Interview – Lee Arenberg


There is no substitute for a burning desire to master one’s craft. For actor Lee Arenberg there has never been any other way as he sustains a three decade long career in Hollywood.  Staring in the blockbuster movie series Pirates of the Caribbean, along with countless appearances on popular television series’, including his regular role as Grumpy aka Leroy in the adored fairy tale drama Once Upon a Time, Arenberg is humbled for a chance to partake in a variety of theatrical roles.  While finding establishment in the ever so tough entertainment business, he looks forward never resting on his laurels and continues to challenge himself as an actor. Recently we sat down with the colorful character to discuss his career in acting, his inspirations, the success of Once Upon a Time, and more. – You started your acting career nearly three decade ago and have been part of a long list of films and television series in that time.  How did everything begin for you?

Lee Arenberg – It basically started in Hebrew school for me.  I played David, I killed Goliath, I got a standing ovation, and I was hooked.  I was seduced by the relationship of actor to audience and enjoyed the attention.  As I got a little bit older I auditioned for a show that had a call back process.  I just enjoyed seeing my name getting called back until I finally made the cast list.  It is kind of like sports for me; it is setting your mind to the goal and achieving it.  That is how it started, then as I got more into it I just really was able to hide in the characters, be able to play the great words, and tell the stories as a story teller. – That is very interesting.  You have been involved in some extremely popular projects over the years including the Star Trek television series and The Pirates of The Caribbean films.  Your characters are very distinct in both franchises.  Do you find yourself drawn to these very theatrical roles?

Lee Arenberg – I am drawn to the roles I can get.  I guess yes, but with Once Upon A Time they gave me a chance to play a romantic character and that appeals to me as well.  The idea is the character is the thing.  I like getting lost in it, I like making that transformation.  Whatever the challenge is, that is how I see it.

Disney – What is great about the parts you do play is you can add your own personality into the character as well.

Lee Arenberg – You always have to.  That is what they hire you for and that is your challenge.  My teacher always says you are paid to be emotionally vulnerable when they call action.  That is the difference between the pro actor and the layman, the understanding and being able to deliver every time.  We are in the business if you do not bat 1,000, you do not get a base hit every time, you are out of the game.  Batting 300. does not make the hall of fame as an actor, you have to bat 1,000.  You have to stay on it, that is key.  You have to be prepared and be available.  That is truly the challenge.  That is why we study and that is what we work for.  That is what you get paid the big bucks for; to have your eyes saying one thing and your mouth saying another.  The audience picks up on it. – That is very true.  In most recent years you have had a reoccurring role as part of Once A Upon A Time as Grumpy.  The series just completed its third successful season.  How does it feel to be part of yet another special series like this?

Lee Arenberg – It has been fantastic.  Number one just to be employed anytime in this business is fantastic and it should be seen as a victory.  When the audience connects with something you are proud of, then it is really an honor to be associated with it.  With Once Upon A Time and Pirates of The Caribbean, when you get big fan bases behind it and support, it is just a sweeter ride.  You are not doing it for that, but at the end of the day the garbage man is more important than the movie star, because actors I know do not pick crap up.  Think about it, it is cart before the horse, prior to the invention of the movie screen it was no dogs or actors allowed.  It was thousands of years from the Greek days to the modern age that actors were vilified in society because the telling of stories were a sacred deal in the Greek time.  Then with the rise of the churches, the church was a rival to the storyteller, so they made the actor the bad guy famously for thousands of years.  It is only now with the advent of the movie and TV screen that we get that power back.  That obviously has lead to culture personality, that is why we have all these reality shows people watch, because the images are so powerful.  There is good and bad with it.  When it is used for good storytelling, inspiring children, entertaining people who work really hard, that is when I feel like that is what we are there for.

once-upon-a-time-poster – Right, that is the redeeming quality of it all. __________________________________________________

Lee Arenberg – Absolutely, I always tell fans thanks to you I live at the beach.  Acting is the only art form if they are not watching, you are not doing it.  There is no audience, you are a crazy guy or you are on the blue tooth saying your lines.  The audience is intrinsic to the art. – That is extremely true and a very good outlook to have in this business.

