As You Wish: Cary Elwes at MCM Birmingham Comic Con

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27 years after the release of Rob Reiner’s much-loved fairy tale movie, The Princess Bride, the film continues to acquire new fans, with children as young as four flocking to the stage at the MCM Birmingham Comic Con for a chance to meet its star, Cary Elwes. Having recently published a new book about the making of The Princess Bride called As You Wish, Elwes took the opportunity to reminisce about his time working on this and other movies at this month’s Birmingham convention.

The conversation got going as Elwes recalled what it had been like working with “André the Giant”. Born André René Roussimoff, he plays Fezzik in The Princess Bride.

“For those of you that don’t know, André was like 7 foot 5 and 450 pounds, but he was a truly gentle giant,” said Elwes. “He’d have given you the shirt off his back if you asked him. It would have been enough for five people, but he’d still have given it to you!”

He went on to recount the story of how André, who suffered from back problems, had been struggling to get around their set on location in the Peak District, and so was given a special motorbike to help.

“Every day he would drive up to me on this thing and he’d say, ‘Hey boss,’ – he always called everyone boss – ‘you like my toy?’ And I’d say, ‘Yes André, it’s great.’ So he’d say, ‘You wanna try it?’ And I’d decline. I think it was on day 5 when he came over again and he said, ‘You know you want to.’ At that point I caved. I was already in costume, ready to shoot a scene with Robin [Wright, who plays Buttercup, Princess of Florin]. As soon as I got on the seat of that thing I gained about two feet in height. I put it in first gear and I hadn’t gone more than a few feet before I went over a rock. I ended up breaking my toe, and at this point, we hadn’t even done the sword fights yet, so I was convinced I was gonna get fired. Fortunately we managed to work around it, but if you go back and look at the film closely you can see I’m hopping around a bit.”

This was far from Elwes’s only funny, behind-the-scenes story: he then went on to tell us about his very first encounter with André on the day they started filming, when, in the middle of a sentence, André had let out an enormous fart.

“We’ve all heard of giant farts, but this was a giant’s fart. It must have lasted for about 15 seconds, and we could all feel it reverberating around,” Elwes laughed. “There were people holding onto things around them – it felt like an earthquake. I looked over at the sound guy and he was holding his headphones away from his ears. Once it was over there was a moment where no one said anything, and finally the silence was broken when someone said, ‘You okay, André?’ He just said, ‘I am now, boss.’”

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Creating As You Wish has not simply been a case of Elwes writing down his own memories from on set, however: he’s also compiled stories and comments from other members of the cast and crew. Asked whether putting it together it had reminded him of anything he’d previously forgotten, he talked about a time when a sword fight sequence involving him and Mandy Patinkin (who plays Inigo Montoya)  hadn’t quite been working on camera. It was ten minutes before they were due to finish shooting, and it had been more or less decided that they were going to do without the footage. Perfectionist that he was, however, Mandy had been determined to get it right, and so in the few minutes that were left, the team relocated and, following his instructions, managed to shoot everything they needed.

The conversation then turned to Elwes’s involvement in Glory, a war movie directed by Edward Zwick and released in 1989. Although he owned that it’s not always easy to sell war films to audiences, particularly in times of conflict in the real world when viewers are bombarded with scenes of devastation on their televisions at home, he did say that he nevertheless felt proud of the finished film. He described working on it as having been an incredible experience, both in terms of the locations they visited and having a chance to work alongside other actors he admires, including Morgan Freeman, Matthew Broderick and Denzel Washington.

“Even when I wasn’t needed on set, I often went in to watch Denzel and Morgan acting because they were amazing,” he said.

Asked next about his voice acting work in English dubs for anime movies Neko no ongaeshi (The Cat Returns) and Kurenai no buta (Porco Rosso), he said that he had loved working with Hayao Miyazaki. The question was whether he found voice acting more or less challenging than physical roles. Although he did say that there were some challenges involved, such as making English words fit mouth movements that had already been animated for Japanese dialogue, it was clear which he thought was tougher:

“It’s nice doing voice acting because you don’t have to shave or dress up,” he said. “You can just show up in jeans and a t-shirt.”

