Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Cary Elwes

Absurdly Wonderful

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy The Princess Bride on DVD.

Being cast for your Douglas Fairbanks-like qualities can easily go to a guy's head. But good-looking, blonde, blue-eyed actor Cary Elwes seems to keep his "ordinary guy"-ness about him like a well-tailored coat.

His career jump-started when he landed the leading role of the swashbuckling Westley in Rob Reiner's The Princess Bride (1987). (Westley was so funny, so dashing, and so charming that I wanted to be him. More specifically, I wanted his hair.) That led to a role in the highly regarded Civil War film Glory (1989) and in the hit comedy Hot Shots! (1991), before moving on to smaller, more character-type roles in Bram Stoker's Dracula, Kiss the Girls, Liar Liar, Cradle Will Rock, and Shadow of the Vampire. Now he can be seen on next season's "The X-Files." "I'm playing an FBI agent," is all he can tell me.

Instead, Elwes is talking to me by phone about the new deluxe edition DVD release of The Princess Bride. In the film, Elwes plays Westley, whose job it is to fall in love with the princess (Robin Wright), go away to sea and become a pirate, and return to rescue her. Upon his return, he must battle with a skilled swordsman (Many Patinkin), a giant (Andre the Giant), and a brilliant Sicilian (Wallace Shawn). The film also stars Billy Crystal, Carol Kane, Christopher Guest, Chris Sarandon, Fred Savage, and Peter Falk. Of all those actors, who got the most attention? Andre the Giant, of course.

"I met him at the read-through at the Dorchester Hotel in London," Elwes says. "I saw his hand first, through the door. And there was a collective gasp from everyone in the room. The only people who had met him were Rob and [screenwriter] Bill Goldman. This huge smile came in, and everyone got up to meet him. He was huge in Japan, you know. They offered to fly him out there any time, because giants are considered lucky. People would run across the street just to touch him." Andre passed away in 1993.

While shooting scenes on top of a high grassy slope, Elwes broke his toe, and Andre figures into that story as well. "What happened was, Andre couldn't walk up those hills. It was a huge slab. So they rented him one of those little four-wheelers, and he drove that up. And he was having such fun. So one day he said, 'you ever try this?' So he threw me the keys, and I went over a rock and the rock got caught inbetween my toes and the pedal. Just crushed it. I knew instantly that it was broken. I couldn't delay the shoot, so I shot the scene. You can see [me limping] when I'm running into the swamp. I came from the school of 'the show must go on.' Unfortunately, there's nothing you can really do with a broken toe, so they made a special shoe for me. Our costume designer Phyllis Dalton cut a new shoe for me. She was my hero just for being on Lawrence of Arabia."

Part of the treasures found on the new The Princess Bride DVD is a chunk of video footage shot on set by Elwes himself, including footage of Andre. "It was so wonderful to find footage of him," Elwes says fondly. "I shot the footage with the few days I had off, but I had lost the tapes in the move that I made from London to New York and from New York to Los Angeles. What I was going to do is put them together and make a little video for the cast and Rob. But I lost them. But literally, the day before they called me [about the DVD], I found them. They had fallen down behind a filing cabinet. They were sealed and I had never seen them. And I bought them in, and they got everyone's permission to use the footage on the DVD."

When Elwes was originally cast and learned that Reiner had also cast his friends, comedians Billy Crystal and Christopher Guest, he knew what kind of a set The Princess Bride would be. "It was a wonderfully supportive set, and that's a great atmosphere for being creative. An atmosphere of fun, is an atmosphere where the mind is more likely to come up with great stuff." Elwes admits that there was a lot of laughter. "Billy would just suddenly do stand-up, and we would just lose it. So there's tons of takes."

But on the other hand, the screenplay, by William Goldman based on his own book, is just about perfect. I've seen the film more than a dozen times, and I still wouldn't change a single moment. "I think we were lucky that way," Elwes says. "Don't forget we had a script that had been revised over 8 or 10 years. Francois Truffaut was going to do it at one point and John Huston was going to do it at one point. It had a long evolution."

Elwes is currently going through what he calls his "filmmaker period." He played John Houseman, one of the men behind Citizen Kane, in Cradle Will Rock (1999), and he played cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner, the man who shot Nosferatu, in Shadow of the Vampire (2000). Now he plays the notorious Fritz Hippler in a new film called Uprising. "He was a documentary filmmaker who made The Eternal Jew, a really nasty piece of work. It was one of the films Goebbels produced."

All this goes back to Elwes' school days. "I was a projectionist in school, kinda like in Cinema Paradiso. When I got to the states in New York, I found out you can earn college credits by studying film. So I've always been fascinated by film from a very young age. I can bore people with my trivia knowledge," he says. (I know exactly what he means.)

But for now, The Princess Bride remains his most beloved role, and looks to be a cult classic that will last the ages. "Honestly, we're happy that people are still watching it now. I have people coming up to me and telling me that they got married to the music in the movie, people naming their kids Westley and Buttercup. Absurdly wonderful."

Date: September 6, 2001

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