Cary Elwes
Rex Features

Once upon a time, Cary Elwes dressed up like a swashbuckler for a little movie called The Princess Bride. A quarter of a century later, the movie’s a treasured piece of pop culture, equally beloved for its wry self-awareness and its swooning romance. It’s also become kind of cool.

Last Christmas, Jason Reitman staged a live reading of the script in Los Angeles, tapping Elwes to play the evil Prince Humperdinck – a role originated by Chris Sarandon. (Paul Rudd took Elwes’ role, noble farm boy Westley, opposite Mindy Kaling as Buttercup; other celebrity players included Goran Visnjic as Inigo Montoya and Patton Oswalt as the treacherous Vizzini.) And earlier this week, in honour of MGM’s new 25th anniversary Blu-ray edition, the New York Film Festival assembled director Rob Reiner and most of the surviving cast for a triumphant 25th anniversary screening.

“It went great,” Elwes says over the phone. “The audience were just amazing – they clapped, they applauded, they just loved it. It was very moving.”

Now, here’s the weird thing. Although The Princess Bride was beloved from its very first screenings – the film made its world premiere at the 1987 Toronto International Film Festival, where it won the People’s Choice Award – it was a theatrical dud.

“The studio just didn’t know how to market it,” Elwes admits. “The marketing department was really stumped …was it a comedy? Was it a satire? Was it a romantic comedy? Was it a fairy tale? They’d just never come across anything like it; they couldn’t even come up with a one-liner [to describe it]. So they just threw it out there, and it kinda just fell down. Nobody went.”

Fortunately, the movie found its audience on video.             “

People were buying it and renting it, and the studios went, ‘Okay, well, here’s some revenue that we can look at, that we’ve never really examined before,’” Elwes recalls, saying he was sure the movie would build a following – because it was too good not to.

“It was masterfully directed by Rob,” he says. “I think he was the only director who could have directed the movie. It came at the right time in his career, he was at the peak of his powers as a director, coming off This Is Spinal Tap, The Sure Thing and Stand By Me. He understood how to respect the [fairy-tale] genre but at the same time poke fun at it.”

Elwes had been hoping for a Princess Bride movie for years, though he’d never expected to be part of it.

“I’d read the book as a kid, so I knew the story,” he says, “and I knew a few directors had been floating around it. Norman Jewison, François Truffaut; I think Robert Redford was looking at it at one point, and no one could lick it. And then finally Rob went and had a meeting with Bill Goldman, and they hit it off immediately.”

And then he got the call.

“I couldn’t believe my luck, that Rob Reiner wanted me to be in his movie,” Elwes says. “I mean, I knew Rob not only from All in the Family, which I kinda watched religiously as a kid, but Spinal Tap, of course, which I’d seen over 20 times … it was surreal for me. And this incredible cast that I was joining – Billy Crystal, Chris Sarandon from Dog Day Afternoon, and Carol Kane from Annie Hall, and Wallace Shawn from My Dinner with Andre – I mean, I’m a real film buff, I watch a ton of movies, so I knew all these guys’ work. So I was kind of hoping and praying that I would fit in and I wouldn’t screw it up, because these guys are all such pros, you know?”

Obviously, it worked out. And while he’s never found another role as perfect as Westley – though he came close with the self-mocking hero of Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood: Men in Tights – Elwes has enjoyed a long, varied career as a character actor. He’s turned up in just about every sort of picture, though one collaboration still eludes him.

“If I had one director I’d like to work with, it would probably be [Martin] Scorsese,” he admits. “But I think that’s every actor’s dream; I think there’s a long list that his casting director has to navigate. Funny enough, Rob’s working with him right now, he’s doing the new picture, The Wolf of Wall Street. He told me how much fun he was having on that with Marty.”

No chance of just wandering over to the set, then?

“Right! Just show up, do a walk-on,” Elwes laughs. “I can crunch numbers.”

The 25th anniversary Blu-ray of The Princess Bride is available now from MGM Home Entertainment.