Ethan Phillips is an actor who grew up in Garden City, NY. He received a Bachelor of Arts from Boston University and later an MFA from Cornell University. He has had a prolific career in television, movies and on stage working with such directors as Milos Forman, Woody Allen, the Coen Brothers and actors Nathan Lane, Bryan Cranston and more. He played the role of "Neelix" on Star Trek: Voyager for seven seasons and was a member of "The Sundance Playwrights' Conference" for six summers. And this is just a fraction of his wide reaching work.
Nathan and I met Ethan four and half years ago when he was introduced to us through writer David Kranes. I immediately fell in love with his quick wit, intuitive brilliance and endless generosity as an artist and human being. We ended up doing a project together titled "But Seriously" and I hope to collaborate again in the future.
Tell us a little bit about your background; when did you know that you wanted to become an actor?
As a young boy watching a television show with my mother and sisters. The show was a short-lived series in the 50s called PANIC. On screen was a terrible accident about to happen: a car with a family inside was rolling towards a cliff where certain destruction waited - I was very upset and very frightened until my mother patiently explained to me that the people in the car were ‘actors’ and they were only pretending. That they were on a TV ‘set.’ In fact, she told me, these ‘actors’ would probably have a coffee break and then do the same scene again. I calmed down. At that early age I understood what she was saying. And it amazed me that grown ups did that for their job. While in High School, auditioning for a role in the school play, the director, a Jesuit priest, told me I was very good at it. In college I met people who wanted to do it for a living; I decided I could too. But ultimately like all actors I just had an urge to appear private in public.
What do you consider to be your breakthrough role and why?
The role of the painter Maurice Utrillo in Dennis McIntyre’s 1980’s off Broadway hit MODIGLIANNI at New York’s legendary Astor Place Theatre. Utrillo was a drunken emotional mess living on the edge of poverty with an immense need to express himself through his craft – painting. I was in a similar place (though by no means would I compare my skills to Utrillo, a great under-sung artist). Except instead of being in Paris in 1920, I was in Manhattan in 1980. I had the same needs he did except my craft was acting. I was able to use myself in a role in a way I hadn’t done before. Actors don’t run from themselves – they run to themselves. The show was a massive hit. I experienced acknowledgement as a professional for the first time.
What was your most difficult role?
Edgar in King Lear.
You have worked with such a diverse group of directors from the Coen brothers to Woody Allen, do you prefer to work with directors who are very specific about what they want or do you prefer to be left alone to discover who your character is?
Any suggestions or ideas are welcome. I like to work with directors who provide a safe environment, a place to be creative and make mistakes. A director needs to be your biggest fan. In TV work though, if you see the director coming your way after a scene, look out – you don’t want that. All you want is to hear ”got it, moving on.’
Can you tell us a little bit about your creative process - how do you prepare for a role? Does intuition play a role in your process? And what are the differences in performing on stage and on TV/Film? Which medium do you prefer and why?
It depends on the medium in some ways. I find in television and film they basically want me, who I am as a package. How I sound, how I look. How I present: a small, bald, somewhat benign man – where the camera can sweep over me and the viewers can feel free to make their generalizations about the role. Theatre can give you more room to build a character who may be different from whom you immediately present as yourself. I like what David Mamet says: to paraphrase, ‘there is no character, just the actor; my aunt Betsy is a character.’ As for preparing for a role, it’s a self-hypnotic exercise – you convince yourself you can pretend well enough to get people to suspend their disbelief. In her new novel A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara calls acting ‘… a form of grifting, and once you stopped believing you can, so does everyone else.’
I prefer stage because of it’s immediacy and the power, though I like film and TV because I don’t get as nervous.
And my first instincts are often my best.
Tell us a little bit about the highlights of your career so far?
The three times I’ve been on Broadway – Mamet’s NOVEMBER, Robert Schenkkan’s ALL THE WAY, and the musicalMY FAVORITE YEAR, are special because when you are on Broadway you are king. Going to that Broadway house each night, up to your dressing room, to perform on the Great White Way – nothing can beat the feeling. And working with Woody Allen. To be an actor and see your name in the credits with that font he uses – wow.
