Henry Cavill is the definition of British charm as he discusses whether it’s easier to play a suave spy like Napoleon Solo in “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” than a more conflicted hero.
“Well, if you’re an actor, if you’re a decent actor, you’re at least partially feeling those emotions (of the character),” he says, speaking by phone from London. “Because Napoleon’s approach to life is, I wouldn’t say lackadaisical, it’s more relaxed and a come-what-may type approach ... it feels more relaxed on the day that you’re doing it as well.”
Adds the 32-year-old star, “If you play a character that’s dealing with the end of the world at all times at his fingertips and if he dare makes one wrong move, then it’s all over, then, yeah, that’s a little stressful, because you’re feeling that stress.”
That last bit can’t help but evoke Cavill’s role as Superman in 2013’s “Man of Steel” and the upcoming “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” which was filmed in metro Detroit last year.
Unlike the moody DC Comics icon he portrays in those epics, Solo is an action hero who is as bemused as he is formidable. And Cavill, with his elegant sexiness and habit of fighting bad guys while wearing impeccable suits, evokes the nonchalance of Cary Grant in the classic “North by Northwest.”
Directed by Guy Ritchie, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” reboots the TV series of the 1960s that starred Robert Vaughn as Solo, the dapper American, and David McCallum as turtleneck-wearing heartthrob Illya Kuryakin, his unlikely Russian ally in Cold War espionage.
The project has been several years in the works and the Solo part was linked at various times to George Clooney and Tom Cruise. But with his relatively new global profile as Superman, Cavill became the ultimate choice for Ritchie’s romp, which combines the retro chic of the swinging ’60s setting with a contemporary spin.
Solo and Kuryakin, played here by Armie Hammer as a brooding secret agent with rage issues, join forces with a tough East German mechanic named Gaby (Alicia Vikander of “Ex Machina”) on their mission to stop an evil heiress (Elizabeth Debicki of “The Great Gatsby”) and her international crime organization’s nuclear naughtiness.
The women are strong counterparts to Solo and Kuryakin, whose comic rivalry pops up frequently, once during a very metrosexual argument about whether Gaby should wear designer items by Jean Patou or Paco Rabanne to disguise herself as a high-level Russian wife.
Cavill laughs at the suggestion that Solo and Kuryakin are the best of frenemies.
“Frenemies, yeah. I love all those phrases people are coming up with,” he says. “Working with Armie is great. He’s a lovely chap. He’s a gentleman. He’s so enormously tall. He’s this wonderful presence in the character of Illya. He plays fantastically with a flawless Russian accent, as far as I can tell. It sounds bloody good. He does Illya so well and it’s so polar opposite to my Napoleon that it just blends marvelously.”
Whle Cavill admits he probably ducked around corners as a kid while playing secret agent, he didn’t approach “U.N.C.L.E” with a favorite screen spy in mind.
And he didn’t watch the TV version to prepare for the movie.
“I tend not to watch previous versions of a production I’m doing just because it can skew your vision and I don’t want to end up subconsciously copying other people’s performances. I always want my character to be the creation of myself, my director and my fellow actors around me so we can build our own thing and be unique.”
Cavill credits Ritchie with establishing the film’s atmosphere of not taking itself too seriously, even though the director who revamped “Sherlock Holmes” for Robert Downey Jr. is quite serious about maintaining a smooth-running set.
“He creates this environment (that is) family, friendly, relaxed … professional, time-efficient, precise. It’s not like a manic ‘I must have it my way.’ It’s like, ‘This is my way, this is the way we’re going to do it. We’re making a movie, let’s have fun, let’s not overshoot, we’re definitely not going to undershoot. Let’s enjoy it. Let’s have a blast because life is too short not to enjoy it.’ ”
Speaking of enjoyment, Cavill liked the film’s attention to costuming and the immaculate tailoring of Solo’s wardrobe of suits. It’s the best visual feast, clothing-wise, since “Mad Men.”
“It was intense in the sense that it had to fit just right. There were lots of fittings, because if things didn’t fit right, then we had to get it tailored again,” he recalls. “But it was enjoyable. I like nice clothes. I was very particular about getting myself dressed every morning, rather than having someone come in and make sure everything was right. I wanted to tie my tie and I wanted it to be just so. I wanted to do my cuff links. It’s an important part of the character. And I like that part of the character.”
Those suits are in contrast to the T-shirts and jeans he was spotted in during off-hours from “Batman v. Superman” in metro Detroit. Would he wear them in real life?
“If I had a reason to wear a suit every day, if I was in a place where people wore three-piece suits just chilling out, you know, like, ‘Hey, we’re hanging out in Monaco. Let’s go down to the local café and look like legends wearing three-piece suits,’ then I absolutely would,” he says. “ But if I wore a three-piece suit out of the house in Ferndale, then I’d look like an idiot, so I didn’t.”
Cavill has fond memories of shooting “Batman v. Superman” in Detroit. During his months-long assignment here, he earned a reputation for being friendly and approachable when he was out and about.
“I really liked hanging out in the ’burbs of Detroit. It was good fun. There’s great beer there. There’s great food there. I made some lovely friends,” he says.
“It was a very long and difficult shoot, that one. And it was nice to have people outside who treated me normally, and respected my space. … People were very polite. They’d come up and ask (before taking a picture), and that makes a big difference. When people come up and ask, it’s like, ‘OK, yes, of course.’ Rather than, ‘Hey could you stop taking a photo of me across the room because there’s going to be one bad shot of me and that’s the one you’re going to put on the Internet? Don’t do that. Just treat me like a human being.’ ”
While promoting “U.N.C.L.E.,” Cavill is also fresh from appearing at Comic-Con and the release there of a new “Batman v. Superman” trailer.
While he admits he can be spoiler-averse in real life, he says the trailer doesn’t reveal anything that the studio doesn’t want out there. “I think the idea of this teaser trailer is, it’s here,” he says. “Here’s a snack. Stay interested. We’re going to give you more later, just so you don’t lose your appetite.”
The arrival of “U.N.C.L.E.” makes it clear that Clark Kent can be funny, too, an option Cavill sounds interested in for future roles.
“I think the comic tone (in ‘U.N.C.L.E.’) is the kind of thing I really like. This is the kind of comedy I like to do. If I start to go any further into true comedy as opposed to lightheartedness and there being funny moments in a movie, then it doesn’t really match my character,” he says. “If there’s something particularly good out there which I come across, then maybe I will do it.”
Cavill prefers to be funny in small doses and in context with the story. “As in not dedicated comedy, but just a movie that has all the aspects of life in it, whether it be laughs, crying, seriousness, fear, or excitement.”
And drop-dead tailoring, if need be.