By Zach Van Norman - @TheZachVan
Lee Arenberg has had a long, colorful career in Hollywood. From Tales from the Crypt to Star Trek, Pirates of the Caribbean to Once Upon A Time, his roles have ran the gauntlet in terms of scope. And while he plays Grumpy on ABC's hit fairy tale show, in actuality he is a funny, easy-going man with a love of his craft and his fans. He shared many interesting insights during our recent conversation, all of which are revealed below in our exclusive interview!
Zach: Hi Lee, how are you?
Lee: Great, you?
Zach: I’m doing great. I’m pretty excited to talk to you to be honest.
Lee: Really? Dude, come on. I like it.
Zach: Yeah, thank you for taking the time out to do this. We appreciate it.
Lee: You know, it’s overdue. It’s long overdue so I’m glad to do it, my friend. You guys are such rock stars for the show, and I appreciate everything that you do, so there you go. Just so you know.
Zach: Well thanks.
Lee: Before we talk about how awesome I am.
Zach: Yes, let’s get into that.
Lee: It’s a team effort, man. Fans have a big responsibility, you know how I talk about that.
Zach: Yeah, I know you’re really aware of the fanbase and how much everybody is appreciative of all your work, so I do think it goes hand in hand.
Lee: Yeah, Johnny Depp taught me that. I mean, because he had said it so profoundly. The fans are the boss, that’s how he liked to say it. I don’t know if he says it a lot or if he said it one time and I heard it. But he was the kind of guy who would sign for three hours after we wrapped, and he would stick around and make sure everyone got their picture. He was a megastar, so… I think a lot of success of that is realizing that if somebody isn’t watching you, you’re not actually doing it, as an actor.
Zach: You know it’s funny, I was reviewing the interview that you did with my colleague, Diane, the last time that you spoke with us, and that was something that you had mentioned. The last time that you spoke with us, we were at the end of the first season, and the show has obviously changed a lot since then. What has it been like for you to watch the stories and the characters evolve over the last few years?
Lee: Well, I mean, it’s kind of like… an exciting turn for everyone to see how everything evolves, how one chess piece moves. Like, in one section of the storytelling it evolves and affects everybody else, you know? Like Regina kind of being nice at one point, or maybe a new baddie coming to town and everybody having to pull together. So I love that aspect of the storytelling, you know, the fact that they will move these characters like chess pieces, and by switching an attitude or one of the polar positions of the character, if you will, what the character really believes in or what a character really wants, it can affect everything. Like Bad Snow can affect the show, or Good Regina, you know what I mean? If you just mix that up. Obviously when all the characters left for Neverland, that kind of sucked for the townies.
Zach: We were all wondering what was happening with all of you back in Storybrooke and we really didn’t get to see any of that.
Lee: Yeah, yeah. Well it makes you miss it, you know? It makes you miss it and it’s part of the storytelling. They’re not unintentionally doing that. They’re saying, “We want the audience to really be happy when they get back, and get back into Granny’s.” They’re all five steps ahead of us. They’re the writers, they get to control the excitement around the show because they know what no one else does.
Zach: Speaking of characters and character interactions, a lot of those interactions have changed as the show has progressed. Like with what you were saying with pieces being moved around and people’s attitudes changing. You mentioned the bad Snow White, obviously that was an episode that was kicked off, particularly with you and Ginny in the first season “Heart of Darkness,” when she drank the potion and forgot everything. Grumpy had to kind of pull her back in. Snow White and Grumpy have a relationship that seems closer than what she has with the other dwarves, but their personalities are very different. What do you think it is about those characters that brings them together in that particular way?
Lee: Well they both are who they are because of love. That’s their main, they connect over the heart. The fact that Grumpy is really Dreamy, he’s touched by this magic dust that can’t be washed off, it makes him this romantic with a capital “R” kind of guy. And he’s always capable, he understands that he’s been hurt by it, and so he’s bonded for her for life, you know, before we meet in jail. And we save each other’s lives and then that’s who he is, you know. If you save this guy’s life, he’s gonna be your pal, and then she turns out, “Oh shit she’s a queen,” how cool is that? You know what I mean? So their relationship is forged by the fact that in that very first meeting of these two characters, they are both in jail for love, basically. And when Stealthy springs Grumpy, and I forget Snow’s exact line but it’s something like, “Good luck with your love,” he’s just like, “Oh my god, that’s my new best friend.” He says it with kind of a double eye-roll and a big sigh of curmudgeonly, “No way…” but he unlocks her, you know?
