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By Jamie Millar
Photography by Patrik Giardino
Man and Super Man
Henry Cavill has lifted himself to Hollywood superstardom via sheer superhuman effort. Now the Brit actor has big-budget blockbusters on his broad shoulders, from Man of Steel to this month’s The Man from UNCLE and next year’s throwdown with Batman. Prepare to test your own mettle.
Henry Cavill takes things seriously.
Like his coffee, for example. Explaining his choice of this particular London café as the location for his MH interview, he expounds, “You can tell it's good here — they weigh the beans and everything.”
Said café shall remain nameless so the 32-year-old Jersey-born actor can continue to enjoy his caffeine fix without interruption, as he does today. It helps that he's sporting a mean beard, more so even than when his character Clark Kent — Superman's alter ego, for those who've been living under a kryptonite rock — goes incognito in Man of Steel, the film that forged his breakout from TV's The Tudors into a cast-iron, big-screen star. Clearly the facial furniture is a more effective way of preserving a secret identity than a pair of glasses.
This month Cavill reveals another, less hirsute alias: that of smooth ex-criminal turned secret agent Napoleon Solo in The Man from UNCLE, a film adaptation of die '60s TV show. Stylishly directed by Guy Ritchie, it's a bromantic action-comedy pitting Brit Cavill against American Armie Hammer as odd-couple US and Soviet agents respectively, who reluctantly join forces to prevent the Cold War from overheating to nuclear temperature.
The trailer is a blast, and making the film sounds much the same way. “It was just fun to be funny, and to play a role that's slightly closer to who I am as a real person,” says Cavill. “People think I'm like Superman all day long, that I'm stoic. I mean, I try to do the right thing most of the time, but I also enjoy a good mistake now and then.” So maybe he doesn't take everything seriously, then.
SPYING A CHANCE
At first glance, it's all too tempting to view The Man from UNCLE as potentially what Layer Cake was for Daniel Craig. That's to say, a feature-length audition tape for James Bond in which Cavill demonstrates 007's key attributes of charisma and looking good in tailoring. It's especially tempting given Cavill famously and narrowly lost out to Craig for Casino Royale. That Cavill even got so close was in itself remarkable — he was only 22 at the time. (Interesting and little-known fact: Bond creator Ian Fleming also came up with the character of Napoleon Solo.)
But Cavill is swift to quash the inevitable comparisons. “Solo is not like Bond at all,” he says. “In our film, he's a thief who gets busted because a jilted woman sells him out, and then he's blackmailed into working for the CIA.” He’s mentally if not sartorially sharper than Bond's “blunt instrument”, as M refers to him, and even more maverick: “Solo is brains as opposed to brawn, or guile rather than strength.”
To be clear, Cavill isn't saying he no longer wants the 007 gig: “The Bond people are wonderful, and I'd like to work with them," he admits. “But it depends on directors, and scripts, and whether they want me to do it. Plus there's a time factor.” Pre-Man of Steel, Cavill was gaining a rep as the unluckiest man in Hollywood. Bond aside, he also lost out to Robert Pattinson for Twilight (arguably that was good luck) and was initially cast for the reboot that became the disappointing Superman Returns, only to be booted out (again, arguably fortunately) along with a JJ Abrams script when director McG was replaced by Bryan Singer. Now Cavill seems to have the opposite problem.
“Let's say the DC Universe keeps growing: they haven't announced any more standalone Superman movies, but they may well do. That takes a full year out. If The Man from UNCLE becomes a franchise, there's that... I'm not too sure when I could fit [Bond] in.” With two Justice League movies — DC's equivalent of Marvel's Avengers — slated to follow next year's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice in 2017 and 2019, you can almost believe he's too busy for Bond. (Although, for the record, MH is nevertheless laying down Le Chiffre-level stakes on Cavill taking up the Martini-quaffing mantle when Craig eventually hangs up his tux.)
