Last year, Cary Elwes stepped through the doors of a dying mall and into the world of Stranger Things. Twin brothers Matt and Ross Duffer, the creators of Netflix’s sci-fi and horror-infused period piece, had invited the actor to the set for the first time. Upon entering, he felt like he’d traveled back to the decade when a poster featuring his own likeness actually could’ve been hanging in one of the suburban Atlanta shopping center’s hallways.
“The Duffers wanted to see my reaction walking in,” Elwes said. “And I gotta tell you, my mouth dropped.” A retrofitted hunk of the mostly vacant Gwinnett Place Mall looked like a true 1980s retail paradise. Starcourt Mall, fictional Hawkins, Indiana’s newest hangout, came complete with relics like Sam Goody, Waldenbooks, and Wicks ’N’ Sticks. There was even an old-school cinema that featured one sheets for Back to the Future, Cocoon, Day of the Dead, and Fletch—all movies that were in theaters during the summer of 1985.
“I didn’t know what to expect. I thought they had taken a mall that was still open and sort of redressed a few shops or something,” Elwes said. “I wasn’t prepared for the fact that they had 40 stores that were working. People in period costume. The food court was fully operational. You could go and buy cooked food and eat it.”
This was his initiation into the obsessively detailed series that doubles as a pop culture encyclopedia. “They create a world that’s so believable that when you walk on the set,” Elwes said, “a lot of the work is done for you.” In the third season of the Netflix epic, he plays the self-serving, boxy-suit-wearing Mayor Kline. Elwes says the character is based on several real-life politicians. “I won’t name names,” he said. “It’s not necessary.”
But there’s an obvious fictional comparison: Murray Hamilton’s character in Jaws. The Duffer brothers, Elwes said, are “big fans of Spielberg, as am I. And yes, it very much has that feel to it.” He also called Kline a foil to David Harbour’s Chief Hopper. “Here’s a mayor who only cares about his constituents’ votes,” Elwes said. “He doesn’t care at all about the community. And then you have the chief, who cares almost too much.”
this summer will be totally fun and not scary at all pic.twitter.com/jtLITiCDJJ— Stranger Things (@Stranger_Things) June 26, 2019
Like fellow cast members Winona Ryder, Paul Reiser, Matthew Modine, and Sean Astin, Elwes is an ’80s icon appearing in a show paying homage to the era when he became famous. You might remember him as the handsome Westley from cult classic The Princess Bride. The role in director Rob Reiner and Academy Award–winning writer William Goldman’s 1987 comedic fantasy, an adaptation of the latter’s 1973 novel, gave Elwes’s career a massive boost.
Between then and last fall, Goldman and Elwes remained close. In November 2018, shortly before the legendary Goldman died at the age of 87, Elwes spoke to his ailing friend. “He changed my life,” the actor said. “I made sure to make him know that.”
Being transported on screen back 34 years, before The Princess Bride shot him to fame, was a strange feeling for Elwes. “I never thought that we would start to feel nostalgic about the ’80s,” he said. But while shooting Stranger Things, he couldn’t help but be charmed by its retro aesthetic. At one point on set, he found himself in possession of a primitive cellphone. “They nicknamed it The Brick,” Elwes said. “It looked like a walkie-talkie from World War II. And you could probably kill someone with it, it was so heavy. It was magnificent.”
When Stranger Things premiered in July 2016, Elwes and his wife inhaled it. “It was the first show I have ever binged,” he claimed. “We canceled all our appointments and stuck with it.” Following Stranger Things Season 2, casting director Carmen Cuba summoned him to a meeting with the Duffer brothers about a role in the next installment.
“What struck me right away was their knack for bringing the audience in and making them invest in these characters,” Elwes said. “If it was just a straightforward community being attacked by a monster, that wouldn’t have any depth to it.” (On the Duffers, he added: “By the way, when you read their scripts, they read exactly as they shoot them.”)
By now, the 56-year-old Elwes has lots of experience taking part in productions set in the past. But Stranger Things is a bit different than what he was used to. The period dramas that he appeared in early in his career took place, in some cases, centuries ago. In 1986, the young English actor played nobleman Lord Guilford Dudley opposite star Helena Bonham Carter in the 1500s-set Lady Jane. In her New York Times review of the film, Janet Maslin called Elwes “a credible actor who, through no fault of his own, has the kind of robust, healthy good looks that seem much too modern for the material.”
Those robust, healthy good looks, however, came in handy. At the time, Reiner was beginning work on The Princess Bride, which until then had been stuck in development hell. Casting director Jane Jenkins recommended Lady Jane to Reiner, who watched the movie and was struck by Elwes. He saw the actor, Jenkins told Broadly in 2017, as being “very dashing, very Errol Flynn.” After Reiner met with Elwes in Germany, where the latter was shooting a movie version of Vladimir Nabokov’s debut novel Maschenka, he cast the actor as the farmhand turned hero Westley.
At that point, Elwes was already fond of Goldman. “My birth father was a fan of his, and my stepfather was a fan of his,” Elwes said. “What are the chances are that? He was a figure that loomed large in our household.”