Without naming names what was the worst experience you have had as an actor?
I did a production of a play which toured the Summer Stock circuit; there was an actor who was selfish and addicted to drugs. It was awful. There have been other productions with divas, and rarely but once or twice directors who were bullies. I did a TV pilot this year which required five hours of makeup and a two hour removal. When asked to do the series, I said no. I’d rather mainline bleach. But 99% of the time I have a blast!
Who are some of the people who have inspired you in your work and why?
Because of their ability to be flawless, in no particular order, Helen Mirren, Judi Dench, Marlon Brando, Kate Winslett, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Barbara Stanwyck, Richard Widmark, Gérard Depardieu, Isabelle Huppert, Anthony Hopkins, Lee J. Cobb, Peter Sellers, Vanessa Redgrave, Mark Rylance, and many others.
What is your favorite movie?
Two: A Christmas Carol with Alastair Sim, and The Exorcist.
What do you consider to be the most significant film ever made?
Les Enfants du Paradis (Children of Paradise)
Do you think that there is more creativity in television nowadays than perhaps 20 years ago and if so, why do you think that is?
Much more. Due to long format continuity of plot. Plus because the money is better, it has attracted huge talent.
How do you problem solve and have you ever experienced a creative block and if so how did you get through it?
The main question I always ask is: why am I still in the scene? Why am I still in the room? What do I want?
I have experienced creative block. It usually is because I am doing too much. Or maybe the writing sucks. Sometimes picking up the pace helps. Sometimes taking your time helps. Often the answer is listening to the other actor.
What is your favorite quote?
Be kind, for everyone is fighting a great battle. (Plato)
You have such amazing comedic timing yet you also manage to take on dramatic roles, what do you prefer?
Thank you for that compliment!! I like any role, which is well written. Or which pays.
What do you think are the three most important features that an artistically successful actor has?
You need three things to make it: Talent, Tenacity, and Luck. Without all three, you will fail.
Tell us a little bit about what Star Trek did for your career and what inspired you to start collecting jokes?
Star Trek gave me the financial freedom to do more theatre.
I’ve been collecting jokes since I was a young boy. My great uncle was a vaudeville comic and I adored him. Some kids get into magic; for me, the rabbit coming out of the hat was the punch line. And making people laugh gets me high.
You came to Utah to work at the Sundance Playwright’s Lab for six summers and I read somewhere that you helped develop “Angels of America” – how did you initially get involved with the Lab and what do you think that Sundance provided for such significant work to emerge? Also, along those lines can you tell us a little bit about “First Stage” - the playwright’s Lab that you help found in LA?
I got into Sundance by a fluke. I was in LA and one of the Sundance dramaturges wanted to hear a cold reading of an obscure and complicated Ionesco play. I was asked to read the lead role by a friend who was helping cast this reading. It just so happened I’d done the play a few years before, in regional theatre. I didn’t tell the dramaturges that and my ‘cold’ reading was of course very well informed and realized. He thought I’d done the reading having seen the play for the first time and was so was very impressed and said ‘we could use you at Sundance’ and so I was invited. To this day I’ve never let on about my fib.
Sundance was simply a collection of very generous people who believed if it’s not worth doing right, it’s not worth doing. And with our artistic director, David Kranes, we had the most compassionate, enthusiastic, and theatrically astute man anyone could want in charge.
First Stage was based on the format of Sundance. New works are given a reading. The playwright finds that invaluable.
Who is the director (dead or alive) that you have always wanted to work with?
Top of the list is Stanley Kubrick. Martin Scorsese. Alfred Hitchcock. Kenneth Branagh, Pam McKinnon, Jose Quintero.
What is the project that you have always wanted to do?
MacBeth. But I’m too small. And now too old.
If you hadn't become an actor what profession do you think you would have excelled in/at?
I’d have liked to teach Latin.
Looking towards the future – where do you want to be and what do you want to be doing in 25 years?
Alive and in New York City.