In the meantime, being Superman remains a full-time job — even when he's busy fighting the Cold War. While The Man from UNCLE provided a welcome break from skin-tight spandex and shirtless scenes — Cavill slimmed down significantly for the role — it was by no means a rest period. “We knew Batman v Superman was happening immediately afterwards, so we were prepping for that at the same time, doing enough heavy stuff so that I'd be ready to make the switch without putting on muscle,” he says. “Plus I had to stay at a certain weight and make sure I didn't blow up and get fat, which can easily happen when you're under stress and you want a drink at the weekend.”
Fat chance. The tailoring for The Man from UNCLE was made by British menswear institution Timothy Everest, who witnessed Cavill's startling body transformations first-hand, as the actor leaned down from superhero to sleek super-spy to fit the character of Solo (and his suits) before beefing up once more.
Everest also saw up close the effects of stress, exacerbated by calorie restriction, on the normally charming Cavill's temperament. The tailor recounts how the downsizing leading man accidentally broke a changing room door off its hinges — possibly in an uncharacteristic fit of mild pique — then emerged in his underwear, holding the door and asking (presumably rhetorically), “What the fuck am I meant to do with this?” Everest has since left the door propped up against a wall as a kind of ‘Superman was here’ sign.
Training for a film other than the one he was working on was not so much a tough job as the second of two tough jobs. “Your day is long enough without having to get up two hours earlier to crush yourself in the gym,” says Cavill. “Or worse, finish a long day and then smash yourself afterwards, when it's so late that it's almost not beneficial to train because you've got to go to bed and wake up really early again.”
If you believe you're too time-poor to spend any on your body, frankly that's as rich as thinking actors have nothing to do all day but work out and eat right. “I love reading stuff like that on the internet,” says Cavill. “Even when we're not shooting, there’s lots of stuff we have to do. For example, this interview. Then I'm in pre-production for another film. My entire day is full. So going to train this morning was like, ‘OK, get up, do it.’ It's earlier than when you want to get up, but that doesn't matter — you have to do it anyway.” Did we mention that our interview is taking place on his birthday?
Admittedly, motivation comes easily when you're being mentored by Mark Twight, former climber and founder of Gym Jones (gymjones.com), the famously uncompromising institution renowned for pushing its fictional warriors — such as the Spartans in 300 and Rise of an Empire — just as hard as its real-life military clientele. The clue is in the name, which is a play on Jim Jones, the cult leader who convinced his followers to commit mass suicide. Total commitment is required.
Twight helped Cavill to maintain during The Man from UNCLE before passing him on to his acolyte Michael Blevins (gritandteeth.com), selected because he possessed the requisite fitness level and physicality to work out with the actor, and in Twight's words, “put the beat-down” on him. Cavill had to become prepared to kill himself in the gym. “I got to a point where I felt really fit, where given a choice between the easy way or the hard way, I chose the hard way every time,” says Cavill. “I got to that point where I know I'm going to puke and then I puke. That to me was the challenge: how hard can I actually go?”
Having previously worked with both Twight and Blevins on Man of Steel, Cavill already knew that he could go pretty hard. Weirdly, that didn't dissuade him from doing it all over again. “It was definitely easier this time around,” he says. “There is that aspect of, ‘Oh God, I know how much it hurts.’ But I don't mind that so much. I like hard work. I really, really like it, because it makes me feel like I've achieved something for the day. It was great to go and train this morning. Then, in the taxi, I thought, ‘Yes, now the day is mine.’ I could have not gone, and thought, ‘I'll train later.’ But what if it gets too late and I'm tired? ‘Maybe I'll do it tomorrow.’ I wouldn’t feel good about that. It's about being honest with yourself. Doing the right thing releases the right chemicals.”
That mindset is all the more impressive when you consider that Cavill's workouts are some of the most demanding MH has ever seen — an upchuck-provoking combo of limb-trembling strength training and lung-busting conditioning Blevins drills Cavill “as I would a professional athlete. Performance is up front and centre, real world-class numbers are used for comparison and to strive for and, with enough time and consistent hard work, he has no problem competing.” It's brutal but effective: unbelievably, during his three months training for Batman v Superman Cavill packed on twice as much lean mass as he'd loaded up for Man of Steel. And, according to Cavill, this extreme form of method acting in turn strengthens the performance on-screen: “With it comes a look, a physicality, a way you move, and with that comes a confidence.” The ‘S’ on his chest will feel real.
