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Tom Arnold Has a Dark Night of the Soul

Updated: Oct 26, 2023

Tom Arnold

Has a Dark Night of the Soul

by Jay S. Jacobs

When one thinks of comedian-turned-actor Tom Arnold, normally they do not picture the serious side of the guy. Instead they picture the lighthearted roles, the tabloid gossip and the sitcoms. The man has made a name as a good-natured, slightly shallow goofball.

This makes his performance in the indie film Gardens of the Night all the more shocking. Arnold has done dramatic roles before – often very well – but this harrowing character ratchets things up to a new level. It is as fine and brave a job of acting as has been seen in 2008, a truly selfless and vanity-free attempt to show that the face of evil is not always as obvious as one might expect. In the film, Arnold plays Alex, a pedophile who kidnaps two small children and essentially destroys their lives, despite the fact that in his own deluded mind he thinks he is creating a (dysfunctional, admittedly) family dynamic. Mr. Arnold was surprisingly open to us at our meeting a couple of weeks before the film’s New York release. In a small conference room at the Regency Hotel in New York, he gave a vivid and at times painful explanation of why Gardens of the Night was so important to him – as an actor, as a human being and as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse.

“The reason I took it on was because I read the script and I had a personal connection to this character of Leslie [the abused girl in the film],” Arnold explains. “I liked that there is hope in the end and that the cycle is broken in the older Leslie. She was going home. It was going to be different. It was going to be better. As someone who, when they were young, had an experience… not as dramatic, but… you want to know that it can be okay.”

Perhaps it can be okay, but Gardens of the Night mostly shows the great crippling psychological damage that childhood sexual abuse can cause. The screenplay was a labor of love for British director Damian Harris – who had previously made the acclaimed films The Rachel Papers and Mercy and is the son of the late actor Richard Harris. Harris had worked for eighteen years trying to get the film made, going through many casts (originally it was supposed to be a Leonardo DiCaprio film) and investors before finally deciding to finance the film himself.

The surprising part is that Arnold’s character of Alex is not played as a monster – though of course he is. However, unlike his angry younger henchman Frank (played by Kevin Zegers of Transamerica), Alex almost seems kind sometimes, like in his deluded way he really believes that he is protecting the small children. However, Arnold admits that he needed to show that kind of dichotomy – besides, truly he knew that the role was indefensible – and should be.

When he took the role, Arnold admits, “I asked Damian, I wanted an out for the character. I knew he’d researched this film for seventeen years. The character… I wanted an out. And he wouldn’t give me anything. I said what if he’s such a nice kidnapper and the other guy is the mean one. He wanted to fight, it stung a little, and he said ‘well, Kevin Zegers – the mean one – he’s been your partner since he was eight.’ So there’s no out for me. I’m just going to have to figure that out.

“I come across as pretty nice and I’ve done a lot of movies where I was funny, I think that helps. For me personally, I was going through a divorce and my self-esteem was just perfect for it – low. I knew I was going to be in this. So, I just played the guy that molested me for three years – when I was four to seven.”

Arnold realized from his own experience that the abuser usually isn’t the monster that you would imagine – it is a seemingly normal person who does unspeakable things.

“In fact he was nice,” Arnold admits. “He was very nice. I thought he was a couple of years older than me. I didn’t know until I was thirty and I was rehabbing. At the end, you do an inventory of your drugs, alcohol and sex. I remember saying between the time I was four and seven… my mother left when I was four – she used to leave me with this guy. Between the time I was four and seven, the thing is me and this neighbor… I was a kid. I didn’t know what sex was. He was my babysitter. [I said] it was probably something boys do. It probably was just some natural… [Then] the therapist said ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa! So you’re telling me you were five and had a seven-year-old babysitter?’ I was like, yeah. He said, ‘I want you to research that.’ I researched it, and the guy, of course, was a man. Then it struck me that I’d always known he was a man, because he had a man body.

“The reason I didn’t tell my dad was because he gave me a candy bar at the end of the game. My dad didn’t want me to eat candy because I’d get so hyper. So I had a secret. Plus he was so nice. He’d tell me, ‘Your mother, she doesn’t love you. She left. I’m here for you.’ So [in the role] I wanted to show how manipulative and nice and how a kid… a smart kid… could get mixed up.”

