A dark, delicately handsome man is sitting in a dimly lit Cuban dive in Encino speaking quietly about the power of Primo Levi’s Holocaust poetry, the all-consuming grief he felt at his parents’ deaths, and the transforming power of love. He rarely makes eye contact, gazing into the back of the restaurant as if the kitchen might serve up the right words alongside the $3.99 lunch specials. Only occasionally does he punctuate his sentences with a gleeful giggle, a high-pitched exhalation that makes him sound like a 3-year-old being tickled. He has, as one close friend attests, both an ”enormous heart” and ”a palpable sadness.”
Wait a minute — we must be at the wrong table. We were looking for David Arquette. You know — goofy cop Dewey in the ”Scream” trilogy, the host of a series of demented AT&T commercials, and now, the star of ”Eight Legged Freaks,” a campy giant-spider movie.
Arquette — at 30, the youngest of acting siblings Rosanna, Patricia, Richmond, and Alexis — has built a reputation as a dim-witted doofus. True, there have been more-serious turns in independent films like 1996’s ”johns,” in which he played a prostitute, and 1997’s ”Dream With the Fishes,” in which he played a suicidal voyeur — but the persona, and the bucks, have come from acting like the high school dork who will do anything for a laugh. Says Tim Blake Nelson, who directed Arquette as a Jewish concentration camp prisoner in the Holocaust drama ”The Grey Zone” (opening in October): ”On the surface, he would seem at odds with the foolish characters he plays so well, but his sensitivity and sadness are very much in line with [them]. His comedy is based in shame — his characters always fall short.”
With ”Eight Legged Freaks,” directed by first-timer Ellory Elkayem and produced by Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin, the filmmakers behind ”Independence Day” and ”Godzilla,” Arquette has a chance to drop the patina of shame (even if the effort is unlikely to win him an Oscar): He stars as a brokenhearted small-town kid who comes home and saves the day. ”When I saw the script, I thought, ‘Wow, I get to play a kind of action hero and not be the complete goofy guy,” says the actor, who is dressed in a blue sparkly shirt and a rhinestone belt Liberace would have been proud to call his own. Still, the AT&T commercials, which featured Arquette behaving like a Ritalin-starved child, ”served their purpose — they definitely got my face out there. They were kind of so stupid. And funny,” he adds quickly, in case he’s caused offense. ”Some people enjoyed them. But it turned into ‘Okay, you do comedy and nothing else,’ and I was like…’Wai-wai-wait.”’
Arquette began filming ”Freaks” (originally, and unfortunately, titled ”Arac Attack”) last year, soon after wrapping ”The Grey Zone,” a shoot that left him, according to Elkayem, ”a little spaced-out, a little on edge. I’m guessing he found [‘Freaks’] to be a nice antidote.”
On set in Arizona, Arquette reveled in facing down invisible spiders (the F/X creatures were added in postproduction), and playing up both his character and the kitsch. But in February 2001, in the middle of a scene, Arquette received a call that his 65-year-old father, Lewis, an actor who had been suffering from ill health for years, had died. Arquette took only a few days off to go home to L.A. for the memorial service. Says ”Freaks” costar Kari Wuhrer, who plays his love interest, ”David just kept up a brave front and did his job. We knew we had to leave him alone.” Adds Arquette, ”My father knew it’s important to keep the show going. [Work was] a good diversion.”