenagers these days have more stuff to do?
They do, but they mask it. Like, “Twilight” was a teen movie, don’t you think? I think that they do still make them. I’ve gotta see “The DUFF.” Have you seen that? People are saying it’s good. There was “Mean Girls,” right?

Sure, but they seem so few and far between these days. The ’80s and ’90s just had so many of them…
I think it might have something to do with the amount of product out there. The market is completely saturated and when there’s so much going on, you get ADD and you don’t really grab on to one thing. In the ’80s we had John Hughes, so everything he did, we latched onto. Every year there was one high school, coming-of-age movie, be it “Breakfast Club,” “Sixteen Candles” or “Some Kind of Wonderful,” and we jumped on it. Now it’s so saturated and there’s so much of it, I think people aren’t as emotionally attached to the ones that are there. Maybe. Possibly.

220px-DutchposterYou set me up for my next question. You worked with John Hughes on “Dutch.” What was that like, and how was it working with Ed O’Neill?
Ed was amazing. He still is. Ed’s incredible. I remember the first day of shooting, he brought me into his trailer for lunch. And he said, in this business, people are going to treat you different and try to wipe your ass, and don’t let that get to you. Because what you do is no different than the camera, the grips, the electrician, the props, etc. Without those guys, none of this would happen. It’s a team effort and all you are is another part of the team. And I try as hard as I can to remember that. And I have, at times, forgotten, but I always go back to him telling me that. Because the guy drove a dump truck and was flipping burgers in his ’30s.

Would you say Ed has been a mentor to you throughout your career? Have you had a mentor?
No, I wouldn’t say that. We worked together again on “Dragnet,” but I wouldn’t say he was a mentor, though that conversation has stuck with me. When I did “Dragnet,” it was probably one of the times I had forgotten it. And after the fact, I was reminded of what I should be trying to do. Ed’s a really good man.

What about John?
Well, John was in the middle of the “Home Alone” movies at the time. I remember going to the “Home Alone” premiere, so he was working and running around with Macauley Culkin. I think it was at the House of Blues in Chicago. So he was working on the second one and trying to get that together, because he just wrote “Dutch” and produced it. I think he came to set for a week, maybe, when we were in Illinois. I have a really amazing picture of me, John and Ed sitting in a cafe talking. He may have been more involved than I remember.

What was behind the name change?
That’s my Dad’s last name, Randall, and I no longer am angry, but when my parents got divorced, Embry is my [maternal] grandfather’s last name. He was adopted and he was always really big supporter of me and my brother. I’d go back to his house and there’d be movie posters. He bought my brother his first piano, [Aaron Embry is a popular musician], so he was a really supportive, good man, but he didn’t have any sons. So the Embry name died. So I took it on. At first, it was a middle finger from afar, but I don’t feel the need to do that anymore, which is good.

When you were a young star, and young stars are able to run around town and have a lot of fun, you decided to settle down and get married and have a kid? How old were you?
My son was born when I was 21.

That’s amazing to me. Do you feel like that affected your career at all?
Yeah, for sure. It probably saved my life. Yes, definitely. It also, for the first time, made me realize this is a job. I have a career and I actually need to support myself. It was the beginning of responsibility for myself. I had responsibilities when I was younger. I helped support my mom and my brothers and my sisters, but when my son came along, that was really the first time that I actually wanted to. And I really didn’t have a choice. Before I had a choice. And when my son came, there was no choice. The choice was done. Not just to support him and be there for him, but to be a good dad. Sometimes I’m a horrible husband, but I will do my fucking best to be a good dad. He’s a good kid, too. I can’t believe he’s 15-and-a-half!

Just a couple more fun movie-related questions. First… how much would you cut your pinky off for?
It’s interesting! It depends on where a person is at. At that point in the movie, when I actually shot that scene, I was in a real tough place. I’d consider it. The crazier question, I think, is how much would it take to kill someone you have no fucking respect for and actually think is a stain on existence? How much would it cost to take that life? And depending on where you’re at, and how deep of a stain that person is to you… that’s the question! I think about that. Depending on who that person was…

I think we all have those thoughts. Next… have you ever shoplifted? If so, what was it and from where?
Yes. Typical candy stuff. I’ve stolen CDs. At that period in time, it was probably Soundgarden. But I never got the thrill of it. A buddy of mine, totally respectable normal adult, has a job, couple years back got arrested for stealing from fucking Nordstrom’s. And he could afford it! It was about the thrill of it. I just never got it, thank God!

Do you ever check into hotels under the name Nick Papagiorgio?
Only when I’m in Vegas. I’ve been known to get an entire floor in Vegas.

If there was a terrible accident and you could only save one — Harold or Kumar — who would it be?
I could only save one? I still haven’t seen that movie! I’ve gotta watch that movie, so I can’t base it on that. I like the dude [John Cho] who went on to do Star Trek. Harold, right? He’s a good actor!

Is it hard being patient in this business and waiting for the right thing to come along? Do you ever get restless?
Yeah, constantly. I don’t know what my next gig is right now. I’m waiting to hear if we’re doing another “Grace and Frankie” and even if I’m invited to do another season with them. That to me is one of the hardest parts of the business — not knowing where the next paycheck is or how fulfilling the next one will be when it does come around. Yeah, you always get restless. I’ve found that through music, I can calm that restlessness down. I play guitar and bass. I used to have a band but now I write with Sunny [Mabrey]. We have an easy album we could put together. We’re divorced right now but I’m re-engaged to Sunny.

If they remade “Empire Records” today, who you cast as Mark, or any of the characters for that matter.
That age is tough because he’s 16 and I don’t know a lot of the kids that age. But if you asked me five or six years ago? Michael Cera. There have been many times I’ve sat back and thought that he would make an interesting Mark.