Lee Arenberg – You have to have that.  You are asking the universe for the most shallow thing you could be, successful in this business.  If you get it be thankful.  They always say the easiest way to get an actor to complain is give them a job.  I just try and never do that. – That is the right way to approach things.  Interestingly enough, your role as Leroy, aka Grumpy, from Once Upon A Time actually appears in an episode of the series Once Upon A Time in Wonderland, do you think at some point both of these series characters would have intermingled at some point?

Lee Arenberg – I think there was.  It is hard to say what the writers are thinking because they are usually three or four steps ahead of us in terms of the way they see things.  Originally, Wonderland was going to go in the hiatus time and stay on Sunday night where we are, but ABC weeded it and put it on Thursday, that may have hurt them a little bit.  When it gets to football playoffs and award season we go off the air for a few months.  Sunday night becomes Oscars, Country Music Awards, and Grammys.  That all happens in January and February so we come back for the March sweeps.  I think it works, it is a new kind of concept that I think a lot of series will do next season.

Lee Arenberg in "Once Upon a Time"
Lee Arenberg in Once Upon a Time – That seems to be where a lot of networks are following suit.  With the fourth season of Once Upon A Time coming, are you excited where the series is going?

Lee Arenberg – Well number one, we do not know anything.  We do not know until we read the script, it is a surprise for us.  We like it that way, we think it is more exciting.  I do like the way it is going.  When more people are watching and our numbers go up, that is what we want.  We are in the business of telling stories.  As long as the network and sponsors are happy, that is what we play for.  The fact that the audience enjoys it is a benefit.  I like to say it does not really matter if your show is any good, but it matters if people watch it.  It is really a nice bonus when you get enjoyment out of it and you think you are putting a quality product out there.  The number is the key thing, it is a demographic in the business, quality is irrelevant.  We are lucky we enjoy it and we enjoy telling the stories.  I think it is terrific and the audience seems to agree. – It is terrific.  It is a great series, there are new villains constantly, and they are great stories.

Lee Arenberg – Yes, and you are working with some of the most beautiful people in the business.  They are all fantastic people, it is really like we have become a family up there.  We are all stuck in the forest, it is schisting on us constantly, we are damp and moist constantly, we bond together quite a lot.  We have great fun off the set, it is really cool.

once-upon-a-time – It is clear you are interested in the sci-fi, horror, and fantasy genres.  What are some of your main influences as an actor?

Lee Arenberg – My main influences are the golden age movie stars.  I go back to the first make-up actors like Lon Chaney and Spencer Tracy.  All the legends; John Garfield and those which came out the Yiddish Theater.  Then in the modern era, I love Steve McQueen, who does not love Paul Newman, Jack Lemon, Rod Steiger.  I look to the classics.  I watch other actors, I enjoy it.  I like to watch what they are doing.  That is what we do in class, we watch a scene and watch for a social interaction in a scene.  With the pros, you can track where they are in the arc of their story in one scene.  That is sort of the essence of the art.  Seeing that, reading that in there, and studying.  You have to always stay hungry in this business and never stop learning and studying. – Absolutely.  That goes with any art form whether it be music, movies, or painting.  My last question for you is pertaining to movies. covers music and horror films.  If you are a fan of horror films what are some of your favorite horror films?

Lee ArenbergPhantasm (1979); I more prefer suspense to the pure horror.  I do not like being manipulated like that, I get too scared.  Of the series, I am a big fan of the Friday The 13th series and the Halloween series, and anything with Robert Englund in it.  I think I would love to be in a horror movie.  I would love to have a specific horror credit.  I think horror has amazing fans.  If I am going to go to the movies, I like action movies myself.  To be in them, I think wearing the makeup is one of the things I do well.  That transformation, I like getting into it, and I do not want to be seen.  I like when people come up to me and say I did not know you were the guy in Pirates of the Caribbean.  I take that as a compliment that I did a good job.

AVCO Embassy Pictures
AVCO Embassy Pictures
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures – Yes, that means you played the character well.  As you said, suspenseful movies are some really great horror movies, films like Psycho (1960).  They did not show you much but it still scared you.

Lee Arenberg – That was the whole point, they got you on the edge of your seat in an honest way.  Sometimes I feel the horror movie manipulates you with quick cutting and editing.  A lot of it is movie technique, they do build a lot of suspense.  To me, the glorified violence and gore is not my thing, but when it is done right, you are on fire for it.

Once Upon a Time season 4 premieres Sunday September 28th 8|7c on ABC
Watch episodes of Once Upon a Time online at
Follow Lee Arenberg on twitter 

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