Cary Elwes, Legendary Actor and Best Selling Author-Episode #187

Jan 11, 2022 | 2 comments

You’re likely already a fan of the actor and bestselling author, Cary Elwes, who you surely know from his many starring roles in memorable, popular films, including: The Princess Bride, Lady Jane, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Robin Hood: Men in Tights, Saw, Kiss The Girls, The Cradle Will Rock, Justice League, and the Billionaire Boys Club among dozens of others.

Currently, Cary is a co-lead alongside Michael Sheen and Natalie Emmanuel in The Last Train to Christmas. He’s slated to star alongside Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible 7 and 8 for director Christopher McQuarrie. He’s starring opposite Jason Statham in Guy Ritchie’s next film, Five Eyes. He recently wrapped the Netflix feature A Castle for Christmas, as well as the The Unholy, which was produced by Sam Raimi, and the indie film Best Sellers opposite Michael Caine.

You also know Cary from his numerous appearances on such popular TV shows including: Psych, Stranger Things, Family Guy, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and The Art of More.

He also produced and wrote Elvis & Nixon, which starred Kevin Spacey and Michael Shannon.

Cary’s first memoir, As Your Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride, became a New York Times Bestseller. If you haven’t had the opportunity to read this outstanding book, please get yourself a copy.  It’s an incredibly fun read!




Cary Elwes Podcast Transcript

Read the Podcast Transcript

Steve Cuden: On today’s Story Beat…

Cary Elwes: If you want to get into this business, no matter what department you want to get into, there’s a gazillion other people who want that job. Some of them are perhaps better qualified than you. So you have to fight for really wanting it and believing in yourself and never giving up. Because there’s a lot of times where the chips are down and the roles aren’t coming in, bills have to be paid, and suddenly, there is doubt that creeps in. It’s not a healthy thing. It’s unfortunate, but it happens. So you have to believe in yourself and persevere against all odds and know that it’s not an easy ride, but it’s a fulfilling one if you’re fortunate enough to get a chance to get on the bike once in a while.

Narrator: This is Story Beat with Steve Cuden, a podcast for the creative mind. Story Beat explores how masters of creativity develop and produce brilliant works that people everywhere love and admire. So join us as we discover how talented creators find success in the worlds of imagination and entertainment. Here now is your host, Steve Cuden.

Steve Cuden: Thanks for joining us on Story Beat. We’re coming to you from the Steel City, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Well, you’re likely already a fan of my guest today, the actor and bestselling author Cary Elwes, who you surely know from his many starring roles in memorable, popular films, including The Princess Bride, Lady Jane, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Robinhood Men in Tights, Saw, Kiss the Girls and The Cradle Will Rock among dozens of others. Currently, Cary is a co-lead alongside Michael Sheen and Natalie Emanuel in the last train to Christmas. He slated the star alongside Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible 7 for director Christopher Macquarie. He’s starring opposite Jason Stadium in Guy Ritchie’s next film, Five Eyes. He recently wrapped the Netflix feature, a Castle for Christmas, as well as The Unholy, which was produced by Sam Ramey and the indie film bestsellers opposite Michael Kane.

You also know Cary from his numerous appearances on popular TV shows, including Psyche, Stranger Things, Family Guy, the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and The Art of More among many others. Cary’s first memoir, as You Wish, Inconceivable Tales from the Making of the Princess Bride became a New York Times bestseller. If you haven’t had the opportunity to read this outstanding book, I highly urge you to get yourself a copy. It’s an incredibly fun read. I recently had the great privilege to moderate a Q & A with Cary live on stage here in Pittsburgh after a sold-out screening of the Princess Bride. For me, it was a truly great joy. Now to have him on Story Beat is an exceptionally big thrill because I’ve admired his work for quite some time. It’s my honor to welcome the spectacularly talented Cary Elwes to Story Beat today. Cary, thanks so much for joining.

Cary Elwes: That’s really very kind of you. What a lovely introduction. Thank you so much.

Steve Cuden: Well, this is my great pleasure. It’s a great privilege to have you on. So let’s go back in time in your life a little bit.

Cary Elwes: Okay.

Steve Cuden: So you’ve been at this performance thing for quite some time now. I’m wondering how old were you when the stage bug first bit you? When did you first think to yourself, wow—

Cary Elwes: Gosh. I grew up in a single parent household. We had a black and white television set. I’m dating myself now. We only had two channels in England, both of them in black and white. We didn’t get color until 1967. So for the first five years of my life I was sort of watching things in black and white. I fell in love with the TV. It became my best friend, and I started studying it and watching people, mostly comedians actually, Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, all the pythons.

Steve Cuden: So Goon Show and the Pythons.

Cary Elwes: The Goon Show and the Pythons. Well, the early pythons was something called Do Not Adjust Your Set, which you can look, you can find it now thanks to YouTube. It was a very weird—it was a very abstract show that Terry Jones and Palin were doing with the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. Okay. That should tell you all you need to know about that show. As a kid, you can imagine seeing all this silliness and seeing how much fun these people were having. It had an enormous impact on me. I thought to myself, I have to get inside that little box.

Steve Cuden: Did you start imitating them? Were you making your friends laugh?

Cary Elwes: Of course. I started practicing. I’ve spoken to a lot of actors who have shared their journey with me. Many of them have similar stories about mimicking or practicing or emulating their heroes as kids, just to try and figure out what made them tick. Yeah.

