Those who know Ethan Embry as the adorably goofy Mark in Empire Records, and the lovelorn Preston Meyers in Can t Hardly Wait, may not immediately recognize the ’90s heartthrob in his latest role.
In Cheap Thrills, a new father facing eviction (Pat Healy) runs into a ne’er-do-well old pal (Embry) at a local watering hole. A wealthy couple at the bar engages the pair in a series of dares in exchange for cash, and the challenges become increasingly disturbing.
PEOPLE caught up with Embry, 35, to discuss the dark comedy and reminisce about the actor’s beloved teen flicks.
What drew you to Cheap Thrills?
The film is based on the social and financial struggles that 99 percent of the American population deals with right now. The struggle of making ends meet is something that I can identify with. When I read this script, I was actually living in my car and it had been a tough year.
I’ve been trying to find characters that I personally can identify with more. In my younger years, I was doing jobs for the fun of it, and there wasn t a lot of creative fulfillment. It was fun to pretend I was in a 1960s rock band [That Thing You Do!]. It was fun to work in a record store. It was a lot of fun to make out with Jennifer Love Hewitt. And now I want to do things that better represent who I actually am.
How do you explain the movie to people?
It’s tough to describe what genre it would be in. You watch it with an audience, and half the time they’re laughing hysterically, and then at other points, they’re sitting on the edge of their seat with their mouths wide open. So I guess I would describe it as the darkest comedy that you’ll ever see.
What’s the craziest dare you’ve ever done in real life?
I don’t think I’ve been dared to do a lot of things, because it doesn’t usually take a dare for me to do it. Usually anything that someone would dare me to do, I’ve already done on my own.
Which of all your characters are you most like?
It’s a very cliché thing to say, but I think there’s a large part of me in every single one. When I was younger and doing Empire Records, I really was that crazy. And then when I was shooting Brotherhood, I was playing this dirty cop. I weighed 240 pounds, I was riding motorcycles with the Hells Angels and I was living an underbelly life for five years. I actually think there’s a lot of me in Vince, too – my character from Cheap Thrills.
You recently Tweeted a “Which Empire Records Character Are You?” quiz. Did you actually take the quiz?
I did and, of course, it was predictable. I was Mark.
You didn’t get Rex Manning?
No, thank God.
You also Tweeted a photo of some of your Empire Records costars last summer. Who do you keep in touch with most out of the cast?
I see Johnny [Johnny Whitworth] a lot, actually, and I see Brendan Sexton, who played Warren. I see them probably on a weekly basis. And they’re both real good guys. Really, the only people I haven’t spoken to at all are the girls.
What’s your favorite song from the Empire Records soundtrack?
I’m a huge Gwar fan. And I’m in the middle of hunting down the vinyl of the soundtrack. I only watched the movie for the first time when I Tweeted that picture. That was the first time I sat and watched that movie. You probably know more about it than I do.
What was really in those brownies in the Gwar scene?
Those were pot brownies. That was the last day of shooting and it was the last scene that I was in, so of course they were pot brownies!
Where would Mark be today?
Probably in prison, or working at Spotify.
Where would Preston from Can t Hardly Wait be?
I think that he probably would’ve taken the route of becoming a reclusive alcoholic in the hills of Connecticut, chasing his Django Reinhardt/Kurt Vonnegut to the bottom of a barrel, wondering why things never worked with Amanda.
Would you do a Can’t Hardly Wait sequel?
I doubt that would ever happen, but the first time I sat and watched that movie was on New Year’s Eve. They took it off of Netflix and so I did a Tweet-along. It’s not that bad – it’s all right.
You asked fans to Tweet along using the hashtag #BarryManilow. If you were calling Barry Manilow from a payphone now, what would you ask him?
I d probably ask him for a Vegas hookup. He’s pretty much there all the time, isn’t he?
Any epic party stories from your teens?
I started working when I was 10 years old and I was always home-schooled, so the “parties” that were filmed were the biggest parties that I had ever attended. And they lasted for six weeks because we were making a movie. I never went to a prom or anything like that. Playing onstage in That Thing You Do!, doing the party scenes, that was my social environment at that age.
What’s your craziest fan story?
I’ve always been really pleased with the interaction that I get from people that have followed my career, because I’ve always played the underdog or sort of geeky in a sense, so I’ve always had the alternative crowd as my fan base. And they’ve been nothing but really supportive and really sweet. The most annoying subset of fans are the jocks who call out “Mr. Papagiorgio” when they see me.
What do you miss most about the ’90s?
The music was really great. And I think the sense that you actually had to search something out as opposed to having it shoved down your face. Everything now is so immediate. If you wanted to go to a Fugazi show, you had to search out where they were, and when. Nowadays, it’s just all right there. And it seems to lack the dedication that it had back then.
You were in Dutch with Ed O Neill back in 1991. Do you watch him on Modern Family?
We actually ended up doing a TV show again together in the early 2000s. I’ve always looked at him as my role model of how you act on a set and how you treat what I do for a living. And in a sense, he’s a father figure and always has been. But I don’t have a TV, so I don’t watch the show.
Cheap Thrills is now available on VOD and hits theaters March 21.
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