I always had a soft spot for David Arquette. From the first time I spotted him, in a bit part in Beverly Hills 90210, and ever after, whether he was playing the dorky policeman in the Scream films, carrying offbeat indie films such as Dream with the Fishes, or playing a Jewish rebel in the Holocaust film The Grey Zone, he radiated a sweet likeability you just can’t fake. It was cheering to spot his goofily handsome face onscreen, like finding your brother’s funny friend hanging out in your kitchen when you got home from school.
The baby brother of acclaimed actors Rosanna, Patricia and Alexis, his talent was obvious; he was on the cover of Vanity Fair’s 1996 Hollywood issue alongside Leonardo DiCaprio, Will Smith and Benicio del Toro. He was so watchable that, even though his character was supposed to die in the first Scream, Wes Craven rejigged the script so that he became the backbone of the franchise.
Back in Arquette’s heyday, in the mid-to-late 90s, he was even more enjoyable offscreen, uncensored in interviews and playing pranks on startled talkshow hosts, such as doing backflips and pulling a rubber chicken out of his trousers on Conan O’Brien’s show. At that time, Jennifer Aniston was frequently photographed with her then husband, Brad Pitt, the two of them in matching Calvin Klein. Her Friends castmate, Courteney Cox, was also often photographed with Arquette, her then husband, her looking Hollywood-standard sleek and him looking like he had been in a fight with a charity shop and lost.
There had been wacky celebrities before, but there was something not just authentic but playful about Arquette’s eccentricities. But there’s a fine line between eccentric and just weird, and, to many, he crossed it in 2000, at the height of his acting fame, he became a professional wrestler and was crowned WCW’s heavyweight champion of the world. His career stalled, his marriage to Cox sputtered and he went to rehab. From then on, it seemed, he could get no love.
Arquette, who will be 50 next month, is in his house in Los Angeles, where he lives with his second wife, Christina, and their two young sons (they also have a house in Nashville), when we connect by Zoom. I have about a million questions to ask him, but I am immediately distracted. Why is there a fully dressed, giant monkey behind him?
“This guy? He’s an animatronic monkey who waves. The same kind of puppet was in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, outside the bike store,” he says, as if that explains everything. Once he wore wildly patterned shirts and often ludicrous headwear, but today he looks downright sensible in a dark sporty top and T-shirt. “I think one of the reasons I used to dress up was I would get super-embarrassed about going out on stages and stuff. So I’d be like, I’m SO over the top that you can make fun of me, but I’m in on the joke, you know?” he says, his eyes dipping up and down self-consciously. Arquette comes across as incredibly self-aware and also a jangly bag of anxiety.
We are talking today because Arquette appears in a new film, Spree, in which he plays the bemused dad of a psychopathic, social media-obsessed teenager. Arquette is his usual amiable self and it is always a relief when he turns up in a scene. But it is a pretty violent movie; does he like shooting those kinds of scenes?
“No, I hate it. It’s really uncomfortable with all the sticky fake blood that they use. It’s funny, with everyone becoming more aware of political correctness and everything, but violence is still fine, it seems. It’s a testament to where we are in society, I guess,” he says.
This is true, but it’s surprising to hear such pacifism from – and I might have mentioned this already – a wrestler. He even built a ring in his garden, much to his wife’s horror, so he can practice jumping off ropes and on to an opponent’s neck. He recently made a documentary about his love of wrestling, called You Cannot Kill David Arquette, directed by David Darg and Price James, and it is one of the most jaw-dropping films I have ever seen. Alongside the sheer bonkersness of seeing a once-major Hollywood player getting beaten up in backyards by former felons to prove his cred, it is an extremely moving movie. I am no fan of wrestling, but thanks to Arquette’s open vulnerability and kamikaze determination, I cried during his climactic match.
“Oh, thank you so much! That makes me want to cry!” Arquette says, his voice cracking. His emotions are never far from the surface. “I just wanted to honour wrestling, explain to the fans what happened 20 years ago and get their respect and the respect of the wrestlers.”
What happened 20 years ago was this: Arquette, a lifelong fan of professional wrestling, made the dopey wrestling comedy Ready to Rumble. On the back of that, he started to appear in World Championship Wrestling events. As Arquette’s film coyly puts it, it was, at some point, “determined he would win” the WCW world heavyweight championship to bring mainstream attention to the event. (Arquette repeatedly says in the film that “wrestling’s not fake”, and while the injuries aren’t, we see the matches being carefully choreographed.)
