Cary Elwes – 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 has to 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 actually 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.