Actor Henry Cavill on new film Man of Steel

IT WAS a pretty significant day in the life of Henry Cavill on 14 July 1012.

Henry Cavill this summer finally dons the red cape that will see him transformed into the Man of Steel. Picture: AP

The scene is the San Diego Convention Centre, home to Comic-Con, the incredibly popular showcase for all things fantasy-driven that, these days, is a major studio launchpad for summer blockbuster movies. Standing in the wings at Hall H, Cavill watches as director Zack Snyder unveils the teaser trailer for Man of Steel, his new take on that most legendary of comic-book heroes, Superman.

Cavill, the 30-year-old star of The Tudors and the first British actor to play Superman proper (London-born Lee Quigley played the baby Kal-El in the 1978 film Superman), hadn’t even seen the footage as the fans went wild. “My adrenaline spiked,” he recalls, “and the audience reaction had my heart going like nothing else. I stepped out on stage and everyone’s cheering. [There’s] just this love you feel for the character, which filled the room. And people were having a lot of serious feeling for what they saw – they were genuinely happy. One guy was so happy he was brought to tears.”

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Months later, Cavill is sitting in a London hotel, quietly reflecting on the madness of that moment. Unlike the fans, he doesn’t seem the sort to get too emotional; quiet, watchful and reserved – he’s very British in that way – he seems utterly calm about being given an undeniably life-changing role. Ask him how he feels and you get a very steady answer. “I don’t know if it’s butterflies in my stomach,” he says, in a clipped, boarding-school-honed English accent. “Calm and collected probably isn’t right either. I guess ... very excited and raring to go. I’m looking forward to this coming out. It has been a long time coming.”

That it has. As far back as 2004, Cavill – then only 21 – was a leading contender to play the character in McG’s Superman: Flyby, a film that – after the collapse of Tim Burton’s proposed project with Nicolas Cage in the role some years earlier – would have been the first time the Man of Steel had been in cinemas since the glory days of the late Christopher Reeve in the 1980s. “I did feel like I was very close to getting it,” says Cavill. In the end, McG bailed and Bryan Singer took over, steering the franchise in a different direction.

The result was 2006’s Superman Returns, starring newcomer Brandon Routh in the eponymous role. Cavill remained philosophical. “In the acting world, where you lose a job like that – or you don’t get a job like that, because I don’t know if you can call it ‘losing’ a job – yes, initially you go, ‘Ah, man!’ and it’s disappointment. But you have to keep moving on; you can’t dwell on that. And you forget about each audition. Or I certainly forget about each audition or meeting as soon as I’ve done it. To hold on to hope, to have it squashed every time, is not a healthy way to live.”

This may be true, but Cavill truly needed fortitude in the wake of seeing the Superman job go to Routh. Film magazine Empire dubbed him “the unluckiest man in Hollywood” as he threatened to become a nearly man, missing out on a series of high-profile roles. He twice lost out to Robert Pattinson – first for the part of Cedric Diggory in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (despite fans writing in on his behalf), then for the role of vampire Edward Cullen in Twilight (despite author Stephenie Meyer favouring him).

Did he ever give thought to not making it? “I certainly did think that,” he says, a flash of anxiety in his eyes. “But it wasn’t a worry. It was more of a ‘What am I doing? Maybe this work isn’t for me, maybe there’s something else I should do.’”

So what did he do? “I gave myself a deadline,” he says, unequivocally. “Up until that point, I was saying, ‘If you’re going to do this, give your all – and don’t mess about. But if you have other options – and giving your all in this particular line of work isn’t working – then go for the other options.’”

Then he had another near-miss – James Bond. With the series set to replace Pierce Brosnan and return to its roots with 2006’s Casino Royale, it was reportedly between him and Daniel Craig to play 007; eventually the producers favoured the older Craig.

Rather than turn him suicidal, this gave him hope. “When the Bond screen test came along I thought, ‘OK, I got that close to such a big job, there must be something,’” he explains. “[As a result], my name got out there more ... but there certainly was a stage of thinking, ‘OK, maybe I’m not the right guy for this job.’”

