There's a unique and universal reaction one encounters when mentioning Cary Elwes' name. While the actor may not boast the marquee power of a Tom Cruise or the pin-up status of a Brad Pitt, it seems everyone knows his name. People's eyes light up immediately, generally followed by a sustained "awww" sound. And one instantly knows their sense memory is jumping back 17 years, to when Westley rescued Buttercup from the evil Count Rugen and would not allow even death to stop true love.
The Princess Bride wasn't a runaway hit when it was released in 1987, but the rabid following it developed in ensuing years has solidified its status as a modern classic. For the actor who will be forever remembered as the heroic and dashing servant-turned-pirate, it was a seminal experience in a film with which he's proud to be associated. "I'm kind of happy the film has managed to touch people in a way they are able to feel like it's theirs," Elwes observes. "It's no longer our movie; it belongs to everyone. You're lucky in life if you're remembered for anything. If you've done a movie that people enjoyed and want to show to their kids and their kids to their kids…. I think this film I just did has that same quality."
The new film Elwes is referring to is Ella Enchanted, a modern take on fairy tales that involves true love, kind giants, and a little bit of magic. It may sound like familiar territory for Elwes, but herein lies the twist: in this version the actor is not the hero but the wicked Prince Regent determined to do away with his nephew and claim the throne for himself. Casting Elwes as the anti-Westley was a very conscious decision on the part of director Tommy O'Haver. "Obviously, there was a feeling that it would be so great to have the hero from The Princess Bride come back and be our villain," admits O'Haver. "Luckily, he was perfectly evil in our movie. He really knew how to chew up the scenery, which is something you want from your villain in this type of movie." Elwes also enjoyed the chance to be the bad guy after all these years. "I thought this would be a nice way to put a bookend on it," notes Elwes. "I'm flattered that they thought of me in that way, because no one's ever thought of putting me in a role like that before." Elwes has played a few villains in his time but none as prominant—or rendered with such obvious glee—as on display in Ella.
Once Upon a Time
Elwes was born and raised in London, England, and knew as a child that he wanted to be an actor. "I grew up in a household with two older brothers, and my mother was a single mom," he recalls. "In order to support us, she had to work and leave us at home alone—back when you could without it being an issue. We were pretty self-sufficient. We had a TV set, and that TV set really became our companion. And I became obsessed with movies and TV shows and comedy shows like Do Not Adjust Your Set, which had some of the members of the Monty Python team. So I was kind of obsessed with the idea that this little tube could entertain people and make people laugh or cry or have feelings or whatever. So I pretty much knew as a kid that I wanted to be in some way associated with show business."
Elwes came to New York in 1980 and studied at the Actors Studio and the Lee Strasberg Institute. "I always knew I wanted to live in America, I always felt this was the place I felt most comfortable in," he says. "I would say I'm British by birth but American by choice. Having visited America as a child on vacation and realizing there were a hundred channels as opposed to two back in England, I saw that America had cornered the market on entertainment. So I knew that this is where I would have to make my mark."
Elwes now resides in Los Angeles when he's not working. And after more than 20 years in the United States, there is one noticeable Americanization—his English accent has all but disappeared. "I know, it's gone," he says with a laugh when this is pointed out. "I didn't really give it any thought, except that I knew when I got to the States there was only so much work for British actors, and I thought, 'Well, if I'm going to get work, I'm going to have to compete in the marketplace.'" So Elwes began perfecting an American accent.
Ironically his big break in the American film market would come playing an Englishman. After some television and film work, director Rob Reiner caught his performance as Guilford Dudley in the period romance Lady Jane and sought out Elwes for The Princess Bride. "Casting him was interesting," Reiner recalls on the Princess Bride DVD. "We met him just after Chernobyl, and we had to go to Germany to meet him there, and there was talk about being fallout in that area and some concern about becoming radioactive. But we risked being permanently contaminated just so we could meet with Cary Elwes. I think it was a smart thing to do, because I don't think anybody else could have played this part."
"I will forever be grateful to Rob for making that trip to meet me," Elwes says of their first encounter. "I read the script in one sitting, and I just knew it was going to be a movie with a lot of heart, having met Rob and knowing he had such a beautiful heart." Reiner took great care in casting Elwes and, in the title role, Robin Wright Penn, who were virtual unknowns at the time. Indeed it's impossible to imagine anyone else in the roles. In addition to learning hand-to-hand combat and sword fighting, Elwes was required to pull off lines such as, "Death cannot stop true love. All it can do is delay it for a while." The film walked a delicate balance between fantasy and satire, and it's a testament to the direction and performances that it not only succeeded but became a beloved institution.
