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Jeff Daniel Phillips stepped into Herman Munster's big boots for Rob Zombie's 'The Munsters'
Actor Jeff Daniel Phillips tells us what it was like to play the iconic spooky patriarch in Rob Zombie's new film.
About a decade ago, actor Jeff Daniel Phillips (Westworld. Halloween II) was asked by his good friend Rob Zombie how he would feel about stepping into the platform boots of an iconic horror character: Herman Munster. Both friends were huge fans of The Munsters, the beloved '60s television sitcom, and Zombie wanted to bring the characters back for a new generation in a theatrical movie with a new cast playing the Universal Monsters-inspired family.
"Rob had called me up and I was driving so I had to pull the car over and I started hyperventilating," Jeff Daniel Phillips tells SYFY WIRE, remembering the fateful day when he was first offered the part. "I had that initial reaction and was honored, but I was also scared as hell. Then, it went away."
As is the cas3 with many small-budget horror projects, it takes a long time to scare up the funding, and in this case, it also took the by-in of Universal, who owns the characters. For three more years, Zombie developed his script, working on the angle and securing a budget, before he circled back up to Phillips once more. Philips, thankfully, had become less scared over time.
"I kind of got over that initial fright," the actor says. "And by the time we were ready to do it, I was kind of anxious to jump in. I'd studied it and I put it away. And I went back to it. I'm honored to like the step in his tall shoes. We'll see what people think."
The whole world can once again meet The Munsters family with Zombie's new film available now on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital. Along with Phillips playing affable Frankenstein-like patriarch Herman, he's joined by Sheri Moon Zombie as his wife, Lily Munster, and Daniel Roebuck as The Count. The movie tells the story of how Herman Munster was born via a failed experiment by Dr. Henry Augustus Wolfgang (Richard Brake) and his flunkie, Floop (Jorge Garcia), and who then goes on to meet his wife and moves his family to America.
Phillips says making the story a prequel was their way of honoring the original and expanding the character's origin stories. "Rob and I both love the show, so right away, we definitely want to pay homage to it." The actor's take on Herman certainly has a similar, look which was brought to life by Zombie's long-time makeup designer, Wayne Toth. But the performance is a deviation borne out of Herman's newness as a monster fresh from the lab. "The TV Herman was more established," Phillips explains. "He was married and had a job and a kid. He had more world views. But my Herman just got off the slab and was just put together. He's trying to find his voice which is cracking. He's trying to work this body that he doesn't quite know how to use."
This Herman is also working with a brain that previously resided inside the noggin of a bad standup comedian named Shecky (also played by Phillips). "He's got this vaudevillian brain that he's running. I like to say he's used to driving a Ford Fiesta. and now he's in a muscle car," the actor laughs. "But he's making people laugh and singing songs. He's almost like a wide-eyed teenager or a big puppy trying to figure it out. They both have a childlike personality. However, my guy just wants to please everybody, because he's trying to figure out who he is. He even says stuff that he doesn't even know where it comes from."
In similar ways, Phillips says he also had to find his way into Herman and that really happened through makeup and wardrobe. He had two major makeup tests, the first in Burbank, California, and then a year later with the local makeup team who would be carrying out his final looks. “When we got there, we did a camera test and that was when I tried to see how far I could go,” he says of testing Herman’s physicality in full prosthetics and big suit. I did want him to be childlike and moving and dancing.”
The actor remembers that because of the muscle suit, which is like wearing a wetsuit, he quickly figured out that there would be a sweat problem. “I was just going full throttle through this test, to the point where I was woozy,” he laughs. “It was a good test for me to see how far to go. From then on, I was just drinking Gatorade and keeping my electrolytes up. I wanted to make it as light and kooky and childlike as possible but you’re balancing on these seven-inch heels too. I only fell a couple times.”
However, nothing was as bad as the first day of the shoot when he was not in Herman gear, but doing the comedy bits of his other character, Shecky. “It was my first day working there and we're with this Hungarian crew. They all had face shields and masks so all you see are these eyeballs, and it was like crickets,” he winces. “You couldn't gauge if they were smiling, laughing, or whatever. Now, he's supposed to be a bad comedian but I'm like, ‘This is going to be intense, because nobody even knows what I'm saying. They don't think I'm funny and they have to go into two months with this jackass leading the family,’” he laughs. “But then I looked over behind the monitor, and I could see Rob laughing. I was like, ‘Thank God!’”Looking back on the close-knit production now, Phillips says he has a lifetime of wonderful memories to cherish. He remembers shooting the Halloween scene in front of the Munster’s home with most of the cast as a particular favorite. “We're in a whole neighborhood built for this in Hungary and these people are dancing around and we're interacting, telling jokes and dancing. And there's Cassandra Peterson” he enthuses about the cameo by the Elvira Mistress of the Dark actress. “It was just surreal. There were these huge cranes with all these colorful lights. And there's Rob in the corner over there making it all work.”
With Halloween around the corner and The Munsters available to watch, Phillips says he’s got high hopes about the potential for more stories based on the enthusiasm of fellow Munsters fans. “A recurring thing I hear at the cons is that people want to revisit it with the people they watched the show with like their parents, or grandparents. They want to watch it with them and also their kids. Hopefully, it just builds an audience. It's just a fun ride that's all for laughs. No one's trying to take away from the TV show because we all loved it.”
The Munsters is available on Sept. 27 on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment.
Stream the original The Munsters series on Peacock.