If you’re not just a little bit in love with Cary Elwes after decades of rewatching the 1987 classic “The Princess Bride,” you might just be missing a piece of the human heart. But Elwes is far more than the gallant Westley of Rob Reiner’s post-modern fairy tale, with decades of work that includes everything from serial killer dramas to ensemble comedies to the ninth season of “The X-Files.”
His most recent project, launching this week, is Crackle’s “The Art of More,” which features Elwes as an antiquities collector caught up in the high-stakes world of auctions and artifacts. Below, Elwes reveals what he looks for in a part, what surprised him about looking back at his experiences on “The Princess Bride” and why a happy set is key to creativity.
Let’s start off by talking about “Art of More.” Talk to me about how you came on to that project.
I was the last person to get cast. The director who made the pilot is a guy called Gary Fleder. We worked together 20 years ago on a film called “Kiss the Girls,” and we’ve been looking to do something together again since that time. He called me and said, “You know, I’m doing this very unusual series and it’s not like anything you’ve ever read and the part seems very right for you. You should read it and let me know what you think.” I read it, and I loved the part. Then he told me who was already cast, and I said, “Where do I sign?” because it’s such a great cast.
When you sit down for a part like this, what is it that you’re looking for?
A character that’s not one-dimensional and flawed is always good. I love playing flawed people. It’s always about the material — any actor will tell you. It’s about the character and the story, more so the character, and the writers on this show were very bright and really wrote very nuanced characters for us all.
Were you given a sense, right from the beginning, of what kind of arc your character would have?
Yes, they wrote a bible for the series, so that we understood exactly where our characters were going.
Do you like knowing what’s coming next, especially when you’re doing a TV show versus a film?
I like to know a general idea of where the character is headed. I don’t like to know details until they’ve written them, but I like to get a sense of whether he is someone who is going to redeem himself or have a cathartic moment. If it’s something important, that is a huge piece of character information, then I’d like to know. But I don’t like to know– Let’s say for instance they say, “Okay. Your character ends up getting killed.” I don’t want to know that. I don’t want to know that I’m going to get killed. I don’t like to know those kinds of details because that can affect my thinking.
Like the sense of being shocked by those moments?
Yeah, I don’t want to know what led to that. I don’t want to know the details. I want to be surprised by it when the script is written, you know what I mean?
When you’re coming into a brand new show like this one, what makes that different from, let’s say, jumping into a long-running series?
Well, this one was 10 episodes that we shot last year, and so it’s not very different than doing a regular TV series, actually. The hours were better than a procedural, you know what I mean? That was really the only difference; that it wasn’t quite as hard a slog as some of the network shows are.
Was it kind of like a first day on set, first day of school kind of feel?
No, not really. It was just like hopping right back into a regular show. It really was, and like I said, the actors who were cast already were such great pros that it was a joy to go to work each day and that always makes a difference.
Was it a joyful set, and is a joyful set something you’d say is more often than not the case for you?
Of late, it’s been more joyful than otherwise, so yes. I’ve had a long career and every so often you’re surprised by someone who shows up to work with some laundry, you know what I mean?
That’s a great expression. This is my not-so-great segue to talking about the “Princess Bride” — because you recently went back and wrote the book [“As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride”] about making the film. When you were looking back at it, was there something that kind of surprised you in retrospect?
Yes, what surprised me was [how] that was another joyful experience, and all the other actors who contributed to the book felt exactly the same way. And that’s very rare. Usually there’s one fellow who probably enjoyed it not as much as everybody else. But everybody had such a good time. When you read Billy Crystal recounting his stories — or Wally Shawn — you see the joy in their recollection. It’s just very, very sweet. That’s also something that Rob [Reiner] likes to do when he makes a movie. He likes to create a very familial atmosphere. He takes all the actors out to dinner every night. He’s very much about the team and everyone hanging out. He creates an atmosphere that’s very conducive to creativity, actually.
I mean, especially in comparison to everyone just going back to his or her own trailers at the end of the day.
Right. He makes sure that we all interact, which is great because if an actor has an opportunity– We’re creatures of habit. We’re liable, as you say, to go back to our trailers or our hotel rooms and shut the door.
When you’re interacting with your fellow cast mates completely out of character and just being yourself with them, how does that affect going to work the next day?
Well, it’s very smart, really, because what rapport you build with your co-stars ends up on the screen. Whatever it is that you — whatever friendship or bond you create with your fellow actors — that ends up really being helpful when it comes to performing with them. It really does. I think it’s a very smart thing that Rob does. I really do. Every director is different. Not every director wants to take out all the actors every night and that’s not to say that they’re necessarily bad directors by not doing that. I’m just saying that there’s particular [directors who do,] like Francis Coppola does that. There are certain directors who like to build a sort of familial atmosphere.
It’s interesting because I also remember hearing about at least one show where two actors were never allowed to meet until their first scene together.
Sure, absolutely and that works very well, like the movie “Secrets & Lies.” It’s a wonderful British film about a young black girl discovering that her mother is white and the director kept the two actors away from each other and never told them they were related in any way until they met on screen and it’s fabulous. The moment where they walk past each other, it’s amazing. Whatever works for the film. Also the show, I should say.
Has there been a moment like that for you, that really changed something about your performance?
Yea, I think keeping a light atmosphere on the set is really conducive to creativity. I really feel that that’s important. Tension is the death of creativity.
When you talk about creativity on set, are you talking about getting the fine moments of improvisation, that sort of thing?
All creativity — all of it. It’s not just the actors, but also the crew. Everybody. Everybody wants to make sure that they’re doing their best work and nobody wants to be in an atmosphere that’s filled with tension. That’s not good for anyone. [laughs]
Which is interesting in an age where sometimes people think that the best way to get what they want is to be an asshole about it.
I think those days are over. With social media nowadays, people call everybody out who’s an asshole. It’s very hard for a director to be an asshole now. Anyone can be called out. It can even be a cameraman. [laughs]
That’s a great point. Well, good luck with the launch of the show and good luck with everything coming up.
Yes, so — I just signed on to do a pilot. [The Lena Dunham HBO comedy “Max”] Things are good. I’m very happy. I’m very fortunate. I’m very busy, so that’s good.