Zach: That’s a really interesting point.
Lee: And then of course the battle’s forged, and then once Charming proves he’s bona fied, and then the birth of Emma, and that whole thing. By the time he’s a first uncle, he’s part of the family. He’s the crazy uncle. He has that special thing, that’s the great part of getting that little backstory in terms of something to play on and really chew on is that this one dude was marked out of this whole race of people. Sure it was the fault of the clumsy fairy, but at the same time in the story of this world, being touched by that shit is powerful. And no one can break an axe! He broke his axe! Where does that come from? And then he gets a new one, you know? So any time I go out, four seasons later, whatever, that’s who this guy is. That’s where he comes from. He’s so married to his emotions. He’s so grumpy and he’ll either smash someone or he’ll start crying.
Zach: Right. It seems like Grumpy, and Leroy too, they share similarities with Snow White bonding over the heart, and he seems to share similarities with Regina in the fact that they both lost love and were made bitter by it. But Grumpy is more positive and Regina is murdering people as the Evil Queen. Do you see any kind of parallel?
Lee: Grumpy is pure heigh ho and whistle while we work. He’s a dwarf through and through. He’s about as bad as it gets for the dwarfs, you know what I’m saying? But there’s still happy dwarfs that you want to see. And the Evil Queen is the Evil Queen, you know? *laughs* I’ll tell you something though. With her, she’s such an amazing actor that when she plays nice, you’re definitely gonna believe in it. So that’s what’s fun about that character, and all the characters really. Because don’t forget: any time we’re cursed, we go against our . . . like when we’re cursed by Regina the most messed up people in the town are Leroy the drunk and David Nolan the ne’erdowell and the philandering dude, and then Ginny’s character Mary Margaret who is the town harlot. And Ruby, even Ruby has a reputation as a tart or whatever. And these are the true heroes of the story. So in the other world they’re the heroes but the curse really makes them messed up. So once everyone gets their memory back, they’ll always have that to play with. The dark side of these characters can be really dark because in their cursed world, they saw some nasty shit.
That’s what makes it fun. Listen, you know me and you've heard me talk in these panels and stuff. I like to let the scripts do all the thinking, the non linear thinking. I encourage all the fan thoughts and fiction and stuff, but it doesn’t say “writer” by my name, you know what I mean? So that’s the fun thing, they’re doing all the work, you know? Actors create, contribute an idea once in a while. And our show, even though it’s on TV, it still has to be vetted. Even if it’s a good idea, they have to go all the way back. They don’t just take an idea and throw it in there, and they won’t just shoot it unless it’s in the script. So there’s a lot of amazing work that comes out of our writers’ bullpen, the fact that they jam out their stories. They’re the heroes of the world of television because you need 22 quality hours.
Zach: Definitely. On that note, are there any suggestions you ended up making that they took and added to the script?
Lee: God, No way. Number one, I learned a long time ago that you have to make it, always make like it’s their idea, like between actor and director. Even as much as you respect or are being respected in the environment, it’s always a better way to suggest an idea to make it seem like it’s his idea or her idea. And it’s a very subtle way to do it and you usually do it in the playing, in the moments of creation, in the moment where I have the power. So in the rehearsal process I might throw it out, or I might do it there, but I’m not going to…you know, I’m really level with what’s on the page. And what the puzzle, what the challenge is, you know, to take these words. Like with Jane, with Jane, if you get a Jane script, the words she uses and the way she writes is different from anyone else. And you can get some tongue-twisters and the syntax, it’s like you really gotta pay attention to how she’s written it, right? And with the guys, all of them are that way, but especially with Jane, sometimes in the script you can tell it’s Jane because she’s put in these tongue-twister things that are so tough for an actor, but are so rewarding when you can spit them out.
