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David Arquette on Wrestling, Addiction, and Losing Luke Perry

SXSW: The actor looks back on the wrestling fiasco that nearly ruined his career and what compelled him to return to the ring last year for the new documentary "You Cannot Kill David Arquette."

David Arquette on Returning to Wrestling

While the 2020 SXSW Film Festival has been canceled due to the coronavirus, IndieWire is covering select titles from this year’s edition. 

By any metric, the last 20 years have been rough on David Arquette. Following his breakout in “Scream,” Arquette struggled with being typecast as a goofball, and then hit rock bottom in a most unusual place: In an effort to promote the 2000 release of “Ready to Rumble,” the actor participated in a season of the World Championship Wrestling and eventually won the WCW Heavyweight Championship. That scripted outcome outraged fans and further ostracized the actor, who spent the next several years struggling to find roles while battling the demons of addiction.

All of that baggage provides the backdrop for the wild and entertaining documentary “You Cannot Kill David Arquette,” which was set to premiere at the SXSW Film Festival this weekend before the event was canceled over coronavirus fears. At the same time, the movie provides the 48-year-old actor with some measure of catharsis, as it follows his widely publicized 2019 return to the ring. That unruly saga included some shocking twists, including a death match showdown that nearly cost him his life.

Directors David Darg and Price James follow a post-heart attack Arquette as he confronts his dueling allegiances to his family and the ring, while enduring grisly training sessions that put him harm’s way. It’s an unruly journey of self-discovery that finds Arquette traveling to the streets of Mexico to learn the ropes with masked luchadores and speeding toward a hospital room as blood spurts from his neck with his late pal Luke Perry at his side.

But Arquette, whose wife Christina co-produced the movie, said he was thrilled with the results. The actor spoke with IndieWire about the factors that compelled him to return to the ring, how his battles with addiction have evolved, working with his famous family, and losing his old friend. Check out the exclusive trailer above.

The movie recaps the challenges you faced after getting typecast by “Scream,” and the further career damage you faced with the backlash to the WCW championship. At the same time, you seem to embrace both the legacy of “Scream” and your wrestling efforts. How do you reconcile those two sides of the equation?

I want to make a few things really clear. This is a documentary, but we’re telling a story. There are a lot of factors that affected my career, beyond wrestling and “Scream.” I’ve always done anything I’ve wanted. I’m not a lot of actors who are super-selective about certain things. I have kids. I’ll do kids programs. I do things that just interest me. I’ve never thought that I’m too cool for anything. I try to find all of these projects through people I want to work with and scripts that I believe in, but it’s never been about the money.

Never?

Well, sometimes it has been about the money. I am a working actor. I need to make money. If the cool kids aren’t going to hire me, then I’ll just keep hustling. I’ll give a first-time director a shot at establishing a career. That being said, people did typecast me. But I’m a little bit of a different bird in that people don’t really know what to do with me. They don’t know if I’m going to be a wild man on set or something like that. They might have seen the TMZ video of me after a nightclub or something like that. So there are a lot of factors.

“You Cannot Kill David Arquette”

I’m never going to blame wrestling or “Scream.” I mean, “Scream” was a huge blessing to my career — it put me on the map, and I met my ex-wife [Courtney Cox] and have my daughter, who means the world to me. All that being said, I love wrestling. It’s almost like I was kicked out of a club that I loved 20 years ago. I’d go to WWE events for years without being on camera, just buying tickets as a fan. It always sort of like, “Why all the hatred?”

Early in the movie, you say that you haven’t been getting the auditions you wanted over the past decade. What sort of roles were you chasing when you decided to get back in the ring? 

The thing is, I’m just not a great auditioner. I get vibed out in the room and stuff. I have worked in those 10 years, but it’s mostly just from relationships with directors I know or someone who hired me from my previous work. I have a long career, so it’s sometimes crazy when someone has me come in for an audition. I put myself on tape recently for a Nickelodeon thing, and then they wanted me to try it again, and I was like, “Gah! It’s a Nickelodeon thing! I mean, god bless you guys, but I’m not going to jump through hoops for it after being in the business as long as I have.” A lot of actors wouldn’t even audition for that, but I did. The way I look at it, my kids might be able to come to a set on a show that they like and realize that’s daddy’s job. But you have to make stuff like that happen for yourself.

So how did experiences like that stimulate your desire to take a stab at wrestling again?

This whole idea for the wrestling documentary is something that’s been gnawing at me for a long time.  When I did the WCW thing, the internet wasn’t as prominent as it is now. The hatred just wasn’t as loud. I’d get it on the road when people would see me and take it personally. But the idea to come back had a lot of different factors. A lot of smaller people like Daniel Bryan started coming up, and with stuff like New Japan [Pro-Wrestling], all these smaller guys starting competing and doing different stuff. I knew I could do some of that, but I was properly trained and I always wanted to learn how to wrestle. It’s an amazing art form. I also wanted to find out why people had gotten so mad at me. I didn’t really get it. I knew it was a show, a performance, but I had no idea what it actually was until I was in the ring and went on the road.

It’s one thing to be a wrestling fan, but you were actually part of its storylines. What’s it like to learn about how the way a match is supposed to play out?

I wasn’t involved in any planning of anything. I just approached it like wanting to train and learn. I threw together the death match, crazily enough. I’m the one who wanted to go on the road and went with RJ City — we tag-teamed —  so it wasn’t really writing, it was just planning where we were going, that kind of stuff.

There is a telling moment in the documentary where former WCW head Eric Bischoff takes credit for the backlash you received for winning the championship. He actually says, “That was my fault.”

