The Munsters Star Jeff Daniel Phillips Talks Delivering a New Kind of Herman

Actor Jeff Daniel Phillips first worked with filmmaker Rob Zombie back in 2009 on Halloween II, igniting a years-long partnership featuring multiple collaborations of varying capacities. While Phillips might not always be the main performer in a Zombie film, he often manages to make a significant impact on the audience and steal scenes from other performers, thanks to his own charm and Zombie’s skills at best utilizing those talents. With their latest project, Phillips has some enormous shoes to fill, not only because he’s the lead figure in this new take on The Munsters, but also because he’s embodying a character whose legacy spans decades. The Munsters lands on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital HD on September 27th.

From writer/director Rob Zombie comes the strangest love story ever told. Lily [Sheri Moon Zombie] is just your typical 150-year-old, lovelorn vampire looking for the man of her nightmares . . . that is until she lays eyes on Herman [Phillips], a seven-foot-tall, green experiment with a heart of gold. It’s love at first shock as these two ghouls fall fangs over feet in this crazy Transylvanian romance. Unfortunately, it’s not all smooth sailing in the cemetery as Lily’s father The Count [Daniel Roebuck] has other plans for his beloved daughter’s future, and they don’t involve her bumbling beau, Herman. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll howl at the moon as The Munsters make their way to Mockingbird Lane! caught up with Phillips to talk his connection to the series, his different take on Herman, and the most emotional day on set of the revival.

(Photo: Universal Pictures Home Entertainment) The Munsters is a foundational project for a lot of horror fans out there. For you personally, as a fan before this project even came about, what was your connection to the series? Was it something you were you were into since a kid? Was it something later in life?

Jeff Daniel Phillips: I was a huge fan as a kid. I was into monsters. I was into all the Lon Chaney makeup. I had a makeup kit like Lon Chaney. I was into all that, and I loved the show. I’m from Chicago. I forgot what channel it was on, but I mean, I watched those reruns religiously.

But I was just thinking today, actually, Dan Roebuck has such a great memory for his childhood, and he remembers all these details. And it just dawned on me, as a Cub Scout, I did one of those Pinewood Derby things where you carve a thing, and I carved a coffin with a head in it. It was obviously a total lift from the show, and I don’t even have a picture of it. Dan has a whole documentarian vibe with him. But, anyway, yeah, I was a huge fan. And the more and more I thought about it, I was like, “Wow, I loved that show,” and it was just one of those things buried in my head. I grew up in a blue-collar family, so I just identified with it more than The Addams Family.  

Be careful now, getting into any sort of Munsters versus Addams Family.

I’m ready to go.

You being a fan, surely it’s going to come with excitement to get involved in this project. But knowing, I’m not sure if you’re aware, fans can be a little precious, let’s say, when it comes to reviving classic series. What about the project gave you the confidence that you could do this? You can actually bring to life Herman Munster in a way that honors the original, but you also get to do your own thing with it?

Well, I think it was 12 years ago, Rob was going to do this at one point, and I was driving through Los Angeles, and I got the call. And I pulled my car over, and he said, “Hey, I’m thinking about doing this. I want you to be Herman.” I was almost hyperventilating and nervous and honored, and all that pressure went away because it didn’t happen. 

And then again, I don’t know, what was it? Three years ago or whenever we started this, he did it again. And, again, that anxiety, I was so nervous. By the time it got delayed three or four times, I was so hungry and ready to do it. So it’s like I got rid of all of that nervous energy.

Of course, during rehearsals, that stuff comes out again, and you’re like, “Wow, I hope I’m going to be able to channel something through here and make it work.” I’m not an impressionist. Dan does a very good … He sounds like Al Lewis and that. But my whole angle was that the TV Herman, he’s more established. He’s a father. He’s an uncle. He has more world views. This guy, as you know by the trailer, he has just been created. So, to me, I think the Herman that I did was somebody who was trying to find his voice, who was trying to figure out how his brain was going to work this new body. So there’s a wide-eyed, overly confident teenage guy trying to make it work.

I didn’t feel like I was harnessed or tied to Fred Gwynne’s thing as much. Of course, we brought in all the iconic trademark hand gestures or laugh and some of that stuff, but I didn’t get too caught up in that. I’m sure both Rob and Dan would mention stuff. They’re both Munsters historians, so they would keep me in line if I ever got too far. 

That’s nice to have them on set to discipline you when you’re veering too far off track. You talk about Herman finding his own voice, and a key component of the movie is all of his one-liners and all of his puns and all of his corny jokes. Did you get to write any of those personally, or were those all in the script?

Most of all that was Rob. Working with him — this is my fifth film. Sometimes it’s a little more leeway, and we could throw some stuff in there. It’s pretty much all Rob. There would be something at the end of a scene or something we’d throw out, and who knows if it ever made the cut? I don’t even know because I’ve only seen it that one time, and I was a little removed from my body trying to just watch, “Uh-oh, what did I do here,” that I didn’t really even enjoy the film as much as I could have because that’s just the way it is as an actor, for me anyway.

We see Herman in so many unique situations that we don’t necessarily get to see in the TV show or anything like that, so many different environments for him. So looking back at the whole experience, do you have a particular favorite day on set or a favorite location that you shot in, something that was almost otherworldly when you looked around? 

The one moment I think I had … Because there was so much going on as far as keeping this together and the prosthetics and the outfit and on the shoes that I was always focused on what I was trying to do with my acting, and I rarely had this, “Wow. Look at where I’m at,” except I do remember there was a Halloween scene.