Elwes was then asked about how he had ended up working with Roger Moore in the very early stages of his film career. In the early 80s, he started out as a production assistant on Octopussy.

“I became a production assistant because I wanted to know everything about how movies were made,” he said. “So I started out making coffee for people and printing off call sheets on a Xerox machine and probably absorbing huge amounts of radiation from that. But it was great because I got to work at Pinewood Studios and I had a job on a big James Bond film.”

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Then one day, a driver booked to bring Roger Moore in to the studio had failed to show up on time, so Elwes was asked to go and collect him from London.

“I didn’t even have a car at the time!” he said. “I’d been driving a motorbike into work. I was just so terrified that I was going to crash and kill him that I kept to about 10-15 miles per hour for the whole journey. At one point, I remember he said, ‘You can go faster if you want.’ I was mortified.”

Around a decade later, Elwes would find himself working on Robin Hood: Men in Tights, directed by Mel Brooks.

“I felt so privileged to work with Mel because I grew up watching his movies: Young Frankenstein, The Producers, Blazing Saddles,” said Elwes, when asked about the movie. “He’s hilarious. He’s very positive. His favourite word is yes.”

He also said that the film’s cast had been great fun to work with, particularly Dom DeLuise.

“I’d seen him before and thought he was really funny, so I actually asked Mel to write in a role for him. He plays a kind of Marlon Brando-esque Godfather type, and it’s hilarious.”

The discussion then turned back to The Princess Bride, with a question about who or what had been funniest on set. Elwes said that Chris Guest, Mel Smith and Billy Crystal had all been hilarious to work with.

“Billy Crystal was so funny that Rob Reiner and I were banned from the set during one scene because we couldn’t stop laughing. He was basically doing medieval Yiddish stand-up. Rob’s laugh is very robust so he was kicked out by the sound man. Meanwhile, I was actually meant to be in the scene, lying completely still, but in the end, they had to replace me with a dummy.”

One of the younger audience members then raised his hand. Apparently amazed that he still had such young fans, Elwes invited the boy up onto the stage after learning that he had watched The Princess Bride an impressive seven times.

DSC01520“Samuel is going to take over now!” he joked.

Samuel’s question was about how hard it had been to stay completely still in particular scenes.

“Very hard!” said Elwes. “Do you think you could do it? Let’s see if you can keep still for 30 seconds!”

A second, even younger fan dressed up in a Spider-Man costume was also treated to a turn on stage.

“Check him out – isn’t this the coolest Spider-Man you’ve ever seen?” said Elwes, carrying four-year-old Dorian through the audience.

Asked about the most difficult scene to act in The Princess Bride, Elwes said that the swordfighting had been pretty difficult to do with a broken left toe.

“There was one more,” he went on. “Chris Guest literally knocked me out in the scene where he hits me with the sword. I woke up in the same hospital where I had been to get a splint for my toe, and it was the same doctor treating me. He said to me, ‘You’re very accident prone, aren’t you, Zorro?’”

The best part of working on the film was more difficult to decide on, meanwhile.

“I loved the whole experience – that’s why I wrote the book,” he said. “Everything was crazy and hilarious!”

Asked whether he could imagine other actors playing any of the characters in The Princess Bride, Elwes said that it was so well cast that it was difficult to think of other people in the roles. That said, he did have an interesting story to tell about how one of the actors had mistakenly believed he was going to be replaced.

“Wally Shawn, who plays Vizzini, thought that he was getting fired because the producers wanted Danny DeVito instead,” he said. “If you watch it now, it’s inconceivable to think of anyone else having that part, but in my book, he says that he was haunted by the ghost of Danny DeVito all the way through filming!”

Returning to talking about his other work outside of The Princess Bride, Elwes spoke briefly about his experiences of working on Saw and Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

“Working on Saw was a real thrill,” he said. “It cost about $1 million, and we shot it very quickly. We were averaging 10-15 pages of dialogue per day, and I think overall it took us about 18 days.”

“Being chained to the radiator for that long was a big challenge,” he went on. “We had to time our bathroom breaks very carefully.”

