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Cary Elwes is a busy man.
In addition to appearing in the highly anticipated (and secretive) Mission: Impossible 7, the iconic English actor is a part of the upcoming Guy Ritchie project Operation Fortune: Ruse de guerre.
Elwes is also making his first return to the rom-com world since The Princess Bride (1987) in Nextflix’s A Castle for Christmas, which premieres Nov. 26. And just for good (holiday) measure, he also stars with Michael Sheen in Last Train to Christmas, which will debut on the British subscription film service Sky Cinema on Dec. 18.
The Hollywood Reporter recently caught up with Elwes to discuss his current projects — and to mine for fascinating nuggets from his classic films that make up his illustrious career.
Elwes didn’t disappoint.
From tales of Gary Oldman sleeping in a coffin during the making of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) to hanging up on what he thought was a Mel Brooks phony (it was the real deal) offering him Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993) to the life lesson Andre the Giant taught him in a heartbreaking admission, Elwes pulls back the curtain on his fascinating, decades-long Hollywood career.
How was working with Brooke Shields in A Castle for Christmas and shooting in scenic Ireland?
We hit it off right away. I had always wanted to work with her. This is my first rom-com since Princess Bride. I always liked Brooke. I thought she had terrific comic chops. The chemistry was great and we had a lot of fun doing it. We got to shoot in South Queensferry, just outside of Edinburgh. And what a place to spend quarantine, my gosh. The chance to work with Mary Lambert and Brooke and to play a character so far removed from myself, and try out an accent I had never tried before was really an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.
Can you shed any light on your upcoming Guy Ritchie film, Operation Fortune: Ruse de guerre?
I can’t tell you too much about the plot, but I can tell you about Guy. I had been wanting to work with him for a long time. I am a big fan. And for Guy, the journey is just as important as the destination. And I think that is the key to all of his films. He creates an atmosphere that is so enjoyable and delightful. If you show up without getting the memo about the journey — you should not show up at all.
Probably also not much you can say about Mission: Impossible 7, but can you comment on the stresses of shooting a big-budget film amid the pandemic?
I don’t think I am saying anything new when I say that the production had some difficulties and they had to shut down. So Chris McQuarrie had to direct from his computer at home because he had been contact-traced. And that is a testament to how brilliant he is, that he was able to do it. He said, “Look, I never want to do it again” — but he managed it. We got it done. And it is going to be the biggest Mission of them all, there is no question about it. No question.
You’re in one of my favorite Halloween films, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. How was working with Francis Ford Coppola and that all-star cast?
My favorite film of his is Apocalypse [Now]. I love Godfather but for me, it’s all about Apocalypse, so I put it out into the universe that I really wanted to work with him. I have every book written on Francis, so by the time I met him, I was really up to speed on everything. He brought the whole cast up to Napa to rehearse. We all stayed in the guest houses on the property. Francis believes that the more time the cast spends together, that will translate onscreen. So he had all the vampire hunters live on one property and poor Gary [Oldman] had to live by himself. Gary was sleeping in a coffin every night, that was how seriously he took it. He was sequestered from us all — by choice. So we met him for the first time on set during rehearsals, and then we’d never see him again.
Speaking of your iconic horror films, any chance we will ever see Dr. Lawrence Gordon return to the Saw franchise?
I never say never — but I pretty much feel like I have explored that character as far as it can go. I am open if the filmmakers wanted to discuss it, but I feel we have run the full gamut of Dr. Gordon’s life. We made that picture in 18 days. I was averaging 12 to 16 pages of dialogue a day, which was a great challenge. We never sat down, there were no chairs on the set. We never put the camera on a dolly or a tripod, it was on our wonderful cinematographer’s [David A. Armstrong] shoulder for the entire movie. So when we set up shots it was like, “OK, move the camera here and roll.”
I noticed you mentioned on Twitter the other day that you’re reading Mel Brooks’ new memoir. How was working on Robin Hood: Men in Tights with Mel and an up-and-coming Dave Chappelle?
Mel is wonderful. He called me up out of the blue, and I thought someone was putting me on. I thought it was someone doing a great Mel Books impression. And he said, “This is Mel Brooks.” I said, “Uh-huh. Sure.” And I hung up on him. I thought it was Jim Carrey messing with me. (Laughs.) And then when he called back, he said, “Don’t hang up! It’s really me! I want you for Robin Hood. We’ll cast the film together.” That was very generous. So we found Dave together. We tested a lot of actors, but it was a no-brainer when Dave came in. He was already improvising in the audition, and we gave him the job right then and there.
When there was chatter about rebooting The Princess Bride a few years back, you notably tweeted, “There’s a shortage of perfect movies in this world. It would be a pity to damage this one.” Do you still feel the same way?
For the studios, the cost of promotion and advertising has become so prohibitive now that they want to cut down on that. Their feeling is that when they do a reboot or remake, they have a target audience, so they don’t have to spend as much on marketing. So I understand the motivation. But my theory is, look, if the movie is popular and it’s done well, and people love it, I think it’s pretty much best left alone. If a film has landed in the hearts of the public, then, to me, it is not a good idea to try and revisit it.
