Ethan Embry is having the kind of year every actor dreams of.
In May, Grace and Frankie, on which he plays the lovable but lost recovering addict Coyote Bergstein, made its debut with a splash on Netflix. Less than three weeks after it began streaming, the show — which stars Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin (as Coyote’s mom) — was renewed for a second season.
July reunited Embry with his Can’t Hardly Wait co-stars at a sold-out screening of the beloved 1998 comedy and saw the launch of a nationwide Infiniti commercial that had Embry riffing on his role as Rusty Griswold in National Lampoon's Vacation series.
Then September marked the 20th anniversary of cult classic Empire Records, an Embry movie that flopped at the box office in 1995 but has grown to earn the adoration of a generation, and the Toronto Film Festival premiere of the actor’s upcoming drama, The Devil’s Candy.
And October brought Embry onto the Season 6 premiere of his favorite television show, AMC’s The Walking Dead, where he played Carter, an Alexandria resident who tried, and spectacularly failed, to usurp Rick’s (Andrew Lincoln) power before — spoiler alert! — getting devoured by a zombie.
“It was the best! The best! The best!” an incredibly enthusiastic Embry told BuzzFeed News at Hugo’s in West Hollywood of his one-and-done role. “As a fan of the show, I got to do all of the things you would want to do: I tried to kill Rick and I got eaten by a zombie! I feel like I won a sweepstakes.”
It’s a particularly triumphant moment for Embry, who’s been working hard — both professionally and personally — over the last five years to recalibrate his career and get sober.
“I was never late for work, I never couldn't work, I've never been arrested — I don't know how that never happened — but I have never directly harmed anyone else with my disease, but I'm sure that who it was turning me into might have made it harder to work with me,” Embry said of his addiction. “When you lose sight of how good you have it and you become greedy and want something different, you lose what's already been given to you. I think that's a common action in people that drink too much. You get really selfish. I couldn’t tell you if the timing of me making changes and working more is related, but it would be silly if I didn't think that had something to do with it.”
Embry’s choice to refocus his life was precipitated by a lot of factors but none more important than his son, Cogeian. “[He was a] major part of my decision to stop because … there's only a few ways out of drugs and alcohol: You're going to die or end up in jail and with either one of them, I’m not around for [him],” said Embry, who had woken up that morning at 5 a.m. to take the 15-year-old to baseball practice. “I had fooled myself for thinking I was there for him, but not as well as I could be.”
Embry paused and smiled before adding, “He's a good dude. He's a really good kid.”
While Embry was working on himself, he also spent a lot of time thinking about his career, which began in earnest with a trio of 1991 feature films: Defending Your Life, Dutch, and All I Want For Christmas. “My mom noticed that I had that entertainer's gift,” the California native said of entering show business. “She noticed that whenever there was a costume around and I was in it, I was gone. One of her biggest successes as a mother was recognizing her kids' talents and wanting to do whatever she could to make sure we had a way to express those.”
Over the course of the next decade, Embry went on to star in some of the most beloved films of the late ‘90s: A Far Off Place with Reese Witherspoon in 1993, Empire Records in 1995, White Squall and That Thing You Do! in 1996, Vegas Vacation in 1997, and Can’t Hardly Wait and Disturbing Behavior in 1998.
While his projects spanned genres and had him taking on a wide array of roles, each shared a single regrettable element: None of them made very much money. “I’m a low-risk, high-reward investment,” Embry joked of how many of his movies took years to find the right audience. “Empire Records made $300,000 at the box office — never got a real release, and now, after 20 years ... it's easily surpassed what they wished it was back then. That Thing You Do! wasn't a huge box office success and in That Thing You Do!, I wasn't the lead. I'm a character actor and very occasionally a filmmaker will want a character actor to carry their film. Can't Hardly Wait was one of those. I had to fight for them to let me be the leading man of that movie, but even then, when Can't Hardly Wait opened, I think we came in eighth for the weekend. It wasn't really successful. It was another one of those slow burns.”
