Superman’s swagger, Cary Grant’s accent
Photos don’t do Henry Cavill justice. As a man, I have to grudgingly admit that OK, the dude is a handsome devil. Henry looks good in pictures but in person, he looks even better. Probably the handsomest actor I’ve interviewed, he carries himself with a swagger. Henry had Superman’s confidence even before he donned the Man of Steel’s red cape when I interviewed him for the first time in 2011.
Wearing blue Dunhill shirt and pants, Henry walked in at The Claridge’s Hotel in London to talk about his new film, Guy Ritchie’s very enjoyable “The Man from UNCLE.” But, of course, there’s that other little film of his, Zack Snyder’s “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” which is not due out until March next year.
In the meantime, “The Man from UNCLE,” a film adaptation of the hit 1960s TV series, should appease Henry’s fans and entertain even nonfans. A major part of the movie’s appeal is watching Henry and Armie Hammer as feuding spies Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin (played by Robert Vaughn and David McCallum in the television show), respectively.
Forced to work together, the CIA and KGB agents, as portrayed by Henry and Armie who are evenly matched, are fun to watch. There’s a scene where Armie’s Illya is seriously in danger and Henry’s Napoleon sits in a truck, wordlessly contemplating whether to save his colleague or not. All this while he is chomping on a sandwich.
Throw in Alicia Vikander and the divine Elizabeth Debicki (her character’s name, Victoria Vinciguerra, should tip you off about the sultry Italian actresses Elizabeth evokes). And you have a Cold War romp that’s very much in the spirit of the ’60s but stamped by Guy’s humorous touch.
“With ‘Batman v Superman,’ it’s great to be playing the character again,” said Henry, who first played Superman in 2013’s “Man of Steel,” in his soothing, smooth voice. “I really like playing Superman—it’s a lot of fun and very different, which is why it’s so refreshing to play someone like Napoleon who is far more human.
“One thing which Guy said during the shooting was, ‘Wow, Henry, I think people are going to actually like you in this movie.’ There’s something about Superman—he is so perfect, nice and earnest that people don’t necessarily like that. They want to see some flaws, some personal failures, some mischievousness which is a bit more like them.
“But regardless of that, playing an icon like Superman is fantastic. It’s one of those things which is filled with such possibilities. Now that I’m playing Superman, people all of a sudden listen to me. Suddenly, I have indie scripts coming to the door because they want to have their movies financed by having Superman in them. It definitely has changed my life. It’s wonderful to still be part of that franchise.”
Asked if his second incarnation of Superman will come with flaws, Henry broke into a Clark Kent-ish smile and said, “I can tell you nothing.”
The 32-year-old, whose credits include playing Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk, in TV’s “The Tudors,” stressed that having one of the big superhero roles of a lifetime hasn’t gone to his head.
“OK, I can see how it would be easy to get a big head, but I have never viewed myself as Superman,” Henry insisted. “It’s even a joke sometimes when people come up and go, ‘Hey are you Superman?’ I answer, ‘Sometimes; other times I am Napoleon and other times I am Charles Brandon.’”
“I am one of the guys so far to play that role and there will be others after me. Superman is far bigger than I am. It’s something which you should respect as an actor playing that role as opposed to making you think that you are special. It’s like talking to some of my best mates. The things they have done and have been through are far more incredible and difficult than me pretending to be a super-powered alien.”
Back to Napoleon, Henry shared how he and Armie prepared for their roles as partners who are constantly sparring in a film that’s ultimately a buddy movie.
“On the first few days, what we did was, we went into Guy’s living room in London,” he said. “We just spent time reading for the scenes. Guy said, ‘Don’t act it; just read it.’ We would read through and he would say, ‘OK, cool. That bit sounds weird.’ And we say, ‘How about we change this line and change that line?’ And we start talking about the bigger scenes and saying, ‘What if we make this outdoors instead of indoors?’ And obviously, Armie was a central piece to that.”
Picture Henry and Armie chopping wood together when they were not running through their lines. “We went down to Guy’s house in the country,” Henry recounted. “There was a lot of firewood chopping going on with drinking glasses of wine as well.”
Laughing, Henry added, “It probably isn’t a good idea to get drunk and chop firewood at the same time.”
The talk led to a question on what his idea of a night with a date and perhaps wine might be. “I have just refurbished my house in London and I had the bright idea to put a Spiral Cellar in there,” he enthused. “It’s this fantastic piece of kit and I still know nothing about wine,” he admitted with a laugh. “I am going to start my education now because I have my cellar.
“The perfect evening with a special someone is either an evening in, where you cook and you have some wine at home or whatever is your poison of choice. There’s something special about cooking with someone because it can be a social thing. You are applying all of the senses to your attraction as well.
“Then there is the other side of it, which is going out for a really nice meal. If you are going out to a restaurant, Cut, at 45 Park Lane (London)—that is an amazing steak restaurant. If I can take someone on a date there, yeah, any day of the week.”
And what’s the perfect wine to drink while chopping wood? “It’s whatever Guy may be serving that day,” Henry replied with a chuckle.
On whether “Mad Men’s” Don Draper inspired his take on the suave, suit-wearing Napoleon, Henry answered, “I didn’t watch ‘Mad Men’ nor ‘The Man From UNCLE.’ It was just coincidence. There’s a certain style to both those things which exists in these types of characters. It’s just happenstance. The way we built our characters was through my fellow actors, and Guy and Lionel (Wigram, cowriter and coproducer). I know my accent really informed the way I move, certainly, and the way I go about everything.”
About his American accent and delivery which recall the speaking style in those black-and-white ’60s shows and films, Henry explained with a smile, “I had been getting it wrong these past two days and saying it was Clark Gable. But it was actually Cary Grant that Guy gave me as a reference. He said, ‘Alright, go check out Cary Grant, see what you think. Don’t do Cary Grant, but do something similar to that. Just don’t do Cary Grant.’
