Before he gained top-billing recognition in Hollywood, Henry Cavill’s career was certainly eclectic, going from parts in a straight-to-video Hellraiser installment and Matthew Vaughan’s 2007 fairy tale Stardust to Woody Allen’s 2009 rom-com Whatever Works (the one where Larry David plays Woody Allen). The 32-year-old also smoldered in Showtime’s saucy period drama The Tudors, before making his real push for movie stardom with the lead The Immortals, a Greek mythology CGI slugfest that failed to ignite at the box office.
Then came Man of Steel, which made $668 million worldwide and placed Cavill’s Superman at the center of DC Comics movie universe — which will begin unspooling with 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and continue with the Justice League two-parter due in 2017 and 2019.
But Cavill wants to convince multiplex audiences he can do more than leap tall buildings in a single bound. So now he’s playing Napoleon Solo, half of the heroic duo (alongslide Armie Hammer) in Guy Ritchie’s big screen remake of ‘60s TV spy drama The Man From U.N.C.L.E. He sat down to talk to Playboy.com about acting opposite apple boxes, internet trolls and what might come next (hint: marriage).
Is varying the kinds of projects you do — when you’re not playing Superman, the linchpin of Warner Bros’ Justice League universe — part of a master plan?
It’s very intentional. As I think you may see from this movie, you’ll see a kind of me that hasn’t been seen on screen before. Maybe it’s touched on in The Tudors a little bit, maybe in the first season. Guy really brings out the best in every actor.
But I definitely chose this role to be contrary to Superman. Because when you have a movie of that size come out it’s human inclination to pigeonhole someone, to categorize and say “I now know what that person is.” You have to fight against that as an actor.
I don’t want to be crazy and all of a sudden play a meth-head. But I do want to show the audience that, if I choose, I have range. The first time people saw me on a global scale was Man of Steel and that’s not necessarily what I do. I’m a period guy to be honest.
Which is why Superman was so great. It was such non-obvious casting.
But only people who knew my career beforehand would think that. Most people still think I’m American.
Is it a matter then of proving that just to audiences or to filmmakers and decision makers as well?
No, I think filmmakers get it. They can see performances because playing a character like Superman is really hard. It takes certain subtleties I don’t think most people pick up on and filmmakers will spot that, especially if they’re scrutinizing an actor because they have an idea in mind for a film.
They ask, “Would this guy be good for it? Let’s watch Man of Steel.” And they’ll really watch me and see me do the subtle things. Your average audience member won’t and that’s the whole point: They shouldn’t. They shouldn’t see those things, they should just feel them — and I should feel like this invulnerable, stoic being to them.
It’s like me talking to a lawyer in court after I’ve watched movies about lawyers. I think he did a good job in that courtroom but I have no idea, really. A lawyer may watch that other lawyer prosecute someone and go “Holy shit, that was amazing” and as much as I may agree with that person, I won’t have any idea of the level of how amazing that lawyer was. It’s because that lawyer lives what a lawyer does so they can recognize the subtleties.
What do you make of all the chatter awhile back of all the British actors playing iconic American superheroes?
It’s bemusing but people don’t think about that. It’s funny when you read the bitchy comment, then the bullshit facts, then the bullshit fact continues, then another bitchy comment. Then someone goes “Wait a second” and writes a small paragraph of sense and no one acknowledges it. The logical, sensible thing which is filled with fact is completely brushed over.
How is heroism different to Napoleon Solo versus Clark Kent?
I brought my all to Napoleon Solo, as I did to Superman, but Napoleon Solo is very different human being. Well, Superman’s not a human being. He’s a very different character. He’s, he’s a good guy as Superman is but he’s so very different. He thinks of himself first as opposed to everyone else.
Napoleon knows exactly who he is and he enjoys making other people learn who he is. But Superman is all about finding who he is; he’s got no reference apart from these mortals surrounding him. Where Napoleon just loves being him. His clock is ticking, he’ll die eventually, he’ll get old and he’s really enjoying being in his prime and, and as much as he’s stuck in this whole CIA malarkey, he’s living the dolce vita.