Asked whether he would be interested in working on another Saw movie, he said that he would love to, if he was asked.

“If you want me to be in another one, I guess you’d better get on the Saw blog and start campaigning!” he laughed.

As for Dracula, Elwes said that, as a big fan of Francis Ford Coppola’s films, it had been amazing to work with him.

“I spent a lot of time studying him and how he worked so that I could learn from him,” he said. “It was a very intense movie, and we had a great cast. It was shot mostly on the sound stage at Sony Studios because Francis didn’t want to use CGI. He decided he was going to do all the effects on camera, which was very brave, but I think it worked beautifully.”

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Elwes’s acting career now spans around 30 years, and encompasses a huge number and diverse array of films. His first ever named, character part in a film came in 1974 with Another Country. Based on a play by Julian Mitchell about the life of a real spy, Guy Burgess, the film also happened to be Colin Firth’s first movie. Elwes recalled being both nervous and excited about the role.

Asked whether he would be interested in playing any other historical characters, he struggled to think of one, but he did say that he had consciously chosen to play a lot of them over the course of his career.

“I love history. It’s the only subject I excelled at in school,” he said. “I read a lot of biographies. I’m currently reading one about Marlon Brando called Brando’s Smile. It’s a great book, but I’m too old to play him now.”

Not all of his experiences playing historical characters have been happy ones, however. According to Elwes, his toughest acting job was playing serial killer Ted Bundy.

“The research for that was not fun at all. It wasn’t a good head space to be in,” he said. “The first meeting I had on set was with the real detective who had tracked down and interviewed Bundy. It was during breakfast, and he did this slide show about how corpses slowly deteriorate. That was Day 1 of the project. I don’t think I’d ever want to do anything like that again.”

About to embark on a drama course at university, an aspiring actor in the audience wondered whether Elwes had any tips for young performers.

“While I was still a PA, I read as many books as I could on actors, including Laurence Olivier’s autobiography,” he said. “Apparently he suffered from terrible stage fright, and the way he dealt with that was to go up to the curtain while people were getting into their seats and say, ‘Tonight, you are going to see a performance that will change your life.’ That was his way of building up his self-esteem. Reading that made me feel that, if a great actor like him could have stage fright, it’s okay for me to be nervous too. I think the day you stop feeling nervous about something is the day you should stop doing it.”

“My best advice for a drama student is just one word: perseverance,” he added.

Taking the comic con surroundings into consideration, one member of the audience asked if Elwes had a favourite comic. He chose Tintin, going on to talk about how he had “lobbied” for his cameo role as a French pilot in Spielberg’s 2011 movie adaptation.

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“I’ll tell you how it happened,” he began. “My wife and I were in the supermarket, and she suddenly said, ‘Oh my God, Steven Spielberg is over in the next aisle!’ Naturally, I was thinking, ‘Yeah right, like he does his own shopping.’ But I leaned round to look anyway, and sure enough, there he was. I knew I had to speak to him, because it’s a sort of Hollywood rule that if you recognise someone, you should say hi – it’s just polite. So I had to think of something to say, and I remembered that he was working on Tintin, so I decided to talk to him about that.”

Elwes soon found himself asking whether there were any parts left in the film, and saying that he’d love to be involved, but the director had seemed a bit surprised.

“’You’re a little late,’ he said. ‘There isn’t really much left.’ And I was thinking, ‘I’ve blown it,’” said Elwes.

Fortunately, Spielberg had then mentioned one very small role that still needed filling, though it was only one day’s work, and he doubted that it would be the sort of thing he’d want to do. Elwes, however, was undeterred.

“’Try me,’ I said. So he said, ‘Well, okay, can you do a French accent?’”

Elwes grinned. “But of course,” he said, in a comical French accent that apparently got him the part!

Finally, asked about his plans for the future, Elwes said that he intended to spend as much time as possible with his daughter.

“She is my greatest production,” he said. “She’s a little over budget right now, but we’re working on it!”

And with that, it was time to bring the conversation to a close, before we were all, in Elwes’s own words, “turn[ed] into smores” inside the affectionately named MCM “marshmallow”.

Photographs by Caitlin Jenkins.

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