Interview With Lee Arenberg

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I first met Lee Arenberg ten years ago on the set of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean. Lee (or was it Pintel) immediately took me under his wing showing me the ropes on how to survive an afternoon with pillagers, plunders, riflers, and looters. Yo Ho! I stood there a bit intimidated, the only woman surrounded by a bunch of crazy bearded men, until they started ordering drinks at the coffee stand. The rough and tumble faded a bit as they sipped on frothy caffeine while whistling at folks passing by on bicycles. I don’t think I was aware at the time of the magic I was witnessing firsthand. I got a glimpse behind the curtain and saw the stars before they were born. It is such a pleasure to still enjoy Lee’s antics a decade later, but now he’s turned in the coffee for something a bit stronger. Well at least he does as Grumpy on ABC’s Once Upon a Time.

Jan (OPI): Welcome to Officially Plugged In, Lee. It’s been a long time since we’ve caught up so I am very excited that you are now plugged in. Let’s begin with your work on Once Upon a Time as everyone’s favorite Grumpy.

Lee Arenberg plays the role of GRUMPY in the Once Upon A Time show.

Lee Arenberg: I’m very thankful for Once Upon a Time because it’s steady, great stuff to do, just the best people, and I love doing it. You know, I’m just happy to be in it. That’s why it’s exciting. I get as much of a kick out of seeing it. It’s a very cool show to be a part of. I’m so thankful to the audience for loving my character. That’s for damn sure (laughs).

Jan (OPI): They’ve embraced you a hundred and twenty percent. It’s great to see the reaction. The audience has fallen in love with all of the characters. It’s an awesome cast.

Lee Arenberg: All of my cohorts are really cool talented cats. We have fun together. Those characters are joyous characters anyway. It’s an easy time whenever we’re on that show. Even if it’s traveling and being away from home for a little bit. It’s some of the most fun I’ve had in my whole career. By far! Just getting the respect, getting the great stuff written for it, and then the people of Canada. There are some neat people up there. They all have great personalities. Super hard working. The stuff we do there is on the cutting edge of technology. Especially for television.

Jan (OPI): The location where you film in Canada is beautiful.

Lee Arenberg: Vancouver, is a bucket list kinda place. It’s like San Francisco ringed by the primeval forest. It’s bad ass. Bears occasionally show up in the middle of town. They hop in the trash trucks and end up waking up in town or something. That happened last year. Right in the middle of downtown. A baby bear. They had to tranquilize it and take it back to the forest. It’s right there. The fishing village Steveston is an easy double for New England. It’s a quaint little spot. So they sort of have everything from desert, to the forest, to the caves, and the city environment. It’s like a magical place really. I love it up there.

Lee Arenberg


Jan (OPI): Even when it’s cold?

Lee Arenberg: It gets cold up there. Just for a couple months. Honestly, I would be up there the whole time it’s that much fun. Good people. Great friends in this cast. And, it’s only like a two hour flight so you’re literally not that far away which is great.

Jan (OPI): That’s not a bad commute for a fun job. Let’s talk about the storylines in Once Upon a Time, they are incredible.

Lee Arenberg: These writers are starting right at the top. They just get it. They really have a great voice for these characters, and the way they are able to spin it is so exciting for everyone. They take stuff that we already know to be true with the archetypical characters, and they just mess with it. It’s terrific. Not taking away what we already love about the characters, but they fill in the shading and nuances. Like how we get there and why someone is evil. That’s one of the great things about it. The writers view the characters with a lot of complexity.

Jan (OPI): I think all of the characters have a wide range of emotion as well.

Lee Arenberg: Acting is a great way to channel the rage and stuff that is a wasted emotion anyway. Acting is all about being in the present. There is something about the power of now. The whole concept of you can’t control the future, and what just happened doesn’t matter, so being in the present gives you extra awareness if you can do it. Stay in the moment. A lot of our fear is misplaced. Can’t control the future so you might as well deal with it, and stay in the present. It’s one moment in the present to the next moment in the present. That’s a lot of what acting is about. I think it’s also a good way to live. Stay real. I just think about the big picture. It’s an interesting time we live in, and definitely a good time to be in the entertainment business.

Lee Arenberg played the role of MIKE in the Seinfeld show.