All these years later, the experience still haunts him. Arnold draws back into himself as he tells the story, making himself small, his voice periodically breaking, often looking at the table as he speaks. Still, he pushes on, telling his story in hushed tones.

“I confronted the guy,” Arnold explains. “After this rehab thing, I went back home to talk to some kids I hadn’t talked to in years. All the boys wouldn’t talk about it because I think there’s a stigma on boys. It makes you feel less than a man, I guess. I got a private eye and found out where he was. He was a church leader. He was married. He had adopted three boys. He ran a big business in Des Moines [Iowa]. I worked for six months and prepared for this – how to do this and not strangle him. I showed up at his place of business. It was all the way down the hall. He hadn’t come out of the office. He saw me – and he hadn’t seen me in 23 years – but he knew exactly why I was there. I started my spiel, you know. I’d been working on it. I’m here to give you back the shame that you brought me as a kid. I just wanted to leave it behind, you know? He came right up to me and jammed his finger in my chest. For a second, I was four. I was five. I was a kid. He was big. He was mean. I could smell it. I remembered every detail. It was much more violent than I thought. I was scared. I’m 6’2”, 240. Then I snapped out of it. I grabbed his hand and said if you ever touch me again, I’m going to break your fucking neck. By now, all his employees were there. They knew who I was.

“I walked out of there like, oh, I’ve done it. I’ve done it. I was like Rocky. Then I was thinking, where he lives now – what about those kids? I had the farmhands put six blocks around his house kid-high posters of his face, his address and his crimes. Then I heard he was adopting another boy. I went straight to the state capitol. I got the Governor of Iowa. I said you’ve got to help me stop this. He’s a molester and they don’t stop. I’m telling you; they molest one boy, they molest 250. He said, ‘Well, the statute of limitations is way over on you. It would be illegal to stop this.’ I said you have to because he’s growing his own victims. I just know it. He’s like, ‘Okay, it’s illegal. We never had this conversation, okay? I need you to leave right now Tom. You weren’t here. Go back to California. That’s it.’ I was like, God, you know? So I go back and two days later, my brother called me and goes, ‘I’ve got some good news. There was a problem for the paperwork for the adoption. It didn’t go through.’

“I was very grateful for that. Plus, I’d made it known to everybody. I thought I’d done everything I could do. But then, I look at my life in the last eighteen years and I say to myself, where is my self-esteem? Where is it? It’s better. It’s better because I’ve been being of service. I’m helping. But where is it?” he asks, his voice cracking. “Why have I had three marriages, and they have all lasted four years? Why the same amount? Why don’t I have the family I always dreamed of? The one thing I never did to this guy was show him. Show how manipulative he was. Damian gave me that opportunity. To [show] he’s a nice guy. He needs her to like him. He really needs it. He needs it and I know that. That guy was my fucking friend, man. He was there for me.”

Director Harris agrees that this ambiguity was all important to the film. “To answer quickly about how Tom comes across as being sympathetic, or Alex [his character] does, it’s because the film is very much from Leslie’s point of view. Leslie’s perception of Alex is she wants to believe that he is good, because he’s now the one looking after her. Whatever his motivations are, why he needs to woo her – and I think Alex needs to woo Leslie, he’s not going to force himself on her – she interprets in a way as seeing him being her caregiver now. He’s going to look after her. It’s through her because we are filtering the whole movie through her. It’s what comes out to us. She has very ambivalent feelings towards him, but I think it’s good that the audience has ambivalent feelings, too. That means we’ve been successful at portraying how it is that Leslie is processing what’s going on with her.”

Actress Gillian Jacobs, who plays the role of the little girl grown up to be a homeless prostitute in San Diego, found that supposed kindness to be one of the most powerful attributes to Arnold’s work in the film.

