Twenty years ago, Empire Records was a bit of a flop. It suffered in the box office, it was panned by critics, and it came and went in theaters with little-to-no impact. But cult popularity is very rarely predicted, and Empire Records found new life from VHS sales. Today, Empire Records—a movie about a bunch of teens who work at a record store—has a massive fanbase, finally getting the appreciation it deserves for its time-capsule soundtrack, its wonderful cast (Liv Tyler, Renée Zellweger, Ethan Embry, etc.) and their iconic '90s outfits—still a go-to choice for cool Halloween costumes. Even the film's fictional Rex Manning Day (April 8) is celebrated by fans every year.
For the film's 20-year anniversary, Complex caught up with Ethan Embry, who portrayed the adorable (and not that bright) Mark at the tender age of 15. He talks crushing on his castmates, being crazy on set, wearing women's slips, listening to rock and roll, and partying at director Allan Moyle's high on psychedelics in a dog costume. The actor, now 37, also keeps us up to date on his more recent projects, and the dark transition he's taken from his happy-go-lucky goofball days.
Empire Records turns 20 on October 20. Did you realize it was going to be this huge classic?
Oh, no. I think that’s the thing about cult classics—they happen with absolutely no prediction from anyone. They take on a life of their own. It didn’t make any money opening weekend. I thought that that was the end of it. And then people started passing around the VHS. Like, the life of the dollar bin.
Now it’s become the go-to movie I watch every summer.
I love that.
Mark has always been my favorite. I feel like anytime you’re in the frame you’re always doing something goofy and it’s something that you catch from multiple views. Like, you’re making a facial expression or you’re doing a somersault across the store or something. Were any of those things improvised?
I think that they all were. I want to go back and see if I can find the shooting script that we had. But I think it was all just Ethan being an absolutely insane teenager.
And you actually were a teenager when you shot this, right?
Yeah, I was 15. I think it was just me experiencing an infusion of different hormones.
I know you had a huge crush on Liv Tyler while filming this...
Who didn’t? Get in line. Both of them, all three of them, Liv and Reneé and Robin [Tunney], yeah. They were the coolest girls in the world.
Yeah, they are. I was like a freshman hanging out with senior girls. I felt like a stud.
Can we talk about your hair for a sec?
Yeah, you like that? I cut those bangs myself.
You’re one of the rare people who can rock baby bangs.
Baby bangs, man. That's right.
Where’s that outfit now? Do you have that outfit also?
That Chainsaw Kittens shirt? It’s got to be floating around somewhere. I remember the necklace was just a chain from Home Depot. But it didn’t have a padlock on it, right? There’s no padlock, is there?
No, I don’t think so.
Yeah, I think I just took the chain and bent open one of the kinks and then put it on and squeezed it closed with pliers. And are those Pumas that I’m sporting? They’re like yellow Pumas, right?
Yeah, gray, baggy corduroys and yellow Pumas.
Did you dress yourself?
No, They put it together. I was more of a hippie. I was this weird cross of punk rock and hippie when I was that age. I would wear slips a lot—yeah, like women’s slips. That was my favorite. You go to the thrift store and there’s a rack of vintage silk slips, like a silk blend with spaghetti straps. It’s loose and flowy, and you rock a pair of combat boots, you know?
Wow. What were you actually listening to then?
Let’s see. Pixies, of course. Primus. Tool. Of course Nirvana. Soundgarden, Rage Against the Machine. I did like some Hüsker Dü. Fugazi was on loop. Fugazi is still the one that sticks around with me.
Was there any music that you took away from the film? I became a huge The The fan after this movie.
Yeah, The The is great. What else? You’ve got the Gin Blossoms, come on.
I love that song that you put on and you sing along to.
Who is that?
Queen Sarah Saturday.
What’s your fondest memory from filming the movie?
It’s really just an all encompassing, lovely experience to me. If I think about my favorite moments, most of them include Allan [Moyle], the director. I think one of the reasons why it is what it is now is because he let us kids be kids.
Do you guys keep in touch? I know you had a reunion a couple years ago.