Off the back of almost being Bond, he was cast as Charles Brandon in The Tudors; appearing in all four series, Cavill was suddenly a recognisable face to US audiences. Small roles came on the big screen too – in Matthew Vaughn’s fantasy fairy tale Stardust and Woody Allen’s Whatever Works, with Larry David. At the same time, Singer’s Superman Returns – despite taking $391 million at box offices around the globe – was widely regarded as a disappointment; the studio decided against making a sequel and Routh dropped back into obscurity.

When Snyder, who had already brought the adult comic book Watchmen to the screen, turned his attention to resurrecting Man of Steel, Cavill went up against 500 others. Very swiftly he was a contender. He was the first to screen-test, wearing Christopher Reeve’s old costume. “Henry came out of the trailer when we were shooting a test and everybody thought, ‘OK, that’s Superman,’” says Snyder.

This time, there was no near-miss; the role Cavill had targeted when he was 21 was his. So how did it feel when he finally put on that famous costume? “It actually felt pretty fantastic,” he says. “It’s a feeling I will never forget because all I saw was Superman the character. I didn’t see Henry Cavill wearing a Superman costume. It was this wonderful experience going, ‘Wow, this is it. You’re not messing about here. This is not some phony production or you dressing up on Halloween. This is a huge, professional deal. This is your shot, boy.’”

He refused, he says, to be intimidated at the prospect of playing Superman. “You know what? I chose not to focus on any prospect of it being daunting or large boots to fill. I just tried to relish the opportunity. It’s such an exciting role to play and I didn’t want any insecurity or negative emotion to affect that experience and that character. I didn’t want to be worrying about stuff. I wanted to be excited. And so I just focused, as much as I possibly could, on creating my interpretation of what the source material has shown me.”

With his baby-blue eyes, muscular frame and dark swirls of hair, Cavill certainly fits the Superman archetype. “Henry was born to play Superman,” says Michael Shannon, the actor who stars alongside him as the Man of Steel’s nemesis, General Zod. Maybe it’s the sprawl of facial hair, but Cavill seems less clean-cut and chiselled than Christopher Reeve, more rough-hewn. There’s an air of gravitas that hangs over him too; it’s hard to imagine that Cavill will be following Reeve’s comic interpretation of Superman’s mildly bumbling alter-ego, Clark Kent.

With Man of Steel produced by Christopher Nolan, whose own Batman trilogy retold the origin story of another DC Comics superhero in gritty fashion, Cavill seems tailor-made for a version that is, as he puts it, “very much grounded in reality”. Retelling how a baby is sent from the faraway planet of Krypton to land on Earth, develop super powers and be raised among us, it’s very much “based in a world which we exist in”, says Cavill. “It’s closer to understanding what makes this entity tick. And why.”

Physically, at 6ft 1in tall, he’s two inches below Superman’s supposed height, but his build more than makes up for it. As anyone who saw Cavill in 2011’s Immortals, a loose reworking of the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, he truly has the body of a Greek god, a torso so wonderfully sculpted you might think it had been digitally enhanced. Yet even that wasn’t enough as Cavill literally had to turn himself into a Man of Steel, with the help of ex-climber Mark Twight. “He taught me all about breaking down my boundaries – which I didn’t think I could surpass – and surpassing them enormously.”

It meant intense work on the rowing machine, in the squat cage and with kettle bells – not to mention consuming 5,000 calories a day. But he’s not, he says, a gym obsessive. “I need a goal to train. Just training for the sake of it, I find very, very hard to do.

“I don’t think my ego works in that way at all. I just go ‘What am I doing? Why am I putting myself through this sort of hell? Just so I can take my shirt off at the beach? I don’t think so.’ And so having this goal is wonderful and it does motivate a lot. And that’s what I need – good motivation.”

The irony is, as a child, schooling at the elite Buckinghamshire institution of Stowe, he was overweight; his nickname was Fatty Cavill. “It was definitely a shitty nickname,” he sighs. “But kids are kids. Kids are cruel. Whatever. I was fat.” It was only when a casting director came to 17-year-old Henry’s school looking for a young actor to play the part of Albert Mondego in the 2002 film version of The Count of Monte Cristo that things changed. Producers told his mother he needed to lose weight to win the role, and he did, rapidly shedding a stone and a half.