Jan (OPI): It’s a good time to be an actor. For instance, you are so good at character work. You morph into whoever it is you’re playing. We don’t see Pintel in Grumpy, and we don’t see Grumpy in the Parking Guy from Seinfeld. We don’t see you, we see the character.

Lee Arenberg: Yeah, well when you say it that way, thanks. (laughs) Well you know even the character guy wants to be the star. You don’t get in the business if you don’t believe you can carry the ball. So I still have that desire. I like getting challenged. The challenge is that little bit of fear of having to do the work. It’s always the best part of the experience for me. Then I kind of let go and trust that the work is done. Because the set is not really the place to do work. You sort of have to play there, be ready to play, that’s your sandbox. So that’s the challenge for a movie to be ready, and then to shoot it out of order. The actual work is fun. If you still enjoy just working on the words then you realize it doesn’t matter what you say, only how you say it. Then give respect back to the writer’s words. Because once you know your acting intention then the words just come. You don’t have to worry about it. You’re not going to forget them because you know what you’re doing. You’re connected to the action that’s why it’s acting. It’s not a passive deal. I think that’s enough to keep you going if you can get the work. You know you have to ricochet pretty much through the highest corridors as an American character actor to get the love. So you gotta shoot for the stars and you might hit the moon. That kind of thing. The truth is it’s magical, but you just have to work your ass off to get lucky. It turns into something at the end. Some people make it right out of the gate. But, most of us have to find the love, then do the work, and then still get lucky.

Jan (OPI): And, work really hard. That’s the one thing I don’t think people realize.

Lee Arenberg: That’s always been the secret of the film business. How hard everyone works. I mean if you were to think it’s glamour, yeah it can be glamorous certain aspects of the biz, but it’s a tough game. Even for the actor. Trying to remember your lines and be ‘on’ when they get to you, that’s what we’re there for. I always like to say that they pay you for the waiting, and the acting you’re supposed to do for free. That’s your time. That’s the only time you need to be sort of ‘on’ is in that moment. That’s what it’s like every day. It’s like you’re really asking the universe to give you a lucky break so you just have to be thankful for it. It bounces back in multiple ways.

Lee Arenberg played the role of PINTEL in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.


Jan (OPI): Like the ripple effect?

Lee Arenberg: Yeah. People are always asking what was it like on Pirates and I’m like “we got to take a speedboat to work every day, live in the Caribbean for a couple of years, and hang with Keira all day. Not so bad”. And, the same with Once Upon a Time. Amazing.

Jan (OPI): You’ve been an actor pretty much your whole life. You started out on stage when you were just a kid. Was that an easy career decision to make since you began so young?

Lee Arenberg: Pro stuff started in my early twenties, but I set my mind on it pretty early like definitely by ten or eleven. I was into it in school. In theater mostly. I’ll have to say that even though a lot of my friends were the kids who were the movie stars who became the Brat Pack, I was still a million miles away from that. My family wasn’t in the biz. So I was still lucky to get there. Meeting the Actors Gang, having the friends I did in high school, get to do the quality shit as a young guy, and get inspired by people like my friend Ron Campbell. Ron is a Cirque du Soleil lead clown in the Kooza show. My first acting idols. You know? And, to get in with Actors Gang, Tim Robbins was an older brother influence. You can’t take away what I learned from being around my friends. And, then I got lucky. I did theater. I literally played two back-to-back characters. I played a manic-depressive character in this really heartfelt beautiful play. Then I played this crazy megalomaniac Donald Trump type on steroids in this comedy show. Between those two is when the agent was like “oh, man, that’s interesting, I’ll sign that guy”. I needed to show that range because that’s what people get jazzed about. So that’s what I’ve always looked for in the characters. It doesn’t have to be the biggest character, but it’s gotta have just a little something to it. I was a lead actor all the way through when I was younger for sure. Especially in school, and even in the theatre like at the Gang. I was lucky enough to play the leading roles which taught me a lot. I loved that. I loved doing it so I don’t mind the more the merrier.

Jan (OPI): You’re one of the original founders of the Actor’s Gang, correct?

