Catching Up With Ethan Phillips, Part 2
Ethan Phillips looked back at all things Voyager in part one of our two-part interview, which ran yesterday. Today, we get the scoop from the affable actor on current and upcoming events. These include Arachnoquake, a spiders-attack flick from our friends at Syfy, which will premiere tonight; as well as the next Coen brothers film, Inside Llewyn Davis, a folk-rock-era period piece co-starring Oscar Isaac, John Goodman and Justin Timberlake; and A Night at the Silent Movie Theater, directed by Phillips’ old Voyager pal, Tim Russ. And then there’s a stage production of The Imaginary Invalid, with Phillips playing the title character alongside Game of Thrones star Peter Dinklage. StarTrek.com actually caught up with Phillips right after he finished a day’s rehearsal for the play, which will run July 13-22 at the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College in Annandale-on-the-Hudson.
Let’s talk about some of your current projects. First up is Arachnoquake, airing tonight on Syfy. What’s the basic set-up and what do you play?
Phillips: The set-up is that it takes place in Louisiana and my character runs a bayou tour company. I have a son and a daughter who work with me. We discover that these spiders have come out of the earth and they’re really mean. They start screwing with us, and they’re pretty powerful because they kill a very big, very tough alligator. In any event, we have to try and fight them and hope that they don’t kill us.
Syfy was kind enough to send us Arachnoquake. Your character is pretty rugged and heroic and handy with a rifle…
Phillips: He is. My son is a little bit of a scalawag and a shiftless dude. He likes the ladies and he likes the beer, and we have an acrimonious relationship, but at the end we bond because I realize he’s a good guy and I realize that he’s going to do the right thing. And he realizes why I’ve always been so hard on him.
Tracey Gold is in the movie. You co-starred with her sister Missy on Benson. Had you ever worked with her?
Phillips: No, I hadn’t. I’ve known Tracey since she was 11, but we’d never worked together. She guest starred on Benson once, maybe twice, in the seventh season, and I was there the second, third, fourth and fifth seasons, and part of the sixth. Tracey was always on the set, though, because she and Missy took classes together from a tutor. I remember Missy did Circus of the Stars when I did it, and Tracey was around a lot during that, too. Then I never saw her again after Benson ended. It was many, many years, and then I saw her when I played saxophone in her dad’s band and she’d come to the gigs. I’d always wanted to work with her and she was such a sweetie pie. It was real fun to finally act with her, but now she’s a grown woman with kids and, in my mind’s eye, I still see her as an 11-year-old.
We know that you’re still playing your saxophone when you can with different bands, including the occasional gig with the Enterprise Blues Band, but you’ve had to put that on hold for a bit because you’re in rehearsals for The Imaginary Invalid. That show has quite a history…
Phillips: The Imaginary Invalid is by Moliere, and it was first done in 1673. It was Moliere’s last play, and it’s about an older man who’s a hypochondriac and is convinced that he’s sick and going to be dead and that the only way to protect himself is to have himself surrounded by doctors. Moliere just skewers the medical profession because, back then, the medical profession really was worthy of being skewered. They were doing things like bleeding and leeching. A lot of them were just charlatans. Moliere knew that and so he used this play polemically to go against the medical profession. I play the Imaginary Invalid, and my character thinks the best way to have doctors around me all the time is to force my daughter to marry one, even though she’s in love with somebody else.
And there are all these other characters, too, like my wife, who’s really only married to me for my money, but I don’t know that. I’m in love with her. Everything gets resolved at the end, and it’s very funny, but it’s also very, very dark. What’s interesting to me is that the role I’m playing, the Imaginary Invalid, Moliere played it himself and died of a hemorrhage on the fourth performance. So the history of the play is that any actor who’s playing the Imaginary Invalid, that fourth night it’s like, “Good luck tonight.” I want to do the third performance and then jump into the fifth performance.
We're lucky we got you on the phone before the show started its run. Maybe you should have your understudy go on for you that fourth night…
Phillips: I’ll have my understudy go on the fourth night, exactly. Can I use that? But it’s an all-male cast. Peter Dinklage is playing my maid, my saucy little vixen maid, and he’s absolutely hysterical. It’s an extraordinary cast, and though all the women are being played by men it’s not campy or draggy. And we’re doing the show at Bard College, in upstate New York, on the Hudson. Bard has a fairly renowned summer program up here, and it’s called SummerScape. They do, throughout the summer, a number of dance programs and operas and symphonies and theater, and we’re the theater element. The entire theme of the summer is French culture, so there will be French symphonies and operas, and we’re the French play.
If we go by IMDB, it lists the following films: A Night at the Silent Movie Theater, RockBarnes: The Emperor in You, TBK: The Toolbox Murders 2, Audrey, Human Factor, Inside Llewyn Davis, and Shadow Witness. Are all of those accurate and, if so, is there one you’re particularly excited about?
Phillips: There’s something to like about each and every one of them, I think. Tim Russ directed A Night at the Silent Movie Theater. Tony Todd is in it. It’s very funny, and I think Tim is getting ready to lock that. Shadow Witness is a ghost story. I did that with Kevin Sorbo. It turned out that we’d actually worked together before and shot in the same creepy, haunted place we shot Shadow Witness. Inside Llewyn Davis is the new Coen brothers film and I’ve got a nice role in that. It’s loosely based on Dave Van Ronk, who was one of the seminal folk singers of the 1960’s, but this is before he became famous and before the folk scene really took off. It was just around the time right before Dylan arrived and these guys were really beginning to find their voices as artists, but they hadn’t gotten any notoriety yet.
Oscar Isaac, who is wonderful in it, plays Llewyn Davis, this folk singer who’s scrounging around a bit, just trying to piece together a life. So it’s about what goes down in this artistic struggle. And I play folk aficionado who has seen Llewyn play in clubs. I’m a teacher. I teach history at Columbia. He comes up to my house on occasion and crashes there. I’m always throwing parties for academic colleagues and he barges in on some of the parties, and a few of them end up… not too good. Justin Timberlake is in it. Carey Mulligan is in it. John Goodman is in it, too.
You sound busy. Is it safe to say that you’re happy with life after Voyager?
Phillips: I am. I’ve been very lucky to get some gigs. My wife and I moved back to New York in February so that I could start trying to do more stage work. I wasn’t doing enough of it out in L.A., which is more geared to film. There’s theater in L.A., but there’s more of it in New York, I think, and I wanted to give it another shot. Plus, I missed the East Coast a lot. But you’re right, I’ve had a nice little run and I’m very appreciative.