The first time he met Russell Crowe, Henry Cavill was 16, shivering and in shorts. A pupil of Stowe School in Buckinghamshire, he was one of several students who had been asked to be extras, playing rugby in the background while Crowe said goodbye to his on-screen son. The film was Proof Of Life, and Crowe was playing a kidnap-and-ransom expert who was off to save the life of Meg Ryan’s husband (spoiler: he succeeded).
Gladiator had just been released, and the students were understandably excited.
Look, it’s Maximus Decimus Meridius!
Between takes, the boys stood and chatted, huddled in a semicircle as the drizzle flecked down, furtively glancing over at Crowe, who filled the spare moments by booting a rugby ball as hard as he could.
“And I thought,” says Cavill, a native Channel Islander who grew up on Jersey but was hoarding at Stowe, “we kind of look ridiculous, standing there, looking over at this famous actor. And I want to be an actor. So I thought I may as well go over and ask this guy about it.”
So he did. While his friends stood and gawped, Cavill, no-nonsense, marched over, held out his hand and said, “Hi, my name’s Henry. I want to be an actor. What’s it like?”
And so Crowe told him — about the good bits, the not-so-good bits — and said: “But if you want to go for it, then really go for it. Commit.”
At which point all the other kids, sensing it was open season on Maximus, began to mob him, asking for autographs, thrusting whatever they had to hand at him to be signed. Cavill, sensing he was responsible for this teenage flash-mob, swiftly turned bodyguard, waving Crowe through the scrum, and shouting: “Quick, run!”
“Because I thought,” says Cavill, “the last thing you want is to he asked for autographs.”
Two days later, Cavill received a package in the post. It contained some Jersey sweets (Cavill mentioned where he’d grown up), a jar of Vegemite, a CD of Crowe’s band (30 Odd Foot Of Grunts; since disbanded), and a picture of Crowe in Gladiator, with a signed message. It said: “Dear Henry, a journey of 1,000 miles begins in a single step. Russell.”
“And I hadn’t asked for a thing — all this really cool stuff for not asking.”
He never opened the sweets, nor ate the Vegemite, nor removed the picture from the box. Instead, Cavill kept the box intact, and gave it pride of place in his childhood bedroom, a little bit of inspiration. A little bit of luck.
Eleven years, a TV series (The Tudors), a Greek epic (Immortals), a remarkable number of missed opportunities (more on which to come) and one big break later, Cavill would find himself in Gym Jones, an LA gym for the more Serious work-out.
He was several months into a gruelling training regime for the role of a lifetime — the lead in Superman reboot Man Of Steel, becoming the first Brit to play the role — when who should walk in but Russell Crowe, who had recently been cast in the film as Cavill's onscreen father, Jor-El, a role previously played by Marlon Brando.
He was there, it turned out, for the start of his own pre-shoot fitness regime. And they were, Cavill soon learned, to share the same trainer.
But Cavill didn’t gab a word of the only thing that was on his mind — that day eleven years before. They were introduced, shook hands, and that was that. No meek, “Hey, do you remember...”; no chummy, “Hey Russ, here’s a funny thing”; no tentative, “Say, you know Proof of Life...”. Nothing.
Because autographs are the last thing you want to ask for.
Because he got all that cool stuff — all that luck, that fortune — for not asking.
So, for months and months, they trained side by side. And for months and months, Henry Cavill barely said a word.
Depending on your point of view, Cavill — 29 years old, the second youngest of five brothers, still probably best known as the guy who got naked a lot in The Tudors — is either the luckiest man in Hollywood, or the unluckiest. Because it is true that he met the man who would play his on screen father when he was 16. True that Crowe was, and remains, his favourite actor, and true that Gladiator was, and still is, his favourite film. And certainly true that, having now landed the role of Superman, in a $225m behemoth of a summer blockbuster with a supporting cast that includes Michael Shannon (as villain Zod) and Amy Adams (as Lois Lane), Cavill is set for the kind of superstardom that only comes with a dose of good fortune. It’s also true that there’s barely an iconic star-making role of the last decade that Cavill has not come within a hair’s breadth of getting and then missed out on.
Take your pick from narrowly losing out to Robert Pattinson for his role in Harry Potter; to Christian Bale for Batman; to Pattinson (again) for the lead in the Twilight series (Twilight author Stephenie Meyer called Cavill “the perfect Edward”); to Daniel Craig for James Bond; and perhaps most remarkably, to Brandon Routh for Superman, otherwise known as the Superman before this one, the ill-fated 2006 Bryan Singer version Superman Returns.
