The Fast Show
First he played Superman, now he takes a lead role as Napoleon Solo in Guy Ritchie’s reboot of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. As Henry Cavill corners the market in iconic heroes, we join him at the Goodwood Motor Circuit to test his superpowers behind the wheel.
Superman is enjoying himself. As well he might. The sun’s out. The birds are singing, only occationally interrupted by the rattle and rasp of a classic car’s exhaust as it hurtles past our vantage point overlooking the Motor Circuit. “I really enjoy coming here,” says Henry Cavill, surveying Goodwood’s green and pleasant land. The 32-year-old was, until a few years ago, a middling British actor who became a global star when it was announced that he would don the supersuit and red cape for 2013’s Man of Steel blockbuster. “There’s no better place than England in the summer, and at Goodwood it’s fantastic.” He’s well placed to comment: he was here in 2012 for the Festival of Speed, and a year later returned to film scenes for The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Guy Ritchie’s romping remake of the popular 1960s TV series. Out on 14 August this year, it will be his next leading role.
Cavill is middling no longer. Once in danger of being seen as the nearly man after missing out on a couple of plum roles at the last minute – more on which later – Cavill steered Man of Steel to a $0.6bn take worldwide, which ensured that he gets to wear the tights for another couple of outings at least. But first, he’s got to fly: he’s at Goodwood this time to experience a BMW track day and he’s about to take a spin in the i8, BMW’s new hybrid petrol/electric supercar that goes from 0-60 in 4.4 seconds. And while it certainly looks the part, it’s eerily quiet on ignition, moving from standing start with all the aural umph of a laptop overheating.
“That was a lot of fun,” says Cavill as he settles down later with his dog by his side, a fluffy Japanese Akita named Kal-El (after his character in Man of Steel, obviously). “It was the first time I’ve been on a track and the more comfortable you get, the more you want to start flooring it. But we took it round a few times, tried to find a few nice lines.”
As you’d expect from a man used to flying faster than a speeding bullet, Cavill has a thing for speed. He grew up on Jersey, before boarding at Stowe where he was a regular in school plays – and was in such a hurry to get into acting proper that he left without finishing his A-level to take a part in the film The Count of Monte Cristo. A few more small parts followed on passing his driving that he bought himself a Peugeot 306 GTI limited edition – “Perfect for Jersey where you can’t go faster than enough anywhere” – from the proceeds of his new career, but later – eventually – was no time, in terms of both cars and jobs.
The breakthrough was in 2007, when he was picked as one of the leads in the TV series The Tudors. It ran for three years. “Before that I was travelling all over for work,” he says, “so I didn’t really use a car. But after The Tudors, I thought, “I haven’t really treated myself.” He took his dad to a car showroom. “We were looking at the Audi A8. Dad was doing my finances so he knew what I could afford, and he lingered a little too long in front of an Aston Martin DBS. I asked, “Can I afford that?” And I got it. It’s not ideal for driving in London, but it’s a beautiful car.”
And it goes. “I’ve had it up to 180 before on the autobahn,” he says. “I put it in sixth and it went and went, accelerating all the way through. I was with my brother and he had to scream “Brake!” The blood was pumping pretty hard at that point.”
You’d imagine he was equally stirred a few years later to see Man of Steel director Zack Snyder’s name pop up on his phone after he screen-tested for the role. This was to be the defining moment in Cavill’s career, and yet… Cavill was playing computer games with his brothers and let it go to the answering service. “I did call him back, though,” he stresses. The reason for his phone manner was simple: lack. Or rather, lack of it. Cavill was used to missing out – indeed film bible Empire once dubbed him “the unluckiest man in Hollywood” as the number of roles he almost get stacked up.
Ironically, he was originally pencilled in to play Superman nearly 10 years ago, but the director pulled out, the film got recast and another unknown named Brandon Routh finally starred in Superman Returns. But earlier, Cavill got down to the final two to play Bond in Casino Royal. He was 22: too young. Daniel Craig got the nod. He was also considered for Twilight. “I heard the writer of the books was very keen in me to play the character, but I don’t think she had any creative control,” he says. The part went to Robert Pattinson, who also played Cedric Diggory in the Harry Potter films, which Cavill auditioned for, but “I didn’t look right. Not enough magic. No wand,” he says graciously.
“You do get excited when you hear you’re close to a role, of course you do,” he continues. “And then your agent calls and says they’re not going with you and it’s crushing. But you allow yourself that little moment and then, onwards and upwards. You get way more let-downs than you do great phone calls. I’ve only had a few of those… Superman, The Man from U.N.C.L.E…”
The latter is Cavill’s next release, set in the middle of the Cold War and featuring two secret agents from each side forced to work together to combat a common enemy. And he almost didn’t get this one, either. “Tom Cruise was originally playing the lead [Napoleon Solo, played by Robert Vaughn in the TV series] and I auditioned for the other part. They said, ‘you guys look too similar.’ So when Tom dropped out, Guy said, ‘You know that guy who looked really similar? Get him.’”
“Guy is an amazing filmmaker,” says Cavill, keenly. “If I could do every movie with him from now on I’d be happy. He creates these fantastic products but makes sure it’s fun. He’ll be playing guitar while the cameras are setting up, and you’ll be there making up songs.
“He’s a real storyteller through character,” he continues. “If Tom Cruise was playing Napoleon Solo he would have told it through Cruise’s strengths. And now I’m playing it, he’s told it through mine. I can be quite sarcastic, but in a lot of the characters I play that’s not seen: Superman is very stoic, he’s a big boy scout. I wouldn’t say Napoleon is me, but he’s more in the line with my sense of humour. Guy would say, ‘People are actually going to like you in this movie. You’re funny.’”
If he’s not yet known for his humour, Cavill is certainly recognized for his body. It took nine month of brutal conditioning to chisel him into superhero shape. “There were points during training where you could slow down and not beat your previous numbers, or keep going and definitely puke,” he says. “There’s a switch in your head where you say, ‘Sod it’. And you do it. But I never collapse after a workout. You don’t lie there like you’re defeated. Stay standing or take a knee if you have to.”
If you’re thinking that doesn’t sound entirely normal, you’re probably right. “I’m incredibly strong-willed,” he agrees, “and if I decide I’m going to do something then I won’t stop until it’s done. I don’t know why I’ve ended up that way, but I have. I’m driven.”
The photoshoot took place at the Goodwood Circuit on April 8, 2015.