“He is the uber-professional. He knows exactly what he is doing in every scene. He came and actually ripped off the table-cloth from the table in that one scene. I mean, who does that?” asks The Man from U.N.C.L.E star Elizabeth Debicki.
Superman... that's who.
Henry Cavill is best known for donning the red cape in the current cinematic Man of Steel series. He will be back in that role in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice next year, but first he takes on another well-known role, that of C.I.A operative Napoleon Solo, in Guy Richie's reboot of the classic 1960s series Man from U.N.C.L.E.
“I had not seen the series before,” Cavill tells us in his booming natural English accent. “The approach was follow Guy's direction and try and build the character into the most interesting one we could. We were told to go and meet him, and then just hung out with him in his place in L.A.”
The whole process of developing the film has been a protracted one. Different versions of the film have been in development over the last decade or so, with the likes of George Clooney and Tom Cruise at one time being attached.
“I actually screen-tested for Illya at Warner Brothers, but then Armie [Hammer] got that role, so I was out.” Cavill states in a matter of fact way.
“Then Tom Cruise moved onto a different movie. He was originally going to be Napoleon Solo, and Guy must have thought those two will work really well together... so let's have Henry be Napoleon.”
Not many actors would be able to step straight into the shoes vacated by Mr Cruise. Cavill (who reportedly lost out on the James Bond role to Daniel Craig), however, wasn't about to let this one pass him by.
“Napoleon is the son of an Irish janitor from the U.S, but he went to England and fell in love with English high-society. Instead of just being British, he wants to be that but remain as American as possible. He wants to be different,” says Cavill, who plays his character with a traditionally English straight bat in the action comedy.
“It's about storytelling. Look, you can choose to find a message in it or not. That's up to the audience. I can find a message in this coffee cup if I want. I think my parents didn't watch the series, but of course they are very proud still of all the roles [including Superman].”
One of the key things in the series and the film is the relationship between Napoleon and his Russian counterpart Illya. Does Henry think a bromance could ever develop between the two?
“I don't think they will ever really be friends. They are so different. There is a partnership... it's like two boxers who hate each other because they are always fighting. There is a respect there, but they will never go out for a beer together. When Napoleon saves Illya it's more because he thinks ‘it won't be cool for me to let him die... so I guess I should do something.’”
The films setting of the 1960s is one that Henry has admired from afar. “The European view of the time is slightly different to the ‘Free Love’ idea. What was great was despite the overwhelming threat of nuclear apocalypse, everyone decided to have fun instead. It wasn't dull or depressing, so it was a special decade.”
Henry also has a number of highlights of working with a filmmaker like Guy Richie.
“It's the environment and collaboration. We were having a lot of input and as an actor that makes you feel good because you know you are all on the same page. He has control and is the boss, but is always open to ideas.”
With Cavill contracted to another big Warner Bros. franchise, how much scope was there for him to do his own stunts?
“We did a bunch of them actually, well as much as insurance would allow us. If I break my wrist because I really want to do a jump in the rock crawler, then production stops for two months. That leaves a bunch of guys unable to pay their mortgages because I decide I want to be more macho than sensible. When they say you don't need to do this, you don't.”
So what of the table cloth ‘stunt’ that so wowed his co-star? “Most actors would be ‘let's do that in post...’ but Henry just came and did it.” Debicki says. “He did it about eight times, and I think a glass might have wobbled once... but that's it.”
Henry is quick to explain how he did the trick. “I just learnt magic for this film. I am the next Harry Potter...”
Playing a Russian hero, opposite the Man of Steel, seems like an impossible task. Then factor in that Armie Hammer, taking on the iconic role of Illya Kuryakin in the big screen remake of The Man from U.N.C.L.E, is meant to be the physical superior of Henry Cavill.
At 6'5", Armie is hardly likely to be intimidated. Standing side by side with Henry, The Social Network star looks formidable.
SO, DID YOU HAVE TO DO ANY EXTRA PHYSICAL TRAINING TO PLAY THE ROLE?
No. It's the '60s and people weren't working out like we do now. They weren't worried about a six pack or how big the ‘pecs’ or the ‘deIts’ are. If you were fit back then it meant you could do a couple of pull-ups and jog for a bit without dying. There wasn't any pressure to get in ripped shape. It was more us wanting to be ready for the months and months of filming. I knew Guy would also do things with the camera to make me look tougher and stronger than I am.
WHAT WERE THE CHALLENGES IN WORKING ON A RUSSIAN CHARACTER FOR YOU AS AN AMERICAN?
The process of developing Illya was actually a lot of fun. It involved a lot of history for me, being and American and living in America, from the '60s onto the late '80s, any Russian represented on screen was always the villain. Similar to a stereotypical “Boris” or “Natasha”, saying “l am evil hahaha [in an over the top Russian accent]”. Most of the time, it wasn't even a Russian playing them! Dolph Lungdren did it and so did Arnold Schwarzenegger one time.
What I got to do was as a Soviet agent, I had to look at him [points to a smiling Henry Cavill] as an alien. As the most foreign thing ever. He doesn't care about his country. He thinks about himself. He lies. He is sneaky. All the things I was taught as an American and then look at it from the other perspective. It was a lot of fun and gave me a new take on Geo-politics.
HOW RELEVANT IS A FILM ABOUT THE COLD WAR NOW, GIVEN THE CHANGES IN RECENT YEARS?
The global threat hasn't gone away. It hasn't changed. It hasn't stopped since Gary Powers. It's not The Cold War and it's certainly not the nuclear holocaust that we're worried about, but it is the hot word of "terrorism". It's people. And they're always going to fight with people who think differently to the way they do because they always think they are right. It's always something.
DOES A FILM LIKE THIS THEN, SHOW THE POSITIVE SIDE OF COLLABORATION AND POSITIVE SIDE OF INTERNATIONAL COLLABORATION?
It certainly shows two different sides. We may think the other is completely insane, but maybe not that wrong...The characters are bordering on a mutual respect. It's getting there. Thinking back to the era, it was a heck of a time. It was the beginning of the change in race relations in the US. A huge time in personal growth. A time for questioning authority. The flip-side is that you are coming out of the Korean War. The Cuban Missile Crisis. It also seemed like a tough time. Now we know what we know through Twitter, or blogs... but back then, you knew about global conflicts because they were right there.
You had nuclear drills at school... it was a scary time but also a fun time. A bunch of people worrying about Cuba and on the other side a bunch of people taking LSD and listening to Jimi Hendrix.
SO WHAT WERE THE FUN PARTS OF MAKING THE MOVIE?
Working on a Guy Richie film. It was a great cast and we were given a lot of creative freedom and a lot of responsibility with the character. I don't think my parents ever watched it. They got their excitement out of the way [when I played Lone Ranger], now it's blasé, “Oh you're in another thing?”
Armie and Henry recently attended Guy Richie's wedding. We're not sure what Hammer bought his director, bit his co-star Alicia Vikander did reveal that the actor taught Guy the banjo off-screen.
Now part of Richie's inner circle, which includes the likes of David Beckham, Robert Downey Jr. and Henry Cavill, it looks like it might finally be Hammer time.