Steve Cuden: I was a class clown. I was a person in school, I would make people laugh. I thought that was the greatest thing in the world.

Cary Elwes: Right. Laughter is the greatest thing. It’s a drug.

Steve Cuden: Well, we know that from our little time together here in Pittsburgh. We got lots of laughs that night and it was a lot of fun.

Cary Elwes: We sure did.

Steve Cuden: So, alright. So did you have a sense back then that you wanted to be in the business for your whole career?

Cary Elwes: Yes, very much so. But I had no idea how to accomplish it. It was just a distant pipe dream as a kid. I read voraciously. A lot of these books traveled with me from England. I basically taught myself. Self-taught. I did go to acting school. I applied myself to my craft and I got my first audition, I think, when I was 20-something.

Steve Cuden: A Babe in the Woods.

Cary Elwes: A Babe in the Woods. I got my first audition, which spoiled me actually, because when I went up for my second audition, I thought, this is easy. I walked in there and they were like thank you. We’ll let you know. I think I said something like, are you sure? It was definitely a wakeup call for me because I realized that it wasn’t all just gravy and getting every role you wanted. You had to go out and fight for it and oftentimes it was a pass.

Steve Cuden: So I want to ask you, was this after you had worked? Because I want to just explore for two seconds.

Cary Elwes: Sure.

Steve Cuden: You are working on Octopussy.

Cary Elwes: That’s true. So my stepfather came along. When I was about four years old he came into my life and he was a producer. He was the first American film producer to set up an independent film production company in England.

Steve Cuden: Wow.

Cary Elwes: So suddenly I was that much closer to accomplishing my dream. Suddenly there was a man in my life, a stepfather who had access to this industry that I had already fallen in love with. So I felt like it was like manna from heaven, and I thought this was, again, going to be very easy for me. But he actually gave me and my oldest brother some very sound advice. He said, look, if you want to get into this industry, if you want to get into this business, you have to start at the very bottom and you have to learn the ropes and get paid nothing. It’s the best film school you’ll ever go to because you’ll learn everything you need to know about making movies. It’s cheaper for me than sending you to some high-priced film school. So that’s what my brother and I did. We ended up becoming production assistants and he was right. It was the greatest education I could get.

Steve Cuden: Alright. So that’s great. Because a lot of the listeners of this show are trying to figure out how to get into the business in some way. What do you think you picked up as a production assistant back then that then held you in good stead for your entire role?

Cary Elwes: Sure. Absolutely. Very good question. So, teamwork. You understand that the making of any show, whether TV or film or even a play, is a concerted effort by a village. It’s like they say it takes a village, well, it is a village. Making a film, making a project, making a show, it requires a village and everybody working together with intense focus. That comradery that you get being on a set together, forced together in a way to be like a family, a surrogate family for a few weeks, is a very unique experience. But what you learn in terms of how a film is made, if you work in a production office or as a production assistant, you will learn every department. You’ll figure out exactly how a film is put together and how every person involved in the film, what their contribution is, and how they fit into the big picture as it were, and your place in it as well. I found that to be the greatest enjoyable thing. I got paid, I think, 20 pounds a week, which is about $30, which just about covered my gas for my motorcycle to and from.

Steve Cuden: But you didn’t care at that age, did you?

Cary Elwes: You don’t care. When you were a kid, you’re 18, 15, 16, 17, whatever, you don’t care. You’re so excited to be doing something that is closer to accomplishing your goal in life that you’ll do anything.

Steve Cuden: So you get this gig on a big James Bond movie.

Cary Elwes: Yes.

Steve Cuden: I understand from reading about your life, that you actually drove around Roger Moore for a while.

Cary Elwes: I did. Well, they couldn’t get away with it today because there are very strict union rules about not allowing production assistants to work in transportation. But transfer obviously a very serious union. I think I was one of the last people to get away with that because today it’s actually illegal.

Steve Cuden: I’m curious what you might have learned or picked up from him, who was—

Cary Elwes: He was the first actor I got to spend any quality time with. Right. I didn’t talk much because he didn’t really chat. He read the newspaper on the way to work every day and drank his coffee. But occasionally he’d chat and say, we’d talk about something, the weather or the football or something like that. But he was so generous and so sweet and so personable and so real. It was a great lesson for me and how down to earth this larger-than-life figure was. I mean, after all, I’m driving James Bond to work. Don’t forget, I didn’t have the car. I was driving to work on a motorcycle. For them to choose me to drive Bond to work was a terrifying process.

I thought I was going to get in an accident on the freeway, and I could see the headlines. Lowly production assistant kills Bond. It’s a hell of a headline. I think I was driving really, really slowly, and I remember Roger lowered his newspaper and said, you can go a little faster if you want to, Cary. Like that. I was petrified. I mean, I was literally white knuckling it all the way to the studio. I think that was the only time I drove him. I think he was a bit frustrated that I was going so slowly.

Steve Cuden: Alright, so let’s talk about your process. You didn’t go to film school. You didn’t learn acting in a film school.

Cary Elwes: No, but I did go to theater school. So I did go to that.

Steve Cuden: So you did learn acting properly, that is to say.

Cary Elwes: Correct. In acting school. Yeah.

Steve Cuden: But acting on film is a little different, isn’t it?

