The Munsters Star Jeff Daniel Phillips Was A Teenage Frankenstein [Exclusive Interview]

Rock musician and horror director Rob Zombie has been trying to get a movie adaptation of "The Munsters" made for 20 years. Known for his edgy, intense, and graphic films, many were shocked to learn that the film would be a departure from his usual fare, and instead serve as a faithful homage to the 1960s TV series. The result is a family-friendly horror comedy blasted with color, cartoon sound-effects, and a palpable passion dripping from every punchline. Serving as a prequel to the events of the TV series, Rob Zombie's take on "The Munsters" also sees many of his frequent collaborators stepping into the celebrated roles that came before.

Jeff Daniel Phillips is one of Zombie's go-to guys, having appeared in his films "Halloween II," "The Lords of Salem," "31," and "3 From Hell." Due to tall height, Phillips has been cast plenty of times to play villains and monsters, like appearing in the second season of "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D" as David Angar, the Marvel Cinematic Universe's version of Angar the Screamer. Now, Phillips is able to marry his horror experience with his comedy roots, to play the freshly created Herman Munster. 

I was fortunate enough to have a chat with Phillips about the making of "The Munsters" and what it was like to tackle such a sacred property with some of his dear friends.

'It was just intensified'

Was making this movie as fun as it looked? Because everyone on screen looks like they are having the time of their lives.

Yeah, it was. The weird part was the isolation for three months in another country, but as far as when we were shooting, we were all in. We had a lot of laughs. Dan Roebuck's just a cut up period, and Sheri and I were always in some crazy awkward situation, and there were costumes falling or this or that, or trying to hold us together. The Hungarian team, the makeup team, they were fantastic. So everybody was just trying to keep it together and laugh and make everybody laugh too at the same time.

Given the types of movies that Rob Zombie is typically known for making, I think many were shocked to learn he was making a PG movie. Was it different being on a set like this one compared to working on other Zombie films with more intense material?

It was extremely different as far as being in a foreign country, doing it during COVID, doing comedy to a crew that's all masked and shielded. There were all these crazy restraints seeing Rob try to work with his crew and they were great, but it was extremely different because he usually has his group that he's worked with before. And this, he was kind of thrown in. There was just a handful of us put into the hands of this great Hungarian team of people. So yes, that was different.

As far as performing for Rob? No. It's always the same as far as he's all about performance. He loves character actors. He tries to create an environment to make sure you do your best. And he chooses people that are egoless when it comes to actors — that just want to serve the piece and work with the actors to try to help each other. That's why I like working with Sheri [Moon Zombie] over and over. Richard Brake's another guy, as is Dan [Roebuck]. I guess it's the same small group that you've had the similar situation, but this was just magnified by being there, being in COVID, having all the special effects and prosthetics to try to make that work and sell it. It was just intensified, I guess you'd say.

A movie 20 years in the making

Rob Zombie has like his own "Dreamlanders" the way that John Waters did, and it's so fun to see you all get to play all these different characters over and over again, but this is "The Munsters," a beloved and legendary IP. What was it like preparing to step into those very large shoes, metaphorically and literally?

He's been trying to do it for 20 years, and it was 12 years ago that he almost got to do it. He called me and I had to pull my car over, and I was breathing heavily, and he was telling me about how he's going to do this. I went through that once and then it went away, it didn't happen. And then, this happened three years ago. And again, I got very nervous and I'm like, "Oh, how am I going to pull this off? I need to start watching." And it got delayed three more times.

By the time we were ready to do it, I was like, "All right, I'm ready. I've watched everything. I've thought this over. I got this, let's make this happen." I definitely was hesitant about leaving my house during COVID and going to another country, but once we got there, we just looked into each other's eyes, all of us, and were like, "Okay, we're just going to make this the best we can." And just to have the luxury of rehearsing for a month, both Dan and Rob are "Munsters" historians, so we were able to tweak little things and scenes. By the time we were ready to shoot, I think everybody was ready. Everybody was hungry to do it. Nobody had that nervous thing that you usually get when you just get thrown on a set, like a guest star on a TV show when you're trying to jump on a moving train.

This, we've all sat with it for a long time and we were ready, I think. We all respect the show so much. We love the show. This is a love letter to the show. We're all fans, so we are excited to get it out there and revive it.

The love of Lily and Herman Munster

I think the love letter aspect is so apparent from the very beginning. It's very obvious that this is made by people who love and appreciate the source material. In your opinion, what is it about "The Munsters," that keeps the series growing with new generations of fans?

They're such endearing people. You know that they really care about each other, no matter what happens. There's a real love affair with Lily and Herman, and actually Grandpa, or the Count in our case. I just think it's like family first. We're going to make it happen against all odds. Even though we don't think we're the oddballs, they're the oddballs, and we can all identify with that, especially horror fans.

As far as I'm concerned, the horror fans are so passionate, so they might have been the outsiders of their high school or whatever, but they come together. I meet so many of them at these conventions. And yeah, I think ... I don't know. They're a sweet family. They're not elitist. They're not above everybody. They're just another family in the neighborhood, unlike maybe the Addams Family, but I won't get into that. [laughs]

I think that it's really telling, too, that if you look at the grand canon of popular couples in film and television history, the two healthiest relationships that exist are Gomez and Morticia Addams and Lily and Herman Munster. What is it about Herman and Lily that make them, I don't know, #RelationshipGoals?

