From the Pits of Insanity to the Cliffs of Despair, the 1987 film The Princess Bride became a kind of comedy cult favourite. British actor Cary Elwes starred along with Robin Wright and Mandy Patinkin in the fairy-tale adventure that didn’t really gain a following until it was released on VHS. Now he’s released a new book on the experience, As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of the Princess Bride.
Q: How did remembering all that went on and writing the book make you feel?
A: Obviously it is very nostalgic. It’s always fun to take a trip down memory lane and I was surprised at how much I remembered. I was helped in the fact that [producer] Norm Lear very graciously offered to give me all the call sheets from the film. He said, “When you read the call sheets, you will start to remember more. You will remember where you were and what you were doing that day.” He was right.
Q: Your format for the book includes memories from the other actors and the director. Were you surprised by any of their comments?
A: There were stories that I had never heard before, like Wallace Shawn being scared of heights. That was a very funny story, when he was strapped on [Andre the Giant]’s back on the Cliffs of Insanity. ... The director, the producer, all the actors contributed to the book. It’s really a combined effort. So I really feel grateful on that level.
Q: I was blown away to find out that Andre the Giant had a friendship with Samuel Beckett.
A: Isn’t that great! [Laughs.] When he told me the story I thought, “My gosh, I wonder if Sam had ever thought about writing Waiting for Andre instead of Waiting for Godot. It was an extraordinary life he led.
Q: I won’t give too much away, but the bit where Andre the Giant is passed out in the hotel lobby and all they can do is rope him off.…
A: Yes, well Andre, you know, he was definitely one of a kind. What can I say? He was really a beautiful, beautiful man, a very sweet-hearted man. That’s in the book. You can hear everyone talk so lovingly about him.
Q: The movie was not made without physical pain — your broken toe and the concussion.
A: Correct. To the pain! [laughing]. We should have named one of the chapters that. The ATV (which was Andre’s) appeared bigger than normal only because I had not been on one before. But when I got close up to it, I realized it’s a small automobile [laughs]. It should not be treated as a toy.
Q: Did you feel that your good looks ever hindered you after you did Princess Bride?
A: I don’t know. I’m a great believer in you do the work that you are supposed to do. I’ve never sort of considered anything a handicap in my life. I have always thought either I am right for the role or I am not. I mean, I am sure people have turned me down because I wasn’t the right look. I don’t really dwell on those things. I am very blessed. There is no question about it.
This film changed my life, really. I went from being a fairly obscure British actor to being almost a household name in a way. It was a delayed fan-dom for this film. The film, when it first opened, didn’t really make a lot of money. It was only after the VHS market exploded [that] the film found its feet.
Q: Now it’s “As you wish” wherever you go.
A: It’s incredible. I call it the gift that keeps on giving. It goes from generation to generation.
Q: Speaking of that, has your daughter seen the movie yet?
A: She is still a little too young but at some point we are definitely going to have a sit-down and a screening.
Q: Do readings and auditions rattle you?
A: I don’t get rattled so much. I just tend to get more roles from straight offers than I do from auditions. I can’t explain it. I guess I am just much better in the place, in the character, in the setting. I need the other actors to feed off. I am a very much a tactile, in-the-moment actor, you could say.
Q: I was going to ask about the sword-fighting scene. Was there competition?
A: We had to pretend to be competitive but we were very much like two boxers sparring and learning from each other. Peter Diamond said, “You have to look each other in the eye at all times. Never take your eyes off each other. If you do, you won’t see what he is telegraphing as his next move. If you miss that you might get injured or injure the other person.”
I had to learn all his manoeuvres so we would swap trainers and Bob Anderson would teach Mandy [Patinkin] and Peter Diamond taught me. Two wonderful sword instructors, they were the very best in England at the time. So we actually had to learn everything twice.
Q: You became quite good. Do you continue to fence for exercise?
A: (Laughing) No, no. Do I have a sword on the wall at home I grab every now and then? [Laughing] I was impressed. I recommend it for people who want a good workout. I don’t do it but I do work out.
Q: Did you ever become an American citizen?
A: I am actually in the process of working that out. I am working on getting my dual citizenship.
Q: Being Catholic, you talk about meeting the pope, and finding out he saw Princess Bride.
A: I know, what are the chances of that? [Laughing] What’s amazing was the photographer actually caught the moment he recognized me. I was beyond humbled at that point. I think I was extraordinarily tongue-tied. He was a real renaissance man, Pope John Paul II. He was extremely well-read. He was a poet, a playwright, an actor. He was very much into theatre and film. We can count a saint among our fans. I don’t think many people can really say that, can they?
Q: Finally, how often do you say “As you wish” at home, to your wife?
A: Ah ha! [laughing] Very good, very good. I learned early on that “As you wish” is very much like, “Yes, dear.” So they are essentially saying “I love you.” And that’s what every woman wants to hear, is it not?