With over four decades of work under his belt as a character, Ethan Phillips has created one of the most unique resumes in Hollywood. Originally hailing from Long Island, New York, Phillips caught the acting bug early in life. He cut his teeth as a young actor in roles both on and off-Broadway where he poured his heart and soul into every role he took on. His hard work and dedication to his craft paid off in spades as his work began to capture the attention of casting directors in The Big Apple. It wasn’t long before he made the jump to television, In 1980, Phillips joined the cast of the hit sitcom “Benson” (1979–1986), playing Pete Downey, PR man to Governor Gatling. In 1990 he began his prolific Star Trek career playing the Ferengi character, Dr. Farek, in the “Ménage à Troi” episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” He went on to play Neelix on “Star Trek: Voyager” in 1995, and stayed with the series through its entire seven-season run. The role quickly earned him the adoration of “Star Trek” fans around the globe.
As years go by, Ethan Phillips continues to take on roles that intrigue him and isn’t afraid to take chances with projects that might even seem quite peculiar to others. His latest outing, director Jamie Greenberg’s “Future ’38,” is the perfect example. Shot in fabulous 1938 “Spect-a-color,” an American agent travels through time to hamstring Hitler! Transported to the year 2018, he finds a strange world of silvery sky~scrapers, connected computers, and – GASP! – working women! He hoodwinks hoodlums, infuriates the Fuhrer, and goes gaga for a gal 80 years his junior! To save civilization he must leave his love behind… WHAT’LL HE CHOOSE?
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Ethan Phillips to discuss his journey as an actor, his career defining roles, his latest work in Jamie Greenberg’s “Future ’38″ and what the future may hold for him in the years to come!
Through the years, you’ve become a familiar face in film and television. When did you catch the acting bug?
When I was a kid, I was always fascinated that these people I was seeing on TV, in the movies and on stage were being paid! As a little boy, I used to go to a lot of theatre because my dad had a restaurant in New York City. My sisters and I used to go to Broadway and I thought it was so cool that this is how they made their living! I guess that kind of stuck with me! When I got around to college, I was majoring in English and Latin, I wanted to be a teacher but my girlfriend convinced me to audition for some play. That’s when I got the bug! I was in my early 20s and I started looking around at people who were doing it professionally and I thought I could do it as well as them, plus I really enjoyed it. To be honest, other than translating Latin, I didn’t have a whole lot of skills! [laughs] I thought I would give it a shot and I had some luck! I certainly had endurance and I believe I had some talent but you have to have that third element of luck or nothing is going to happen for you. That can be tough for people sometimes but I was lucky. I was in the right place at the right time, a lot of the time!
What are the keys to longevity when it comes to a career in the arts?
You have to have good representation, people who believe in you. Again, I come back to luck. I started out in New York in the mid-’70s. The way to go then was to spend all your time doing stage work. You would do as many plays as you could get in because that’s where the people who made the money decisions went to look for talent. You might be in some crumby play in some crumby theater way over on the east side of New York but you never knew who would be there and you’d never know who you’d meet who might. Those people might go on to become somebody and tag you along because you got along well and they respected you. It’s just a combination of staying busy and focusing on the craft. I’ve always thought that a night on stage was worth about 50 classes because you really learn up there how to do your own editing, close-ups and everything else. The stage taught me how to act. I just had the chops from doing a lot of that and I got some decent jobs. I met people along the way who led me to some stuff that got some notoriety and some attention. Then it comes back to getting the right auditions because the right people believed in me. There is no true and fast way to do it but I think you are born with this urge to behave privately in public. That’s how I put it. You just have a need to do it, so you never let anything get in your way. If you have a little luck, you never know, you might make it!
What projects, you were involved with early on, had the biggest impact?
I went to Cornell for a Masters of Fine Arts and Acting when I got out of college and I got to do a lot of classics there, particularly Shakespeare. Shakespeare taught me about how to drive a line so the idea of the line gets to the audience. Just by honoring his text, you learn how to drive through to the end of a sentence and send that idea to the people who are watching. That has paid off a lot in stage work. When I got to New York, I tried to use that for every audition. I got a play in 1980 called “Modigliani” that was a big hit. I had done the show off-off-Broadway. It was a really great role with a lot of chances to show off. It became a big hit off-Broadway and a casting director saw it. They went on to put me on a TV show called “Benson.” Then I had enough money to sit out some of the dry spells and wait for other things to come along. “Modigliani” really put me on the map, well, not particularly on the map anywhere … [laughs] If you do find Waldo and me along with him, you can say, “Oh, well that play helped a lot!” [laughs]
What are your biggest creative milestones along the way?