Eric Bischoff and [former head writer] Vince Russo were the two people in charge when I became the champion. I was just going along for the ride. It was just amazing to see behind the curtain, very “Wizard of Oz.” I was amazed to walk through the stadium and see people like Hulk Hogan. It was a wrestling fan’s dream. Then they told me I was going to be the champion. I knew it was a bad idea, but I didn’t think it would get the kind of hatred that I got. Then WCW fell apart, and I was blamed for contributing to the failure of this massive company. I was like, “What! I didn’t do it!”

What was different about the process when you came back all those years later?

I don’t think they’ll put the belt on an actor again. They just signed Rob Gronkowski, though, and I’d be surprised if his contract didn’t say he wanted to be the champion because he’s a world champion already. I mean, he’s got all these Super Bowl rings. I’m sure he wants a picture holding up the belt. I’m such a pussy because I’m an actor. I wanted to rewrite the ending of my story. I didn’t want to be bullied. I don’t know if a lot of people know who I am anymore — maybe a good amount of people do — but this journey told me a lot about who I am and walked me through a lot of issues I had. I feel like I came out better on the other end after making a ton of mistakes in my life. I had to come to terms with my family’s past, my personal past, stuff like that.

The most shocking moment in the movie comes during your death match with Nick Gage, when you wind up with blood spurting out of an artery in your neck. That was covered pretty widely, but it’s pretty wild to watch you jump out of the ring while bleeding, then turn back around and keep at it. What the hell were you thinking?

I want to make it clear that it was my fault I got cut. Nick Gage did not mean to cut me in my neck. That was my fault. I pulled his legs and I didn’t protect myself. I take full responsibility for that. I got out of the ring, and I’d known him since we were 17. He lived at my mom’s house when he got cast for “90210” and he’d been friends with my wife our whole lives. I knew his son Jack, and that he was a wrestler. I was amazed Luke’s son did that since Luke and I used to watch wrestling together. So I knew Luke was there that night, and I got out of the ring while holding my neck, and I thought I had minutes to live. I was thinking of my family and my past, just everything. And I heard Luke’s voice, but I couldn’t see him. He says, “Baby, it’s Luke!” And I said, “Luke!” I took my hand off and I said, “Is it pumping?” He said, “It’s not pumping.” So I decided for the fan’s sake to wrap it up. But we couldn’t figure it out. I tried to tackle him and choke him for real. Then he judo-flipped me and tapped me out, thank god.

Do you regret doing that match?

I wouldn’t do it again. As a storytelling thing that we caught for the documentary, I do feel like it captured a world that few can see from that perspective. I’m grateful for that, and I’m grateful that I’m alive, and I wouldn’t encourage anyone to do it. There are safer ways to do stuff like that. Tommy Dreamer called me up afterward and said, “You can’t control glass or fire.” [laughs] But in Mexico, they do electrical ropes and stuff! It’s just insanity. I’m sure in my “Raging Bull” future I’ll probably be some kind of traveling circus act doing really grungy cage matches in Tijuana.

You mention Luke Perry, who died a few months after that match. How did that loss impact your life?

It was so shocking. I miss him so much. I’m really grateful to wrestling for letting me do this at a time when he and I connected again. I hadn’t seen Luke in a while so for that I’ll be forever grateful. I was just talking about this with my wife, who is a bit of a hypochondriac and freaked out about coronavirus. Listen, a year or so before the death match, I had a heart scare during a stress test and I had to put two stents in. I thought I was going to die then. So I thought was I going to die twice last year. That puts life in perspective.

Life’s too short to spend your time arguing about stuff. Have fun. Enjoy it. I beat myself up a lot, so I’m trying to really work on that. So I was saying to my wife about coronavirus, “OK, any one of us can go at any moment. Right?” And says, “Yeah.” So I said, “Doesn’t that just give you some sort of freedom? Well, we better go out and live our lives. Let’s not sweat the small stuff.” Hopefully we can focus on that, get busy, hustle, have fun, and work with people we love. That’s the game I’m trying to focus on.

Your struggles with alcoholism and addiction loom large throughout the movie. Are you drinking these days?

Well, it’s been a complicated sort of journey for me. I’ve been sober for long periods of time. I’ve gone through programs. I’ve examined what works and what doesn’t for me. I’ve been smoking CBD with THC in it. Pot helps me with my moodiness. I get really moody and stressed. I’m really critical of myself sometimes. I don’t like doing all these psychopharmaceuticals that mess with my levels, because if I am acting, I want to be as crazy and sad as I can, or I want to be as happy and as full of love when I can. I never smoke pot or drink when I’m working. I don’t drink hard liquor and I don’t drink a lot of beer at all. Hard liquor was my thing and I don’t drink it now. But it’s always a slippery slope. Addiction is different for everyone and a lot of people frown on what I’m saying. I’m just trying to be honest about it, so it’s not surprising to anybody. I understand if people will judge me for that, but I’m trying to live my life the best I can. I’ve just never been a full-on sober person.

How do you collaborate with your family these days?

A lot of the charity stuff is collaborative. We have the Alexis Arquette Foundation that my sister Rosanna started. GiveLove.org, which my sister Patricia started, is really beautiful. I’m trying to figure out how I can spend the majority of my time doing charity work, because I always feel better when I do it. I want to be able to help families eat and get medical help. There’s so much pain out there and any help that I can provide makes this whole public figure thing feel more meaningful. But as far as acting, I have to do it all myself, figure out what I want to do with my time, and put all my energy toward it.

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