Zach: Yeah, she’s written some really good stuff. I’ve always loved her writing when it comes to “Skin Deep” and episodes like that.
Lee: Terrific. Oh yeah. Some favorite episodes, right? But all the writers, they all contribute, it’s a team. That’s a big part of, like, you know, a successful show is everyone’s contribution. So you’d be surprised. Sometimes it’s just the little things that make the difference to allow the big things to happen naturally and organically.
Zach: Has there ever been anything that came through on a script that really surprised you as far as where they were taking Grumpy or Leroy or any of the other characters? Were you ever genuinely shocked when reading the script?
Lee: All the time! Every script, every script just about. No joke, I mean every script you’re like, “Oh that’s cool” or you see yourself written in somewhere, you’re stoked and you get to do fun stuff, absolutely. Every script, no BS on that. Every script, there will be something in it where you go, “Whoa!” for another character. I mean, the first time you read the scripts you’re just looking for your own stuff, I guarantee that’s true with every actor. It’s like, the lines are like “Bullshit bullshit bullshit, my line, bullshit bullshit.” And then the second or third time you read it you’ll read the whole story. But the first time you get the whole story. But the very first time you’re like, “Where am I? Am I in this thing?” Every script is like a little, you know, there’s little nuclear implosions for all the characters. There’s always a turn or twist, pretty much every script there.
Zach: That’s kind of been the way that they’ve been guiding the show. I want to ask you, when you first got the script for the Season One finale and you read that they were breaking the curse, what was your reaction to that?
Lee: To breaking the curse back in Season One?
Lee: I thought it was fun. I didn’t know where we would go, but it’s led to how I describe the show to people who haven’t seen it and I’m trying to say why they might dig it. I’ve broken it down that it’s about the fairy tale characters getting cursed in the fairy tale land, sent to this horrible, horrible place of Middle America, and once they find out who they are, they try to get back home. So essentially we’ve been really trying to figure out where home is and defining home and defining family. So I think it gives it a lot more. I think it’s great that we found out, you know? It makes it more fun. I think that we know who we are even though we have aspects of both. We are both. I always like to hashtag that. “We are both.” We have aspects of both characters, we spent 27 years as our cursed selves. But I know a few things about being cursed because I’ve been cursed in a few things, you know? I was cursed as a pirate, so I know about curses.
Zach: Speaking of that, you have a pretty extensive filmography. You played Pintel in Pirates of the Caribbean.
Lee: Do you know how many people don’t even know that, though?
Zach: Which is crazy to me! I can’t believe that people don’t know that!
Lee: Well I actually take it as a very nice compliment, but I wouldn’t mind people, that would be,there are these two things that you’ve always wanted to do and that’s just the ego in me. I posted something on Twitter today, this quote that I saw about Brando and it was “If you’re an actor and you’re not talking about him, he’s not even listening.” It was something like that *laughs* and I was like, “It’s so true, you know?” But I was in in England and they thought I was going to be English, so I take it as a big compliment to the fact that they trusted me to play a character and I had a great dialect coach and I knew just enough to do the homework.
Zach: Yeah. I thought you were English, you know? I thought you were British after I saw Pirates. I didn’t know any better.
Lee: Well that is the ultimate compliment. Do you understand that? You couldn’t say a nicer thing to a character actor. And that’s the game. That’s the whole thing. If I’m confusing the audience, that’s the challenge of a great magician. It’s like you know he’s gonna be doing a trick, it’s just a question of “How does he do it?” And that’s one of the things I like about the acting magic. Because it’s a lot of technique, it’s a craft. But when you watch some of the great people you see how they do it. Like with our show, you get in there with Bobby and Ginny and Lana, J Mo, whatever, anybody who’s connected and cooking. It seems effortless, they’re locked in, you know? So that’s good acting, to be able to lock in the moment, to let it flow.
Zach Van Norman is a writer, reporter, and podcast host for Once Upon A Fan. He is also a film student with an interest in editing and directing who enjoys symbolic analysis and studying the use of color and light in movies and television.