At least, that’s the narrative. And it’s one that led him to being dubbed “the unluckiest man in Hollywood”. The truth is a bit more complicated. Yes, he says, sitting in a sleek LA bar in Manhattan Beach, one hard stone’s throw from the shore, the locals hunched over low marble tables, he did audition for Harry Potter. Twice, in fact, “but I have no idea how close I was. It didn’t go any further.”
But no, he wasn’t in the running for Twilight (“I never got to see a script; they never called me”), or Batman (“I’ll have to ask Chris [Nolan] about that. I read that and thought, really? I must have been really drunk. No, I never auditioned”).
It gets more complicated, however, in the cases of Superman and Bond.
Technically, Cavill didn’t miss out on Superman — in fact, he was cast in a version that was set to be directed by McG, reportedly titled Superman: Flyby.
“lt was a long process. I remember having a final screen test, meeting with McG, seeing the artwork, hearing the concept and storylines... and then just not hearing anything. And then things progressing a bit... and then not hearing anything. And then the bottom fell out.”
Which is to say, the financing. McG was replaced with Singer, and his choice of Superman was Brandon Routh.
In this, you could certainly say that Cavill was unlucky. Or maybe not, seeing as that version tanked. Does he now feel it was actually good luck not to get it?
Let’s just say that what’s great is that I got on this film, because this is perfect for me.” He smiles. “So read into that what you will.”
Perhaps most remarkable is how close Cavill did come to landing Bond, and at the tender age of 22.
“Now that,” he says, “was definitely something I was up for.”
He had auditions in the US and the UK, and a screen test that consisted of two scenes from Sean Connery Bond films (“I can’t remember which now”), and one from Casino Royale. It was between him and Craig.
“And I waited to hear, and sadly it was a no. I mean, it was crazy, considering my age.”
So was it bad luck not to get it, or good luck to get so far?
“That’s the way I look at it. People say, ‘You must be so depressed that you didn’t get Bond’ — well, no, because I got as far as the screen test for Bond. There’s a lot of other people out there who are for less fortunate than me, who don’t even get through the door with their agent.”
He adds: “At the same time, I wouldn’t have done the role as much justice as I could now.”
So he could he see himself playing Bond in the future?
“If I’m in the running again, [if] people don’t just see me as Superman, and they could see me as Bond, then yeah, I’d love to do it.” He pauses, “I never thought of myself as unlucky. When you aim high, it’s tough to get there unless something really fortunate happens.”
Cavill was certainly aiming high, which meant he really am need something fortunate to happen.
For years, it meant being out of work. He got his big break at 17, in The Count Of Monte Cristo. But between that and landing The Tudors five years later, it was bit parts all the way.
Effectively, he was betting the hank each time — career roulette. If he could just land a big one... but they were all long shots.
“I want to be one of those names that producers want to hire because you put bums on seats,” he says, simply. And refreshingly, he says that, yes, money does matter.
“Yeah! What, are you crazy? God, all those people who say, ‘Oh no, the money doesn’t matter.’ Yeah, right. They’re either mad, or they’re lying. I mean, come on. ‘Oh no, don’t pay me anything, it’s for the arts.’ I'm sorry, no. Pay me the money. I’m not doing it for charity. I’m not a nonprofit organisation. Plus it’s expensive flying back and forward to LA. You need a job that pays money.”
If the depth of that sounds like arrogance, it shouldn’t be taken as such. Rather, there’s an earnestness that borders on innocence about Cavill, a straight-down-the-line quality that speaks both to his upper-middle-class boarding school background, and growing up in a house in which two of his older brothers enrolled in the armed forces (Piers, his eldest brother, has since quit the army; Nick, the second eldest, is in the Royal Marines and has served three tours of Afghanistan and one of Iraq).
The forces were a very real possibility for Cavill, too, when he came close to quitting acting altogether. “As much as I was getting screen tests for Superman and Bond, it was around that period that I was closest to quitting,” he says.
“Getting close but not getting paid. It really got to the point where I thought, I’ve been doing this a number of years, and I haven’t really got anywhere. Is it really worth the effort? I came very close.”
He was dividing his time between London and his parents’ house in Jersey, working in a bar when in London and a nightclub — Liquid — when in Jersey, in order to pay for flights to attend auditions in LA. When he was up for the first Superman film, he remembers that every night at Liquid, “when they opened the dance floor section, the DJ always played the Superman music”.
