At the Geffen Playhouse recently, David Arquette twisted off his gold wedding ring to reveal the inscription he shares with his wife, Courtney Cox: “A deal’s a deal. 6-12-1999.” The ornate script recalls the couple’s marriage in a multifaith ceremony in which Arquette broke a glass to honor his Jewish mother.
The youngest of acting siblings Rosanna, Patricia, Richmond and Alexis, Arquette is perhaps best known for playing doofuses, such as the cop Dewey in the “Scream” franchise; for founding Coquette Productions with Cox and, of late, for executive producing ABC’s “Cougar Town,” starring his wife as a 40ish divorcee who fancies younger men.
The wedding ring came off, briefly, because he was discussing how themes of marriage and family resonate for him in his latest endeavor: playing a devoted, if daft, husband and father in Joanna Murray-Smith’s “The Female of the Species,” at the Geffen through March 14. The farcical satire revolves around a pompous feminist author (Annette Bening) who is taken to task by a chagrined former student, her own daughter, Tess (Mireille Enos), Tess’ husband, Bryan (Arquette), and an uber-macho taxi driver (Josh Stamberg).
It is just Arquette’s second role on a professional stage: “I’d been doing some projects I wasn’t crazy about as an actor. They were fine, but that’s all they were,” he said of why he considered a theater job. He said he loved “Female of the Species” and was fascinated that it explores how feminism has affected both men and women. Even so, he was anxious about reading for the show’s director, Randall Arney, who is also artistic director at the Geffen.
“I’m a horrible auditioner,” Arquette said sheepishly. “I got rejected for years until I got my first part. There’s just something about going into a room and being judged that takes all the creative energy out of me. It’s so hard in this town, because you do get beat up, and it does mess with your confidence. Part of the big learning curve on this for me has been to feel comfortable in my skin and embrace the character without getting the jitters.”
Arquette comes across as sweet and funny — he hugs a visitor — but also vulnerable and self-effacing. It’s easy to see why he was startlingly heartbreaking in Tim Blake Nelson’s “The Grey Zone,” in which he played Hoffman, the most fragile and guilt-ridden of a squad of Sonderkommandos (Jews who manned the crematoria) — a project he undertook, in part, to connect to his Jewish roots.
“I’ve always felt that David’s comedy is based on shame,” Nelson said of why he hired Arquette for the role in 2001. “The comic tension in his work is about his characters trying to be something they’re not, so they’re ashamed of who they actually are. And Hoffman is a character based on shame.”
Murray-Smith also was impressed by Arquette’s vulnerability: “I’ve never seen an actor as nervous in an audition — he was sweating and just looked at me as if he were saying, ‘I know I’m not going to get the part.’ But his talent and brilliance shone through, not just in his comic timing but in this sense of innocence he brings to a character who at times can be vain and bombastic.”
Arquette is also drawn to the play’s dissection of parenting and motherhood, and soon the conversation turns to his own late mother, Mardi (nee Brenda Nowak), whose life embodied the kind of positive transformation made possible by the feminist movement. Born in Scranton, Penn., she was the daughter of a refugee from Nazi-occupied Poland. “She had a really rough childhood; there was some abuse that was very traumatizing to her,” including being molested by a neighbor, Arquette said. “As she grew up, she was beautiful and, like other women [of her generation], learned to use her body to sort of get what she wanted — she became a pinup model as well as an actress. Once, I was going through a book, ‘I was a ‘50s Pinup Model,’ and I found a picture of her, and I was like, ‘Mom, what is this?’”
The change came after the family moved to Los Angeles, when, Arquette said, his mother went back to school, became a teacher, and got her license as a marriage and family counselor while she was sick with breast cancer. “She got the actual certificate when she was on her deathbed [in 1997], and to me it was like, ‘Mom, you did it, you broke the cycle, you graduated.’ It was a beautiful moment.”
Arquette was born on a Virginia religious commune his parents co-founded that embraced aspects of Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam (his father, Lewis Arquette, eventually converted to Islam). It was the group’s leader who urged his parents, both actors, to move to Hollywood, per his philosophy of “using your gifts to make the world a better place,” Arquette said. After the cross-country trek in a “totally funky 1960s van,” Dad taught improvisational comedy and all the children took improv as well as acting classes. “I always knew I liked to make people laugh,” Arquette said. “When we were kids we listened to a lot of Monty Python and comedy albums, and my brothers and sisters and I were always joking around.”
Arquette credits his mother for instilling in him a sense of being Jewish. Although she rebelled against her own observant upbringing and embraced Eastern thought, she nevertheless loved and explained the Jewish holidays to her children. Arquette today lights Chanukah candles with his daughter, Coco, and he reports, “What I love more than anything is Yiddish; it’s so soulful…. I wanted a bar mitzvah but didn’t have one as a kid,” he added. “I still may get one — maybe for my 40th birthday.”
Arquette’s parents separated but never divorced; when his father was dying of heart failure in 2001, as Arquette was shooting the action comedy, “Eight Legged Freaks,” “he told me, ‘Your mother was always the love of my life,’” Arquette said. “That was so sad,” he added. “It’s one of my big philosophies in life that, for men, if you’re going to be married and have kids, you have to make it work. Obviously if you’re in a bad relationship, it’s one thing, but some of the time, it’s you, and there’s a lot of work to be done on both sides. And I think men often have like a ‘grass is greener’ outlook on life and can easily be tempted to take off.” As for his own level of commitment, he said, “I’m unavailable to other people. My heart is closed, reserved for Courtney, my family and Coco, on a relationship level.”
So — speaking of the feminist movement — how does Arquette handle being married to someone who is far more successful than he is as an actor?
“That really does bug me,” he said. “It’s not jealousy as much as I just have a drive to be successful; it’s ingrained in men to be, like, the breadwinner, and the type of success you get on a show like ‘Friends’ is a very rare opportunity. But I’m getting less and less concerned with it and more and more accepting.”
Arquette places his wedding ring back on his finger as he prepares to perform in the night’s preview. “I love that I get to wear my wedding ring in this play,” he said. “I usually have to take it off, which is always a bummer.”
For tickets, visit http://www.geffenplayhouse.com/.