As a wannabe actor in my early 20s, Cary Elwes was one of the thespians a little ahead of me in age who seemed to have cracked it, hit the Hollywood jackpot.
He made his acting debut in Marek Kanievska’s notable 1984 film ‘Another Country’, alongside a young Rupert Everett and Colin Firth. And his stardom was assured when he lit up the role of stableboy turned swashbuckler Westley in Rob Reiner’s 1987 fantasy adventure ‘The Princess Bride’, which remains a cult classic to this day.
Often cast as the quintessential Englishman, perhaps inspired as I was with the swagger and wit of the Golden Era’s David Niven and Errol Flynn, Cary epitomized the perfect mix of masculine camp.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, movies like ‘Glory’, ‘Days of Thunder’, Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula’, and Mel Brooks’ ‘Robin Hood: Men in Tights’ added more weight to an increasingly substantive career that continues to shine.
Passionate about history, though weary of becoming typecast in the flurry of period-piece offers that came his way, Cary auditioned and was accepted at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute in New York following a profound meeting with Al Pacino in a restaurant in the city.
“My greatest mentor was Al Pacino, who really changed my career path,” Cary tells me in our latest ‘Who the F*** Are You?’ profile, answering the 20 questions that get to the heart of who we are. “He tapped my head, and then he tapped my heart. He said, ‘They’re muscles Cary. You need to go to the gym and work them out.’ And so he encouraged me to audition for the institute — and I got in.”
And thus, amongst us fledglings of theatre, Cary’s reputation grew for immersing himself in preparation for a role. Whether it be learning to fence or becoming expert at horseback riding, here was a man determined to do the work.
Which brings me full circle to my personal connection. Whilst modeling, I had also just started auditioning for acting roles and very soon found myself reading for and having multiple callbacks with the head of casting at Paramount Studios for the 1999 movie ‘Kiss the Girls’ staring Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd. They seemed to be very keen on me. In all truth, I was quite terrified, my fear heightened by the instruction that the scenes required me to perform in various American dialects and I’d not yet worked with a vocal coach.
I jumped in there and did my very best, but after missing out on the part, I must admit to feeling a tad relieved when I heard via my new agent that the role had gone to the ‘method actor’ Cary Elwes. After all, as mentioned, Cary had attended both the Actors Studio and Strasberg’s Institute, famed for its legendary alumni, the likes of Marlon Brando, James Dean, and James Newman. And to further quell my feelings of incompetence, it was reassuring to hear that Cary’s audition was extraordinarily real. The rumor circulating was that Cary had actually stabbed himself, with a real dagger, his commitment for winning the role was so intense. Credit to the lad, I thought, and so I was begrudgingly consoled.
So cut to — no pun intended — a quarter of a century later and following our Mr Feelgood photoshoot and interview, I asked him if indeed this zealous tale was true.
Without hesitation and with that famous wry smile, he recounted the story. Whilst auditioning a particularly gruesome scene with Ashley, at one point, her action was to lash out in defense. Cary grabbed the incoming weapon only to realize that the supposed prop knife wasn’t in fact a prop and instead a steel blade and… well, you can imagine the rest.
Unlike me, Cary has since often been cast as Americans, such is his ability and skill with accents. Aside from film and theatre, he’s graced the small screen too in memorable series including ‘The X Files’, ‘Seinfeld’, and ‘The Marvelous Mrs Maisel’. He played the astronaut Michael Collins in the Golden Globe -winning HBO miniseries ‘From Earth to Moon’, and Mayor Larry Kline in the Netflix behemoth ‘Stranger Things’.
And like his contemporary Hugh Grant, he’s continued to gain in character and nuance of performance, and his roles are becoming more and more interesting as the years pass. For a London boy with a dream, dedication, and talent, he’s worked with some remarkable people.
He’s been directed by Tim Robbins, Peter Bogdanovich, Garry Marshall, and he’s just wrapped his second film with Guy Ritchie, ‘The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare.’ And this summer he hits screens around the globe in ‘Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One’, written, directed, and produced by Christopher McQuarrie, reuniting him with Tom Cruise more than three decades after the pair starred together in ‘Days of Thunder’.
“I’m very blessed,” says Cary. “I get to work with Tom Cruise again after 30-some odd years. And I get to do ‘Mission: Impossible’ which I’ve always dreamt of doing. He’s terrific. First of all, he’s a great actor and a massive movie star, but he’s the same guy from 30 years ago and he hasn’t changed.”
Cary’s one of those actors that I’ll spend my lifetime watching, and there’s a reassuring feeling that comes with such — a fellow traveller journeying a similar timeline.
And I forgive him for getting ‘my role’ — he was fantastic.
Who the f*** are you?