Cary Elwes: It is different. So I trained for the theater, but being on a set again, if you are lucky enough to spend time, actually while they’re shooting and get to observe how a film is shot, you learn about lenses and you learn about lighting and you learn about presence, and how to define your character on film and all of the things that you need to learn in terms of being an actor. How to dress, how to comport yourself, how to—

Steve Cuden: How long did it take you before you sort of thought you understood how it worked? Was it right away or did it take you—

Cary Elwes: It was pretty quick. I was working in the production, so I wasn’t really allowed to go to the set much. I know I went one day, and I was asked to make a cup of tea and it was so dark in the sound stage, I couldn’t see anything. I tripped over a giant cable because they had big cables back then, now they’re very small and you can barely see them. But I tripped over a giant cable and this Styrofoam cup left my hand and I saw it in slow motion as it tumbled towards this poor wonderful actor who was playing – her character’s name was very inappropriate – it’s called Miss Goodhead, and she was replacing Miss Moneypenny. The costume designer was sewing her suit onto her. It was one of those skintight suits. I watched this cup in slow motion just pour tea all the way down her wonderful Prince of Wales checked suit. The first AD turned to me and went, you back to the production office. That was the last time I was allowed on the set. I spilled tea on this poor lady.

Steve Cuden: Alright. So you were learning how to be an actor on a set by being a production assistant?

Cary Elwes: Well, I was learning from watching the actors, but I was also learning. Again, being an actor in film requires understanding every aspect of the making of a film. Not just your own performance in it. You have to understand the politics and how a film is made and how to work with the crew and how to be one of the crew. I always find it very weird, especially working as a production assistant, that they refer to actors as talent. What’s that suggest, that the crew aren’t talented. We’re all talent and we’re all crew. We’re all working together to achieve the same goal.

Steve Cuden: I totally agree with you. I always found that word a little bit odd.

Cary Elwes: I know it had to be an agent or an actor who came up with that differentiation. Yes. Well, my client must be talented.

Steve Cuden: So by the time you get your first gig, you got your first audition, and you got the role, right?

Cary Elwes: Yes. Yes and no. I was going up for a play. I was actually going up to join the Young Vic Theater and I did a terrible audition there. The director of the theater took pity on me and said he had a friend who was casting a movie down the street, and would I like to go and check it out? I said, of course. He called up his friend Celestia Fox, who was casting this film called Another Country with Colin Firth and Rupert Everett. I went over there, and they gave me some pages, some lines to learn and told me to come back in half an hour and read them. I did and that was that. That was the first one that I got. Yeah. Alright.

Steve Cuden: When you got this part, and you were on set, did you have a feeling that you understood where your place was?

Cary Elwes: Totally. It was the great, like I said, the comfort of walking onto a set and not have it be so intimidating as to be, my first time on my first movie was an enormous relief for me. That didn’t mean that my acting wasn’t appalling and atrocious. You’d think that that comfort level of having been on a set numerous times would serve me well in front of the camera. It didn’t. I was absolutely appalling. I looked like a deer in the headlights. But anyway.

Steve Cuden: I think we can safely say that you overcame that.

Cary Elwes: Yes. Slowly.

Steve Cuden: Alright. So let’s talk about when you get a script, and you know you’re doing the part. Aside from reading it, which is the obvious first thing you’re going to do. What is your approach? What are you starting to think about when you have a role, you have the script? Where do you begin? How do you develop a character?

Cary Elwes: Okay, so first of all, I break down the script and my character’s role in the story.

Steve Cuden: What does that mean by breakdown? What do you do?

Cary Elwes: So, breaking down the storyline and my character’s role in that journey and what their part is in that journey and how my character affects that story and how that story affects my character. Usually I contact the writer or the director, and if it happens to be one in the same, I contact them. I have a series of questions that I won’t get into. But I have a basic list that I go through and every director or every writer has been very, very amenable. Usually I’ve been very fortunate in working with people who are very diligent and very specific with their work. So they don’t find it hard to fill out my questionnaires at all.

Steve Cuden: You go deeper into the characters.

Cary Elwes: Oh, yeah. No, I have to know all aspects of the character. Nuances with their dreams, their hopes, their desires, their fears, their loves, their hates, their anxieties, their insecurities, all of it. It all plays into the wonderful soup that makes up a character. Yeah.

Steve Cuden: Do you feel like you are generating a lot of that information? Or is most of it coming through either the text itself or through your conversations with the director and the writer?

Cary Elwes: All three. So hopefully the conversation with the director and the writer accomplishes that goal without my having to try and search for it. It usually does. Once I have that character breakdown available to me, I can then apply it. Go back to the script now and apply these nuances that have been shared with me. Perhaps quite a few I’m sure I missed. How they play into the storyline and the through line for the character. The art.

Steve Cuden: Do you feel like you work as hard today at that as you always do?

Cary Elwes: Oh yeah. I’m harder now, I think. Especially when you’ve perhaps gotten a bad review. There’s nothing like a bad review to motivate you.

Steve Cuden: That’s true.

Cary Elwes: I got one. I won’t mention it, but I got one and I don’t read them normally, but this one really motivated me. I’m like, you know what? For the first time in my career, I decided to not push an issue with regards to specificity to my character. I let it slide and it cost me in the end. It was a valuable lesson to just giving in to pressure because people were too lazy and couldn’t be bothered to do it. I blame myself. I shouldn’t blame anyone else. I should have forced an issue where it would’ve helped my character, help my delivery and portrayal of that character. I allowed it for the first time in my career to go, oh, well, I guess I can go without that particular detail, and it cost me. I won’t get into it, it’s not important. But important point of the lesson is, the very little thing that you think is not important can end up being crucial.

