From The Princess Bride to the Vatican
Cary Elwes missed his 1984 graduation to start an acting career, but skipping school worked out pretty well for him: over the last twenty-one years he’s starred in more than forty feature films, including his heartthrob turn in The Princess Bride (1987), Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula (1992) and Saw (2004). Last December, the British-born actor appeared as the young Karol Joseph Wojtyla, the man who became the beloved Pope John Paul II.
“Jon Voight and I had worked together before [in Uprising] so when I learned Jon had gotten the part [as the older Pope] I called him to talk about the character. We went over John Paul’s characteristics and behaviors, but really what we discussed was the enormous spirit of the man. That’s what we wanted to capture, yet we didn’t want to make him seem sanctified. We really just wanted to explore the man.
Since the Vatican “was vetting the project,” Elwes says, careful decisions had to be made. He was worried that some of the roles that he’d played in the past would come back to haunt him—literally. Besides appearing in two vampire films, he had just appeared in a TV movie (The Riverman) as a version of the Anti-Christ: Ted Bundy.
“I don’t think the Vatican knew about that one,” Elwes says, his resonant voice taking on a very British tone of dry humor. “And I can’t imagine they would have approved me if they’d seen me take my own leg off with a hacksaw in Saw.”
Yet Elwes was able to approach his part already possessing a deep connection to the Catholic Church—and to Pope John Paul II.
“I have a great-grandfather who was a chamberlain to the Vatican and I was raised Catholic. I even served as an altar boy for a while. When I was in my mid-twenties, I had the privilege of meeting the pope.
I got to spend some time with him and I was enormously impressed, not only by his charisma and charm but also by his incredible warmth and compassion and his genuine interest in human beings. I think that’s why his papacy came to be known as the first real humanist papacy. The man had an extraordinary connection with people.”
Elwes had an instant attraction to the United States on his first visit here at age 13, and later fell for SLC, too.
“Sarah Lawrence really won my heart. I loved the campus and the film and theater programs. I had good fortune to study with Julie Bovasso, the actress who’s best known for playing John Travolta’s mother in Saturday Night Fever. But she was also a wonderful playwright, quite brilliant actually. We were blessed to have her.”
Elwes’s affection for America runs deep; despite the short-comings of our political leaders, he says, he still admires the fundamental principles of the United States.
“I tell people that I’m British by birth but American by choice. From my first visit to the U.S. I loved America’s freedoms. It’s really the only place in the world that has all those freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, all those things. Some-times I think Americans can take those freedoms for granted.”
Elwes’s interests are global, and he practices good works through efforts for various relief and environmental causes. Enthusiasm overcomes his reserve as he discusses those projects closest to him.
“I’ve worked on and off with a group called Amazon Watch that helps protect indigenous cultures all around South America. It’s really sad what’s happening down there. It’s not just the drilling for oil; it’s the runoff and pollution.”
Elwes has just wrapped up a project that combines both his profession and his causes, one that has taken him far outside the self-regarding, sheltered confines of Hollywood.
“I work with the Audrey Hepburn Children’s Fund, with UNICEF. Last March I traveled to Aceh, in Indonesia, and I made a documentary about what I saw there.
We just finished editing it a couple of days ago. It’s called Children of the Tsunami and I hope to see it air soon. I’m sort of proud of that work.”
—Robert Anasi '89