And when it fell through?
“Yeah. He stopped playing it after that.”
He looked at finishing his A-levels; then, it was a toss-up between the Navy Fleet Air Arm and the Royal Marines.
Why the armed forces?
“There’s an honesty to the job,” he says, without missing a beat. “It’s something my heart and soul sing to do. Getting stuck in and the camaraderie between soldiers... there’s just something about it that feels natural to me. You know, whenever I see those ‘Be The Best’ Army adverts, a part of me goes, ‘I wish...’”
Speaking to Cavill, I don’t have a shred of doubt this is the truth. You can practically picture him catching a glance of an army advert while on set, and a runner having to be dispatched to wrestle a mobile phone from him — “Just let me sign up, damn it, my country needs me!” — so he doesn’t join before they can film the final scene.
Which is why it also doesn’t sound like the usual hot air when the director of Man Of Steel, Zack Snyder, later tells me his reasons for casting Cavill as Superman.
“He is very earnest,” says Snyder. “He does — and this is going to sound cheesy — have a lot of the qualities that you would hope for in Superman. And they’re not put on. That’s the thing that surprised me. I want my Superman not to be faking it. It’s an easy thing to say but, in truth, that’s not a thing you get, normally. You normally get an actor who is faking it, and it can come across as cheesy and not sincere. Earnestness is the hardest thing to art if it’s not who you are.”
In fact, for all his muscles, his square jaw, his perfect smile and his poster-perfect good looks, Cavill is little like the stereotypical hard living leading man. He is, if truth be told, quite the nerd.
He likes nothing better, he says, than to throw a group email out to his brothers, and spend an evening in playing computer games online with them.
“But l haven’t played them in a while,” he says glumly. “They’ve been busy. So I’ve been playing a lot of the single player games, like Skyrim. Goodness me, that’s a great game.”
It stems, he says, from his dad getting all his brothers into computers when they were young. He remembers they had five PCs lined up next to each other on the dining room table, “and we’d all play network games together, which, as you can imagine, my mother was overjoyed about”.
When Snyder called to offer him the role of Superman he says, he was in the middle of a session of online fantasy role-play game World Of Warcraft.
“And I saw it was him [calling], but the thing is, you can’t save World Of Warcraft, you can’t pause it. It’s live.”
He missed the call. Missed it because he was too engrossed in a game where orcs, dwarves and trolls do battle. He had to call Snyder back to discover he’d got the part.
When I relay this story later to Snyder, he cracks up. “Haha, that’s awesome! So, he was like, ‘Who the f*** is this bothering me? I’m playing World of Warcraft!’ That’s great. Oh, he’s a nerd. That’s why we get on so well.”
When Cavill did the screen test for Man Of Steel, they didn’t have a costume to put him in, because they hadn’t designed one yet. So they rooted through the Warner Bros archives, and pulled out Christopher Reeves old outfit — the very one-piece he’d burst out of phone boxes in before saving Margot Kidder — and asked Cavill to wear that. As Snyder puts it: “It’s literally made of spandex. It looks like a Halloween costume. It’s really not impressive.”
It was, in fairness, everything their version was trying to escape. For starters, theirs would be much closer to Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, in terms of imagining someone of Superman’s powers existing in the real world, and the problems he’d face. Clark Kent would be cooler (Cavill: “If you saw Christopher Reeve’s Kent walking around in the real world, you’d be like, what’s wrong with that guy? Go to bed!”), they’d have a different theme tune (Snyder: “We treated it like the other versions didn’t exist”), and no more red pants on the outside.
Even if the plot is a closely guarded secret, the touchstones would he there — General Zod, from Superman’s home planet Krypton, would be the villain, as in Eighties Superman II; Lois Lane, Perry White, Ma and Pa Kent all present — but there was no room for comic-book spandex. The suit, as in the latest “re-imagined” comics, would actually be armour.
It would, also, open up the possibility of a Money-spinning Justice League film featuring both Superman and Batman, in the style of Avengers Assemble (it’s no surprise that Nolan had a hand in Man Of Steel’s story).
Still, talk to Snyder about the spandex screen test (“He walked out in that outfit, on a film set that had all these big burly grips there, these tough guys, and no one laughed. That was the test really. Everyone was just like, ‘That’s awesome’”) or Man Of Steel producer Charles Roven (“It was just... wow”) and it’s clear it was no contest. Job done. To use Snyder’s phrase, “he crushed it”. They didn’t test anyone else.
