Lee Arenberg on His Role in Once Upon a Time, the Acting Profession, and Keeping Things Real
It’s impossible to remain nervous for long while interviewing Lee Arenberg, who plays Leroy/Grumpy on the hit show Once Upon a Time. He’s so warm and generous, and he has a real gift for putting others at ease as well as making them laugh.
Turns out that’s no accident—Lee endeavors to live by his own creed of respect (“What you give is what you get”, and he naturally takes the lead in cultivating heart to heart communication. As a result, my phone interview with him was a total joy and often quite inspiring. We’re so grateful he granted this exclusive May 2012 interview for the Once Upon A Fan website:
Diane: Hey Lee, this is Diane
Lee: Oh dear god, Diane—how the hell are ya?
Diane: Pretty good! How are you?
Lee: I’m always good—don’t you know that’s my secret? When you live the dream, you gotta stay positive.
Diane: But you’ve done more than live the dream—you’ve earned the dream. Because you’ve been acting for over twenty years, right? And you’ve been in huge, successful franchises such as Pirates of the Caribbean, Star Trek and Seinfeld.
Lee: Well I’ve been really lucky that they like short, bald and crazy! But I have to say, the fans have a lot of responsibility for the success of these shows. Don’t forget, our art form is the only one where if there’s no one watching you, you’re just a crazy person doing it! So the actor has a responsibility to respect the audience—don’t ever take them lightly—and hopefully the respect is mutual. It’s not a solitary art—it takes two to tango. That’s why I take the time out to do interviews for fansites, because I think a lot of the success comes from them.
Diane: That is such a great attitude compared to the Diva approach. And you really talk to your fans on Twitter! You’re response to them is so warm.
Lee: Acting is just one part of what I do—the warmth is who I am. Acting is what I do for a living, and it has the potential to be artistic, but there’s more to me than that, which is how I bring depth to my characters. It’s a great way to make a living—much better than having a “real” job. But it’s not as romantic as people might think.
First of all, there’s tons of pressure on you, you gotta remember the words, make your mark, and you’re responsible for going toe-to-toe with some really talented people. And then the hard part is getting the gigs and staying emotionally stable. The ride of an artist or actor is a pretty messed up ride. So when you do have some success, make sure you enjoy it and be thankful for what you have.
Diane: So when did you have an inkling that you wanted to be an artist or an actor?
Lee: I’m still striving for the art part — I go to class every week, and I give the profession the respect it deserves. At some point on stage, when I was in school or community productions in Junior High, I began to feel the “vibe.” And growing up in L.A. where you’re surrounded by people who’ve been part of studio audiences at one point or another, you begin to get a feel for it. But no one in my family is in the business. And even if I lived in the shadow of a studio, it’s still a million mile journey— metaphorically — just to walk across that street! No one does you favors here. There is that ego/talent thing you might have — but you gotta EARN it!
Diane: That’s a great attitude. Do you think you were a little wiser about the business because you grew up in L.A.?
Lee: Hell no!
Diane: [Belly laugh] No?
Lee: That’s the stuff no one can teach you. You unfortunately learn by getting knocked around, not getting what you want, and having to deal with it. And times have changed — it’s very star driven. So you always shoot for the stars in the hope of getting the kind of opportunities and projects you want. But being a working actor is a victory.
Diane: You’ve certainly achieved that with the film franchises you’ve done and Once Upon A Time, and I heard you just started a recurring role on Californication. You’ve kept yourself working, which is amazing.
Lee: But you’re only as good as your next part. You can’t look back and say, “Wow, I was really great as a pirate.” Honestly, as soon as you’re driving home after your last scene, you’re already thinking, “Okay, what’s next?” And “Woe is me,” is not really an emotion for an actor, it’s “Woe is us,” because you feel like it’s a collective thing when you’re not working. There’s always a million people out there who can’t get a gig — and they’re super talented people! More talented than me or anyone who works for any show, and they’re unemployed! It’s not fair, but that’s the way it is.
Diane: Well I think your humility keeps you on your toes as an actor. You’ve been in some pretty big things, and you could be quite puffed up.
Lee: There’s moments for it, I’m telling you! Don’t mistake my kindness for weakness!
Diane: [Belly laugh] Oh!
Lee: Yeah, don’t push me or catch me when I’m in a crappy mood! But then there are also times when I go out there and people run into me at the market, and I have to consider that possibility before I go out.
Diane: Ooh, have you been recognized out there? Because a lot of your roles have involved heavy make-up and costumes
Lee: I can remember when it first started that people recognized me in a big way — it began in the bar scene around 1990 when Tales of the Crypt came out. So it started pretty early, and then obviously with the Seinfeld episodes I got recognized all the time. But only recently, say in the last year, have people started to recognize my name, and it’s mostly because of the popularity of Once Upon a Time.
