Lee Arenberg Talks About Grumpy in Once Upon a Time Season 5, Pirates of The Caribbean & More [Interview]

by | Nov 15, 2015

[Exclusive] During this weekend’s Lethbridge Entertainment Expo, I had the opportunity to speak with one of the world’s most determined and optimistic actors – Lee Arenberg. Fans may remember him as Pintel from the original Pirates of The Caribbean trilogy or currently on the hit fantasy series Once Upon a Time as Leroy aka Grumpy the Dwarf.

The Lethbridge Entertainment Expo is currently taking place November 14/15th, 2015 at the Enmax Centre in Lethbridge Alberta. Guests include Jason Mewes (Jay & Silent Bob), Billy West (Futurama), Phil LaMarr (MAD TV) and Lee Arenberg (Once Upon a Time). You can buy tickets HERE!

Arenberg is one of the most interesting convention panel hosts I’ve been fortunate enough to see in action because he’s a terrific motivational speaker, and he’s loaded with tons of great stories but always comes back to the important message in everything he reminisces about, really getting into the crowd’s head. As he said during his panel on day 1, he’s been paid to be a motivational speaker in the past, for companies like Google. It’s not hard to see why after you’ve attended one of his extremely enlightening panels.


One of the great stories this weekend was when Arenberg spoke about an embarrassing film that he was a part of called Whore (an early 90’s exploitation indie) which called for him to be an aggressor in a rape scene. Director Ken Russell continuously told Arenberg to try on various styles of underwear and thongs before asking him to try the scene out completely naked from the waist down to get a more “real” effect. Arenberg hinted that Russell was a bit too interested in the performance’s authenticity but when the time came to get completely bottomless, the actress in the scene – Theresa Russell let Arenberg borrow her flesh-colored panties, which he happily wore, and after getting signed by Theresa – has framed in his home. Gross Lee – but I get it – awesome.

Keven: Not a lot of people may realize this but you went to high school in Santa Monica with the Brat Pack, guys like Emilio Estevez, Sean Penn and Robert Downey Jr, which is quite a surreal group – how in touch are you with that old crew these days?

Lee: We’re not like “every day” friends but I’ll check in with all of those guys, Sean, Emilio, Bobby Downey, whenever our paths cross it’s definitely a cool thing. They’re all good people and I think alot of em still live in the hood, so a lot of times I’m at the drug store and it’s “oh, there’s Robert Downey Jr, what’s up dog?” It’s just a lot of real life intersecting opposed to Hollywood life. Last time I saw Emilio, I was in New Mexico with my family and I’m walking down the square and from behind me he goes, “I’d recognize that voice anywhere!”

Keven: Emilio’s been pretty low key these days but Robert is what, the highest grossing actor on the planet now?

Lee: He’s definitely up there and he’s one of the most legitimately talented actors too. I’m not saying the other guys aren’t obviously, Sean Penn is obvious and Emilio is an amazing writer, actor and director. But Bobby for me – I like the sense of fun in his performances and the way he reads to the audience. Tony Stark is a bit of mad genius to get discovered and trusted with that. 


Keven: You’ve been at this for a long time, 30 years as a pro, has there ever been at ime when you’ve felt so discouraged that you question what it is you do because you’re such a positive guy but it has to be tough right?

Lee: Oh… Last Tuesday… The Thursday before that. Always man, I’ve had big bouts with it where it lasted for a while but at the end of the day, the self pity thing – it gets old fast. So indulge yourself with it when you feel that way but the average human is depressed eight days a month, just bio rhythmically. Now if you’re a psychologist are you gonna let people know that’s normal behaviour? No. They want you goin around thinking you’re nutty. But as an actor when I’m studying psychology for my characters I realize we have more in common as humans than not. So I don’t beat myself up for the normal “I Hate Mondays” Garfield blues or whatever.

When it really becomes a problem is when my acting’s shitty. When it effects that and I’m not excited and passionate and if I can’t get it up for a good crack at a movie then I’m gonna have a problem. But it doesn’t happen too often in my life because it changes with a phonecall so I set myself up mentally looking for the good and not for the bad.

Keven: Every hardworking actor and you’ve been on so many great shows over the years, but every guy has their guy – their rival actor who always steals their shit – who is that guy for you?


(see Bud Cort below)


Lee: There’s an actor I used to lose a lot of roles to way back when: Bud Cort from Harold and Maude. Back in the days when I was young and some of my buddies were getting directing shots in these little indie movies — yeah he would punk me like three-four times for stuff. Our types are totally different, but it just happened during that period he would punk me out a few times. More power to him. I actually go the other way when I audition and I’ll say I’m either the guy or I’m not.

I walk in there and do the best I can and I always have somewhere to go afterwards in my mind because the most awkward time in the audition is when you do well and you’re just kind of hangin on for more love from these people. So in that moment I’m like “I’ve gotta go, I’ve got somewhere else to be” and even if you don’t — it makes em think you’re busy. It lets you walk out of the room on a high like you’re in control of it. It’s the only business where if we admit or seem like we want something it comes off as desperate. Any other profession it seems noble but for us it seems weak. 

Keven: You had mentioned before that it was really hard on you when the call for Pirates 4 didn’t come around.