Steve Cuden: I think that’s very valuable. That’s extremely valuable because the devil’s in the details.

Cary Elwes: In the detail, nobody gets blamed. By the way, the person who said, ah, you don’t need that, who was in the position of power to say that. He’s not the one who’s going to face the critics at the end of the day.

Steve Cuden: That’s true.

Cary Elwes: It’s only a mistake if you don’t learn from it, is my motto.

Steve Cuden: Absolutely. So now you’ve had the good fortune to be both leads in movies and featured characters in movies and TV shows. Do you work at that process as hard, or for both?

Cary Elwes: Oh yeah. Absolutely.

Steve Cuden: Even if it’s a lesser role in terms of spots.

Cary Elwes: Absolutely. Absolutely. I did a cameo in this film with Michael Kane last year. Literally, I think I had one, maybe two, scenes in the whole movie. Same approach. Same thing. I played a book critic, and I based him specifically on someone I knew. I showed up in character and Mr. Kane didn’t even know who I was.

Steve Cuden: Wow.

Cary Elwes: Which was nice. That was nice. He was shocked. I shocked him.

Steve Cuden: You didn’t have special makeup on or anything?

Cary Elwes: No, no. I just had an earring and an accent and a different hairdo, and he didn’t recognize me at all.

Steve Cuden: You’re very clearly good at memorizing lines, which is part of your—

Cary Elwes: I wish that were true. It’s harder as you get older, but yeah, I have help. My wife is wonderful and has been my greatest support in terms of learning dialogue.

Steve Cuden: So what do you do? How do you memorize lines?

Cary Elwes: I just go over it. It is repetition.

Steve Cuden: Brut force of stuffing them into your head.

Cary Elwes: That’s it. That’s it and finding word associated and learning as much as the other person’s dialogue too. That always helps if you can learn what else is being said by other people, because then you’re really listening to it rather than just…

Steve Cuden: So allegedly Anthony Hopkins, arguably one of the great—

Cary Elwes: Learns everyone’s lines.

Steve Cuden: Learns everyone’s lines and everything. He read a script at least 100 times and knows everyone’s lines.

Cary Elwes: It’s incredible. He has a memory that is phenomenal and he’s extraordinary. Look, I was fortunate enough. I went by his house in Wales when I was shooting in Swanson, and he grew up in a very modest little house. Beautiful. Really pretty. He’s on a little street with little houses all in a row, semi-detached and detached houses in a row. It looks like out of a movie, where it’s a little street, all houses look very similar, very modest. Then right behind them is this beautiful big green mountain. It looks like sort of nature stopped and then the city began. It’s literally right behind the houses. It is where the nature begins and probably the wild. It’s extraordinary.

Steve Cuden: Sounds like it’s out of a movie.

Cary Elwes: It is out of a movie. So his view from his bedroom was on one side of the house in fact, was spewing all these toxins into the atmosphere and the other view from the house is that this beautiful green hills of mountains. It’s gorgeous.

Steve Cuden: Wow.

Cary Elwes: But he’s a wonderful, wonderful actor. I don’t know if you’ve seen The Father. but if you haven’t, you should. His last performance. It’s extraordinary.

Steve Cuden: I have not. It’s on the list.

Cary Elwes: Must watch it. It’s really truly. If you think you’ve seen everything that Tony’s done, you haven’t.

Steve Cuden: Well, I have personal experience with Alzheimer’s, and I definitely wish to see.

Cary Elwes: Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.

Steve Cuden: Well, thank you. But I’m saying I really want to see it.

Cary Elwes: Yeah, no, it’s a powerful, powerful film and he’s extraordinary in it.

Steve Cuden: I’m going to ask you a question that I ask lots of people, and it’s not an easy question. For you, what makes a part or a movie good? Aside from somebody’s offered it to you and there’s money involved and all the rest, forget that. What makes something good to you? What attracts you?

Cary Elwes: Well if the director and the writer are completely in sync is number one. Number two, can the director tell a story? Is he able to tell a story? You can usually sit and have dinner and figure out that one. More importantly, can he tell a story through film? Does he understand the language of film? Because film is its own language. Acting is a language. Lighting is a language. Everything is a language. But film is a very specific language. How to generate the emotions you want to get out of your audience requires skill and understanding that. Name numerous filmmakers in history who’ve understood that, like Hitchcock and Kubrick. They understood what a single push in can do, or an angle from below can do. How that affects you emotionally, and colors. Colors in film. Yeah. All that.

Steve Cuden: You’ve gotten to work with a few of those.

Cary Elwes: Not Hitchcock.

Steve Cuden: Kubrick.

Cary Elwes: But I have had some. I’ve been lucky. I’ve worked with some wonderful directors who really understood the language of film and I really, yeah.

Steve Cuden: Between Rob Reiner, Mel Brooks, Francis Ford Coppola, Edwick, and Yon  Deban. That’s a pretty good group.

Cary Elwes: Pretty good, pretty good group. Yeah. No. I’ve been very fortunate. I have. I continue to try and seek out, like I said, filmmakers who are passionate and who understand the language film and enjoy working with actors.

Steve Cuden: What would you say are the—

Cary Elwes: My three criteria.

Steve Cuden: What would you say are the good lessons you’ve learned from the great directors you’ve worked with? Are there good lessons you’ve taken away from any of them?

Cary Elwes: Oh God, yeah. Many.