Yeah, all the guys got together and saw it. The only people that I haven’t talked to much at all are Renée and Liv, by no fault other than the communication hasn’t been tied together. But yeah, I speak to Brendan [Sexton III] pretty regularly and Johnny [Whitworth] and I are really close. There’s still a lot of love and room for everybody. I saw Robin. Her fiancé is a friend of mine from 10 or 15 years ago. She always ends up with the coolest dudes. Because she’s cool, man.
Would you say your character was a lot like you yourself back then?
I was crazy. He was turned up, of course. There was that period of time where I just let my ADD go. I don’t know, I definitely have a mix of personalities at any given moment. I would hope I wasn’t that insane. The other thing about Mark, he’s not the smartest dude in the world. He’s kind of stupid.
He is the embodiment of "ignorance is bliss." If there was a personality to go with that saying, it would be him.
How did Gwar get in the movie?
They were playing in town. That’s one of the things that I loved about Allan. If we came to him with an idea he was so willing to explore it. We came to him with the idea that Gwar was in town and how rad it would be if we worked them into the movie in some way. He came up with this: Mark eats some brownies that throw him into a psychedelic fantasy. We filmed at the Gwar show. He was game. He gave me a camera operator and a camera and said, “Yeah, go do it!” And it ended up in the movie.
What was the energy like off-set? Do you have any funny stories you can share?
They rented us these houses on the coast, right there in Wilmington, North Carolina. And we basically had eight houses right on the beach. So every Friday night after the week of shooting, there’d be a big party at Allan’s house. It would always be a costume party and we’d get dinner and just sit on his porch, playing music and hanging out. Me and Brendan, we tried to dig a tunnel to China. I’m sure there were psychedelics involved.
What did you guys dress up as for those parties?
I think I went as a dog once. There was a big book of photos that I took from the shoot. They’re somewhere. There’s one of me and Johnny and Liv in a bed, full drag, like she obviously had done our make up and we’re just laying there, Johnny and I. That’s probably the best shot that I have.
I’m seeing a lot of you lately. You were actually in my favorite movie of last year, The Guest. I didn’t expect your cameo at all and then there you were.
The guys who made that, producer Keith Calder is a really smart genre filmmakers. And [director] Adam Wingard, great dude. Keith and Jess Calder cast me in their next movie, which is doing the festival circuit right now: The Devil’s Candy.
I’m dying to see that.
It’s going to be so heavy. It’s very different than The Guest. The Guest has this tongue-in-cheek nod to the ‘80s thrillers. It’s a very dark comedy. And then Devil’s Candy is more a nod to the ‘70s horror/thrillers, like The Shining and The Omen. It’s not comedic, it’s pretty heavy metal, man. If Mark could be in a movie when he was an adult, that’s how metal The Devil’s Candy is. It’s all metal, all the time.
So it’s perfect for you. I feel like you used to be in a lot of goofy character comedies, but now I’m seeing you in a lot more horror, thriller-type things. You were on The Walking Dead this season. Were you a big watcher of that show?
I’ve been trying to get on that for a long time. I think what they’re doing, nobody is doing TV like that. I think that’s why it’s so popular, because it breaks so many molds. It’s such a big risk that’s paying off so well. They called me up with this role of Carter and I jumped at it. I like doing these heavier, darker pieces. I had a little PTSD from The Devil’s Candy. There was a long comedown from it.
Have your projects always influenced your mood?
Yeah, totally. When I was doing Brotherhood, I was in a dark place. I was a little emotionally strung out when I was doing Devil’s Candy. When I was doing Cheap Thrills, I was not the dude you wanted to run into at night. I take them home, definitely.
Does that mean you’ll be seeking lighter projects in the future?
I personally prefer the heavier. I want to find my American History X. I’d love that.
I'm drawn to dark films, too.
That's what I’m going for as an actor and filmmaker. We want to trigger emotions in our audience and the emotions of fear and suspense are such powerful feelings. If I can make your heart race while you’re just sitting in your living room or theater and if I can scare the shit out of you, I have manipulated one of the most powerful human emotions out of you. Success! Score! I think it’s kind of fucked up that that’s what I love doing. When 300 people jump in their seats, I’m filled with joy.
That’s not concerning at all!
What’s wrong with me? So psychopathic.