ALEXIS — THE ARQUETTE DYNASTY'S GAY STAR: Pioneering out actor recalls first role as underage MTV darling caught in a tornado of cocaine and pedophilia; Describes balancing Hollywood royalty and being a gay queen
BY DANIEL KUSNER
From the Baldwins to the Zappas, nepotism and Hollywood go together like plagues and locusts.
Check out the Arquette line, which extends across three generations.
Clifford Arquette was a vaudevillian-raised comedian who regularly appeared on Jack Paar’s “The Tonight Show.”
Clifford’s son Lewis acted in “Waiting for Guffman” and” “The China Syndrome.” Lewis also produced a litter of talent: Rosanna (“Desperately Seeking Susan”), Patricia (“Flirting with Disaster,” “Lost Highway”) David (“Johns,” “Scream”) and Richmond (“Seven.”)
But Lewis' son Alexis (birth name: Robert) is the dynasty’s successor who brings queer roles to the silver screen.
His newest — the gay romantic comedy “I Think I Do” — premieres tonight at the USA Film Festival.
Alexis’ path to leading-man status is laced with stardust. His first on-camera gig seems like it was lifted from the teenage-wasteland novel “Less Than Zero.”
The role was for the music video “She’s a Beauty,” the 1983 hit song by The Tubes.
At the time, Toto’s 1982 hit “Rosanna” — which is named after Alexis’ sister — was climbing the charts. Rosanna heard that The Tubes needed a young boy for a video. So she brought Alexis to the casting call.
“And I got the part. I was 11 years old. I’m the little kid in the car that goes around the amusement park ride while sitting in some S&M lady’s lap. That’s why I’m so distorted,” Arquette laughs.
“I remember Rosanna being on set with me. So was the girl Jenny, who inspired Tommy Tutone’s song ‘867-5309/Jenny.’ When they met, they squealed with laughter because they both had trendy radio hits named after them. And I thought, ‘Wow, this is a pretty big moment — when Jenny meets Rosanna,” he continues.
“But that video shoot was the first time I saw anybody do cocaine. It was the chick who’s dressed up like the mermaid in The Tubes video. She was with the makeup crew, and they were all just snorting rails.
“They did a lot of cocaine during that shoot — right in front of me, very boldly. And the choreographer — or ‘ballet dancer’ — was hitting on me. Again, I was only 11 years old,” he says.
Was the choreographer a man or a woman?
“He was a man. And he kept ‘fluffing’ himself right in front of me. He’d do a little pirouette and then, like, grab himself. He also kept trying to dance me into a corner while they were waiting to get the next shot,” Alexis remembers.
That sounds like an intense memory to process.
“You’re right. But you know what? I was such a cool kid that I was just, like, whatever. I always pretended that I’d seen it all. I’d just slyly turn my head away. I think a lot of kids do that,” he says.
Maybe exposure to haute dissipation at a tender age enabled Arquette's hardworking career.
After The Tubes video, Alexis made his first gender-bending role.
He had a bit part in the 1986 Bette Midler and Richard Dryfuss vehicle “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” — as one of the young character Max’s flamboyant friends.
But at the age of 17, Alexis’ star brightened considerably when he landed a role in the excellent but depressing period-piece “Last Exit to Brooklyn.”
He played Georgette, a sassy drug-fueled transvestite hooker who chases rough trade.
While Patricia Arquette was considering the film's lead role of Tralala — a streetwalking tough who’s brutally gang-raped — Alexis struck up a conversation with director Uli Edel.
“I told him that I read the book in college and that I loved the role of Georgette. We talked about the script adaptation, which I thought made Georgette seem like a victim. I thought Georgette was cooler than that. She was someone people would want to sit in a circle and listen to. The next day, he called and asked if I’d like to read for the part. Patricia went home [the role went to Jennifer Jason Leigh]. But I stayed and got the job,” he says.
Was Arquette worried that a gay role would pigeonhole his career thereby making it tough to land mainstream work?