Steve Cuden: Well, share a few.

Cary Elwes: Well, Francis used to come up to us and occasionally he’d ask you, what’s the character thinking right now? Which is a great note. Not one you often get.

Steve Cuden: No. I worked as a production assistant on One from The Heart.

Cary Elwes: Oh, you did? How great was that? Wow. All on sound stages.

Steve Cuden: All on sound stages. Wow. All done with lots of steady cam and all.

Cary Elwes: Fabulous.

Steve Cuden: Exteriors and all.

Cary Elwes: Great. Great. Freddie Forest and Nastassia Kinsky and my dear old friend Harry Dean Stanton.

Steve Cuden: Yes, indeed.

Cary Elwes: Yeah. Yeah. We all love Harry. Harry was a favorite of Francis, as you know.

Steve Cuden: Indeed. He directed that movie mostly from the Silver Stream.

Cary Elwes: From the Silverfish. From the Silverfish.

Steve Cuden: So that’s correct.

Cary Elwes: Yeah. No, I’ve learned a lot. I think you’ve come away with something from every director that you work with. Hopefully if you’re lucky, you work with somebody who really gives you a little bit more in terms of knowledge to help you on your journey. I found that to be true of all the directors I’ve worked with. By the way, I’ve worked with some really great directors. I’ve worked with some pretty not so great directors. I’ve learned as much from them, believe me, without them saying anything as I have from the knowledge that’s been passed on to me by wonderful—

Steve Cuden: I’ve long believed that we learn as much from our mistakes, failures, not so great things as we do from successes.

Cary Elwes: Right. I mean, you have to, otherwise you’ll keep making them. Like I said, it’s only a mistake if you don’t learn from it.

Steve Cuden: So now you’ve gone through your prep, you’ve read the script, you’ve broken it down, you’ve done your research, you’ve done all your due diligence, and now you’re on a set. Do you have any particular special performance prep that you go through on a daily basis?

Cary Elwes: No, I just review my notes and go over the scene. I used to be very methodical and overly sensitive and hang onto my notes like they were gold and be overly focused on minutia. What I learned, actually from a colleague of mine, a very talented one. She gave an interview where she said, I do all the downloading and I do all the research, and I read all the books and I get all the notes and then I throw them away because I’ve already got it up here. That was a great freeing thing for me as a young, tormented actor coming out of England. Hanging onto my giant notebooks like they were important and they’re not. If you’ve really studied them and if you’ve really downloaded them, they’re in you. They’re inside of you. If you’ve really, truly understood them and acknowledged what you’ve processed, then it’s going to show up on film.

Steve Cuden: Well, I’ve taught screenwriting for 10 years and what I always tell my students is, okay, you’ve learned everything that we’re going to teach you in this class right now. Forget it all and just go.

Cary Elwes: Right.

Steve Cuden: Because it is in you.

Cary Elwes: It’s in you. Right. It should be if you’re paying attention. Yeah.

Steve Cuden: Well, exactly. Of course not all of them pay attention.

Cary Elwes: No.

Steve Cuden: That’s a whole other issue.

Cary Elwes: To me, to go back to your question really quickly, is that the process is a constant education. I think Olivier once said, and I have his book over here that I brought with me as a kid. I read all the biographies of my favorite actors. He said, the day I think I know everything is the day I’m going to quit.

Steve Cuden: Oh, for sure.

Cary Elwes: You don’t, so you’re learning every day. Every day, I learn from directors, I learn from the crew, I learn from other actors. I pick up on everything and I take it with me.

Steve Cuden: Do you think of your approach as a learning approach all the time?

Cary Elwes: Completely. It’s a completely educational experience and it’s a wonderful one if you’re open to it.

Steve Cuden: I think that that’s beyond wisdom that if you can look at both life and your work as a constant journey and learning process, you’re in really good stead.

Cary Elwes: Right. Isn’t it? I mean, I can’t think of any other way to describe it.

Steve Cuden: I think that that’s what it is. Because some people think that they know everything.

Cary Elwes: Oh God. Who?

Steve Cuden: But I’ve dealt with a few.

Cary Elwes: Yeah.

Steve Cuden: Once they’ve done that they’re—

Cary Elwes: I pity them. I pity them. That’s a very unfortunate place to be.

Steve Cuden: Alright, so let’s talk about the difference between film and TV. Obviously, you’re going to approach a role the same, but is there difference in the speed of it?

Cary Elwes: Speed. It’s good. TV’s good for not letting you have too much time to overthink things. I enjoyed television for that reason, because they don’t like you to sit around much. It’s a very fast process and very long hours and very technical because they’re trying to… Oftentimes you are cross shooting. I forget the actual term for it, where you are block shooting. Block shooting, where it happens to be the same set in this scene, but also, it’s the same set for the next episode. So they’ll block shoot you another whole script that your character is going through and another journey that he’s going through in another episode and try and shoot them both on the same day. So you have to really, really be focused. I find it very refreshing because I don’t overthink it. I think that overthinking anything is the death of creativity. You can overthink something. Yeah.

Steve Cuden: I want to be clear for the listeners that what you’re talking about in block shooting is a financial issue for a production, where they’ve brought an actor in for a day or two or three or whatever it is and they’re shooting numerous episodes at the same time.

Cary Elwes: Correct.

Steve Cuden: It’s a cost savings rather than having to bring the actor back time and again.