“You see the cycle of abuse,” Jacobs says. “Sometimes the perpetrator is a victim themselves. You have to think there is a mental illness going on. I’m not qualified to give a diagnosis, of the character, but… I think his portrayal goes a long way towards making it a three-dimensional character that you’re capable of having conflicting emotions about. That speaks a lot to his performance. In the hands of another actor, it could have been easily dismissible.”

“There has to be a reason, because ten years later she still believes that she was living with her uncle,” Arnold says. “When I say about her parents, ‘They don’t want you,’ I believe. I convince her of that. And, boy, can I relate to it. My character can surely relate to it because he went through the same thing. [Harris] wrote – it was simple, but it was a perfect thing – there’s a comparison of a great night that I had with my dad, and he disappeared. I don’t know if that came from [his] personal life or whatever, but it felt real to me. My character genuinely needed her approval. He needed her to like him. Whatever happened to him – you could say he’s sick, you could say he’s whatever. That he is a demon. He’s evil.”

“He’s evil,” Harris agrees, “but the film is about dealing with something that happens to you. You’re left with an event that happens in your life and how you cross that so that you grow up. That person disappears into the ether. They are not there anymore. And yet they have had an incredible impact in your life and remain in your life as some kind of ghost. The struggle in the film and for Leslie is to break free of these shackles. To not be Alex’s prisoner anymore.”

“Also to break the cycle,” Arnold says. “As a survivor of this… whatever… seeing someone literally break the cycle. Leslie breaks the cycle and not only breaks the cycle, but instead of denying the past it hits her and she has to deal with it. She’s very heroic the way she deals with it. That gives me tingles. That makes me feel in a way… this is just me, Tom Arnold, talking, but that makes me feel like that’s a brave young lady. There is hope for her. Because the truth is, this happens. Versions of this happen every forty seconds, a kid is abducted. I don’t know if I mentioned this, but I work with the Amber Watch Foundation. With the internet now, and the kind of things…”

“One in three or one in four girls are abused by the time they reach seventeen,” Harris says. “For boys, the statistics are one in seven.”

“It’s higher than that,” Arnold replies.

“It may be higher, but they are embarrassed to talk about it because it’s the same sex,” Harris continues. “It’s very prevalent. The film deals with the repercussions of that – going through trauma as a child. Growing up with that and keeping it internalized. It’s something where you don’t have a scar on your skin. You don’t have a broken bone. It’s not something that people can look at and talk to you about. You really have to bring it out yourself. Otherwise it stays inside, and it becomes a baggage and a wound you take to every relationship you’re going to have in the future.”

“And you’re killing yourself for something that wasn’t your fault,” Arnold says. “These kids are killing themselves, with their drugs and they are exposing themselves and risking themselves out there. They are trying to hurt themselves because they feel that they are bad. There are moments of this film towards the end with Leslie where she gets it. It’s not her. That’s very, very important for people to see. It is about honestly portraying going home and the love that she has for her family – Donnie – who is really her family.”

One of the ways that Arnold and director Harris tried to make this harrowing subject matter easier for their young stars – in the process evincing extraordinary performances by child actors Ryan Simpkins (from Sherry Baby) as young Leslie and Jermaine Scooter Smith (in his film debut) as young Donnie – was by making sure that the two never knew what the film was really about.

“We all had this thing,” Arnold explains, “we said, here’s the deal, if she had to cry, her mother would say ‘Just pretend your dog is lost,’ or whatever. She’s such a good actress. She did Broadway with Jeremy Sisto – who’s also in the movie [as a fellow pedophile who runs a solicitation ring]. Here’s the deal, I’m a guy that never had a family and I’m just kind of kidnapping kids trying to make a family. I never had a family. Everybody else has one. That’s bad enough. That’s what the kids knew [about the storyline]. They don’t know anything about the other stuff. There was nothing graphic. In nine years, if they want to see the film, they can. That was important to me.

“When I walked out of the room after [one particularly traumatic] scene, Monique, her mother, kissed me on the lips,” Arnold recalls. “She said, ‘Thank you so much for not scaring my daughter. Just the way you’re playing it is not scary at all.’ Kind of a lot of mixed feelings going on there.”