They're the other half of each other. They both have something that the other one doesn't, and together, they're whole.

On getting to play comedy

A lot of people, especially people from the horror world that maybe only know you from horror, might be shocked to find out how hilarious you are.

Yeah. The funny thing is ... and unfortunately, I read some of that, like, "Why aren't they getting a comedian or comedy guy?"


I was like, "Jesus," but I was a Geico caveman for 10 years. All my commercial work is usually comedy, and I've done tons of comedy on stage and in theater. It's just another one of those tricks in the bag I have. Hopefully, people laugh. But I love it. I love going that far and that big and crazy, and Dan Roebuck's one of those guys that has it too. He was just cracking me up, and all the other characters he could play too. He's one of those guys like I was as a kid. I had a monster makeup kit that my parents helped me get. It was a fishing tackle kit and it came with the fake teeth and the bald cap and all that. We'd do that as kids, I found that out. We were both big fans of the monsters, like Lon Chaney, and being able to create another character. We had that in common. And now, we're grownups and we're doing basically the same thing. Meet the kid at the age of seven and you'll meet the adult, I guess.

Seeing Herman for the first time

Speaking of all of the prosthetics and whatnot, what was your reaction the first time you saw yourself in the full Herman look.

I definitely had a huge smile. I like just keeping him moving and making him work so you're not focused on where a seam was or how they did this or that. As long as you keep the guy moving, he becomes a character and you're not sitting there studying, "Oh, I see where they did this or that or what they added." That's my main goal as a performer is to just help sell this whole thing: the outfit, the shoes, the movement.

I knew right away that I had to push it. Even in the screen tests I was just dancing and moving around so much, by the end of it, I was woozy because I was sweating so much in that thing. I was 15 degrees hotter than everybody else. But it was good for me to try to figure out how far I could go and how I could reserve that energy when I needed it. So it's like, you have to almost be a scientist to try to figure out how your body, how far you could take it.

Jeff Daniel Phillips was a teenage Frankenstein

I think Herman's movements are also part of his charm. How do you find the balance when playing this character that is so memorable to where it's still your own, but also at the same time, honoring Fred Gwynne who came before?

So the TV Herman, Fred Gwynne, he's obviously iconic and a master, he's more established. He's married. He has a job. He has a kid. He's a father. He's an uncle. He has worldviews. My guy just came right off the slab. They just created the guy by Dr. Wolfgang, so he's trying to figure it all out. His brain's trying to get this whole body to move. I use this analogy, it's like his brain's used to driving a Ford Fiesta, and now he's in a GTO, and he's just trying to make it all work. 

He's very cocky. He's almost like a teenager. That's how I approached it, and wide-eyed. Where Fred Gwynne was like, he had this charm and yeah, he was childlike too, but I was just trying to get somebody who was trying to find their voice. And that's why his voice would crack and it was a little higher. And I don't know, that's my approach. I don't know if it worked. That's what I went for. I'm not an impressionist, so I couldn't do an impression anyway. We definitely made sure the mannerisms were there, the laugh. You could definitely say, "Yeah, that's Herman Munster for sure," and I hope it comes across.

It's a love letter to The Munsters

I definitely think it does and having this insight of your approach, I think, just added another layer to this character. Because you're right, there is like a teenage energy to him. You're supposed to be somebody who is absolutely in love with Sheri Moon Zombie as Lily, and that's someone you've worked with, and also the wife of your director. What is it like to get to play in love with somebody that you already have such great chemistry with?

Well, Sheri is so great as an acting partner because she's so present and she's prepared and she's open. There's something that we have, and we both try to do the same thing. And once we get to set and we're in the scenes, something usually happens, because we both care about each other and we want to make each other's performance better. It's always like that.

That's how most of [Rob Zombie's] actors are that he chooses, and that's why we keep coming back, because there's a lot of egolessness in his films. It's like, he knows that performance is the most important thing in his films. He wants us to elevate it. He wants us to improve it. And with Sheri and I, I don't know, the other movies I've done with her, they're much more intense.

But again, when we're in a scene together, something usually happens. Whether it's bad or good, you believe it because we're both present. I just love working with her. And Dan, we had stuff to do together in front of the castle, that was fun, but in this movie, you see that, my guy doesn't know it as much, but they're definitely hitting heads. In real life, and working with him, I adore the guy. He's the best. In the film, we're definitely trying to figure each other out at this stage in the game.

I grew up watching "The Munsters" with my dad, and it was such a blast to see that conflict and Zombie's interpretation of what came before.

I've been going to these cons to promote it. And again, the reoccurring comment is, "I used to watch this with my parents or my grandfather, and I want to do the same. I want to revisit it with them. I want to see it with my kids." Hopefully, people just go into it like that, open minded, and they're just going to have fun, because I just think it's a fun ride. It's not too heady or crazy. It's a big cartoon and a love letter to "The Munsters." That's what we're trying to do.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.