In As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales From the Making of The Princess Bride, the actor writes that his stepfather, producer Elliott Kastner, had teamed up with Goldman to make the 1966 Paul Newman vehicle Harper (known as The Moving Target in the United Kingdom). When Elwes was 13, Kastner gave him a copy of The Princess Bride. He loved the book. Since then, he’s been a Goldman obsessive. In fact, just the other day he rewatched Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
While talking about the classic Western, Elwes stopped to rattle off one of the signature quips by Newman’s Butch: “Boy, I got vision and the rest of the world wears bifocals.”
The moderate success of The Princess Bride, which nearly doubled its $16 million budget at the box office, didn’t lead to Elwes headlining summer blockbusters. But afterward, he began to land supporting roles alongside some of Hollywood’s biggest stars. In 1989, he played Union Army Major Cabot Forbes in Glory, Edward Zwick’s film about the Massachusetts 54th, the second African American Civil War regiment. (For his performance, Denzel Washington received his first Oscar.) The next year, in Tony Scott’s NASCAR drama Days of Thunder, he played Tom Cruise’s rival, driver Russ Wheeler. While the Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer–produced action movie was being filmed, Lance Loud wrote an L.A. Times story about Elwes. In it, the late columnist described him as humorlessly good-looking. “Talk to British actor Cary Elwes about something he feels is not pertinent to his acting and a chilling transformation comes over the Prince Charming of Princess Bride,” he wrote. “The actor’s perfect jawline clenches and his cool green eyes freeze over in a way that lets you know this dashingly handsome actor is tired of being known for being ‘dashingly handsome.’ He wants to be taken seriously.”
That assessment, it turns out, was false. Audiences soon learned that Elwes thoroughly enjoyed taking the piss out of himself. In 1991, he showed up as Charlie Sheen’s smarmy fighter pilot rival Kent Gregory in Airplane! codirector Jim Abrahams’s Top Gun parody Hot Shots!. The most lucrative movie with an exclamation point in its title of the ’90s, it grossed $181.1 million worldwide and spawned a sequel.
In 1993, Elwes starred in another spoof: Mel Brooks’s Robin Hood: Men in Tights. In the send-up, which is silly even by Brooks’s high standards, Elwes played the title role with an abundance of ironic gravitas. In Variety, the late Leonard Klady wrote that “the manic ensemble is grounded by Elwes’s virtually straight-faced interpretation of Robin with a glib assuredness that hits the target dead center.”
Elwes’s willingness to play up his dashing persona for laughs resulted in even more comedic opportunities. In the 1996 Seinfeld episode “The Wait Out,” he and Debra Messing—a couple supposedly on the verge of breaking up—are opportunistically pursued by Elaine and Jerry. A year later, he had a small part in Liar Liar as the guy dating Jim Carrey’s character’s ex-wife.
Today, self-serious projects still don’t interest Elwes so much. Stranger Things, he made sure to point out, contains plenty of laughs. “I think without comedy, the show really would suffer,” he said. “Audiences need that relief. Otherwise they’d just be constantly filled with anxiety.”
That’s not to say that Elwes is against entertainment properties that produce feelings of extreme dread. He did, after all, appear as a slick, corporate-backed storm chaser in the 1996 disaster flick Twister. And as Dr. Lawrence Gordon, he was responsible for the most nauseating moment in the excruciating 2004 horror smash-hit Saw. Cutting your own foot off with a jagged blade on the big screen has its perks: In a 2015 interview with The A.V. Club, Elwes said that every year around Halloween people ask him to autograph fake body parts.
These days, Elwes’s past seems to have crept back into his life. For him, Stranger Things Season 3 was a reunion. He hadn’t worked with Winona Ryder since 1992, when they both had roles in the Francis Ford Coppola–directed Bram Stoker’s Dracula. “It was lovely,” said Elwes. “It’s like we picked right up where we left off.”
Joining the youthful cast has given Elwes even more of an appreciation for Stranger Things, which has inspired imitators. “You know how Hollywood is,” he said. “Like sheep, if they think there’s something hot, the whole herd follows. But the Duffers, basically I feel sorry for anyone else trying to match them, in terms of excitement.”
During filming, Elwes brought his 12-year-old daughter to the set. At first, he was worried that the eerie world of the show would be too disturbing for her. But her introduction to it could not have gone better. “We weren’t sure. I called the Duffers and said, ‘I’m not sure she’s ready yet,’” Elwes said. “And after they watched her watch a scene being shot they turned to me and said, ‘She’s ready.’”
Elwes himself has long been ready to play his latest role. Over the past four decades, he’s appeared in period pieces, fantasy epics, comedies, and horror movies. The immersive Stranger Things, like The Princess Bride before it, combines elements from several different genres.
During his final conversation with William Goldman last November, Elwes once again thanked the writer for being the person responsible for launching his varied career. “He was so modest, God bless him,” Elwes said. “He always said, ‘No Cary, it was you. You did it on your own.’”