Talk to Cavill, however, and it’s an entirely different story. “It was totally embarrassing,” he says, looking genuinely mortified. “I wasn’t in training. I wasn’t feeling fit or looking good, and you put on a Lycra suit and it does not help it. I just thought, OK, I’m not getting this job. I’m fat Superman. It'll be some really in-shape dude that when they step out they look amazing.”
Encountering Cavill in the flesh, the above statement could not be more absurd. The man has arms like parking bollards. And this is Cavill post-filming. This is Cavill having let himself go.
Roven guffaws when l tell him Cavill felt fat in the screen test. “You know, it’s so hilarious,” he says. “I don’t know if you saw Immortals? [the film Cavill shot before Man Of Steel, in which he played a ludicrously huff Greek hero]. I mean, a lot of people would die for that body, right? So this gives you an idea of the compulsive dedication of Henry Cavill. With that body he was going, ‘Meh, it’s OK, but...’”
At one point, Cavill tells me, he got so big, he split his Clark Kent suit. And not an old suit, either. One he’d had fitted halfway through shooting, when he was already huge. And not just the jacket — the legs too.
“The seams,” he says, laughing, “were ripping in the trousers.”
It got to the point none of his clothes even remotely fitted him. The only things he could wear was some oversized gym gear, and the Superman suit. “I basically didn’t go out.”
He would, he says, look in the mirror and ask himself one question: “ls it enough?”
“I don’t know! If I looked back now I would say to myself, ‘But you were huge! What are you talking about?’ But yes, every day, I would look in the mirror and say, ‘ls it enough?’”
He was, he says, overweight in his youth. As a result — though it’s hard to believe who’d try — he was bullied often.
“Yes, I was bullied. But I’m not going to sit here and say, ‘Woe is me.’ It’s never easy when you’re homesick. And I wasn’t part of a big group. Kids are kids. Kids are mean.”
He remembers when he left for boarding school, aged 13, after being “itching to leave Jersey — it felt very small,” he ended up calling his mum three times a day, for two years solid, “bawling my eyes out”, until one day his mum told him to stop calling. Which, true to his straightforward, literal nature, he did. He simply stopped. Completely.
“And it helped! But then she realized that was the last time I was going to call. I never did call again.”
Still, he says, it didn’t stop the bullying.
“I was overweight when I went to school. In fact, I was overweight when I left, just taller. Fatty Cavill was the nickname. I mean, no one wants to be Fatty Cavill.”
And it stuck with him.
“Yeah it stuck with me for awhile, actually I was always conscious of my weight afterwards. I’ve had girlfriends in the past who have said, ‘No, really, your weight’s fine, you look great’, but I just didn’t believe them.”
The turning point, he says, came when he was up for the Monte Cristo role. His mother was with him, “and they took her aside to tell her that I really needed to lose weight in order to get the part. And she had to tell me. I was like, ‘If I’m overweight, why can’t they tell me them selves!’ I was really pissed off. But I managed to lose a stone and a half in a very short time.”
Back in Gym Jones, back in LA, back before filming for Man Of Steel had begun, something had been bugging Russell Crowe about the guy he’d been training with. They’d been working out together for some time, but not talking an awful lot. And some thing was really needling him. He recognized him from somewhere. But where?
“A couple of times I [asked] the trainer, Mark Twight, who’d been training him for months, how I might know him, but he just nodded sagely in his enigmatic way,” says Crowe.
Then he asked his agent, “who suggested that perhaps I’d dined in an LA restaurant that Henry had worked at, but I didn't know the restaurant.”
“Eventually,” Crowe tells me, “we struck up a conversation. He asked if I remembered visiting Stowe school eleven years before. I said I did. He asked me if I remembered that conversation after the football game. I only had a vague recollection, and then Henry said, ‘I asked you what it was like being an actor.’”
“What did I say?” replied Crowe.
“You said the pay was pretty good, but they treat you like shit,” said Cavill.
Crowe laughed out loud. “Yup, that’s what I said all right. Hello Henry.”
“And we talked about it for half an hour or so,” says Cavill to me now, the journey of 1,000 miles now behind him, that box Crowe had given him eleven years before now safe in storage, the picture a hit faded, the Vegemite a bit off, but still there. “We talked about how it’s hilarious and great and wonderful; how he’s playing that part, and this being the biggest moment of my career. And he’s here.”
“It’s one of those moments where you think to yourself — just what are the chances?”