Despite the fame inherent in their name, the tag team known as Hollywood Royalty at Northeast Wrestling’s (NEW) annual Prison Break event in Poughkeepsie, New York, hit the ring long before the main event. On the left is “King” Brian Anthony, replete with crown and cape, diminutive in stature but outsized in muscular ego. To his right, tattooed and slightly graying but reasonably fit for a middle-aged competitor sporting a crotch-cramping Speedo, is Scream and Buffy the Vampire Slayer star David Arquette — the Hollywood and the royalty in Hollywood Royalty.
They’re shadowed by a modest phalanx of cameramen, superfluous to the crew NEW hired to film Prison Break for live streaming. Their job is to capture Arquette and King Brian’s tag bout against Keith Youngblood and 69-year-old wrestling legend Jerry “The King” Lawler — with whom Arquette, taking a page from prankster Andy Kaufman, has been actively feuding with on the independent circuit — for an upcoming, as-yet-untitled documentary Arquette is producing and starring in.
Since last summer, the 47-year-old Arquette, who’s also widely known for his high-profile union with ex-wife Courteney Cox and place among the larger clan of acting Arquettes (Rosanna, Patricia et al), has made a habit of stepping between the ropes at unassuming, repurposed show spaces (read: very modest events, with very modest crowds) and taking a beating from men who are often half his age — and occasionally dressed like clowns. “My body’s pretty beat up,” he confesses the morning after his NEW match. “It’s a pretty brutal sport.”
That is to say, Arquette’s not merely indulging some midlife crisis. If anything, the novelty of his year-plus-long barnstorming tour — which has taken him from Tennessee to Canada and far-flung points in between, against rookies and reputable veterans alike — is actually a matter of personal redemption. “I wanted to start from the bottom,” he explains. “I wanted to go to backyard wrestling, go to Tijuana and learn from luchadores, sort of go up the indie ladder.”
Tonight, that climb has led to him this 20 x 20 canvas in Poughkeepsie, where he’s stirring up the crowd by invoking Ric Flair’s signature, “Wooooo!,” soaking in some earnest staccato chants of “Da-Vid Ar-Quette” and just as quickly pushing back against their support by antagonizing and distracting the overwhelmed referee, a wrestling heel rite of passage. “Wrestling has niche-y elements to it,” he says. “There are some [fans] who are still old school, like, ‘Fuck that guy.’ There are others who are like, ‘Who is this guy?’ Some of these kids have never seen my movies.”
For that last contingent, here’s a bit of background on what, exactly, is going on (and what that personal redemption is all about): Back in 2000, Arquette starred in the movie Ready to Rumble. The otherwise forgettable flop, which was essentially a 105-minute promo for Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling (WCW) and featured virtually its entire main roster, led to one fateful moment. Eyewitness testimony of backstage ideation still varies depending on the teller, but in short, a select circle of WCW’s brain trust determined that Arquette would win the company’s actual heavyweight championship on the April 26th edition of its primetime TBS show, Thunder. Fans collectively face-palmed. Even in a sport that long since gave up the ghost of unscripted authenticity and historically blurred the lines between merit and manufactured storytelling, Arquette’s triumph reigns iconic in its divisiveness.
“The whole reason I said yes in the first place was so that I could travel with these guys and see behind the curtain, sit in the locker room and get stories from Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair,” Arquette says, almost sheepishly. It was an opportunity to live out every wrestling fan’s dream, which may have also been the problem. “That’s what I thought the fans would like about it — that it would be like if a fan could be a champion,” he adds. “But then I’m an actor, so it’s a different story.”
And so, Arquette dropped his title two weeks later and promptly returned to conventional notoriety, reviving his role as lovable lug Dewey in several Scream sequels, scoring regular parts in sitcoms such as Pushing Daisies and developing a voiceover niche in kids’ cartoons a la Jake and the Never Land Pirates. All the while, though, his love for wrestling never lapsed. He signed on for a shticky appearance on WWE’s Raw in 2010 (WWE acquired WCW in 2001), and while attending a live WWE event in the summer of 2018, his good friend and occasional writing partner Ben Joseph introduced him to indie wrestler RJ City. “I loved what he was doing,” Arquette enthuses of City. “So we all met and were shooting little videos, and there were a couple of [wrestlers] calling me out online. [National Wrestling Alliance Vice President] David Lagana a long time ago had floated the idea that I should really train and do something. So that was always in the back of my head.”
With that, Arquette commenced getting in shape with the help of trainer and All Elite Wrestling talent Peter Avalon. Simultaneously, he pulled together a documentary crew and began the framework of a film that sought to answer the question of, as he puts it, “Why people hated what happened [in WCW] so much?” He also hopes to answer a few other questions, too. For instance: “What is wrestling? Why do some people take it seriously, and why do some people not take it seriously at all?” And maybe most importantly: “Why do I love it so much?”
It’s a question that had to be rattling around his skull as he narrowly evaded a piledriver from Lawler in the final moments of their throwdown in Poughkeepsie. When Lawler executed that very move — his signature maneuver — at a show against Arquette earlier in the month, it left him reeling, and also realistic about how much longer the show could go on. “I already had a bad neck,” he laughs uneasily. “But that had me [saying], ‘I get it. I shouldn’t have wrestled. I learned my lesson.’”
This is certainly a relief to his wife, who he confirms “laughed in my face when I first brought [a return to wrestling] up,” though she’s now co-producing the documentary. Likewise for his two kids, who he acknowledges are “not into it at all” and just want him off the road.