If you want to know what Superman benches, however, be mindful of your approach. “People do ask stuff like that,” he admits. “It depends on the person. If it’s a guy with a massive chest, he's trying to beat me, so I'll say, ‘1000lb,’ and walk away. But if someone is being genuine and wants to chat about training, that's different. People who train a lot tend not to ask, though, as they don't want to be beaten by you — especially if you're Superman.”
Although Cavill strives to improve his numbers, they don't define him. “They change constantly,” he says. “What if it's a bad day, or your best clay ever?” Besides, they're relative: the only number that really matters is effort, which for him is consistently 100%, rather than scoring points over others. “The last thing l want to do sitting here in a coffee shop is compete with you. I already compete with myself every single day of my life.”
Cavill's resolve is slightly less steely when it comes to his diet. Although Hollywood-adapted, he's still an Englishman at heart: “I like fish and chips, I like pies, I like Guinnes.” Yes, he's a man of stout. But he doesn't look it because his approach to nutrition — or rather Blevins’ — breeds consistency through occasional inconsistency: as long as Cavill continues to get enough of what he needs, he can afford a bit of what he wants. Especially when he's working this hard.
“I see guys stuck in this cycle of eating chicken and broccoli, or so-called ‘clean eating’,” says Blevins. “This eventually limits the amount of energy they can give during training, which limits the amount of hypertrophy signalled or calories expended. So they tighten up their diet to try to advance, further limiting the training effect, and soon.”
Although the quantifies might be outlandish (5,000 calories a day when adding size), and the dreaded Tupperware does periodically rear its dull head (when tapering for those shirtless scenes), Cavill eats relatively ‘normally’: curries, stews and, yes, occasionally burgers and barbecues. “Today, for example, I might go to Nando's for some chicken and sweet potato, or Wagamama and get a broth,” he says. “Just be smart: don't eat rubbish.”
Allowing yourself some peri-peri on those plain chicken breasts instead of sacrificing taste on the altar of orthorexia makes staying broadly on the nutritional straight and narrow far more palatable. It also reduces the urge to binge — along with the odd indulgence. “Although food quality is important, I feel longevity is far more critical,” says Blevins. “I would give someone a cupcake everyday if they were able to stay within the calorie amount l recommended.” Indeed, Blevins is keen to stress that becoming Superman isn't a quick fix or a four-week plan that you can follow. Like with his career, it's taken Cavill years of toil to get to this point — four, to be precise. But he's an example of what can be achieved if you commit to something wholeheartedly and really push yourself, an example scarcely less inspiring than his iconic alter ego.
“Henry is a perfect spokesperson for fitness because he isn't selling a product,” says Blevins. “He's sharing an idea: one of hard work and dedication, about setting out and seeing things through. It's about embracing the long road, the hard-fought battle.” On the evidence MH has seen, “hard-fought” is an understatement. Even the best trainers in the world (Blevins and Twight among them) will only get you so far. How then, does Cavill out of bed every morning, to not only suck up some unimaginably grim workouts, but chew them up and spit them out again? To become reacquainted with his breakfast, make a joke about it and then carry on? To test the limits of his physical and mental capacity in a way that those of us coasting through our three sets of 10 and giving up on the last rep can scarcely conceive?
“It's pride,” says Cavill. “I have pride in my work. When I'm old, I'm not going to go, ‘I'm so glad I cheated myself my entire life, so glad I got away with it.’ I want to die and, in those moments, realise that I have integrity, that every time I told my kids and grandkids to work hard, I believed it myself. That's what really matters.”
For a second his smile disappears and he fixes you with a laser gaze that could melt metal. And you believe — no, actually see — that he's completely serious.