The Halloween scene, for some reason, we were all there. It was night. The neighborhood, they all had their costumes on, masks. We were interacting with these people and I’m just looking around and with these cranes with lights, and there’s Rob at the helm, and my friends are … I’m acting with my friends. And there’s [Elvira actor] Cassandra Peterson and Sheri, and we’re dancing. And I’m looking behind me, and there’s the Munsters’ house, and I’m like, “Whoa, this is…” I definitely had one of those otherworldly moments like, “Wow, this is really happening.”

Then I guess my other favorite moment that wasn’t in the film was actually the last day. We haven’t talked about this, but I ran out in makeup, they were doing a cast and crew photo, and they had a drone come in and take this picture of us in front of this actual castle. I just remember running out there, and we all gathered. And Sheri, I don’t think … She wasn’t even working that day, but she came. We’re all standing next to each other, and I turned to look behind me, and what we didn’t talk about is that for three months, people had masks and shields on. All you saw were their two eyeballs. Plus, English wasn’t their first language.

So here I turn, and it was the first time I saw these people’s faces in three months, and they were smiling, and it was so touching. I look at Sheri, and she’s welling up, and I’m just like, “This is amazing. What a great…” I was so grateful to be there and he brought me in. I don’t know. That was a really sweet moment that I got to see the people I’d been working with for three months. It was bizarre. 

You’ve worked with Rob so many other times, and this is surely a new foray for him in the sense that this is not straight-up horror. This is not gruesome and gnarly. There’s no deaths or murders or anything like that. You talked about the script being so tight and fine-tuned. What other things about this collaboration with Rob felt different from the other times that you’ve worked with him?

Well, when I say that … We had a month of rehearsals that we went over stuff, so he did rewrite stuff on the fly while we were rehearsing. I just want to make that clear. It wasn’t the original script, but it was very close. In the past, Rob’s really good about … I always say it has to be from his music background. He’s like a great jazz composer, where he brings in a piece, and he writes it knowing who’s going to be involved. Then he knows that each one of those performers is going to riff or possibly do something more with it, and he loves that, and he likes to shape it on the fly.

If he sees things going well, he’ll work towards that. He just keeps it organic because it’s all about performance with him. And all the horror films, I mean, you invest in the characters because he loves character actors, and he gives them their moment even if they’re the villain.

So this was … We were definitely trying to get as word perfect as we could. But yeah, if he doesn’t like something, or if he sees it not working, or if he sees something going great, he expands on it on the fly.

Adding to that a little bit, he himself has his own larger-than-life persona as a musician and a filmmaker. What do you think audiences would most be surprised to learn about Rob as a person, as the collaborator, with this friendship that you’ve had for so many years?

That he was a very sweet child. 

No, I’m just kidding. No, I don’t know. He’s just a passionate guy. He’s just very passionate. Anything you see in this movie, it’s his vision. From the graphics to the music to choosing the locations, it’s his fingerprint. Nobody else could have done it like this. And just somebody that really loved the TV show was behind the helm. He was helming this ship. And it’s infectious, too. When it comes to crew and cast, and I’ve witnessed this in five films now, people just want to step up and match his enthusiasm, his passion. And especially when it comes to actors, he tends to choose people that serve the piece and want to be in the scene with each other, and it’s egoless and very supportive. 

Working with Sheri is like that. She’s very present. She’s focused. She’s prepared. And that’s why a lot of times the two of us have a lot going on, because we both are there present and making it happen. There’s just a chemistry, and we have a friendship. So I think it helps elevate the scenes we’re in and elevate the whole movie, especially with Herman and Lily.

Since you talked about how much you’re a fan of The Munsters and how exciting of an opportunity this was for you, is this like you’ve crossed this off your bucket list and now you’re happy to take whatever project is next or is there another project or character or franchise that is also up there as far as how much you love it, that you’re like, “I still want to bring to life this character or this franchise or something like that to life,”?

I’m a journeyman actor, and I’m almost like a surfer. Whatever waves are coming in, I try to ride them. It’s such a tough time to make independent things, and that’s what … I guess that’s where my heart is, whether it be theater or an indie film. Right now, it’s all about TV. So we’ll see. Hopefully, this opens some doors. And if not, I got to make a kids’ movie, which I’ve never done before.

That’s super exciting. And before I totally let you go, coming up on almost 10 years ago now, The Lords of Salem, that’s still one of my favorites. Every October, I have to revisit it, since I’m from Massachusetts. I remember seeing that premiere at South by Southwest, and that movie blew me away with excitement, and that is largely thanks to your work in that film, so thank you for giving me that movie.

Yeah, thank you. That was a great experience, too. Every one of his films has a different vibe. And as long as the actors are there to perform and egoless, it rolls, and you could tell that was one of those things. I felt like I was in it.

That’s what I loved, is Rob introduced it to the audience and was like, “Half of you are going to love this, and half of you are going to hate this.” And that’s what art is. Not all of his movies are for everybody. It just made me appreciate him that much more as a filmmaker, of understanding, “I’m all over the map, so you’ll like some more than others.”

I’m just going to leave you with this The Munsters thing. I’ve been going to a lot of cons to promote this, and the reoccurring comment I always hear is, “I used to watch this with my grandfather or my father or my mother.” I’m just excited for people to revisit. They’re really excited to either watch it with their parents or watch it with their kids, and it’s just a chance to relive those laughs with their loved ones, because it’s just a sweet, fun ride. It’s just family fun.

Oh yeah, I can’t wait for families to discover it and young kids to see the silliness of these characters and the timelessness of these characters and re-watch some of the old episodes with their families. It’s a unique opportunity, for sure.

We’re definitely not taking away from the old series. You can always go revisit those. This is just another take on the whole thing.

The Munsters lands on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital HD on September 27th.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can contact Patrick Cavanaugh directly on Twitter.  



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