See, there are a few stages in an actor’s career — the “Who’s Lee Arenberg?” stage all the way to the “”GET ME Lee Arenberg” stage. But you can hang out for thirty years in the “Who’s Lee Arenberg?” phase and never reach the other side. So if you dare to dream, you gotta have some serious brass to keep going for it.
Diane: Tell me about how you got the part — had you heard about casting for this show, or did the producers have you in mind?
Lee: I’d heard about the show. You’d have to ask the producers if they had me in mind for it, but I think I was definitely on the short list.
Diane: Did you read with some of the other guys who play the dwarves or anyone else in the show, or was it a solitary audition?
Lee: I actually met those guys the first day on the set. My first day was shooting with Fausti [Faustino DiBauda], and it was his first day of shooting anything. He was green, but he’s a very talented guy, so I took him under my wing and said, “Let’s make your first day your best day.”
The name of the game in acting is that it’s a team sport.
Diane: But not everyone thinks that, right? I’m sure you’ve met people who don’t behave that way — who think it’s all about them.
Lee: There can be those people — but very few are like that. Only a minor percentage, and it’s usually someone who hasn’t earned it, someone who’s like a burning magnesium flame—burning bright and having their rock star moment. Once in a while you’ll run into a jackass, but there’s no way you can beat a guy like Johnny [Depp] for being classy.
Diane: That’s so nice to hear!
Lee: And I love what I do. But you’d be surprised at how difficult our gig is. Convincing people that you’re somebody else is not the easiest thing. There are about a million people watching you on the set and you have to remember all this stuff — and you have to maintain your cool. You have to be funny or dramatic under pressure.
Diane: Well let me ask you about the dramatic part. Did you know when you first read for your role that your character was going to have his own episode and become the main love interest?
Lee: Oh hell no!
Diane: Really? You didn’t??
Lee: Hell to the no!! I’m not a regular cast member who’s guaranteed a certain number of episodes. I’m sort of at the mercy of these mad geniuses and how they want to mix Team 7 into the game. Before the Dreamy episode, I was just at home and my family was about to go to Brazil, and then I got an email about scheduling, which gave me a bit of a hunch.
But it all came as a huge surprise and a pleasure. And I looked upon it as them trusting me to tell a big part of the story with a softer edge, compared to the hard edge of the Rumpel story or the hard edge of Snow and Charming. The Dreamy episode had a nice place in there to really charm everyone and let them love the characters. And my guy Grumpy is one of the more loveable dudes. They’re definitely looking out for the legacy of Walt’s creations, and I am too. I love all that stuff.
Diane: Did you watch the Disney movie or read some of the fairy tales to prepare for the part?
Lee: No way!
Diane: So you’re mostly just in the moment?
Lee: It wasn’t really my thing. I’m a dude—I’m a pirate!
Diane: [Belly laugh] Of course you are!
Lee: Now that I realize how ballsy and really intense that story line was, I wish I was better prepared with the whole Snow White storyline. As a kid growing up, I didn’t appreciate that it could be macho enough. Obviously I was way wrong, because with Team 7 we’re super macho, haha!
Diane: So what’s harder — playing a love interest or playing comedy?
Lee: Well it wasn’t hard loving Amy Acker!
Diane: [Belly laughs] I bet — she’s hot!
Lee: Hell, that was the easiest money I ever made! But what you’re really thinking about is getting into the character. Comedy comes out of a situation that the character’s in. I like to look at it like this: Drama with its big emotions is like cooking a steak. You might like it medium, and I might like it rare, so it really comes down to technique differences we use, kind of like using a different sauce on the steak.
But comedy is more like baking — a science where you have to get the exact mix down just right or you won’t have a chemical reaction. So in comedy, you have to give respect to the material first and trust the rhythm of the writers, because comedy is all about that rhythm. I like to say it doesn’t matter what you say, it’s how you say it. You’ll never get the job as an actor by getting the lines right or just being perfect So great comedians have that incredible timing and physicality — and they’re also in the moment for their character. But at some level, it’s all the same. You’re just being the character — that’s where it all comes from.
Diane: Well you’ve been a pirate, an alien, an angry guy on Seinfeld. But now — you’re a chick magnet! Women love the Dreamy episode! Have you felt a bit of a change?
Lee: Well, I dig it — it’s certainly been a surprise and it’s very flattering to represent a good kind of platonic love. Especially since they’re giving all this to a short, middle-aged, balding kind of dude! Haha!
Diane: But seriously, have you looked at your Twitter followers lately? Approximately eighty percent of them are women. And you say some of the most romantic and heroic lines of the whole show in that Dreamy episode.
