Good luck trying to define a Cary Elwes character. That’s him as the swashbuckling love interest in The Princess Bride, and as director Mel Brooks’s spoof outlaw in Robin Hood: Men in Tights. The dashing Brit, playing a tortured cancer surgeon, even cut off his own foot in the first Saw. None of those roles made him as much of a household name as his Nineties co-stars – that’s also him as foil to Tom Cruise and Charlie Sheen in Days of Thunder and Hot Shots, respectively – but he doesn’t especially mind. “I don’t look at my number on the call sheet,” he tells me. “I’m there to help tell the best story I can.”
The 60-year-old has called the US home since he was a teenager, and it’s reflected in his accent – a curious warble between received pronunciation and transatlantic neutrality. He’s friendly and attentive over Zoom, where he’s calling from a Manhattan hotel, and charming in a way that blurs Hollywood razzle dazzle with the manners of English aristocracy. No surprises there – he’s descended from upper class artists and socialites, one of whom reportedly served as the inspiration for Ebenezer Scrooge. Gulp. He seems to be on the nicer end of the spectrum, though.
“I try to look for roles that push me as an artist,” he explains. “Certainly after The Princess Bride I was offered a ton of medieval comedies. I can’t tell you how many scripts I got where I had to pick up a sword or was a pirate. I turned them all down. The only one I was willing to accept was Robin Hood.” And that was only because the director of The Producers and Blazing Saddles was making it.
This week he’s fallen into the waiting arms of Guy Ritchie, who directs him in Prime Video’s elaborately titled Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre. The spy caper effectively casts Elwes as M to Jason Statham’s James Bond. Elwes gushes over Ritchie as if he were one of the legions of millennial young men who came of age on a cinematic diet of diamond geezers, antique shotguns and Vinnie Jones. “I’ve been wanting to work with him for a long time,” he explains. “It really was a dream come true.” Does he have a favourite Ritchie film? “Oh gosh, there’s so many!” he beams, enthusiastically. “I go right back to Lock Stock because that’s the one that made people sit up and take notice.” He seems to be finished, but then… “I love RocknRolla too! What a cast!”
He could say the same for Operation Fortune, in which Elwes’s veteran spook draws together a band of experts (including Statham, Aubrey Plaza and Josh Hartnett) to retrieve a macguffin called The Handle from Hugh Grant’s dastardly arms dealer. The film is Guy Ritchie to a tee – wryly funny, plenty of arse-kicking and just the right amount of blokey fist bumps to guarantee regular rotation on ITV4 in the years to come.
Elwes says that Statham and Ritchie – who have made five films together over 25 years – have “an amazing shorthand” with each other, but that they weren’t closed-off on set. The film was filmed under pandemic restrictions in Turkey, and the cast formed a tight bond at the behest of Ritchie. Elwes says it’s an inclusive approach that he associates with all of the great directors he’s worked with, among them Brooks, The Princess Bride’s Rob Reiner and Francis Ford Coppola, who Elwes collaborated with on 1992’s Dracula.
“You can tell a great director by sitting down to have a meal and just listening to them,” Elwes says. Who’s organised the best meals for him? Coppola, he replies instantly. “We didn’t need catering on that movie,” Elwes laughs. “Francis wanted to create a familial atmosphere and we’d go to dinner together. Rob Reiner took the cast out every night. It was the same thing with Guy. They understand the family thing.”
While Elwes has chased hurricanes in Twister and tried to kill Morgan Freeman in Kiss the Girls, he’ll forever be best associated with The Princess Bride. It may not have been much of a success upon release in 1987, but it’s since become a classic, with Elwes barely being able to go a day without being asked about it or having his character’s signature catchphrase (“As you wish”) quoted back at him on the street or in restaurants. He doesn’t begrudge it, though. “You’re lucky as an actor to have your work resonate with anybody,” he says earnestly.
On rare occasions, however, that can be a problem. Somewhat oddly, one of The Princess Bride’s biggest fans is Republican senator Ted Cruz, a notorious right-wing agitator who is against gay marriage, pro gun rights and believes mass shootings to have been caused by a decline in church attendance. He and Elwes unexpectedly crossed paths in 2021 when the actor dubbed Cruz a “ROUS” (or a Rodent of Unusual Size, in Princess Bride parlance) after responding to one of his rants about Hollywood and “the left”. Cruz then responded with a semi-gotcha of his own, tweeting a picture of a framed photograph personally signed by the actor to the politician. Elwes, in his own reply, called the signature a forgery.
Access unlimited streaming of movies and TV shows with Amazon Prime Video Sign up now for a 30-day free trial
It’s the one subject Elwes is reluctant to discuss, not deeming Cruz worthy of time or conversation. “The man loves to see his name in print so let’s not give him that,” he says. He does reaffirm that the signed photo was fraudulent, however. “He can keep it because it’s a fake. It’s perfect because he’s a fraud himself, which is what I told him.”
Elwes is on happier ground talking about Tom Cruise, with whom he recently reunited – 33 years after Days of Thunder – on a forthcoming Mission: Impossible sequel. He can’t talk about plot specifics, but at the very mention of Cruise’s name, he lights up. “Tom is someone I look up to a great deal,” he says. “I’m sure I speak for many when I say he saved our industry. We have to recognise that. He believed Top Gun: Maverick should be seen in cinemas, that the audience was there and they wanted to go back in and he was right and cinema chains stayed open because of him. He saved our industry. How many people can you say that about? Not many. He’s the last great movie star.” He insists Cruise hasn’t changed a bit in 30 years. “He’s the same guy. He’s extraordinary. He’s remarkable. The stunts he does are literally death defying. You hold your breath watching them and he finds them hysterically funny. That’s just what he loves to do.”
It’s something Elwes sees in himself, too. “I think I’m more comfortable now,” he explains. “As you get older, you start to realise you don’t need to spend time sweating the small stuff. I’m a grateful human being. I’m grateful for the extraordinary abundance of work.”
With his hair just as blond as it was in those Princess Bride days – and his complexion still inexplicably youthful – you believe him when he says he doesn’t stress too much nowadays. “God bless,” he says as he signs off Zoom. It’s not quite “as you wish”, but it’ll do.
‘Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre’ is streaming on Prime Video