With a career that has spanned 30 years and over 70
films, Cary Elwes has become a familiar presence on our screens.
However, despite having worked on so many films and having starred
in at least two drop dead classic films – the fantasy The
Princess Bride and the horror film Saw – Elwes is more
than happy to pay it forward and work with unknown talent. As long
as the role intrigues him.
Elwes was very intrigued by The Citizen, a script by
Syria-born writer/director Sam Kadi. The film is based loosely upon
Kadi's own experience as a Muslim immigrant in the United States.
However, Kadi throws a huge change-up into the mix. Suppose a
Lebanese immigrant named Ibrahim Jarrah, who had drawn the Green
Card Lottery, flies into New York City to start a new life in the US
on September 10, 2001.
takes a look at Ibrahim's (played by Egyptian actor Khaled Nabawy) as
he finds love and comes to love his new home, despite limited
opportunities, rampant crime and mistrust of his ethnic background.
However, when the government determines that they want to try to tie
him to the terrorists, Ibrahim has to fight for his honor and for
Though Elwes mostly doesn't appear until the last third of the
film, he plays Ibrahim's droll immigration lawyer. The counselor
lends a comic element to the serious story, as well as standing up
for the little man in this feel good tale about the American dream.
A week before the premiere of The Citizen, Elwes was
kind enough to give us a call to discuss his film and his career.
was it about the script of
that intrigued you?
I was excited about the idea of working with [director] Sam
[Kadi]. Sam is Syrian. I want to say Syrian-born, but an American
citizen. He lives in Detroit and wrote the script based on his own
experiences arriving in America. Then he added this whole event of
9/11. It shows how things could get muddled on that day. People
were naturally shocked by what happened. The character, Khaled
Nabawy's character, this guy Ibrahim, arrived at the wrong place at
the wrong time. You know? He finds himself embroiled in the whole
event and doesn't know why. I thought it was a very intriguing
story: the idea of someone being the wrong place at the wrong time.
It's like The Wrong Man. I don't
know if you've seen that...
Yes, many years
Many years ago. It was a Hitchcock movie. It sort of
reminded me of that and resonated with me on that level. I liked
the idea of the message of the movie. Yeah, mistakes are made, but
still America is a great country.
You were born in
England and I assume have been living in the US for many years now.
Yes. British by birth and American by choice.
immigrant story was very different than Ibrahim's...
Well, I don't get stopped by TSA if I try to fly
But you do know
what it is like to be new to the country. Did that shared
experience make the role more intimate to you?
Well, I didn't play an immigrant in this movie. I play a
lawyer. So, I sort of got into the justice part of immigration.
But I was very aware of the message that Sam was trying to get
across to the audience. We're all in this together. This event
changed the world. It was a life-changing event. Anyone on the
planet, anyone knows what he was doing that day. I was aware of it
being such a tremendous event, so it was very bold of him to take on
that event. People are very nervous about discussions on it. One
has to be very careful. I explained that to Sam. He can't treat
this event lightly. He has to be very careful not to stir up any
[thing] or offend anyone.
recently had the twelfth anniversary of September 11th. That was
such a tragic day and it plays such a huge part in
It has become one of those days where everyone remembers what they
were doing when they found out about it.
It's like the day that JFK died, if you were alive at that
Yes, actually I
was just a toddler at the time, but my mother did take me to his
Really? Where were you on 9/11?
I had just gotten
into work right after the first plane hit. We sat around for a few
hours listening to the news and doing nothing, then finally everyone
went home to find out more and come to grips. I was actually
supposed to be flying from Philadelphia to Los Angeles that
Saturday, but obviously that trip was postponed. What was your
experience on that day?
It was quite shocking. My wife and I, we fell asleep with
the TV on. We woke up to the first plane hitting. It was such a
loud event it woke us out of our sleep. The sound on the TV woke us
and Agnes [Bruckner] are newer actors. What were they like to work
with? Khaled does such a great job...
Oh, they are very sweet. Khaled is so sweet. He's a
wonderful, wonderful man. Very sweet. By the way, he's a huge star
in Egypt. This is his first... well, no, actually he worked on a
Ridley Scott film called Kingdom of Heaven. Have you seen
No, I haven't.
With Orlando Bloom. Pretty good stuff. It's a beautiful
film. He was also in Fair Game. Anyway, he is a wonderful
actor. He jumped into the role. Dug deeply. For a guy who has
spent time in the US, he totally got it. Agnes, I just did another
picture with her. I did a Lifetime movie with her about Anna Nicole
Smith. She played Anna Nicole. She was wonderful. Actually, I did
another movie with her. Three movies with her. I did another one
called A Bit of Bad Luck. So, I'm very fond of her,
obviously. They had great chemistry. It's nice to work with actors
who are very dedicated to the profession.
seemed very comfortable in your role? Do you think it would be fun
being a lawyer? Did you do research into the profession?
I have spent a lot of time with lawyers. In this industry
we get to meet a few, you know? I picked a guy who basically I
thought it would be interesting to see if I could play him. Very
responsive. A guy who seems like the underdog as well. Who could
clearly win a case that would seem way beyond his means, way beyond
his talents. He kind of reminded me a little bit of Spencer Tracy
in the court room.