“So I went away with Andrew Jack, our dialogue coach, and we worked on something which is similar to Cary but not quite the same. We really enjoyed the lilt and intonation. So we played around with that a little bit and we tried to make it my own.
“On the set, there were certain words which Guy would say, ‘That sounds weird. That doesn’t sound like a real word. Can you change that, can you elongate the consonant or the vowel?’ It ended up getting so complicated that at one stage, it was really difficult for me to focus on the performance. Despite that, I pushed through.
“One morning, Guy eventually walked up to me and went, ‘It just sounds like you are an English actor who is doing a terrible American accent.’ So we then decided to go more American, and emphasize the R’s and elongate the vowels. Once we had that, it became quite unique in its own thing and it didn’t sound like anyone else. It was definitely my accent which was the cornerstone of the character of Napoleon.”
For Henry, a formal acting education isn’t a guarantee of success. “You can have a guy, who trained for 15 years in all the best schools, who won’t be as good as the guy who never trained,” he pointed out. “Acting is an intangible skill in which you reach into a bag when action happens and you really hope a performance comes out. But there’s no guarantee that it’s actually going to happen.”
There’s an amusing shopping scene in “The Man from UNCLE” where Henry and Armie’s manly characters choose the clothes and shoes for Alicia’s Gaby Teller, an East Berliner garage mechanic who suddenly finds herself a couture-draped woman on a mission with these two agents who’d really rather kill each other.
Is Henry also the type who would shop for a woman? “The kind of lady I would have would not let me tell her anything,” dished the Brit with a grin. “I do not know about women’s clothing. I know what I like to see and I know what I find attractive—it varies depending on the person because people are all different shapes and sizes. Clothes are designed to complement all different shapes and sizes. I can advise someone and I can say, ‘That looks great.’
“If I go shopping for a pair of shoes for a girl, I like to think that I have a reasonably good eye, but fashion is so personal. Someone may like a pair of fancy high-heeled shoes, but another girl may go, ‘I actually prefer a pair of army boots with open jeans.’ Not many girls would not like a pair of snazzy high-heeled shoes despite what they say. But I wouldn’t say I am a fashionista when it comes to women’s clothing although I know what appeals to my eye.”
Henry himself always looks well-dressed, especially on occasions that require suits. “That’s the idea—you can hide everything (when you are wearing a suit),” Henry quipped.
The thespian, who bagged his first film role in his teens when he was cast as Albert Mondego in “The Count of Monte Cristo,” was once engaged to British equestrienne Ellen Whitaker and dated hunter Marisa Gonzalo and actress Gina Carano.
He defined what attracts him to a woman: “What I find sexy in a woman is when a woman is herself. What anyone finds sexy about anyone is when someone is comfortable in her own skin because that’s the only way she is ever going to make you happy. If you are not comfortable with yourself, you are just going to make someone else’s life miserable forever.”
This Superman-playing actor was asked what he considers his bravest act so far. “I saved a baby from a burning building once,” he deadpanned.
“I am joking, I didn’t really. I think the bravest thing that I have done is that I have told someone, ‘I don’t think we should be together in a relationship.’ In spite of the fact that I love her, I think it was wrong and knowing how much it (telling her) was going to hurt her. Because that really sucks and it really hurts.
“Months later, I looked back and went yeah, you did the right thing. That was good.”
On what principles he lives by, the Channel Islands, United Kingdom-native emphasized, “Ethics are very important. I try to be as ethical as I possibly can. Integrity is vital to me and who and what I am is based upon that. I know there is only one thing I can take with me when I am on my deathbed and that’s my integrity. I can’t take my money. I can’t take houses or boats or my wife or my kids.
“But if I lie there on my deathbed and think, I at least was me, and honestly me, until that time. If I didn’t let myself down throughout my life, I can probably die with a smile on my face. And especially if I have kids, I can tell my kids what the right thing to do is and not feel like a liar in the process. That’s probably the most important thing to me.”
Henry’s heroes are flesh-and-blood human beings, not comic book vigilantes. “My heroes are the people who taught me integrity—my mother, father, family, brothers and best friends,” he pointed out.
“I never really looked at people whom I haven’t known or who were characters on TV or books and said, ‘Oh, that is my hero.’ I am really fascinated by the likes of Alexander the Great but I don’t know the guy. All the stories I have read—that is some dude telling me about Alexander the Great and who knows what his skew on the idea is.
“Whereas I know my mother, father and brothers. I know what they went through. And I know how they still are the [same] people they are today. I know the extraordinary things that my best friends have been through. And they have come out as humble, honest and good people.
“I have learned from them these values. I don’t think anyone necessarily said, ‘Hey, it’s integrity, integrity, integrity,’ but I have picked it up along the way. I have realized that as much as I love making money, nice houses and going on holidays, they taught me that if all of that goes away, what do I have left?”
The guy who was a serious contender for the James Bond role against Daniel Craig (Henry was deemed too young then) was asked about the toughest moment, so far, in his life.
“My hardest time—goodness—isn’t heartbreak always the hardest time no matter what you do?” he asked aloud. “So yeah, I had my heart broken and had my best friends look after me after a bad heartbreak. I wasn’t being particularly bad. I was just being morose and heartbroken.”
Henry’s face lit up as he recalled, “To see the joy on my friends’ faces when I finally ate a sandwich, which was remarkable because I wasn’t eating. My friend’s wife made this particular sandwich which I ate. Just to see them so happy taught me a lot. They now call it the Henry Sandwich.”
And what was in the sandwich? He replied as he broke into a smile, “It was slow-cooked pork with banana peppers in a soft roll. That simple.”