I did a production of “Comedy of Errors” at a beautiful theater called The McCarter Theatre in Princeton. That was in the late ‘70s and my dad came to see it. My dad was not very sure about me doing this for a living. He saw that and came backstage afterwards and told me that he believed I had it, that I knew what I was doing and he was going to support what I was doing. That was a massive event to have his support and belief in me. My mom was always for it. I have many sisters and they were always, “Let’s go, let’s go! You’re going to do it!” My father was born of the Depression and he had worries of financial insecurity and wanted to make sure I was going to be OK. When he saw me in that play, he told me, “I know you’ve got it! Go for it!” It was really a really important moment because everyone needs a pat on the back.
You played a diverse array of characters. Tell us about your creative process and bringing a character to life.
I always wish I had a little director in my head saying, “I don’t believe you,” after everything I do. If I did, I would keep doing it until he shuts up! [laughs] Jodie Foster was asked this once and she had the best answer. They asked her where she studied and she said, “I never studied. I always thought acting was pretending really, really well.” I always thought that was a great answer because it is pretending but it has to be coupled with that urge or need to pretend — whether it’s neurotic, artistic or whatever, you just want to do it! You don’t want to get caught acting! I was reading an interview with Michael Sheen, who played Frost in “Frost/Nixon.” He said, “I’m never acting. I’m always playing myself because if I don’t, then I’m acting and I don’t want to be caught acting.” I learned over and over again to just bring the personal to it and use as much of yourself as you can. It’s kind of a relaxed revelation of who you are through whatever the writer has written and whatever situation they have given you. You just try to respond to that and see what it brings up in you emotionally and physically. From there, you just lay it out in a way that can be good for whatever the story is that’s being told. That’s all I try to do.
It was a very funny script. For your readers, I’m quoting a synopsis I read that I think hits the nail on the head — “Everybody’s on the brink of World War II and a young guy named Essex, who’s played by the wonderful Nick Westrate, is hired by the U.S. Government on a secret mission to take down the Nazis.” The plan is to travel into the future and he does it via a time machine composed of two industrial fans and a mixing bowl! [laughs] He has to recover this isotope that, when it matures 80 years from now in 2018, it would become like the atomic bomb. Basically, the concept is that there are a bunch of filmmakers in 1938 who want to make a film about the future. They place it in 2018 and when 2018 comes, the film that was made in 1938 is discovered and that’s the introduction. The wackiness of it, the puns and jokes were so inventive that it immediately caught my attention. The character he wanted me to play was such a character from the 1930s, one of those boring scientists! I thought it would be a lot of fun! My agent said, “The director would like to meet with you.” We got together and talked about some possible roles and then I didn’t hear anything for a few months. Finally, they called me and I was free, so I was really happy to do it! How he got everything he did on the amount of money that he had is extraordinary! I’ve worked on some big budget films but this guy got the essence across on not a lot of money. I don’t know what the budget was but I know that when I was paid, I went to the bank and the teller asked me, “How do you want it? Heads or tails?” [laughs] That’s how small my pay was for it! He just nailed the look and feel of those films from the ‘30s, the whole screwball mystique and wrapped it up in all of these vibrant pastels and goofy colors that are totally off the hook! It’s, visually, a joy to watch!
I watched “Future ’38” last night and you’re right, it jumps off the screen visually. The screwball aspect and the jokes suck you in!
That’s great to hear! When I went to the screening, people got a huge kick out of it. Neil deGrasse Tyson was at the screening and, for those who don’t know, he is the person who introduces the film. I got to have a picture taken with him, which I thought was really cool. He said, “This is finally a movie that gets the science right!” It’s like they cracked the code of correctly dramatizing temporal and spatial displacement, which “Star Trek” did an awful lot. It’s like anything that uses time travel. If it’s a great story, and I’m thinking of a novel I read called “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” if it’s done well, you accept it and get into the story. That’s what Jamie did! It’s such a cool story that there may be some physics that might be a little askew but you don’t get bogged down in that. You just go on the ride, ya know?
Absolutely! As you said, you have significant roots in the sci-fi world with your work within the “Star Trek” universe. How did you get involved and has it been like being a part of that legendary franchise through the years?