Cary Elwes: Actually, I was not brought back. I was there for the whole season. But it was actually so cheap that they wanted to save money by block shooting different episodes on the same set. That’s all. But yes, it happens whether you’re a day player or a weekly player or featured or recurring, whatever. It happens.

Steve Cuden: How confusing can that be? Is it confusing?

Cary Elwes: Well, like I said, you have to be focused anyway on every job. But this one requires you to have very good showrunners who really understand to help bring you out of that previous scene you shot and remind you of your journey in this next episode that you’re taking so that the context within which you’re doing the scene makes sense. Yeah.

Steve Cuden: That’s what I would think. I would think you have to be really on your toes or you’re going to wonder where you might be if you’re not paying attention. I want to ask you about being game. You have a reputation for being game, and that is, you’ve worked hurt. We talked about it during the Princess Bride. You worked with a broken toe and so on. You talked about that quite a bit in As You Wish in your book, which again, I encourage people to get. Do you have a secret? Do you have a way of philosophizing to work your way through something that’s difficult or painful or you’ve got a physical challenge that day?

Cary Elwes: Yes. Fear. It’s a great motivator. Fear of being fired or fear of being sent home, or any of the above? I think that I guess I come from the old English school that the show must go on. Unless it’s a critical injury that really requires the production to come to a halt, I think you can work through it. I’ve cut myself so many times, my fingers, my feet, my arms, everything. But broken toe, that was the one on Princess Bride where I thought they would shut the production because that’s quite serious.

Steve Cuden: That was bad.

Cary Elwes: That’s pretty bad. I showed Rob that I could walk on it, which I shouldn’t have done really. In hindsight, was just a show of bravado at the time. Again, motivated by fear. But yes. I believe that you don’t want to be the guy that brings production to a halt.

Steve Cuden: Right.

Cary Elwes: Slows things down.

Steve Cuden: Do you have to seek something inside, aside from fear or is it pure fear?

Cary Elwes: It’s fear.

Steve Cuden: It’s a great motivator.

Cary Elwes: And putting it out of your mind and focusing. Like I said, once you focus on the scene at hand, what you have to do, if you’re fortunate enough everything else goes out of your head except for those few moments that you’re experiencing with another actor.

Steve Cuden: Then you can shriek in pain after that.

Cary Elwes: Then you can shriek in pain after.

Steve Cuden: Alright. I’m going to talk about directors. We talked about them a little bit. But I’m curious when you are working with a director who may not be helping you in any way, or maybe giving you direction that you find either confusing or just counter to what you’re trying to accomplish. I’m not looking for names or anything, I’m curious, do you have a way to work with a director to try to get out of them what you are trying to get out of them?

Cary Elwes: Well, you always give the director what they want because it’s their film and that’s their story they want to tell. If you feel that perhaps you can contribute more to that aspect of the character that perhaps the director may not have seen or may have overlooked, I always ask them to gimme one more take so I can show it to them. If they like it, then we explore that. But I never force my… You never want to be that guy.

Steve Cuden: Do you do things differently now than when you first started out? You approach the work differently?

Cary Elwes: Well, like I said, other than holding onto my notes too dearly. Now I just download them. Not really. I’m a kind of creature of habit really. I kind of approached the material the same way. It’s been my way of doing things and it’s worked well for me. So I have no reason to change it or modify it in any way. So far, it’s well.

Steve Cuden: That’s a perfectly great answer. Once you’ve found your rhythm and your way to do things, stick to it. We’ll talk about voice acting for half a second. Because you’ve done a bit of voice acting for animation.

Cary Elwes: Sure.

Steve Cuden: Do you find that to be a different approach in terms of the physicality of your voice?

Cary Elwes: Yes. Well, I’ve learned now that I need to bring more to that, actually. I’ve been studying. When my daughter was younger, I obviously watched a lot more animated shows as a father. What I learned from the ones that she particularly liked, I mean, I was lucky to do Sophia the First. So that was a big thrill in our house for me to be on that show and show it to my daughter. When she watched a lot of the early Disney classics, I looked at some of the work of some of these wonderful voiceover actors, and I realized they brought so much to the role that the animators were given nothing but incredible amounts of matter to work with. Yeah.

Steve Cuden: Oh, yeah.

Cary Elwes: Character development in terms of their voice. How to make that voice speak volumes about the character, because the look of the character is already predetermined by the animators. But can you breathe life into it in a way that is so unique and memorable? I have to admit, I’m still learning that. That’s a learning curve for me.

Steve Cuden: Well, as you know, I’ve got 90 animation teleplay credits. I’ve written 90 cartoons.

Cary Elwes: That’s good for you.

Steve Cuden: One of the things that is a hallmark of it is, as a writer, you write your butt off and you do the best you can. Then you get into the recording booth and holy mackerel, the actors just take it to a whole other level.

Cary Elwes: Yeah, yeah. Yes. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to do another, and I can really explore something really extraordinary. I mean, I look back on those characters, Jungle Book, for instance. You listen to all the different voices of the Bagheera and Ballou and all of them are so specific that you believe them. Yeah.

Steve Cuden: Well, yes. But there are also some incredible voiceover actors who do many, many, many different voices.

Cary Elwes: Yeah. Oh, really? Like Mel Blank, you mean?

Steve Cuden: Like Mel Blank, like Bill Farmer and Maurice Lamar.

Cary Elwes: Maurice. Yeah. I’m good friends with him.

Steve Cuden: He’s amazing.