Still, some of the most concerned onlookers were friends from his WCW days — most especially, Diamond Dallas Page, the WWE Hall of Famer and current fitness guru who teamed with Arquette when he won the championship and also co-starred in Ready to Rumble. They’ve kept in touch ever since. “When he first told me he was gonna do it, I was like, ‘What? You’re 40-fucking-seven,’” Page admits. “It took me a while to really get why. I wasn’t for it, to be honest, in the beginning. But he loves wrestling so much, and he just didn’t want to be the joke of professional wrestling.”
Page and weary fans were only persuaded that the whole thing wasn’t some meta performance piece once they saw Arquette in action, beginning with a defeat at the hands of RJ City at a repurposed banquet hall in Port Hueneme, California. His wrestling “character” was clearly and immediately defined as an interloper deluded with grandeur, but he also unexpectedly put his body on the line, leaping off the top turnbuckle to topple City on the concrete floor and even paying tribute to DDP by executing his finishing move, The Diamond Cutter.
“As soon as I watched him do it and I saw the reaction of the fans, I said, ‘Wow, this fucker’s getting over,’” recounts Page. “The people who are the real fans that come to these events, they like him. He’s out there taking the hits. He can do some good moves. He wasn’t out there kicking people’s asses. If he would have went out there and beat up somebody all over the place, they would have shit on him.” (At this, Arquette laughs and says, “Part of it is always about giving the rub. I gotta go out on my back,” or wrestling parlance for being pinned and losing the match.)
“He wanted to make sure he did everything we needed him to do,” says Steve Tortorello, the owner of the Chicago promotion Warrior Wrestling, for which Arquette wrestled in a high school gymnasium. “He didn’t want to appear as a celebrity stepping on toes.” Similarly, Tortorello balks at the notion that promotions like his have been used as pawns in some kind of cynical celebrity exercise, insisting he “never felt in any way that we were being exploited. It was a win for everybody. We got this great performance, while he got to document this step on the journey.” (Per Tortorello, Arquette requested a small stipend for his time, which he then donated entirely to charity.)
It hasn’t been without its dangers, however. Having tag-team partners on most occasions helped lighten his load, but Arquette’s indie wrestling path eventually led him to a so-called “death match” last November against the ultra-violent Nick Gage, for Game Changer Wrestling in L.A. It wasn’t long before a stunt involving light tubes as weaponry (not uncommon in hardcore and death matches) went awry, legitimately slicing Arquette’s neck and drawing both ample blood and the attention of TMZ.
“I didn’t really know the difference between a ‘hardcore’ match and a ‘death’ match, and I’m still a little confused,” he says in retrospect. “I did get some bad backlash, but I learned a lesson in the ring: Don’t do anything that isn’t planned.” In the end, he suffered some permanent nerve damage and bears a sizable scar, but his determination was relatively undaunted. Tortorello, for his part, could only watch footage from the Gage match and wonder, “‘Dave, what did you do?’ Watching him get hurt like that, I thought, ‘This is a guy who’d worked so hard and done so well without doing the death-match thing. He didn’t need that validation.’ So many of us who work in wrestling already said, ‘This guy’s legit.’”
Or at least as credible as a “crazy celebrity zoo animal,” in Arquette’s own words, can claim to be. Going back to that infamous night in April 2000 when he won the WCW championship, Arquette has wrestled 22 times, a tally most full-time professionals clip off in a month. That said, his self-aware braggadocio has carried him far, and Avalon has helped hone the father of two’s dad bod into something approaching an athletic physique. To that end, Page reiterates that his pal “has moments of brilliance,” before affectionately adding, “Otherwise, we’re like, ‘What the fuck?’”
“He’s got a base of fundamentals,” says Colt Cabana, whose decades-long wrestling career has spanned the globe with premier promotions including WWE and Ring of Honor and who went toe-to-toe with Arquette at a show in Minneapolis (even taking the L!) in January. “He’s obviously an artist. Wrestling is the perfect mix. That’s probably why he enjoys it.” Like Tortorello, Cabana, too, views the total experiment — lark or not — as a boon for their business. “People are excited to see him,” Cabana says. “And it helps build the randomness of independent underground wrestling.”
For now, however, Arquette’s work on that circuit might be done. Aches and pains have piled up, and family (and film-set) duties beckon. In true wrestling tradition, he dangles the possibility of “one more match” and “maybe something for a little more of a time period” (pressed about whether this could coincide with All Elite Wrestling’s TNT debut in the fall, he demurs), but he seems largely content to turn his attention toward a hopeful 2020 theatrical run and streaming release for his documentary. He’s also comforted in the fact that he helped generate buzz for some up-and-coming stars and possibly corrected the permanent record of how he did (or didn’t) damage the reputation of a sport whose realness has always been relative.
As for his possibly-but-probably-not-final match in Poughkeepsie, he once again finds himself on his back, looking up at the lights, pinned one last (?) time. But in a final bit of classic theatrics, King Brian, furious at the loss, turns on Arquette, who is saved by none other than Lawler. Following the post-match rescue, the ex-nemeses shake hands, and Arquette grabs a microphone to thank those in attendance. Whether supportive, skeptical or ambivalent about him beforehand, they’re all now converts.
After a quick beat, however, Arquette is sure to remind them, “You should never trust anyone in Hollywood.”