It started out with an audition in New York for a casting director. They taped me and sent it to the people in Los Angeles, who liked what they saw. I think I was coming in toward the very end of the process. I think they had seen every character actor in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles by the time I got onboard with the audition. I think they were just exhausted and said, “Give it to him! I can’t look anymore!” [laughs] I don’t know if that’s true or not! There was a lot of makeup, probably five hours a day between getting it on, taking it off and keeping it up to par in the studio each day. Prosthetically, it was a difficult job but it was so much fun! I thought the character was really well written and it was great to work for seven years in a row and know you had a place to go! Any actor would love some consistency like that! I know I certainly appreciated it! The world of “Star Trek” is amazing. They are the most dedicated fans you can find anywhere. They are truly fanatics! The thing that they all have in common is that none of them seem to be cynical. They are the most hopeful people! I guess that has to do with the fact that they believe there will be a future! “Star Trek” has really decent morals. It’s not really concerned with what you look like or how wealthy you are, it’s your actions that matter. If they are good and they are kind, then you are respected. I think these people who watch “Star Trek” truly embrace that morality. I know that anyone I have ever met has been a very decent and loving person. It’s fun to get to travel a little bit and see different cultures and parts of the world because of my involvement in that series.
I’m sure you get offered interesting projects like this with your eclectic resume and notable background in sci-fi. What are you looking for in the work you’re taking on these days?
I’ve been doing this for 45 years and I’ve probably only played a villain or a bad guy three times! I’ve done over 400 television shows and many, many plays but I never get to play the bad guy! So, with that said, I’m kind of looking for the bad guy sometimes! If a character is evil, immediately I’m peaked because it’s a chance to do something I haven’t had luck with yet. That’s one of the things I look for and I also look for anything that keeps paying the bills, along with projects that include the people I want to work with! [laughs] I can be a little choosier now that I’ve been around but any time someone offers you money to act, that old thing kicks in from when you were a kid — “You’re gonna pay me to do this?” So, I still take a lot of what comes along, ya know!
What are some of your favorite roles people just discovering your work should check out?
I certainly enjoyed doing a movie I did fairly recently called “Inside Llewyn Davis,” which is a movie that the Coen Brothers did. That was a terrific movie, particularly because it really shows, in a very correct way, the Greenwich Village of the early ‘60s. That is when I grew up and I lived in Long Island. I used to go into Greenwich Village and I was obsessed with Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk and everything. That movie is all about that early time when all of those guys were coming into prominence. It was wonderful to work with the Coens, who are extraordinary! I got a huge kick out of being in something they directed! I also did a wonderful film called “Irrational Man” about two years ago, which was a Woody Allen film. I got to work with Woody and Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone. I’m very proud that I worked in that! It’s funny, if you IMDB me, I’ve done a lot of films but sometimes something will come on TV and I won’t even remember anything about them. That is especially true when it comes to television. My wife will say, “Hey, you are on ‘Jag!’” I’m like, “Oh, wow. Did I do ‘Jag?’ Yeah, I did but I can’t remember the part.” That’s so weird because it’s like someone telling you a dream you had but you have no recollection of it!
As an actor, is there anything you are anxious to tackle when it comes to the projects?
When it comes to film or TV, not really. However, there are still a few roles that I would like to do on stage before I hang up my hat. One of those is Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman.” I would love to do that! I would love to play the character of Max in the Harold Pinter play, “The Homecoming,” which is one of the plays that got me going early on. There is a role in a Samuel Beckett play called “Endgame” that I would love to play. These are just tremendous, tremendous plays and I would love to get my fingers into those. They are like Mount Everest’s to me and something I would love to do. Times running out, you do what you do and you get the roles you are supposed to get, I suppose.
I love getting the opportunity to speak with someone like yourself who has so much experience. We can look to you as an inspiration. What is the best lesson we can take from your journey?
Thanks, Jason! I would say the best lesson is to show up. If you are trying to do something in the arts, you seem to always be waiting in line. It’s like a line where you are waiting to get a ticket to go to the movie and you never know how long the line is but if you get out of the line, you’re never going to get the ticket! I say it all comes down to tenacity. Tenacity, tenacity and tenacity! Stay on that line and stick it out. Show up no matter how tertiary you think something might be as an actor in terms of an audition. I’ve been to some very, very dicey auditions early on in my career where people happened to be there who went on to be something that was important and they remembered me. There were some that I almost decided not to go to because I thought they weren’t worth it but I went! So, again, I’d say show up for everything you can. You never know where it might lead you!
That’s a great piece of advice! I know our time is short, so I want to thank you for sharing your time with me today! I appreciate it and can’t wait to see where the rest of the journey takes you!
Thank you, Jason! I really appreciate that! I really do! Take care!