Cary Elwes: He’s amazing.

Steve Cuden: They’re amazing people. Alright. I want to talk about sets for half a moment. Sets are notoriously distracting places. They’re busy. There’s a lot going on.

Cary Elwes: Yes.

Steve Cuden: Do you do anything particular to keep focus?

Cary Elwes: I always like to arrive on the set early because then I get a chance to hang out and I’m not being rushed. I don’t like being rushed.

Steve Cuden: Is it all about relaxation for you?

Cary Elwes: Well, yeah, because I learned that from being on production systems that you can fix your call time any day, anytime you want it. As long as the transfer opened your trailer up, you can come in at any time after they’ve unlocked it. So I usually get in, the minute they unlock it is when I want to be there so I can just chill and take my time and ease my way into it as opposed to… Rushing is never good for anything.

Steve Cuden: Well, no. Obviously I don’t think it’s good. It isn’t good for anything at all.

Cary Elwes: Especially not for acting.

Steve Cuden: No. So you’re a great believer in you must be relaxed in front of a camera.

Cary Elwes: Yes. It’s all about being relaxed and having fun. You have to be in an atmosphere that’s conducive to creativity, and tension is the killer of creativity.

Steve Cuden: That is for sure. Do you do anything particular to be in the—

Cary Elwes: I meditate. I relax. Sometimes I take a little nap. I go over the scenes again that I have to shoot that day. But generally, just finding a way to relax before going into the world.

Steve Cuden: Does that help you to remain as the actor’s world is in the moment?

Cary Elwes: Yes. Again, you have to find that calm within you that allows you to literally relax. Just completely not have any tension in your body whatsoever because that shows up on film. The minute an actor is tense, everything goes out the window. Their breathing, their delivering, their performance, their whole character goes in the toilet.

Steve Cuden: Paradoxically, that also is true when you’re supposed to be playing tense.

Cary Elwes: Well, exactly. Everything has to be controlled and you have to have control over it. If you are not in control of the tension, of the fear, then you’re not in control. It’s as simple as that. You have to be in control of your body and your emotions and your state of mind. Those will require whatever techniques you feel you need to get there. As long as you’re not hurting anybody in the process. Yeah.

Steve Cuden: So I think that one of the hallmarks of your work is that you have tremendous focus.

Cary Elwes: Well, thank you.

Steve Cuden: I think all you got to do is watch several films of yours and you know this is a guy that knows how to focus. You focus whether you’re in drama, you focus whether you’re in comedy, you focus whether you’re in a horror story and you’ve done all these genres as well. Is it you just find the character and that takes you there?

Cary Elwes: That’s it. If I’m lucky in that I’m a little bit blind. I’m nearsighted and people have offered me to go and get a corrective vision and I’ve turned it down because I actually find that this is what other people would consider as something as a disadvantage, it’s actually an advantage to me. I can’t see the crew. I can see the actors in front of me. They’re all in focus. But everybody beyond that, the crew, the camera, I can’t see them at all.

Steve Cuden: Really?

Cary Elwes: It’s fantastic. So when I walk into that set, the sense of place is there, the surrounding is there, the ambiance is there, the characters are all there. The set is there. So I’m there. For all intents and purposes, I am in the moment there, right there, as soon as they yell action.

Steve Cuden: Because that’s all you can see is this.

Cary Elwes: That’s all I can feel. I’m really there. It’s great.

Steve Cuden: Wow. Wow.

Cary Elwes: It’s really great. Yeah.

Steve Cuden: Wow.

Cary Elwes: You’re lucky to work with other actors who are all into it too. It’s a wonderful thing. When it works it’s a beautiful thing. It really is.

Steve Cuden: Well, no question. We the audience get to enjoy that.

Cary Elwes: Yeah.

Steve Cuden: When it really works, it’s really extraordinary.

Cary Elwes: It’s very special.

Steve Cuden: Well, truly. You clearly have played in many different genres. Do you have a preference for one or the other? Would you want to always do comedy for the rest of your life if somebody said only?

Cary Elwes: No, no. God no. I mean, that’s like asking someone if they want to have the same meal for the rest of their life. You could go crazy. No. The spice of life is to change your palate as much as you can, I think. It didn’t help me in my career to begin with because people didn’t want to see me in anything other than rom-coms, medieval comedies and things like that. I was offered so many sword rolls after Princess Bride, you don’t even know. I just thought, you know what? I don’t want to do that. I want to spread my wings. I want to try different things. I want to explore different. My heroes growing up were Olivier and Burton and Ralph Richardson and Peter O’Toole and Peter Sellers, all these guys who disappeared into different characters, Alec Guinness.

Then of course all the great American actors. All the great character actors from Deval to Hoffman. All of them. So I wanted to do that. I wanted to go and study where they study, which is why I went to New York and worked. I got into the Lee Strasberg Institute and studied there. I applied myself because I wanted to be like them. I wanted to learn like what Al Pacino would learn and what De Niro had learned and Hoffman and all those guys. So that’s what I did.

Steve Cuden: So let’s talk for two seconds because we’re coming close to the end of the show.

Cary Elwes: Yeah.

Steve Cuden: I just want to talk about the notion of celebrity for a moment.

Cary Elwes: Okay.