Yes, Inherit the Wind. Something like that. Or
Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird. The underdog lawyer
who saves him.
Speaking of new
professions, I was reading that you have a screenplay that you are
planning on directing called
Elvis and Nixon.
What is the story on that project?
No, actually I'm doing another one now. It's going to be
about Kit Lambert. [Ed. note: Lambert was a British record
producer who managed The Who in the 60s and early 70s.]
How far along is
We're in the early phases of filming.
How are you
enjoying taking on the director's reins?
It's fun. I've made almost 70 movies now and I think I
know a bit about it from working with really talented directors.
worked with so many great directors over the years, what did you
pick up from them?
I'm like a sponge, Jay. I just watch and learn. It's a
learning curve. Every day is a learning curve. I learn something
new every day. That's why I love my profession.
I read that you
have also been active in charitable organizations. How have you
I work with this organization, it's a non-profit group
called Mercy Corps. They operate out of Portland [Oregon]. They
arranged to get me to Darfur. I wanted to go to Darfur to see how
we could help because of that whole event taking place. That was a
very powerful trip for me.
Last year was the
25th anniversary of
Bride. What is it like to be part of such an iconic film, and
when you were making it, did you have any idea that it would be as
beloved as it has become?
No. None of us knew it would turn out to be [big]. In
fact, when the movie opened, it really didn't make a lot of money.
It found its audience because of something relatively new called
VHS. People buying and renting copies. I still get fans asking me
to sign an original VHS copy. No, we had no idea. Now it's one of
these things where it is a movie that is beloved and crosses
generations. Grandparents and grandkids and so on. It's
incredible. So, yeah, it's quite extraordinary. But let's talk
about The Citizen some more, shall we?
What resonated with you about it?
liked the fact that the movie showed you a different side of Muslim
characters than you normally see. I loved the fact that this man,
through everything he went through, had this love for the country.
He just wanted to do the right things. In general in films, Muslims
tend to be portrayed as bad guys, this film showed that many of them
are just normal people trying to find their own American dream. It
sort of reminded me of a film that came out a couple of years ago
A Better Life,
which was about Mexican immigrant in LA. Similarly it showed ones
who were hard working and just trying to make it. You get to see a
side of these people that you never really get to see.
Yeah. I think that's interesting. I think that people
often who were born here sometimes don't appreciate just how great
this country really is.
I was sort of
surprised reading some of the press info that it was filmed in
Detroit rather than New York, except for some obvious street
They shot the Times Square sequence in New York. They did
it in Detroit for some tax reasons. But yes, it is, I think, a very
powerful film. I think everyone will really love it here. Sam did
a great job directing it.
played so many diverse characters over the years. As an actor,
which of your characters do you feel was the most like you, and
which was most of a stretch for you?
Every role is a challenge. Trying to find the key to the
character. I run towards challenges. I don't run away from them.
I'm up for any challenge. If you're lucky enough to have a director
who is very understanding of character and that whole process, then
you're in capable hands. It's usually much easier than when you
have to work with no one really minding your performance for you and
helping you with it. Trust and relying on that other person to help
kinds of things make you nostalgic?
What was the
first film that you remember seeing really wowed you?
I saw two films within the same week. One was Mary
Poppins. The other was Waterloo. I got both ends of the
spectrum in one week. From fantasy musicals to war. It was quite
an education for me.
When you were
young, who were some of the actors who inspired you to go into show
There were a lot. All of the actors from The Actor's
Studio, which is where I trained in New York. British actors, there
was Alec Guinness, [Sir Laurence] Olivier, Ralph Richardson. In
comedy, Peter Sellers. So I had a lot of influences growing up.
I have to ask
you, you were on a classic episode of my favorite series ever,
Seinfeld. How did that role come about and what was it like to
be on the show?
It was great. I just got a phone call from Jerry. I
thought it was a joke. I didn't think it was him on the phone, so I
almost hung up on him. But he said, "No, no, it's me. We'd like
you to do a role on the show." He said, "Are you familiar with the
show?" (laughs) Really, Jerry? I think everyone is
familiar with the show. We had a lot of fun doing that. It was
great fun for us.
The Citizen was very dramatic, obviously, but your
character offered a bit of comic relief sometimes. You've done both
comedy and drama in your career. Do you find one or the other
easier or harder or more enjoyable?
No. I know that even drama needs to have some comic relief
or the audience will just duck out. I've learned that over the
years. If you look at any of the great actors, guys that I admire,
or the great filmmakers, they always inject a little humor into even
the most dramatic films.
mentioned, this is Sam's first film as a director. You've worked
with some greats over the years. How does he compare?
He was incredibly prepared. This was a film that he had
been wanting to make for a few years, so he showed up incredibly
prepared. We had a very shoestring budget. We didn't have a lot of
time. Time was very, very short. So everyone was very, very
focused and into it. It was fun.
For a smaller
movie like this, is it harder to get the word out? Obviously this
doesn't have a big studio behind it.
How do you go
about getting the buzz out there?
Doing as much press as I can, Jay.
us Let us know what you