The superhero began life a chubby little boy.
As a child in England, Henry Cavill was known as "Fat Cavill." "It's definitely a shitty nickname," Cavill says, seated in a Chicago sidewalk cafe. "But kids are kids. Kids are cruel. Whatever. I was fat."
It's hard to admit, but sometimes even cruel kids have a point. In time, Cavill, the lead actor in the current toga-abs epic Immortals and the forthcoming Superman reboot Man of Steel, became as tough on himself as his classmates had been on him. He accepted the harsh reality of his situation — he was "round," as he puts it, and needed to make a change. The rugby, field hockey, and cricket of his boarding-school days weren't enough.
He grew up and out of his pudgy body and then kept going. He became a model and an actor, running for four seasons as fun-loving bad boy Charles Brandon on Showtime's Henry VIII drama The Tudors, a role that required nude sex scenes. (Tough job!) But even that experience wasn't enough to give him confidence in his body. He still thought of himself as overweight until just a few years ago, when he trained for Immortals, the 300-style action flick due out this month. Cavill spent countless hours hoisting weights alongside the throngs of ripped warriors in the cast.
"There was a sense of team and camaraderie," he says. "We all sweated together, we all bled together, we all ate the same highly inefficient food and just kept on going and supported each other." When he felt weak, the group kept him going. "Because they were doing it — and if they could do it, so could I. It's not the end of the world that your feet hurt. Push yourself."
Playing Theseus, a Greek warrior chosen by the gods to save the homeland, Cavill was greased up, ripped, and 25 pounds lighter than he is now. He could have asked director Tarsem Singh to apply the film's extensive CGI to assist him with that eight-pack, but he opted instead to embrace a grueling training regimen designed to create a lean, carved physique. As a result, Theseus's abs are all real, with no digital enhancement. "It's very stressful," Cavill says, "waking up Monday morning and saying, 'Can I still see that vein in my abs?' "
Sometimes a little obsession is what it takes to excel. And the first step is rejecting the status quo. Henry Cavill's story is about nothing if not perseverance — the kind of intestinal fortitude that spurred him to chase an ultra-ripped body and steadied him when multiple celebrated roles slipped through his fingers.
Technically, Man of Steel isn't Cavill's first time wearing Superman's cape. About 7 years ago he was cast as Clark Kent (and alter ego) in the last update of the franchise, Superman Returns. But when the original director, McG, abruptly quit, Cavill was gone with him. As it turned out, that flaccid sequel to the Christopher Reeve series proved to be kryptonite for the career of its replacement star, Brandon Routh.
Now that Cavill has the S shield firmly emblazoned on his chest and the movie is due out in 2013, it all seems meant to be. Then again, maybe not. "That really bugs me," he bristles, mocking the phrase "meant to be." The 28-year-old lifts his coffee cup and places it firmly back down an inch away. "This was meant to end up there because I put it down."
Cavill prefers to believe in action and reaction, cause and effect. He rattles off any number of reasons why roles don't pan out, theorizing about his lack of performance, bad timing, even just a run-of-the-mill bad day for one or the other of the parties involved. "Who knows? But I don't think it's anything like 'It wasn't meant to happen.' "
His other high-profile letdown: losing the role of James Bond to Daniel Craig just a year after losing Superman Returns. "I obviously wasn't right for Bond," Cavill admits now, secure that he gave it his all. "I did, and I wasn't right. That's all." He also realizes that with The Tudors and memorable supporting turns in Tristan & Isolde, Stardust, and Woody Allen's Whatever Works now under his belt, he has more name recognition than he once did. That helped him land Man of Steel, and who knows what else is down the road?
"He's definitely more Superman now than he was 7 years ago, I think," says Man of Steel director Zack Snyder. "He has been the rock that we can build this movie around." That rock didn't spend the past few years sitting around. "I want to be chosen, not wish I was part of something," Cavill says. "I didn't pine over the fact that I didn't get the last one. It was 'move on, carry on,' whatever!"
Cavill's perspective feels distinctly British, with its echoes of the old World War II poster "Keep Calm and Carry On." In fact, Cavill attributes his strength of character to his childhood as the second-youngest of four boys in Jersey, a British island off the coast of Normandy, France. "I think my parents brought me up that way — very much, 'Okay, well, there's no point in worrying about that now because that's gone. Take every learning experience you can and apply it to yourself and grow from it. You didn't get it. Tough. Now move on. Get the next one.' "
And the next one doesn't just happen on its own. "Putting in the hard work and losing is the tough bit," Cavill says. "That is what makes you special. That's what makes you a man: giving your all, losing, getting back up, and giving it your all again. Because otherwise it would be easy."