Ethan Embry walked into the Inked offices looking like a man who was recovering from a very good time the night before; his voice was hoarse, he had that faraway stare one gets when their night's sleep is measured in minutes instead of hours and he seemed to be particularly concerned with an injury on his hand. Considering that the 20th anniversary party for Empire Records had wrapped less than 12 hours prior none of this was surprising. When you throw in the detail that Embry had come up close and personal with some of the world’s most fearsome creatures/metal bands, GWAR and the infamous World Maggot, at the party it’s a miracle he made it through our door.
“Last night I came out of the World Maggot!” Embry exclaims with glee. “I ended up with a metal splinter in my hand that I know is going to turn gangrenous. [The World Maggot] is not built to crawl out of. They don’t want those chicks that they feed to it to be able to get out, that’s the whole point.”
It’s hard to believe that it’s been two decades since a fresh faced 15-year-old Embry came to prominence by playing the loveable stoner Marc in Empire Records. By looking at him you would have guessed that it had been 10 years, tops. Sure, he’s pruned his mop of hair down a bit and grown a bit of stubble but that same boyish enthusiasm emanates from him at all times. The most notable way you can see the passage of time is by looking at his skin—it is now covered with tattoos.
Embry’s love affair with ink started around the same time that Empire Records came out and one has to say that the film has aged far better than that first tattoo.
“I’ve got some great [tattoos] and some shitty ones,” Embry laughs. “Like this Chinese character on my wrist. Why the fuck do I have a Chinese character on my wrist? Because it was the early nineties and I was 15.”
Living in Los Angeles can definitely be a two-sided sword when it comes to tattooing. On the one hand, the city’s culture can make one particularly susceptible to regrettable tattoo trends. But on the other there is an amazing tattoo culture in Southern California that can influence your choices in a positive way. Luckily for Embry he found Mark Mahoney and the Shamrock Social Club, so that Chinese character that means “hope or honesty or something horrible” is one of the few to fall into that first category.
That Southern California influence can be seen throughout Embry’s tattoos, the bulk of them are black-and-grey. As he puts it, “most of my tattoos look like they were made out of toothpaste and cigarette ash.” The only exception is a massive American Traditional style chest piece that he had done while in Rhode Island filming for a TV show.
“It’s all traditional—it’s got American flags, guns and shit,” Embry says. “That’s the only one I have that’s color and the artist had to talk me into it. Mind you, this was after the outline was on me. I’m OK with it.”
The exact number of tattoos that Embry has gotten from Danny Romo and Mahoney at Shamrock keeps going up as the conversation continues, but one tattoo experience sticks in Embry’s memory more than any other.
“Remember when you would take a piece of construction paper and draw on it with white crayon before covering it in black ink?” Embry asked as he put his almost entirely blacked out shin on to the table. “My son did a drawing of me like that. While it was being done they had to send the apprentice back to get more ink more than a couple of times. ‘We need more black!’”
The complexity involved in the tattoos that Embry has gotten as he moved from basic flash off the wall to custom black-and-grey done by some of the world’s best artists mirrors the roles that he has taken as an actor. While some of his early roles were somewhat one-dimensional as he has matured the roles have become more nuanced, particularly his most recent turn in Netflix’s Grace and Frankie.
The new comedy boasts a cast featuring some true heavyweights in the industry—Jane Fonda, Lilly Tomlin, Sam Waterston and Martin Sheen. The series is based around how after being married to their wives for decades Waterston and Sheen’s characters come out as lovers and the repercussions this decision has upon their families. Embry is playing the role of Coyote, the son of Waterston and Tomlin.
“When the show starts I’m just coming out of rehab, probably for the hundredth time,” Embry explains. “And this is just a big shock to me. I’m coming back and trying to get my life back together and now everything that was comfortable is just falling apart.”
On the surface it doesn’t sound like a comedy, there are a lot of serious issues on the table throughout the series, but Embry compares the show to MASH. The idea is that the viewer will be so busy laughing at characters they have come to love that they won’t be pulled down by the gravity of some pretty serious scenarios.
“People come into it expecting it to be Nine to Five and when you realize that it’s not slapstick and that it’s real it takes a minute to get used to,” Embry says. “At table readings I as either rolling on the floor laughing, completely embarrassing myself, or getting really touched. There are some really, really emotional parts in there.”
As an actor Embry relishes the opportunity to be part of a series such as Grace and Frankie as it takes a more involved approach than acting in a film does. When acting in a film the actor already knows his entire story arc—the beginning, middle and end—where as in a series the future is far more hazy.
“You have to be OK with always figuring things out,” Embry says. “When you are in it you only know where [your character] is at in the moment. You know who you are now, but you don’t know who you will become. It’s a strange way to live, let me tell you.”
The most damning, and also invigorating, part of the process is that the actor has no control over where the character is going to go in the future. Sure, the actor can play things a certain way, but it is the writers who ultimately decide the fate of a character. Giving up this control is a key part of the job, and for a tattooed actor part of not having control often means covering your tattoos.
Once the ink has been placed in the skin the majority of people never see themselves any other way for the rest of their lives. Yet an actor has to routinely have their tattoos covered up with makeup or have other tattoos placed on to their skin. Given the personal attachment most people have to their ink—the tattoo of Embry’s son’s drawing is a prime example—one would think that it may be unsettling to be forced to “remove” the ink for a role. For an actor who puts his all into the role, as Embry does, the process of covering the ink can actually serve a useful purpose as well as an aesthetic one.
“When you are on the job you are giving up so many parts of you that are yourself anyway,” Embry says. “When I’m on the job I always lose a part of myself because I’m not being me. I can become someone else for an extended period of time but when I wash everything off and see my tattoos I am myself. This is me.”
Season 1 of Grace and Frankie is currently available for streaming at Netflix.