Lee Arenberg: Yeah. It started actually in an acting class or a directing class. It was based on a Tom Stoppard play, and then they adapted it. It was weird. We were this gang of actors that would have been around 1980 or very early 1981. That’s the original roots of it. The first show we did was called Ubu the King by Alfred Jarry which is an amazing play. It was like the first punk rock play and it was written in 1896. This dude Jarry is one of the great characters of theatre history. He lived in-between floors in an apartment building like in this weird crawl space. He had a pet lobster he would walk down the street. He wrote this play, and the first word in the play is ‘piss shit’. He caused such a ruckus in 1896 that the audience ripped the seats out of the theatre. It was the first Dadaesque play. So anyway that was the one we chose to do. Tim directed it at UCLA as a one act. It was so well received that we took it out into Hollywood, and that was the launching of the Gang. Then Tim played Ubu. Ron was one of the stars of it and Richard Olivier who was in the company back then. I mean it was a pretty heavy time. I think Tim’s movie stardom attracted a great bunch of actors into our center in the next few years of the Gang. Now it’s an institution.

Lee Arenberg


Jan (OPI): Did you ever imagine that this idea you guys had in class would still be going strong three decades later?

Lee Arenberg: I think so. Yeah. I didn’t doubt it. That’s mostly due to Tim. Once the Pirates movies came around that was sort of the end of my time being a full time company member. So I did a little over twenty years when it was like the main focus. I’ve always wanted to be on film and TV. Although, I love theatre and I can’t wait to do my next opportunity on the stage. But, I’ve always been seduced by film and TV. For me it’s catching lightening in the bottle. It’s a forever business. What you did that day is what’s always going to be there. The challenge in the theatre is making it seem like the first time over and over. And, that’s obviously a totally different challenge. But, film making is like one little piece, one little piece, one little piece. I still like seeing myself up there. Still have the dream.

Jan (OPI): Would you share a little about the importance for actors to continue training throughout their career?

Lee Arenberg: I think it’s valuable. I think that no matter how talented you are it’s good to connect with other actors. They are always inviting you to a knife fight in this business when you audition or try to get a job. You’re not going to get every one, but you might as well always pull a sharp knife. And, be able to do the best you can even when you do scenes in class. For example, in my class when doing scenes from famous movies you’re usually playing the major role. My teacher will say she wants all of her character guys to play the roles like the leading man. Don’t play it like a character guy. Just imbibing that vulnerability. I like to say that acting is a dangerous business. You’re paid to make dangerous choices when they say “action”. Not just physically, but like emotionally vulnerable. It doesn’t matter what the actor ever feels in his brain, it only matters what the audience thinks the actor feels. Right? So you could be thinking about a sandwich, but they think “oh, obviously he’s so in love with her”. But really you’re in love with a turkey sandwich. It doesn’t matter. It’s what the audience thinks that matters. You should always be cool with your fans because your art form demands that someone watches you. Johnny (Depp) says it best “fans are the boss”. You know that’s why he’s the number one dude with the fans. It’s because he knows. I think that’s simple and profound, you know? It’s a deep saying because it really is that way.

Jan (OPI): You get hired by Hollywood, but the fans are paying you. They are the ones buying the tickets for your movie, or getting the ratings up by watching your show.

Lee Arenberg: For sure. Why not be nice? Be positive. Non-denominational positivity is good for the world. To get someone to smile. To me the scariest emotion is loneliness. Scares me worse than anything. I like being alone, but who wants to be lonely? I feel for someone that is lonely. That’s when your bad behavior comes out. Some people you can fix by just saying “hey, how you doin’?”. That one little interaction. It goes a long way.

Jan (OPI): Just by pausing in the moment and acknowledging them you made their day.

Lee Arenberg: Stay in the moment. It’s not that bad. Although, I’ve fretted and stayed up over something like hanging out of a helicopter or something that scared the shit out of me on a movie set. Some of the Pirates stuff was kind of scary until you did it once. Because they don’t always tell you how they’re going to rig it so you imagine the worst in your mind. Then you get on it, and you kind of have to be macho enough to pull it off. You buck up a little bit, and then you kinda have fun doing it. It’s always that way. At first you’re always a little “Oh my God!”. I’m not great with heights. That’s the one thing I’m not crazy about. Once for a commercial they were like “I’m going to put you in this helicopter, take off the door, but you’ll be harnessed. Can you wave, hang out, and fly by?”. Yeah. Sure I can. You’re gonna be gripping a little bit. Right? Life’s like that. Life is like a helicopter ride, you’ve got a harness on, but you hope they’ve strapped it good.