“When ‘Last Exit’ came out, there was a buzz about me. And that was good. People assumed that I was straight because they thought, ‘Wow. A straight actor playing this gay role?’
“This was 1987, and ACT-UP was huge. People were coming out left and right. And somebody asked me about my sexuality. I felt it was important — not that I’m a gay role model or that I wave a flag. But I just wanted to be honest.
"So I was honest.
"But once they know you’re gay, they’re afraid to let you play anything but that,” he says.
Arquette didn’t have to worry about securing work. At the age of 28, he says he’s appeared in, “Including the crappy ones? Probably 30 or 40 films.”
His credits include “Of Mice and Men” with John Malkovich, “Grief,” “Threesome,” “Frisk,” “The Wedding Singer” and “Pulp Fiction.”
Has his last name helped his career?
“People don’t understand. They think that the Arquettes are all joined at the hip.
“David and I had the same agency. At a meeting, they were talking about my career. But since they just cast David in the second biggest movie of the winter, somehow that meant they did something for me. Which is total crap.
“I know for a fact that I’ve never gotten a job because my of siblings. I mean, who gets hired because of their sibling? Who wants to work for a director that hires somebody just because you’re Corey Feldman’s little brother?
“It hasn’t worked for Bruce Willis’ brother or for Frank Stallone,” he says.
Weren’t Rosanna and Alexis both in “Pulp Fiction?”
“I knew Quentin Tarantino because I met with him for ‘Reservoir Dogs.’ And I stupidly didn’t show up to my callback,” he admits. “It was for role of the cop who gets his ear cut off. I was young and stupid. A friend of mine read the script and told me it was shit.’
“And I listened to my friend. Don’t ever listen to people.
“When ‘Pulp Fiction’ came around, Quentin said, ‘Come on. I really wanted you in the last one, and you weren’t there for me.’ So that’s how I got ‘Pulp Fiction.’”
Alexis also flexes his chops as the drag artist Eva Destruction.
In “Wigstock: The Movie,” Eva serves as the documentary’s roving commentator who interviews Joey Arias and Patricia Field boutique’s wigmaster.
Arquette says his sisters enjoy Eva’s drag performances. But he admits that drag — and even being gay — can be challenging for the Arquette clan.
“My family is very artistic and liberal. But Mom always hoped that I’d marry and have kids,” he says. “Patricia was a little upset that I didn’t tell her [that I was gay] first. At the time, I was 15 or 16. This was before I even acted on it. But it did set me apart from the rest of my family — in an alien kind of way.
“Years later, they felt like they hadn’t gotten to know me as well. And all of them sort of came at the same time and wanted to be a part of my life and know more about me.”
Arquette’s acting has earned “I Think I Do” critical acclaim — singling out his comic flexibility, “physical goofiness” as well as his “awesomely pendulous lower lip.”
His performance is being touted as his best since “Last Exit to Brooklyn.” But “I Think I Do” is more upbeat.
“It’s ’30s-styled screwball comedy with smart-and-quick dialogue. It’s about a group college students who were involved in little love triangles. Years later, two of them get married. And when they come back, all kinds of hijinks happen. It’s really sweet and cute. And it’s a gay movie without AIDS, without bashing. It’s light, which is rare for a gay film. It’s the gay movie you could take your nephew to,” he says.
He says already he’s wrapped 10 more films — including “Fools Gold,” which was filmed in Austin, AND “Love Kills” with Mario VanPeebles in which Arquette and Donovan Leitch play boyfriends.
But Arquette warns “Don’t go see ‘Children of The Corn: Part V’ just because I’m in it. I really respect the horror genre. And I always think that I can somehow can elevate these horror scripts with intelligent and outrageous campy humor. But I’ve had to fight for every funny line in horror movies.
“Humor and camp always wins in horror movies. ‘Carrie’ is one of my favorite movies. They were nominated for Oscars because they didn’t take themselves too seriously. They enjoyed the humor. You’ve gotta have gags and jokes in there. Otherwise, what are people in Harlem gonna scream at? They really enjoy their horror movies. And they want them to be funny.”