Lee: Well that’s the weight of what’s really behind the whole Grumpy character. The reason he’s Grumpy is because he’s STILL in love.
Diane: Yes—that’s it!
Lee: And that scene where you first meet him, and he’s in jail — he’s there because he still loves his girl! And I’ll tell you a story: right before they filmed that, they gave Grumpy a last second rewrite — an entirely new speech with a different manipulation of the whole diamond thing so he was actually swindled, making him a good guy.
So getting a last-minute curve ball like that, instead of the original speech, could have really screwed me if I wasn’t all about the character. But because the character comes first for me, they weren’t changing how I say things, they were only changing what I say, filling in the blanks in a slightly different way. So as long as you’re in character, you’re still good.
Diane: The soul of the character remained the same . . .
Lee: Yeah, and these writers are so brilliant — Jane and Adam and all of them. They are at the top of their game and they know how to think outside the box. It’s so exciting to get these kinds of scripts from them. And there’s a lot of love in our cast — we really love each other.
Diane: [Swoons] Really? One thing fans want to know is what it’s like on the set. Is it a warm environment, or is there mostly a lot of discipline involved because time is money and they have to keep to the shooting schedule?
Lee: Absolutely no discipline!!
Diane: [Belly laugh]
Lee: Listen — it’s a pro crew, a kick-ass crew. And we love working — these are fun characters to play. And it’s led by GG [Ginnifer Goodwin]. Whoever is your number one actor is always the one who’s going to set the tone. If your number one is a bad ass, then people are going to misbehave. But if your number one is a class act, then everyone is going to have to toe the line. And GG is like one of the classiest of all time; she’s the ultimate super person. And Lana’s insane — one of the best bad guys ever!
Diane: That brings me to something I’m dying to know — who is the most like their character and who is the least like their character on the show?
Lee: Everyone has aspects in their performance of who they are, or they couldn’t do the job —and everyone’s acting their balls off! But no one’s like their character, except maybe me—you could’ve called me Grumpy sometimes as a kid. Or you could call me Dreamy/Soulful. But I don’t really call myself an actor. I call myself a soul communicator. I treat people like friends when I meet them.
Diane: So I guess you don’t know anything about Season 2 that you might be able to tell me . . [Insert deliberate fishing here]
Lee: I wouldn’t tell you anyway! I’m the no-spoiler guy, that’s for sure — and I don’t know anything. Don’t even bother, because I’m not going to ruin it for everyone.
Diane: But fans do want to see more of Grumpy. Especially since at the end of the Dreamy episode, Leroy decides — curse or no curse —that “I’m gonna get my moment.” And in spite of his cynicism, he takes control and makes something good happen for Astrid in the name of love.
Even though he got a bad shake in Fairy Tale world, there seems to be some hope left in Grumpy that could be capitalized for Season 2.
Lee: Well he definitely respects love. He has that redeeming value. And he has the brotherly love of his brethren, and he’s not mad when he comes back to be with them. He’s like “Well, I tried.” And he really appreciates the way the rest of his team said, “Go live your dream.” He may take it out on the other guys a little bit, but they understand where it came from.
Diane: Okay, I want your insight on one thing, if you have any: Why does the Blue Fairy try to interfere with the love between Nova and Dreamy?
Lee: I really think the Blue Fairy thought Nova would be a kick-ass fairy godmother. An ulterior motive might be fun to explore, but I think the Blue Fairy is just convinced that Nova would regret it down the line. This way, Nova won’t have to deal with the some future day when they’re broke, or the dream has faded.
Diane: So you don’t think it’s all a Marxist conspiracy on the part of the Fairies to keep the Dwarves in the mines, making that fairy dust? To keep the class structure the way it is?
Lee: Oh sure, it could be some conspiracy like that. But I don’t think Nova would have regretted going off with Dreamy. He’d already been trained to do whatever she wanted, and he’s a good dude. At the same time, what a great reason to make him pissed off — she was a superstar of the fairies, and that was his one great chance at true love.
Diane: And what about your dreams — do you have any dream roles, or do you just sink your teeth into each role that comes your way?
Lee: No. I look at it all as a challenge. But I love the classics, and I want to go back to the theater in those big houses in a starring role someday and really trust myself.
Diane: Do you mean in classic theater roles like Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman? You’d be perfect in a part like that.
Lee: Yeah, absolutely! My training ground is really in getting up there in theater, and I’d love to get my instrument to the point to carry the day. It’s interesting, in theater if you’re lucky enough to star, you’re usually led or controlled by a powerhouse director. But in television, you’re led by the writers, because you need 22 movie-quality scripts.