Jan (OPI): And, you hope there’s fuel in the tank. What’s one of the scariest things you’ve had to do as an actor where you were scared, but your character wasn’t?

Lee Arenberg in the role of PINTEL in the Pirates of the Caribbean films.


Lee Arenberg: Honestly, like a million times on Pirates. They were blowing stuff up, and they’ve got the big hurricanes going. You’ve got to time it because there’s fire, you’ve got a torch, you’ve got to run, and there’s a bunch of glue on your face. I mean, you never think about yourself. Like when they say “action” I don’t think about myself once. There’s a million people watching me to make sure I don’t fuck up hopefully. Always be great friends with your stunt double because you’re going to do most of it. The one or two times that you need him is when he could die and you can’t get broken. I do as much as I can, but there are certain things that they’re never going to let me do. So, I don’t even try to do them. I’m fifty, you know what I mean? (laughs) He’s paid to get hurt, but I’m not because I have to work tomorrow. As the character, when the camera is rolling, I’m not even me. I’m never me. That’s the worst thing you can do.

Jan (OPI): Do you have a specific way you need to transition into your character before a scene?

Lee Arenberg: I’m a ‘whatever school works’ actor. Like if I can just get it, I get it. But, if I have to go there, then I go there. Whatever my technique is, it should be complimentary to the work. You want to go in and work with the set not have the set work with you. So you just want to be able to go with the flow. And, hopefully you’re getting asked to deliver those emotionally vulnerable moments. I’m always looking for them. Because that’s what I really get a kick out of playing these days. Adding that to the tough guy. I love it.

Jan (OPI): There are a lot of emotionally vulnerable moments happening on Once Upon a Time.

Lee Arenberg: You know one thing I love about being in these fantasy and sci-fi kind of stories is that it takes an intelligent audience cuz you gotta kinda get into the story. With Once you need to suspend your disbelief. See the opposite is reality TV. In reality TV they are trying to make you believe it’s real. But, in our story we’re trying to tell you a story, and we want you to know it’s a story. These aren’t real characters. We enjoy being story tellers. So, it’s kinda the opposite of that. It requires an intelligence. That’s why there are questions on a lot of the fan forums, the fan fiction, the podcast groups, and the Once fans. That’s what is magic about Once Upon a Time. It plays the world over. Even when you see it on Twitter, it’s Brazil, Russia, Zimbabwe, Italy, Germany. All over, right? But, I mean how exciting! That the stories are out there, that they love you and these characters all over. That’s it.

Jan (OPI): Every child in the world throughout time has grown up with some sort of fairy tale characters. Those were our bedtime stories.

Lee Arenberg: Those morality tales. All of those were meant to entertain as well as educate, really. Those stories have a moral at the end of them. Part of the whole deal. Every single one of our characters have good qualities and bad qualities. Nobody is perfect. That’s what is so cool about the Once characters, everyone is flawed. A lot of us are messed up from love, well pretty much all of the characters are messed up through love. It’s tough to love, even in a magical place.

Lee Arenberg, Johnny Depp and Adam Ostegard.


Jan (OPI): Oh, that’s really good!

Lee Arenberg: Isn’t that good though? But, it’s true. Think about it, every single character is just trying to love.

Jan (OPI): I think you’ve hit on why the audience loves these characters so much. They are all relatable.

Lee Arenberg: Yeah, I want people to love Grumpy for me and for what I bring to it. Again, that’s a turn on for me. I just want people to like it. To this day, I still have people say “ello Poppet”. That’s killer. I love that. Every time. Even though they want me to say it a million times I never get tired of it.

Jan (OPI): It’s probably one of the most famous lines out of the entire Pirates franchise.

Lee Arenberg: There are so many great lines. All of Jack’s lines, like “why is the rum always gone”. Those guys wrote some fucking great lines. They were so much fun. I loved making Pirates movies.

Jan (OPI): Well, we love Pintel, Grumpy, and all the characters of Lee. Thank you very much for hanging out with Officially Plugged In. This was so much fun catching up with you.

Lee Arenberg: Yeah, well I’m stoked to be Officially Plugged In.

You can find Lee on Twitter and check out his long list of film credits on IMDb.
https://twitter.com/leearenberg
http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0034305/

*Interview by Jan Ostegard