I don’t know. That’s an existential question. I’ve been trying to answer that my whole life. I have no idea. I’m still a work in progress.
How are you feeling right now?
I feel great. I feel terrific.
Where did you grow up and what was it like?
I grew up in London. I had a terrific childhood, really. Kind of latch-door kid growing up in the 1960s in Kensington and Paddington. Moved about a bit. A great, fun childhood.
What excites you?
Being with my family. Being in front of the camera, having a fun role to play with wonderful actors and a great director. The day I lose joy for it is the day I should quit.
What scares you?
I’m not particularly scared by anything, really. Other than dangerous drivers. Perhaps that’s the only thing that makes me nervous. And maybe missing out on key milestones in my daughters life, but I work very hard to not miss those.
What is your proudest achievement?
My daughter, of course. She’s the best production I’ll ever do. She’s a little over budget, but she’s right on schedule.
What is the hardest thing you have ever done?
Well, being a parent. They don’t come with instruction manuals so you have to make it up as you go along. But fortunately, I have a terrific wife. Her mother is phenomenal, and so we work very well together.
Who is your greatest mentor and what did they teach you?
My greatest mentor was Al Pacino, who really changed my career path when he encouraged me to go and study at the Lee Strasberg Institute in New York. And so I did, and that changed the entire trajectory of my career.
I ran into him at a restaurant and he asked me what I was up to, and I said, “I’m going on auditions.” And he said, “Oh, you’re drifting.” My heart sank, because I thought, “Great. Michael Corleone just called me a drifter.” So he tapped my head, and he goes, “What’s that?” And then he tapped my heart, and said, “What’s that?” I said, “It’s not my heart, is it?” And he said, “No. They’re muscles, Cary. You need to go to the gym and work them out.” And so he encouraged me to audition for the institute, and I did. And I got in. I studied with his mentor, a guy called Charles Laughton. Not the actor, same name. And that changed my life, changed my whole career, everything. I’d done ‘The Princess Bride’, but I really hadn’t done anything meaty in terms of character. So that really helped me prepare.
Who are your fictional and real-life heroes?
My father was my greatest hero. And my grandfather. They were really the important male figures in my life, and my mother and all my grandparents. But my grandfather and father were the two real figures that shaped me. They both had wonderful senses of humor, and they were both adventurers. My grandfather actually worked for the character I play in the Guy Ritchie movie [‘The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare’], so it was kismet getting to play the guy. They were great role models. They were extremely intelligent, very well-read, loved movies. My grandfather was a fencer, so he got me interested in fencing. Fictional? I like authors and filmmakers. They’re not fictional. Napoleon. I’m a big fan — but he’s not fiction. I don’t really have any fictional [heroes]. Only real-life ones.
What is the favorite item of clothing in your wardrobe?
I don’t hang on to things. I really don’t. Whatever my wife thinks looks nice on me.
What music did you love aged 13, and do you still love it now?
Oh, gosh. That’s dating me back to England. It was the ’70s. So that would have been Supertramp, and that evolved into the ’80s and Talking Heads, and then in the ’90s to Radiohead. So that’s the trajectory really. I’m crazy about music and listen to it all day. It helps me to relax and pass the day.
What is the most inspiring book you have ever read?
I love all of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude‘ is obviously brilliant. But I like ‘No One Writes to the Colonel‘ and ‘The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor‘. And also Julio Cortazar is one of my favorite writers.
What is a movie that left a lasting impression on you?
There are so many. God, we don’t have time. The one that really stuck with me as a kid was a film called ‘Papillon’. Dustin Hoffman and Steve McQueen. And the book is great by Henri Charriére. And Banco, the second one is not a bad book. I really thought that was a beautifully made film. Lyrically, everything. The score by Jerry Goldsmith, who was one of my favorite composers. Passed away now. But just brilliant.
What is your favorite word or saying?
“Hi Dad!” Yeah. Not, “Bye Dad.”
What do you want people to say at your funeral?
Gosh, I don’t know. Hopefully there’ll be people there. I have no idea. Probably, “Bon Voyage.”
And finally, a quickfire five favorites…
Well, my stepfather had a Jensen FF, which was a pretty nifty car as a kid to get to drive around in. It was British racing green and it was fast and loud. So that left a pretty strong impression on me as a kid.
Manchester Utd. It’s been a tough time when you’re diehard Man Utd. I’m dating myself now. I go way back to when Mr Best was part of the team, and Bobby Charlton.
Anything my wife cooks.
I like Rebay.
Gosh, I love so many. Dolce, Gucci, John Varvatos, Paul Smith.
‘Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One’ is in theaters on July 12
Fashion Assistance by Cameron Greene
Grooming by Sonia Lee at Exclusive Artists using Kevin Murphy
Digital Tech by John Schoenfeld