Cary Elwes – Standing Up For The Citizen
Updated: Feb 25, 2021
Cary Elwes stars in “The Citizen.”
Standing Up For The Citizen
by Jay S. Jacobs
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.
The Citizen 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 must fight for his honor and for his citizenship.
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.
What was it about the script of The Citizen 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 ago.
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.
Obviously, your immigrant story was very different than Ibrahim's...
Well, I don't get stopped by TSA if I try to fly somewhere.
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.
We recently had the twelfth anniversary of September 11th. That was such a tragic day, and it plays such a huge part in The Citizen. 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 time.
Yes, actually I was just a toddler at the time, but my mother did take me to his funeral.
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 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 right up.
Khaled [Nabawy] 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 that?
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.
You 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, in Inherit the Wind.
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 that?
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.
Having 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 been involved?
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 The Princess 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?
I 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 called 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 scenes.
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.
Obviously, you've 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 you.
What 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 business?
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 must 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.
Like you 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.
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