After the Fairy Tale
Rather than following up Princess Bride with more dashing leading man roles, Elwes seemed to seek out a wide variety of projects. He appeared in hits like Days of Thunder and Twister—big-budget spectacles in which he was woefully underutilized. He did memorable work in supporting roles such as the noble voice of conscience in the Civil War epic Glory and Jim Carrey's romantic competition in Liar, Liar. He made a memorable villain in Kiss the Girls and the live-action The Jungle Book. And when he finally took on a leading man role, it was to spoof his image in fare like Robin Hood: Men in Tights or Hot Shots!
"I like to try to keep my roles varied if I can," observes Elwes when discussing his eclectic resumé. "I never consciously seek out a role in terms of the type of character. I seek out the way the character is written, if it's well-written or not and if it has a good arc and it's not one-dimensional."
Elwes also has the unique distinction of having played several real-life individuals, such as actor John Houseman in Cradle Will Rock, cinematographer Fritz Wagner in Shadow of the Vampire, and murdered producer Thomas Ince in The Cat's Meow. Asked if he hesitates to portray real people, Elwes notes, "I'd never want to offend anyone. But if they're dead, you just have to go with a choice and stick with it and try to learn as much as you can about that person." The one difficulty Elwes can remember is putting on weight to portray Houseman. "I started eating and put on about 45 pounds, which was hard to lose," he recalls. "That was the tough one. But I really appreciate how just going up the steps in a theatre as John Houseman really was a hassle. I'd find myself stopping halfway, going, 'Oh, my God. This must have been what it was like for that guy.'"
The actor also seeks out collaborations with artists he admires, such as being directed by Tim Robbins in Cradle Will Rock or working opposite Carrey in Liar, Liar. "When you have a good time on a movie and everyone is there without an ego, they check it at the door and show up to do the work and not try to be competitive but supportive. Because every movie is an ensemble. People say, 'Oh, an ensemble's only when the parts are all equal in size or something.' But I think that all films are an ensemble. The story only works if it works as a whole where all the characters are working with each other towards a common goal."
According to Elwes, the audience can pick up on performers' feelings about their project. "You know when you set foot on the first day on the set whether it's going to be fun or not," he admits. "But if it's a movie where you just feel like it's a job for everybody, I think it reflects. The camera doesn't lie about that kind of thing."
In the Stars
Acting can be a soul-crushing business, and asked if he ever gets discouraged, Elwes responds, "Only when I'm not working as much as I'd like to be. I love the work, so it can be frustrating when it's out of your hands like that." Which begs the question: Why hasn't he become an enormous movie star in the scope of Cruise or Pitt? "I had the same feeling, especially after Princess Bride," says O'Haver. "I don't know, because he is such a great actor and so great-looking. He's got an incredible sense of humor, as well. Of course, he gave me a beautiful Burberry jacket, which doesn't hurt."
For Elwes, the major advantage of stardom would be a larger selection of roles. "I don't think of things in terms of becoming a star, per se," he muses. "I think the idea of being a star somehow puts a label on you. I'm quite happy just being an actor. If it allows me to do more work, then sure. But I'm certainly not out there seeking accolades or recognition. I'm just doing my thing and having fun." He points to Ella star Anne Hathaway as an example. "Here's a girl who has movie star written all over her. And I mean that in a positive way. She's just a delight and has absolutely no ego whatsoever. But again, it's difficult. She can't go out anywhere without being recognized. It's the price you pay. I'm quite happy I can walk down the street and no one bothers me. As an actor, you're supposed to be able to study people without being studied yourself. And I cherish my freedom."
What he is interested in is acting, and to that end he's anxious to do live theatre. "I think every actor has to do theatre at some point," he says. "If you haven't, you're just kidding yourself." His only stage experience was in the ensemble drama The Exonerated in New York, in 2003. "It's funny, I had to leave Manhattan to be able to come back and do a play," he observes. "While I lived in New York, no one would give me that break." One would imagine casting directors would be lining up to get him onstage, but he insists that isn't the case. "You'd think, right?" he says with a laugh. "But I'm patient. I was happy to get the one break, because it's a wonderful play and a great ensemble."
Patience is one of the cornerstones of Elwes' advice to keeping sane in show business, a philosophy he sums up thusly: "One word: perseverance. It's the only word an actor should really tape up and put on the wall. You've got to just want it badly enough to work as hard as you have to. Because eventually something will happen. You have to believe that. And if you're faking believing it, don't bother." BSW