Interview with Actor Cary Elwes on His New Film, Sweetwater, and His Performance as Ned Irish

While most people know Cary Elwes for his work as the dashing Westley in Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride, the comical version of Robin Hood in Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood: Men in Tights, and Dr. Lawrence Gordon in the Saw franchise, his filmography also consists of a lot of opportunities in which he has portrayed real people who have made a huge impact in history and American culture. This could be anyone from Ted Bundy in 2006’s The Riverman to Andy Warhol in 2018’s Billionaire Boys Club.

For his new film, Sweetwater, Elwes portrays Ned Irish, the founder and former president of the New York Knickerbockers – now more commonly known as the New York Knicks. The film tells the true story of how Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton (portrayed by up-and-coming actor Everett Osborne) became the first African American to sign a contract for the National Basketball Association (NBA) in 1950 and the challenges he faced during that time – most notably, racism and segregation – when becoming a professional basketball player.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Elwes about the film, his portrayal of Ned Irish, and how a film such as Sweetwater is important for those who are not just fans of basketball, but also those who are curious about race relations during the 1950s and how it has progressed in America since then. The full transcript of the interview can be viewed below.

When it came to preparing for this role, you’ve played many real-life characters before this, whether it is Ted Bundy or Andy Warhol. So, at what point do you know that you are giving as accurate of a depiction of the character that you’re portraying?

You know, for me, there wasn’t a lot of footage of Ned, which is ironic as he was a sports promoter and a journalist in that world. I guess he was, I don’t know, maybe more camera-shy than we know. But he certainly wasn’t shy when a microphone was put in front of him. So I was able to find a lot of interviews with him and with his contemporaries and colleagues, friends, and detractors, and I found that what I really gathered was he was a guy who had this tough exterior, but what he really hid was a very big soft heart. And so that helped me enormously, plus the fact that he was a contemporary of Damon Runyon’s when he was a sportswriter, and I thought I’d give him that kind of Runyon-esque flavor, you know.

Now, knowing that, obviously, Ned Irish is no longer with us. Is there any kind of advantage in crafting your performance when knowing that he’s no longer with us? Are you able to do something that you maybe would not have done if he were still alive today and if you were able to talk to him?

Well, sure. I mean, you know, it gives me a little bit of freedom to play around a little bit. I wasn’t able to find any mannerisms specifically that I could hang my coat on, but, like I said, there was enough written about him that gave me plenty to work with.

Now, I’m going to go back a little bit to Glory. So that was a true story, but your character was fictional. When you took on that role, did it help or hinder your performance knowing that your character is more of an amalgamation as opposed to a real-life person?

Yeah, sure. [Major Cabot Forbes] was based on a couple of people, as you say. Yeah, that film was important to me, because, like this one, I gravitated towards it because, as you look at my body of work, a lot of it is historical in nature. That seems to be the subject matter that I gravitate towards. And any project that has historical value or sociological cultural value, usually, if those boxes are all checked for me, you can pretty much count me in. And I found that with Sweetwater. I didn’t know about the 54th [Massachusetts Infantry Regiment] going into Glory; I had no idea. And that was the same for Sweetwater. Even none of the cast knew about it. And so, I thought, well, here’s a guy who changed history [and] changed basketball as we know it. And yet, he’s a relatively unknown individual next to someone like Jackie Robinson, who crossed the color line. And so, you know, that’s why we need to honor this man.

I completely agree. Now, are you a fan of NBA basketball or basketball in general? Or is this more of a project you chose because of, like you said, the important message that it talks about?

Yeah, I love basketball. I mean, I’m a Lakers fan. Obviously, I live in LA. And so, please, I hope that doesn’t offend other people. But that, yeah, I’m more so now. I had the privilege of interviewing Mr. Jabbar, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, before I started the picture. And I told him what I was working on. He said, “Cary, that’s one of the more important projects you’re ever going to make.” And I said, “Why is that, Kareem?” And he said, “Because I wouldn’t exist without Sweetwater and neither would Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan or Kobe or LeBron, any of us; we all stand on this man’s shoulders. And so, it occurred to me that he’s revered among these giants. And yet, he’s still relatively unknown. And, man, that’s important. We need to celebrate him, you know?

Yeah, that’s incredible, because I wasn’t aware of this story as well. And so, it surprised me when, all of a sudden, I’m finding out more and more about it and watching this movie, it’s incredible. So, when working on a project like this, which is not just huge for history or huge for the NBA, was there a point where you saw that it could appeal not just to fans of the NBA and sports in general, but also to fans of American history and where we’ve progressed since the 1950s?

Yeah, well, it couldn’t be more timely, David. We live in a time now where there are certain states that want to ban African American Studies [and] African American history. And, you know, absurd as that is African American history is American history. It’s right there in the title. And the irony is, is they want to ban books, these people, and, you know, keep people from learning the truth. Most kids today don’t get their information from books. I’ve got news for these folks. I have a 15-year-old [daughter] and she told me, “We get all our information from our phones. What are they going to do, take our phones away?” So, we live in strange times where we seem to be not moving so far forward as we thought we should be at this point in history. And so, yeah, this film probably is more important than ever now.

I saw that this project was worked on by the director for like, 25 years. So it took a long time.


My bad, 28 years. So it took a long time for that for him to get this project to the screen, and I saw that your role was originally going to be played by James Caan. Now, knowing that-

Oh, wow, I didn’t know that.

If you knew that James Caan was ever going to play the role that you initially took, would that be something that would have crossed your mind? Or would you just kind of put that to the side?

I’m just hearing that now. And, you know, I knew Jimmy and loved Jimmy, and the fact that he gravitated towards that actually warms my heart and makes me feel like I made the good decision. Yeah, he was a wonderful talent, Jimmy.

This movie is about overcoming the barriers that face us and any obstacles that we face, in order for us to make a name for ourselves. When it came to getting into acting for you, what barriers or obstacles did you have to overcome to make a name for yourself?

Well, you know, I feel like I don’t have anything to compare with being, you know, being judged by the color of my skin. So it’s hard to put up a flag saying, you know, poor me, and look at the barriers I faced. When you look at the story of how many African Americans are still facing barriers, as we speak, it seems irrelevant. So, I really can’t speak to that without feeling somewhat self-important.

Understandable. Now, there is going to come a time when someone decides to make a movie based on the life of Cary Elwes.

Ha! [laughs]

What advice do you have for that actor in order for them to make sure that they capture an accurate portrayal of Cary Elwes?

Good luck with raising money. [laughs]

Everett Osborne is incredible in his role as Sweetwater. And this is his first major role as well. Did he come to you for any tips? Or did he just kind of take the role and [run with it]?

Oh, please. Everett doesn’t need any tips from me. We were so lucky to get this young man to play this role. I mean, you have to remember, finding an actor who can both act and play basketball on the level where this guy is semi-pro, it’s unheard of. And I saw his audition tape and I told Martin Guigui, our director, I said, “Man, we’re all set. This guy is the real thing. And thank God we found him because he is the movie. I mean, he embodies the heart and soul of Nat Clifton, and he plays it just beautifully.

Yeah, he does. And I was just told that our time is running short.

OK, David.

Thank you for your time again, and I hope you have a good rest of your day.

Thank you. You have a great day. God bless.

On behalf of Cinema Sentires, I would like to thank Cary Elwes for taking the time to speak with me about his new movie, Sweetwater. The film will be released to theaters by Briarcliff Entertainment on April 14th.

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David Wangberg

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