Arnold is not leaving his mixed feelings in Gardens of the Night, either. He explains that he has eight films finished, including two more in which he plays extremely disturbing roles. First off, he plays a small role in the film Good Dick as a man who had an incestuous relationship with his daughter.

“I did that as a favor to my son from Happy Endings, Jason [Ritter],” Arnold says. “His girlfriend [Marianna Palka] wrote and directed the film. He was in the film. You have to help first time directors.”

Another first-time director he helped was Andrew Robinson, a survivor of the Columbine High School massacre who wrote a script based on his experience. Arnold plays a high school teacher who was killed in the tragedy.

“It is written by a kid that survived Columbine,” Arnold said. “That’s why I read it. He did a good job. He directed it. I play the teacher that got killed. He said the teacher really liked me. We shot it [at a real] high school. It was tough.”

Of course one of the problems with working with first-time directors is that they don’t always understand how filmmaking is done. However, Arnold helped the passionate director get filming into perspective early on in the process.

“The first day I got sent there, I could hear him as the kids were running out of the school after the shooting,” Arnold says. “He was yelling, ‘Come on, people. People died. This really happened. I was there. Goddamn it! Come on!’ I grabbed the bullhorn and said, don’t ever talk to them like that again. These are kids. These are kids from Nebraska. These are just kids. They don’t need to walk away from the movie with post-traumatic stress. I [know] that a lot because I just came back from the Middle East. Plus, we are filming this inside the high school. Do you know what that means? It means one parent complains and we’re out of here. So, tone it down. We get it. You were there.”

Still, despite the shaky start, Arnold walked away from the filming with respect for the young filmmaker.

“He did a great job,” Arnold says. “Never showed the killers. It didn’t glorify them. I didn’t want to fucking see those guys. It was an amalgamation of things that happened. I didn’t want to see Klebold and those motherfuckers and have the other kids say, ‘Oh, I want to be that guy.’ You know, it’s just that terror that you don’t see – which is what Damian did so well, too.”

While waiting for these new projects to be released, right now Arnold is focused on the importance of getting word out about Gardens of the Night, which will be released in New York on November 7, 2008, and then will roll out across the country in the upcoming weeks. The stars and director of the film hope that its dark subject matter will not scare away an audience, because it is on a subject which is very important to bring to light.

“When I read it, I was taken by the story and the character and I was really excited by the challenge of it,” co-star Gillian Jacobs says. “We learned a lot in the process of making the film. Despite the difficult subject matter, I actually enjoyed the experience of making it. Then you watch it with an audience, and you hear these audible gasps of horror – or people talk about how difficult it is for people to watch it. Then you realize the power of the film to communicate to other people.”

Co-star Evan Ross, who played grown-up Donnie, agrees. “I didn’t take it on lightly. From the first time I read the script, I loved it. I knew I wanted to be a part of it, because it was something I was interested in. I felt it was important. To this day, it’s something that people really find too tough to see. The more I worked on it, the more I studied, the more passionate I became about it. I never really realized how bad it really was. I feel like it’s really important that people take the time to watch it and not be ignorant of what’s going on.”

“With this movie I want to create a dialogue,” Director Harris says. “Connect with people and get an emotional response. Bring out into the open something you had thought you couldn’t bring up.

What does Arnold want to bring away from the experience of making Gardens of the Night?

“The same,” he says. “And to win some major award to go with my Razzies. I have been nominated for six Razzies. I was nominated for three in one year. Not bragging, but…” He chuckles, “my friend has an Oscar and Razzie, too – Steve Tisch, who owns this hotel. No, you do something like this for the same reason [Harris] just said. And for myself. Just to try and get better.”

Copyright ©2008 All rights reserved. Posted: November 7, 2008.

Photo Credits:

#1 © 2008. Courtesy of City Lights Pictures. All rights reserved.

#2 © 2008 Jay S. Jacobs. All rights reserved.

#3 © 2008. Courtesy of City Lights Pictures. All rights reserved.

#4 © 2008. Courtesy of City Lights Pictures. All rights reserved.

#5 © 2008 Jay S. Jacobs. All rights reserved.

#6 © 2008. Courtesy of City Lights Pictures. All rights reserved.


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