Embry became a relatively recognizable face within Hollywood’s highly coveted 18 to 24 demographic, but because none of his movies set the box office on fire or came close, he wasn’t given the chance to star in projects that could take him to the next level. “Throughout my whole career, I really haven't made that much money,” Embry said, leaning back in his chair. “There hasn't been the opportunity for the quote-unquote money gig — but you have to make choices that will help you survive. There was still rent to be paid and I'm a dad. I had to feed and provide for my kid. There really hasn't been choices other than, 'There's nothing else coming. This is how much I have financially right now and I can make something out of this [role], so let's do it.'”
And part of Embry’s struggle to get more grown-up roles was the angelic face that served him so well when he was being cast in teen-focused films. “Having started really young, you have to constantly reinvent — more so than if you start as an adult,” the now 37-year-old actor said. “There's transitional phases and the hardest one is young adult to adult and actually showing that you’re capable of artistically competing with your peers. That transition was a hard one for me that I've been working on for a while.”
That endeavor hit pay dirt in 2006 with Showtime’s Brotherhood. For three seasons, Embry played morally questionable Officer Declan Giggs in the gritty mob drama. The role allowed him to showcase his capabilities as an actor, an opportunity he’d been chasing for as long as he can remember. “I have a rougher side to me than the characters I played in the ‘90s,” Embry said. “It's not so much that I want to show that, it's more that I know those characters are possible for me to portray, so it felt like this unexplored avenue, you know?”
But after the show came to an end in 2008, Embry found himself in familiar territory: doing guest roles on a smattering of TV shows and starring in films that failed to break through. With his mind newly recalibrated, he set out to make his body look as good as it felt. “I've started taking care of myself as opposed to seeing how much I could beat myself up,” Embry said, joking about being “that guy” who does — and talks about — Crossfit now. “Once you value yourself, I think people around you value what you have to offer more as well.”
And they did. In 2014, the script for Grace and Frankie came Embry’s way and it felt as if fate had intervened. The project was created by one of Hollywood’s most accomplished writers (Friends co-creator Marta Kauffman), starred four of the industry’s most acclaimed actors (Fonda, Tomlin, Martin Sheen, Sam Waterston), would be released on the year’s hottest platform (Netflix), and offered Embry an uncanny opportunity to put his personal experience with addiction to good use and — hopefully — make a difference in doing so.
“I guess you could say that I've done research on addiction for the 20 years before we shot Grace and Frankie,” Embry said of preparing to play Coyote. “One of the things I love about Grace and Frankie is that Jane wants it to touch on very important social issues. That's incredibly important to her and it’s important to me, not only because of my personal history, but I lost a lot of friends. A lot of friends should still be here entertaining us. I know it's hard to find the comedy in a situation like addiction, it's a hard thing to turn into a joke, but the amount of people that die from drugs and alcoholism in this country every year is obscene.”
The series’ second season — which is currently filming — will continue to explore Coyote’s addiction, but will also use the first season's 13 episodes as an entry point to explore other facets of the character, like the fact he was adopted. “He just wants to be loved,” Embry said. “Even with all the love his mom and dad gave him, I don't think he truly found himself when he was young. He still felt adrift and I think he probably anchored himself with drugs and alcohol and never felt completely confident in himself. In the second season, there's a few storylines where he's trying to find who he is, like by searching for his birth mom.”
While Embry will continue to play a character who is searching for answers as he enters the final months of one of the biggest years of his life, the actor himself has found peace offscreen and is looking forward to what’s next.
“There are a few directors I'd freak out to work with, I'd love to produce, and I'd love to make my own projects, but I just want to continue to be invited and find avenues for making film, making television, putting together pictures with sound, you know?” Embry enthused with the same unbridled energy he had discussing The Walking Dead. “Right now, I'm very happy where everything is. It's very rare that life, love, financial, [and] creative fulfillment fire at the same time. And I've got it all going right now.”