Lee: Yeah.. Well I needed the job – I needed the money. What really pissed me off was that purely from a business standpoint it didn’t make sense for me not to be in it and it didn’t make sense for me to leave a paycheque that big on the table.

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: AT WORLDS END, (aka PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN 3), Lee Arenberg, Mackenzie Crook, 2007. ©Buena Vista Pictures

Keven: There was talk of a fifth one and potentially bringing you back – what happened there?

Lee: They made a fifth one – they made it this year. They tried to bring us back again but it’s a different director, Mackenzie (Crook) has a show on BBC and he wasn’t really enthusiastic because there weren’t really trying to court us like they really wanted us. They were like “oh you know, the writers tried to write you in but… you know” and that’s not gonna win me or get in my bed that way. So they weren’t courting me in a real sexy way so as much as I just wanted it because I wanted to go to Australia and I like playing pirate, I wasn’t in as bad a position career-wise because Once Upon a Time is a big hit show so I had a bit of a safer landing area.

The thought of losing any big paycheque job sucks when you’re a grinder like me. So the chance to have a big role in a feature — you can’t afford to miss too many of those. 

Keven: That’s tough because that’s definitely one of the most iconic parts of your career.

Lee: The weird thing is, nobody really remembers the last two movies as much as the first so in a way I’m associated with Gore Verbinski and all that was good about the movies, so I’m proud of that association. It’s so fun to be a pirate… Just the whole being on the boat, in the water, having long hair, to fire cannons, I love sword-fighting, I love the action… Surfers paradise in Australia — to live there for three-four months would’ve been amazing. 


Keven: Those films are some of the biggest productions of all time too.

Lee: Not to mention Jerry Bruckheimer is one of the last impresarios… I always joke with Jerry that if you would have made 300 you would have shot it in Thermopylae. You’re not gonna be on a green screen with him. He’s gonna make an oldschool movie. Pirate ship, on the water in the Bahamas – yeah it’s a pirate ship on the water in the Bahamas. The fact that we would go out on the water and transfer from boat to boat to get to the Black Pearl, it would be rocking and we’d have to wait for the right time just getting off on on….

Keven: It definitely helps being on location right – does that help your character Grumpy in Once Upon a Time to shoot in Vancouver where you can really get into your character’s surroundings with the forests and everything?

Lee: Definitely and there’s just something about Vancouver and the air with all the forest around you. It’s got big city mixed with big country and they come together. It’s beautiful and there’s something about the West Coast that’s just so cool. There’s a big difference in just the attitude when you go East too. 

Keven: Can you tease anything coming up on Once Upon a Time for the fans without spoiling anything?

Lee: We don’t get enough info to tease it. I’m gonna say that it’s gonna be interesting where we all end up heading and the main bad guys in the second half will be cool and I think people will dig it. We’re lucky to have this talented and creative writing staff that’s finding new ways to mine fairy tales and it’s very interesting the process they go through. 

A lot of times for us we’re like “what curse are we on?” It’s hard to keep track, where’s that curse book but that’s what it is when you’re a Storybrook character dealing with magic and fantasy. We need that in this day and age to escape for an hour from all the BS in this world. 


Keven: Is Leroy your favorite character that you’ve done so far? He’s definitely the one you’ve played over the longest period of time.

Lee: He’s the most like me maybe.. They’re all my favorites. There’s something really comfortable about that guy when I slip into my little toque and all of that. I feel like I know this character well so I don’t feel like I have to force it. He is me and that to me is really exciting. 

Keven: You don’t have to dial up the angst for Grumpy at all?

Lee: I don’t have to do anything really or layer any bullshit on top. That’s the challenge of acting with my co-stars is they’re all so good at that – the ultra reality of the modern television actor is very hyper-realism. We have 61 pages in 42 minutes and you can’t play it like Shakespeare and take a breath because it gets cut anyway. They literally go into those speeches and cut out the pauses. 

Keven: With a cast that big on Once Upon a Time, it must be hard to fight for any ounce of screen time right?

Lee: Yeah, you’re just happy to get it. I don’t think you really get a chance to fight for it because there’s noone to lobby, it’s not gonna help. I’ve had my backstory told but I’d like to get the ball more often, I’m confident that I’m more than just a third-down bat but at the same time to have a steady gig…


Keven: You have such a strong fanbase on social media too and a lot of that is because of Grumpy.

Lee: I’m good to my fans too and I listen to understand and i’m not just listening to get my own response in all the time so the fact that I actually give a shit about the people I’m saying I like is because I do and that’s just how I am as a person. I actually care. Sometimes I wish I didn’t because I can get caught into some conversations that I don’t actually end up wanting the responsibility for. Lot’s of time I’d say that I’d rather be rich than famous but being famous gets you stuff in the world that nobody else gets – that kind of attention from the hot waitress that you don’t really deserve or that little bit of extra service…

It’s very seductive and I’ve never pursued it but I’ve also never shied away from it either. It’s a means to an end because in order to pursue more art is to be more famous. It doesn’t last though as a lot of people in the comic-con world will show you because their last big role might have been in the 70’s, 80’s or 90’s.  I’ve luckily been able to have a consistent go and I always see my next role as being my best one and that perpetuates my optimism and positivity. 

Top Photo Credit By Keven Skinner