While we’re on the subject, can you share some of the behind-the-scenes details about last year’s Princess Bride Reunion political fundraiser you helped organize?
I was deeply concerned about the way that the election was going. I knew the battleground states were going to be tough — obviously. I called a friend of mine from Wisconsin and said, “What can we do?” And she happened to be in touch with the Democratic Party of Wisconsin so she put me in touch with [state party chair] Ben Wikler to brainstorm. The initial idea was just to have [the cast] on a group chat and I said, “What are the chances we could raise some serious coin if we did a table read?” And he said, “Great. Do you think you could get the cast?” and I said, “I’m sure I can.” So I started manning the phone. And sure enough, everyone wanted to be a part of it. We raised $5 million.
I know you’ve shared plenty of fantastic Andre the Giant anecdotes over the years, but the 2018 HBO documentary about him — which so many of you were a part of — was heartbreaking. I had no idea people on the street were equally horrible to him as they were nice.
First of all: He wasn’t intimidated by anybody. And I think that provoked people who felt intimidated by him to try and push his buttons. He received enormous amounts of love, but also enormous amounts of negative feedback in his life. But, he really had an incredible outlook on life, which was — he knew he was dying. And so because of that, he cherished every moment. And he helped teach me that, about being present and grateful. When he shared with me that he knew he was going to die, I just about fell apart. But he always had a smile on his face. And I think he knew the secret. And I was always pestering him for it. (Laughs.)
Sadly, we lost Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins this year. Did you ever get to meet him before or after you portrayed him in the HBO miniseries, From the Earth to the Moon?
I got to speak with him on the phone briefly and he gave me his blessing, which was terribly sweet. We had the great Tom Hanks producing the series for HBO, so we knew this was going to be a well-made and very detailed account of the Apollo program. It was Michael who told me he was the only person who didn’t get to see the landing because he was in the command module. He said, “The whole planet got to see the landing — except me.” (Laughs.)
The iconic Glory (1989) turns 32 next month. Just how massive of an undertaking was that production?
The mechanics of that film were extraordinary. It blew my mind. If you look at my body of work, you see that most is geared toward history, which was the only subject I was good at in school. (Laughs.) And I still love history. So when I got a call from the late, great [producer] Freddie Fields, we hit it off right away. I read the script in one sitting and called [screenwriter] Kevin Jarre and said, “I have to meet you.” And I met him that evening. He shared all the books and research he had. He told me I needed to go to Boston to visit [Harvard’s] Houghton Library. I went and got a private reading room. It was great fun for me.
We shot the whole thing in Georgia during a summer heatwave — in those wool uniforms. They dispensed with the makeup after week two. In all the battle scenes, there was no makeup because it just wouldn’t stay on. In addition to Matthew [Broderick], I got to work with two people who I greatly admire: Denzel [Washington] and Morgan [Freeman]. I would come to set on my days off just to watch them and learn from them.
Twister (1996) turned 25 this year. How was that experience and working with the beloved Bill Paxton?
Bill really was that guy whose energy was infectious. He reminded you that you couldn’t take life seriously. That was Bill’s whole ethic. He took his work seriously, but he didn’t take himself very seriously. As for the production, we were in Oklahoma. We arrived right after the bombing, sadly. We passed Timothy McVeigh’s car on the freeway on the way to our hotel. It was terrifying. We were bumped from our flight by the FBI. We arrived during a very difficult time for Oklahoma, but they couldn’t have been more friendly to us. We made it a point to pay our respects to all the victims of that terrible tragedy. It was a long shoot; a very intricate and complex shoot because it involved a lot of special effects. I had a good time working on it.
Did you enjoy playing the bad guy, such as antagonist Dr. Jonas Miller in Twister?
I never judge a character when I’m playing him even though I know in the back of my mind he is considered the antagonist. I remember as a kid reading Laurence Olivier’s biography. And he said, “Make sure to never judge the characters you are playing because if you do, you’re making up the audience’s mind for them.” I remember reading that when I was 18 and thought, “That’s a good note.” You can play the action, you can play the behavior that is perhaps distasteful, but you must never judge that person because you don’t know until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes what that person’s motives are.
And finally, you mentioned Jim Carrey earlier, so let’s bookend on the holiday topic by hearing about working with him on Liar Liar (1997) and then in Robert Zemeckis’ A Christmas Carol (2009).
Jim’s a great guy and a dear friend. He was the one who put my name forward for Liar, Liar. He said, “You’d be perfect for this role.” It’s such a sweet, heartwarming movie. With Jim, no two takes are the same. He doesn’t know how to do that. And then when Christmas Carol came around, he again put my name in and told me I needed to go meet Bob [Zemeckis] and talk to him about it. Bob and I hit it off right away. The film was very personal to me because I am a descendant of the man who Scrooge is based on. I am an actual descendant of that man, the most famous miser: John Elwes. And we know that [Charles] Dickens used him for his inspiration because he mentions him by name in Our Mutual Friend. So when I told Bob that, he just about fell out of his chair. Kismet.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
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