It’s not every actor in Hollywood who can say they have played parts in two of Disney’s most iconic projects, but Lee Arenberg is one of the few with that distinction. He played the role of Pintel in the first three Pirates of the Caribbean films and went on to happily play Grumpy on Once Upon A Time. Recently the 20-year acting veteran visited the D23 offices to talk about his experiences at sea and on land—and give a glimpse of the magic-to-come this season on the hit ABC series.
D23: Did you ever think you’d become a part of Disney pop culture?
Lee Arenberg: It’s a dream for me. I grew up in Southern California, and Disney opened my imagination as a young kid going to the park. I don’t think I’d ever dared to dream that that could happen. When the original Pirates came along, I got the lucky break that they couldn’t find short, bald, and crazy in London, ’cause everyone else was cast out of England. So it’s been an honor to be a pirate and now, to add Grumpy into it, is beyond… I’m beyond thrilled to be associated with these great fans and this great company and these great characters that I raised my family on.
What’s your first Disney memory?
Seeing that horse-drawn carriage of the old fire truck on Main Street that very first time I walked into Disneyland. Yeah, I was probably five or six years old.
Living in Southern California, it sounds like you went to the park quite a bit?
I went all the way through into adulthood. My uncle was a big swing dancer, so he used to go to Carnation Plaza and dance to all the great big bands that used to play there over the years. I am not as intense as Ginny [Ginnifer Goodwin, who plays Snow White on Once Upon A Time and is a D23 Member], but I’m second place in my Disney love.
What did you think when you heard they were making the first Pirates movie?
I’ll be honest with you. I was so excited to land it and be in a film with Johnny and the possible pedigree of it that reading the script, you never thought of anything but hit movie. [Producer] Jerry Bruckheimer is a legend in this business. [Director] Gore Verbinski led that thing by breathing and living Pirates. And that was definitely why Pirates went through the roof, because the fans saw what was great about it.
Being a fan of the parks, you must have loved the insider references in the film.
[Writers] Ted [Elliott] and Terry [Rossio] were getting a crack at a Pirates movie, so they threw everything and the kitchen sink in there. They had no expectations of it being this giant mega-hit to require many sequels, right? So they put in those brilliantly, those five or six images that we love on the ride—Kevin’s character, Gibbs, asleep with the pig, the dog with the keys, things that say to an audience, Hey, we’re taking your story, and let us borrow it for a while and put a new spin on it.
How did your life change after the movie opened?
Wow, the biggest change for me was that, prior to that, as a character actor in town, somebody goes, “What do you do?” and you have to list your whole résumé. And if they hadn’t seen [my episode of] Seinfeld or weren’t Star Trek or Tales of the Crypt fans, it was like, “Eh.” But once I was in Pirates, all I had to go was, “‘ello, poppet!” and they would be like, “Oh, I should have recognized you.” So that was a major change in accepting myself as a member of the acting community.
What was it like working with Mr. Depp?
Oh my God, awesome. Johnny is a class act. There’s a saying in the business that whoever the number-one person on your call sheet is, that person’s attitude dictates the rest of the actors’ attitude. And Johnny is an ultimate pro. He’s there for everyone. He’s engaged when he works. He is fun. He’s the best with the fans.
What’s it like now for you, going on the attraction?
I get as much or more of a thrill out of it as I ever have. There’s something about it that you get in there, and the Blue Bayou’s kind of cooking, and it’s like you’re going to another world. I mean, the one thing I would like to see is I’d love to see me and Ragetti on the ride as part of it. Well, we’ve made it to Tom Sawyer Island, but I feel that we should be in jail somewhere.
I like that you’re on Tom Sawyer Island.
Yeah, it’s super cool. And it was great to work with the Imagineers, and to get to go see how they create the stuff was fantastic. Whenever I get lucky enough to do an event for Disney, either down in Florida or here, and get to be with one of the “plaids” [guest-services hosts], I’m always the one asking the questions. I love looking for hidden Mickeys. I love that it is the happiest place. You see the crustiest people in the world just smiling. It’s just magic. It truly is.
What attracted you to Once Upon a Time?
Well, honestly, the script was so darn good, and these are my kind of characters. Grumpy is made for me. I am that guy. I’ve definitely got a grumpy exterior and a soft interior. The closest I’ve ever been to actually playing who I really am is this Leroy/Grumpy, the aspect of it, that I’m kind of that curmudgeon. Ask my wife and my kid!
Once Upon A Time‘s Grumpy has a pretty rich history.
He’s a magical character, this character that they’ve entrusted me with. [In season one] when the magic fairy dust hits him, it changes him, gives him a profound understanding. And these characters, the dwarfs of this world, are there to work, there to mine and help create the magic of the world. So he chooses in a noble way to go back in the mines and to allow the woman he loves to achieve her dream. So he’s caused himself a lot of pain and turned himself into this grumpy dude, because he’s still in love with this girl. So I’m still thinking he’s hoping for a happy ending for it.
Any chance of a reunion with Astrid/Nova?
I would sure hope, because if nothing else, the audience is into us as a thing. But I also entrust the writers so much. They’re better at kind of coming up with that than I would be, and happily so. But yeah, of course, it’s almost impossible to fall out of fake love with Amy Acker. I will say that.
I have to ask, now that they have returned to the mine on the show, who’s bankrolling the dwarfs?
I don’t even know. I imagine we’ve got some side action going. It’s weird, ’cause, yeah, the commerce of the town… don’t know much about the commerce.
Do you have any teasers for what’s coming up?
Wow, I’ll tell you something. It’s going to be wild. You ain’t seen nothing yet, folks. That’s all I’ll say. It’s like the magic… every Sunday it’s the magic hour, and they just keep delivering.
What’s been your most memorable fan encounter?
I’ve had some great ones. I had a great one with Denise Jonas that really blew me away, the mom of all the Jonas Brothers? We were on the street in Vancouver. It was the day after my birthday. And so there’d been a big Twitter kind of social media of a lot of birthday wishes. So I’m crossing the street with my buddy, Dave Anders, who plays Dr. Whale, and we’re going to get a bite. I’m right across the street from the hotel, and there’s a woman with a young kid. She goes, “Oh, excuse me, I just wanted to say I follow you on Twitter and just wanted to wish you a happy birthday.” And I was like, Okay, well, that’s neat. Then she goes, “By the way, I’m not a stalker, I’m Denise Jonas. This is my young son.” He was there doing a show, the youngest one. And it was the Jonas Brothers’ mom. She’s like a big fan of Once Upon a Time, and I just thought it was cool.
How has your park-going experience changed with your son, Samuel?
Oh, it’s so much more fun with him. It’s so much more fun, yeah, to see him, and he went on the Matterhorn, I think, the last time we were there for the first Matterhorn experience. I was just so happy.
Does he have a favorite attraction?
Pirates. I hate to say that’s probably his number one. But that’s on him. It’s his thing. He loves Haunted Mansion. Yeah, he’s turning out to be just like me, chip off the old block. Have not yet done Cars Land, ’cause I’m kind of waiting for that, but I imagine that’s going to be the number one… from what I hear, that’s the one.
Do you have a favorite Disney memory?
Well, my favorite Disney memories of the recent time would have been those premieres for Pirates and walking the red carpet and being in the park and seeing the movies. Actually, my favorite memory is at the end of that night, you pick up your limo right there by the Castle and drive out through the park. It’s the neatest feeling, to be there after hours. I love going behind the scenes. I love seeing that. I’m thrilled to death to be part of it.
By D23′s Jeffrey Epstein