With movies and television, you’re locking in a forever image. People will remember what you had for lunch in a certain scene, and it’s interesting how that resonates with the artist’s soul, because you never know what it is that audiences remember most. Performance wise, theater is a real rush because you’re actually having to execute a two-hour show. In a movie, you could be executing a ten or fifteen minute piece for a whole day. All day could be for filming a two-minute action scene. Live theater is terrifying and thrilling at the same time. There’s a lot of mental athletics and things to remember in acting, but in theater you have to make it look like it’s your first time, every time.
Diane: How do you feel about TV now? When I was watching the Dreamy episode, I was floored by just the cinematography alone compared to what TV used to be. Every episode of Once Upon a Time is like watching a film.
Lee: TV is where it’s at. The highest quality of writing, and a lot of big stars are in there. TV is very much an art form now. The connotations from the 1960s and 70s are long gone. I think it started with the Sopranos, and the networks are trying to copy the cable shows, minus the edginess. The shows that are doing well have a lot of edginess, though—The Game of Thrones, True Blood—they have a lot of adult content.
Diane: Has that been good for actors? The proliferation of good TV — do you think there are more jobs available?
Lee: There’s never enough for everybody. Even if there are more jobs, the same people are in demand — that’s just the nature of it. The perception of the “best people” are the ones who do most of the share, and the rest snag what they can. Like I said, you’re always trying to reach for the stars to be one of those people who are in demand. And hopefully, that’s the perception of what’s happening for my career right now. It’s a great job and a great way to see the world, that’s for sure.
Diane: Do you have a bucket list of actors or directors you’d love to work with—the “dream” people?
Lee: I live my dream every day. I wouldn’t be that presumptuous, though. I don’t ask the universe for a Mercedes when the gods might be like, “Dude, you’d look so much better in a Jaguar.”
Diane: [Belly laugh] Good for you!
Lee: I ask for help on how to get there—and then I’m just thankful for what I’ve been given and my beautiful family and friends.
Diane: But you gotta admit it’s fun to finally be the chick magnet on Twitter, right?
Lee: Sure, yeah! But I always sort of have been. As a young actor, I got taught a great lesson by Gina Gershon, the legendary beauty who I used to do theater with. She said, “You’re never going to have a great girlfriend until you have friends who are girls.” I was about 18 or 19 when I learned that lesson — still in college. And it changed my whole perception. All misogyny was gone, all bad attitudes were gone in one fricking second. The way to be effectual in life is to just keep it real. That’s the charm. Give respect — that’s what’s sexy.
Diane: So how do you keep yourself on an even keel between jobs? It’s quite a roller coaster profession.
Lee: I don’t. No way. I wallow in depression just like everybody. Psychiatrists don’t want you to know that it’s a normal human emotion and that life ebbs and flows. That’s what long walks are for, playing with children is for, getting a good library book. And that’s why I go to class every week. You gotta get out there and try, but then know that it’s normal. It’s okay—everybody hates Mondays. So that’s why, when I see someone who’s down, I always give them a smile. Even the homeless guys. People just want to feel good. But you gotta give it to get it, always. You have to give what you want back.
Diane: Now shifting gears a little bit, do you read your son fairy tales?
Lee: Every day! I read to him all the time, and I’ve got him reading to me now. He starts Kindergarten in the fall, so he has to read to me if he wants his iPad time, and he’s doing well on that. I’ve been reading to him out of the Once fairy tale book — have you heard of it? The book came out a few months ago. Some of them can get pretty scary, you know, dark morality tales —like Hansel and Gretel, etc. But it’s a good collection of classic stories.
Amazon: Once Upon A Time
Diane: Has he ever seen you on the show? To be honest, my kids are a little scared of Once Upon a Time.
Lee: Are you kidding? My kid grew up on Pirates! He’s seen them all, and he gets more excited than scared. He’s a five-year old who likes goosebumps. Not me, I don’t like getting scared, but he loves it. And he knows I don’t like violence.
Lee likes action, not violence. I mean, I’ve done a lot of movies where I fight people, but he’s cool with that. And he came on the set of Once for a couple of hours. I was wondering if he’d be okay with it, but Josh got his sword out and did some sword fighting with him. So he did really well, and he knew how to be quiet and respect the set. Best role in the whole world by far is being a dad. Or a mom.
Diane: Well your pictures together on Twitter are adorable — so precious! And hey, I think that’s about all the questions I have for you, Lee.
Lee: Well I want to say one closing thing, my shout out to all of the Oncer fans — we’re looking forward to another great season! We have a hell of a time telling all these great stories. And keep all those letters and emails coming to TV executives in support of the show. That’s what it takes — that grass roots support. You guys are the best!
You can follow Lee on Twitter
Photo Credits: ABC
Huge thanks to Diane J Reed for organising such a spectacular interview, and to Lee for being so gracious and supporting this fan site the way he has. It is much appreciated.
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