Born in Jersey, Cavill (whose name rhymes with ‘travel’) was hardly a wallflower growing up. He couldn’t afford to be. The son of Marianne, a secretary, and Colin, a stockbroker, he was the fourth of five boys in a “rough and tumble” household that fostered individuality. “I don’t think any one of us was ever being led anywhere. We all made our own decisions and all of them must have been panicky and hellish for our parents, because kids always want to do the thing that’s likely to damage them the most. And my poor parents had to deal with it, with five of us.”

While his eldest sibling, Nick, is now in the 45 Commando Royal Marines – leading to tabloid headlines back in 2011 that Superman’s brother was fighting the Taliban – Cavill seems in awe of all his family. “We all looked up to each other in different ways and respected each other enormously, as much as we also had hate for each other at certain points – as brothers are wont to do. But they’re wonderful brothers, mine are, and I’m lucky to have grown up with them looking after me, teaching me stuff, whether they meant to or not.”

Cavill had always been interested in acting, appearing in school play productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Grease. “It was a great hobby to have,” he says. Yet he soon began to consider it as a career, proposing to his parents that he go to drama school. His father suggested he go to university first, to get a degree to fall back on. “And I couldn’t argue with that logic,” he says, even considering Egyptology as a possible subject. Then The Count of Monte Cristo came along. “After that, my dad said, ‘Well, look, you’re in a career now and you’re working and making money, so keep that ball rolling. Go for it’.”

There was never any chance, he says, of following his father (who is now his business manager) into the world of stockbroking. “Maths was never my strongest subject at school, so to choose that over anything else seemed like the wrong option.”

When I ask if he can remember who influenced him the most, aside from his parents, he becomes a little unstuck. There were teachers and casting directors, of course, but Cavill sees it differently. “I think we all make our own luck. We’re affected by people in ways perhaps we don’t even know.”

Like anyone, Cavill has had his ups and downs romantically. For three years, he dated international showjumper Ellen Whitaker, after they met at the 2009 Olympia International Horse Show. He proposed in May 2011 but they split last August, after what turned out to be a disastrous period for Whitaker, who was also banned for driving for 18 months after being caught for drink-driving on her way back from a charity ball.

Living “all over the place” – primarily between London and Los Angeles – Cavill has since gone on to date Gina Carano, the mixed martial arts fighter who made the switch to movies by starring in Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire. Last month they attended the London première of Carano’s new film Fast & Furious 6 – although, typically of Cavill, he kept it low-key, preferring not to pose with her on the red carpet.

Still, he could be seen signing autographs and posing for pictures with fans; is this something he’s getting used to? “Am I getting my head wrapped around fame?” He wrinkles his nose at the thought. “It has fortunately come in very small doses so far. I’ve got to experience it piece by piece, which is really quite fortunate. The whole thing that is about to happen potentially, I don’t think there is any way you can be prepared for that. I think you just have to keep your fingers crossed and hope for the best, and hope one deals with it in the best way possible. But we’ll have to see. Watch this space. Maybe you can ask me in six months and I can tell you what it’s like, if it does explode.”

There is no question it will. Like those of Christian Bale (as Batman) and Andrew Garfield (as Spider-Man) before him, Cavill’s career is about to hit overdrive. First off is the possibility of a return as the Man of Steel in the proposed Justice League film (think The Avengers, but with DC heroes like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman). He’s contracted to play the character for three films, though he plays it down. “I’ve certainly heard nothing about anything just yet. It’s in the lap of the gods.”

He’s also rumoured to be one of the contenders to play Christian Grey, the S&M-loving banker in the movie adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey. If that would be a bold move, and one that would swell his female fan base even further, he knows that whichever way he turns he’s in a unique position. “I’m going to have more of a choice now,” he grins, noting that it feels more collaborative this way than when you’re “desperately trying to get a job to pay the rent”.

Somehow, you suspect he won’t have to worry about paying his rent again. n

Twitter: @JamesMottram

• Man of Steel opens on Friday