Coming up in television, how have you gotten accustomed to working in front of green screens? It’s gotta throw you, at first…
You do have to learn a different way with effects and green screen. You have to relearn how to live within your mind’s eye. Because let’s say we’re sitting in a room and you’re sitting on a green apple box and I’m sitting on a bunch of green pillows and they say ‘okay lounge back like you’re sitting on a sofa’.
In our mind’s eye we have to see this room and if we don’t see this room and if the room doesn’t match for each other it’s going to look disjointed and it will jar when it’s all put together in post. Green screen I can do, and sets are easier to work with because you don’t have to do that little extra thing but I wouldn’t say I’m more comfortable necessarily. The whole first season of Tudors, for example, was half green screen, half sets.
Sometimes you’re more comfortable with green screen because if you have a good digital effects guy, he tells you what the thing is, you do your performance and he reads off your performance how to build the thing.
That’s really fascinating to hear, that it’s a two-way street.
Exactly. And that’s the most important thing I believe about telling stories in the media of film, everyone has to feed off each other. It’s not about one person saying “This is my way.” It’s about everyone working together because we’re all cogs in a machine, we must move with each other. And if one cog suddenly decides to go the other way or move out then everything is fucked. They just spin by themselves and everyone tries to keep on turning independently.
That’s what makes a great movie. It’s a Guy Ritchie movie, which is why it’s so good – because he has the ability to take information from everyone else and turn it into something great while providing information himself.
Any stunts that went a little bit awry?
There have been no real dangerous moments because everything is so controlled. There’s lots of money involved here and last thing you want is a bloody actor dying on your set.
I mean there have been some moments where you’re uncomfortable, sure. I don’t know if I’ve told this story with Armie, but [in one scene] he’s trapped underwater and I swim down and grab him. I think it’s about 25 feet deep. So my swim is I’m going to say 30-plus feet to get to him, and when I get to him, fully clothed, I need to go 20 feet up to the surface, carrying him.
He’s got a weight on his toe, which he hilariously didn’t actually let go of the first time. And the safety diver’s in the pool so if you inhale the water, ultimately they’re going to drag you out and bring you back to life. It’s not a great feeling...
You’re 32. Have you reached a place in your life and career where you can look at what you’ve achieved so far and take stock of ambitions yet to be realized?
I couldn’t be happier right now where I am. Things are fantastic. I’ve got so much opportunity. I feel very, very fortunate. Life’s good and I can’t complain. I mean next stage is finding a wife and getting kids but – not getting them, having kids, hopefully. Might buy them!
That’s my headline right there. “Cavill Buys Babies.”
[Pretending he’s looking in a shop window] “Two of those ones, different colors.” That’s the next stage but I’m happy, I’m super content. But I haven’t found the right girl yet. Still looking. But, you know, it’s tough for anyone to be in a relationship with someone like me. It’s a tough lifestyle. If I want someone who’s a professional they’ve got their own shit going on.
So unless I meet someone who’s very, very young who hasn’t yet started trying a career like that, you can then go, “Okay, I’m going to travel with you and do some stuff, maybe I’ll write or whatever; I’ll entertain myself or build my own kind of travelling career.” I’m looking for someone who’s my own age and will have a career. If they haven’t then maybe I should be worried. It’s easier said than done.
The Immortals and Man of Steel were much more about you front and center. Is there a bit less pressure in Man From U.N.C.L.E. because it’s more of an ensemble piece, with Armie Hammer and Alicia Vikander?
I don’t feel pressured. I ignore it. I’m aware of it but if you start focusing on pressure then you’re going to screw yourself up. It’s like saying “What if I fail, what if I fail, what if I fail?” Then you will fuck it up.
If you’re in a more ensemble cast, I suppose you feel more comfortable, it’s more of an enjoyable thing, everyone’s doing the thing together. It’s not like “Hey man, you’re the guy.” It’s “Let’s do this together, let’s make a great story.”