So, Arquette got the championship belt, but wrestling fans were disgusted that this Hollywood pretty boy had gazumped their heroes. He has spent a long time trying to win them round, and – contrary to the film’s title – nearly killed himself with the effort. He has had a heart attack, has had two stents put in and is on blood-thinners. Nonetheless, he returned to pro wrestling in 2018 and, two years ago, agreed to be in a wrestling deathmatch, in which weapons are allowed. His neck was sliced with a shard of glass. We see this match in the documentary and the look of fear in Arquette’s eyes is chilling. Did he not think at that point that maybe he had taken the wrestling thing a bit far?
“Oh, absolutely. I thought I was dying! I got out of the ring and I said to [longterm friend] Luke [Perry]: ‘Luke, is it pumping?’ And he said: ‘No, Davey.’ So I knew I hadn’t hit a jugular, and in the end I got five stitches,” he says. But before that, he went back in the ring to finish the match, so the fans wouldn’t think he was a wuss. “I wanted to put a button on the match. But, yeah, it was pretty harsh.”
Arquette spends a lot of time in the film trying to explain his wrestling obsession. Certainly his ex-wife is baffled by it. “I was on Friends, everything looked pretty good with our careers, then all of a sudden he wants to start wrestling, and I remember feeling embarrassed because there was nothing small about the way he embraced wrestling,” she says. The two of them are about to be in Scream 5 together. Won’t that be painful, given they met on the first Scream?
“No, it’s been 10 years now, so there’s been a lot of healing,” he says. But, in 2018, when he watched a clip from Scream with a journalist, he cried.
In some ways, Arquette’s love of wrestling makes sense: he can hide in costumes – “I can wear sequins and Spandex!” – and indulge his showman side. It is unfortunate it comes with violence and judgment from outsiders, two things that make him miserable. “I’ve never been one to step down from a fight, but I don’t like fighting,” he admits. “There’s so much violence in the world it gets pretty tiring.”
The real reason Arquette loves wrestling is because he associates it with his father, Lewis. “My dad used to take me to matches, and he was the voice of Superfly Jimmy Snuka [on Hulk Hogan’s cartoon, Rock’n’Wrestling]. He died when I was 29 and I really miss him …” he trails off.
Arquette’s parents were hippies and he was born in a commune in Virginia. In the documentary, his siblings – alongside Rosanna, Patricia and Alexis, he also has an older brother Richmond – describe their mother as physically abusive. “My mother was one of the most loving, sweet angelic people, but she was abusive to us. We had a turbulent childhood, but also a childhood filled with love,” says Arquette. He discovered acting in high school, which was not surprising as he comes from a long line of entertainers: his great-grandparents were vaudevillians, his grandfather a radio performer and his father a jobbing actor. “I just always want to connect with people and make them smile,” he says.
In some ways, he reminds me of his character in the 1999 romcom Never Been Kissed, the man who never quite grew up. “Who wants to grow up?” Arquette asks in the documentary. One of the most disturbing moments is when he goes for a brain scan. “His brain isn’t connected in a typical way,” the doctor confirms, suggesting this might just be the way he is made or the result of head trauma. “I always knew I was wired differently,” he says. “But it was funny hearing it in a doctor’s office.”
There is no question he has unique wiring. The man once picked for potential Oscar glory instead went out of his way to get his head kicked in, again and again. For so long, he was desperate for respect, but the more he got from the wrestling world the less he got from Hollywood. Arquette refuses to blame wrestling for the downturn in his fortunes; others see it differently (“His involvement in wrestling really hurt his career,” says Christina). But it hurts him that, for so long, people saw him as a joke. I tell him that I did not understand what he was doing, but I never saw him as a joke.
“Oh that’s so sweet of you,” he says, voice cracking again. “At a certain point I realised I would put myself in positions to embarrass myself, so I would then beat myself up more. It’s like putting yourself in a deathmatch – why? It’s numbing yourself with pain. But I don’t want to keep making the same mistakes again.”
It has been a rough few years for Arquette. Luke Perry suddenly died, as did Arquette’s sister Alexis. “They were really close, so the thought of them hanging together brings me great joy. I think it’s all more connected than any of us know,” he says. His siblings and wife supported him through the wrestling, but they were really worried about him. They don’t have to worry so much anymore: he has agreed that it is time to start slowing that down and he is enjoying the acting again, making people smile.
“I want to be the best person I can for my wife, for my kids, for myself. So it’s like, how do I have fun without being destructive? That’s where I’m at now.” Behind him, a monkey smiles hopefully, waving not drowning.
• Spree is released on 14 August. You Cannot Kill David Arquette will premiere on 28 August via digital release and on-demand