Steve Cuden: How it affects you and how it’s handled. You have worked with some of the greatest actors of all time. No question. From Michael Kane to Billy Crystal, to Andre the Giant, to Tom Cruise, to Denzel Washington. You’ve worked with these, Matthew Broders, some of the greatest actors who’ve ever lived. What is it you think that they have? I know you can’t buy it. You can’t train for it. Is there something that you’ve identified over time that makes a great actor great?

Cary Elwes: Yes. Yes. Picking roles that play to their strengths.

Steve Cuden: That’s simple.

Cary Elwes: If you built up a following, there’s a reason for that following. The reason for that following is that your fans want to see you in certain roles. I didn’t apply that to my career. Actually, I didn’t listen to that until I learned from it much later on.

Steve Cuden: I would submit You’re being a little hard on yourself, but, okay.

Cary Elwes: Oh no, I didn’t. I tried every different kind of role. I mean, I played Ted Bundy. I mean, can you imagine the Princess Bride fan? I don’t want to see Wesley as Ted Bundy. That’s what? What are you doing? But I had to try different things. Yeah. But what I learned from the great agent, Ed Limato, who passed away a few years ago, a wonderful man who represented me at one time. He said, I make sure that when I get a script for Richard Gere, it plays to his strengths. I don’t want to see him play a psycho. His fans want to see him play somebody slick and cool and smart. Denzel Washington, his fans want to see him be the underdog and win the day at the end.

Steve Cuden: But he’s played heavy. He’s done things.

Cary Elwes: Yeah. But he’s also always the underdog. He’s always that guy who’s maligned and then gains your respect by the third act.

Steve Cuden: Well, that’s true.

Cary Elwes: Julia Roberts is the wallflower that no one realizes is the most beautiful woman in the room until the final day when the guy goes, wow, I haven’t noticed you before. That’s her role. That’s her strength. Those are all her roles. Runaway Bride and Pretty Woman. They’re all the same.

Steve Cuden: But, well, I guess that’s true. I mean, you can look at a Clint Eastwood as someone who has always played the same part, more or less.

Cary Elwes: Pretty much. But then you can look at a Dustin Hoffman and see someone who’s so many different parts.

Steve Cuden: True. There are actors. Exactly. There are character actors who I definitely… Somebody I definitely feel great simpatico with. Hoffman was one of my favorites growing up. Pacino too. They like to delve into the characters and explore them in ways that only a handful of actors do. I really admire that.

Cary Elwes: I really thought that was a fun thing to approach in my career. I don’t know if it helped me because I think it probably took me out of the running for some more important roles that might’ve helped my career. But for me personally, the gratification of getting to explore roles that I had to go fight for because people didn’t see me in them, they were very gratifying for me, because I accomplished my goal of being able to do something that was not in my comfort zone.

Steve Cuden: Well, the fact that you fought for them says mountains about you.

Cary Elwes: Thank you.

Steve Cuden: So last question for you today, Cary. This has been so much fun for me. I don’t know how you feel about it, but it’s been fun for me. So you’ve given us lots and lots and lots of advice, but do you have one piece of advice that you like to give people when people come up to you, I assume every once in a while and say, tell me how to do this or that. Do you have a solid piece of advice that you like to give to people?

Cary Elwes: I do. I have a very solid piece of advice, Steve, and that is this – it’s one word. Perseverance. Because if you want to get into this business, no matter what department you want to get into, there’s a gazillion other people who want that job. Some of them are perhaps better qualified than you. So you have to fight for really wanting it and believing in yourself and never giving up. Because there’s a lot of times where the chips are down, and the roles aren’t coming in and bills have to be paid and suddenly there is doubt that creeps in. It’s not a healthy thing. It’s unfortunate, but it happens. So you have to believe in yourself and persevere against all odds and know that it’s not an easy ride, but it’s a fulfilling one if you’re fortunate enough to get a chance to get on the bike once in a while.

Steve Cuden: Well, I can’t think of a more. This is something that I tell people all the time. No one succeeds in the business if they give up. So perseverance is about as powerful a bit of advice as you could give to anyone. So I totally concur and thank you for saying it.

Cary Elwes: No, it’s true. Right.

Steve Cuden: It then backs me up when I tell people.

Cary Elwes: Well, it’s true. You have to believe in yourself. Because if you don’t believe in yourself, how are you going to convince other people to do it?

Steve Cuden: No kidding. I mean, really. So Cary Elwes, this has been one of the great hours on Story Beat.

Cary Elwes: Oh, thank you, Steve. I really appreciate that.

Steve Cuden: I’m so appreciative of your time and I really, really love your career and I love everything about watching what you do.

Cary Elwes: Thank you, Steve. I appreciate it. Thank you for inviting me. I really had fun doing this.

Steve Cuden: So we’ve come to the end of today’s Story Beat. If you like this episode, won’t you please take a moment to give us a comment, rating, or review on whatever app or platform you are listening to. Your support helps us bring more great Story Beat episodes to you. Story Beat is available on all major podcast apps and platforms, including Apple Podcasts, YouTube, Spotify, iHeartRadio, Stitcher, Tune In, and many others. Until next time, I’m Steve Cuden, and may all your stories be unforgettable.


Executive Producer: Steve Cuden, Producer: Casey Georgi, Announcer: Javier Grajeda
Social Media: Mina Hoffman, Design & Marketing: Holly Reed, Reed Creative Group


  1. Sharon Abelman

    Such a delightful interview and as always Steve asks just the questions. He is a terrific interviewer

    • Steve Cuden

      Sharon, you’re the best! We greatly appreciate your listening to StoryBeat!


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