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 until they wind up pitted against each other in a gory, cutthroat competition.
With Cheap Thrills currently available via On Demand and expanding to more theaters this weekend, Embry took the time to discuss what prompted that transformation, how that scored him the part, and more.
Fandango: Will you tell us about how you were cast in Cheap Thrills?
Ethan Embry: At the time, it had been a very tough year financially for me. 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. It’s funny, when I’m walking around right now talking to you, I still feel like a teenage boy, like the scrawny little kid from Empire Records.
Fandango: It’s funny you say that because 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 huge! And he’s really an imposing and violent character in it too, so [the producer] had seen that and tied me into Vince. He said if they had cast me as the everyman’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]
Fandango: 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."
Fandango: Was there a point when you deliberately started going after these tougher types of roles?
Embry: It’s not necessarily that it’s the tougher guy that attracts me. It’s substantial films, you know? 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.
For [Cheap Thrills] 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.
Fandango: Speaking of 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.
Fandango: 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 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.
Fandango: 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. 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 last through this!"
Fandango: How do you feel about your past work today?
Embry: Just last year 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 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.
Fandango: Is there something that changed in you personally over the years that affected your choices in roles?
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 Leaguers, 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.
Check out the trailer for Cheap Thrills, and buy tickets here.