A sad-eyed man wearing a three-piece herringbone suit is struggling to describe his feelings about Auschwitz and Primo Levi’s Holocaust poetry.
Except for the goatee and the moussed hair, there’s no clue this is David Arquette — the youngest of acting siblings Rosanna, Patricia, Richmond and Alexis — renowned for playing doofuses like the cop, Dewey, in the “Scream” trilogy (and for an off-screen wardrobe that rivals Liberace’s).
He said he’s wearing the herringbone to match the somber tone of his new movie, “The Grey Zone,” which is as antithetical to his pop-culture image as the suit. The actor is startlingly heartbreaking as Hoffman, the most fragile and guilt-ridden of a squad of Sonderkommandos at Birkenau.
Of his unorthodox casting choice, director Tim Blake Nelson said, “I’ve always felt David’s comedy is based on shame. 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 full of shame.”
During a Journal interview, Arquette — born on a Virginia Buddhist commune to a Jewish mother and non-Jewish father — described childhood auditions where “I’d embarrass myself and get rejected and cry.” He said his family celebrated both Passover and Ramadan after his father converted to Islam.
Arquette’s maternal grandfather, a Polish Holocaust refugee, lived with the family until his death in the 1980s. “I regret so much that I didn’t ask him more about his past,” said the actor, who instead immersed himself in graffiti art and the Fairfax High drama program.
Eventually Arquette, 31, built his reputation with goofy turns, such as the AT&T commercials in which he behaved, according to Entertainment Weekly, “like a Ritalin-starved child.”
He married his “Scream” co-star Courtney Cox — but grief accompanied his success. Five years ago, his mother, Mardi (nee Brenda Nowak), an acting coach and family therapist, succumbed to breast cancer. His 65-year-old father, Lewis, died while Arquette was shooting the campy 2002 arachnid flick, “Eight-Legged Freaks.”
With his parents gone — and many of his family questions still unanswered — Arquette was drawn to “The Grey Zone” to connect to his Jewish roots. As research, he said he visited the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., where the piles of victims’ shoes “suggested the visual horror Hoffman would have seen every day.” He attended a “Sonderkommando training camp,” where the actors learned “to handle the big pokers and pliers used to turn the bodies in the ovens.”
On the first day of shooting, he said, he lifted a naked extra painted to look like a corpse, when “suddenly, I felt I was looking at my mother. She had my mother’s body, which I knew because when my mother was sick, we’d help change her, and her head was shaved, just as my mother was bald from her chemotherapy. It was just a glimpse of the shock the Sonderkommandos must have felt when they recognized someone they knew.”
The raw experience has shaped his Jewish identity. “It’s given me pride in my heritage, and respect for the suffering the Jewish people have endured,” he said.