‘Man of Steel’ star Henry Cavill: ‘I do a job, I play a role, I don’t wear a cape at home’
ELVIS MITCHELL: The idea of family comes up in a lot of the work you've done, whether in The Cold Light of Day or in The Tudors or even in The Count of Monte Cristo . Is that something you're conscious of?
HENRY CAVILL: Well, up until now, I haven't really had the choice of scripts, so a lot of these things that I've done just happened to be about family — I actually hadn't really noticed it until you brought it up. But I suppose that when I'm building a character, it's usually related to what their family is like and who their parents are, as well as how I grew up — that nurture side.
MITCHELL: The nurture aspect of things is very important to this interpretation of Superman in Man of Steel. In mean, this is probably the most outcast version of Superman that I've ever seen...
CAVILL: In this film, the world is not just accepting the fact that this being exists, so, as an actor, the question of how that made him feel was very important. How the character felt about the world around him, knowing that he was different from a very young age, was interesting to me, because people aren't necessarily very good to him in this film. There are some good people in his journey, but generally, it's people just taking advantage of the fact that he's a head-down, quiet kind of chap, even though he's quite big.
MITCHELL: Was playing Clark Kent an instinctive thing for you?
CAVILL: Well, with Clark Kent — Kal-El...
MITCHELL: Sorry — I used his Earth name. Please forgive me.
CAVILL: You're forgiven. [both laugh] But Clark is not a human being, so everything he does actually has to be very considered. If you have superpowers and no one can actually cause you any physical harm, then everything has to be very thought-through. You almost have to fake at being human. Clark has gone through his entire life doing that, and he has always had to be mindful of it. For example, because of his strength, he can't just give his mom a big hug, because if he really hugs her hard, then she'll explode, so he has to find ways of conveying love without doing harm. A light bulb popping doesn't scare him. He can see in the dark, so when the lights go out, nothing changes for him. So you had to quite heavily plot and plan stuff because he doesn't react to a lot of things the way most people do because of his powers.
MITCHELL: So, in effect, what you're saying is that Clark is in a constant state of awareness of his powers.
CAVILL: Yeah. I think it's similar to how you see children running around and just exploding with emotion, but as adults, we learn how to feel an emotion but not necessarily let it all out. It's a similar kind of awareness, except that he is always forced to make sure his emotions don't take over. He can never really cry in a heaving, sobbing, emotional way, or beat his fists against the wall in anger, or laugh uncontrollably, or have passionate sex, or hold someone so tight you feel like you could squeeze them to death — because he will. So in many ways, it's about how he learns to deal with the potential of his powers and keep them in check, but also how he winds up feeling entirely unfulfilled because of that. He is alone in so many ways. Yes, he's got terrific parents, but he's still so different from them, and growing up, it's our family and friends that help us form our identity. But what makes Clark special is that although he's always been very alone and never been able to truly express himself emotionally, he is still very loving and caring and makes very unselfish decisions — which is what makes him so remarkable as a character, because it would have been so easy for him to have gone the other way.
MITCHELL: There is a comic called Irredeemable about a Superman-like figure who can hear everything, so he hears the way that people talk about him and goes on a rampage...
CAVILL: But Clark has had parents who've said to him, "Yeah, what you can do is weird and different — we don't know what it is. But it doesn't change the fact that there are the right things to do and the wrong things to do, and there is good and there is bad." So although he might want to react to something, he still knows that going on a killing spree is the wrong thing to do. Whether that's inherent in him or has been drilled into him by his the Kents is the question.
MITCHELL: Until this iteration, though, the Superman mythos has defined him as almost a pop figure — as a kind of a happy alien who essentially made peace with his lot early on. But Man of Steel is not about that Superman. In this film, he's not human — he's not a Homo sapien — but he is human in many ways.
CAVILL: Right. He's subject to the emotional frailties of being human, but not the physical ones.
MITCHELL: Did you look at any of the Superman comic books for research?
CAVILL: I read a lot of them. I didn't go too far back, though, because I prefer more of the modern stuff — just because I can associate with the imagery more. It was primarily Death [of Superman], Return [of Superman], and Red Son. I also liked Superman/Batman: The Search for Kryptonite because I really enjoyed the interaction between those two characters. But those first three books, essentially, are what showed me what the character was — especially Return, because in that one, you see these different perceptions of what he is. Return had all these aspects that Superman embodied by these different characters.
MITCHELL: A group of super-men who each try to take over for Superman.
CAVILL: Yeah. That I found very interesting — trying to separate the different facets of Superman in that way. When you're aware of how people perceive you, you can't always remain true to yourself, and that was an interesting thing for me to apply to the character as well — exploring these different facets of his personality while having certain bits of it stripped away. The arrogance of a person who would have the kind of power that Superman does — we see that in The Return of Superman. Superman is not that character, but since he has all of those powers, he has that capacity for arrogance. But he's also got that key element that stops him from being a negative thing, which, getting back to what we were discussing earlier, has something to do with the way he was nurtured by the Kents.
MITCHELL: What happens in Red Son speaks to what you're talking about in terms of the importance of the nurture element, because in that version, he lands as a child in the Ukraine instead of in the United States.
CAVILL: Well, yeah, but there's still an inherent goodness to Superman in Red Son. It's still the character as a whole, just existing in a different place.
MITCHELL: Is it difficult on an emotional level to play a character who, in all of his various incarnations, essentially embodies good and the exceptional?
CAVILL: As much as everyone says that Superman is good, a lot of other people might say that that's why they find him boring... A lot of Batman fans might say that.
MITCHELL: [laughs] Yes, they might.
CAVILL: But he's not just good — he chooses to be good, which is what makes him interesting to me. I really looked at it like everything was a choice. It also begs the question: What if he chose to not be good? Certainly, in all the Superman-Batman story lines, that's a question that Batman always asks. In one of the books, Superman even says, "Hey, look, if I ever lose my mind, then these are the ways to stop me ..." So it's not just about Superman being good. In fact, you see him do some things in the movie that make you go, "Oh, I wasn't expecting that."
MITCHELL: Without giving too much away, there's one particular moment in the movie where Clark Kent smiles that I would imagine must have been a pretty intimate moment for you to play. Was it?
CAVILL: Yeah, because he's finally found himself... I hate to say "found himself" — it sounds so ridiculous.
MITCHELL: You're in Southern California. You're allowed to say "found himself" here.
CAVILL: Well, it's like he's found a way to be himself by changing uniforms. It's like trying not to cry because you're upset but you don't want anyone to see it. You have this horrible lump in your throat. But as soon as you go and bawl your eyes out in the bathroom, you can come back to wherever you are and be yourself again because you've allowed yourself to go where you needed to go emotionally. You've let it out.
MITCHELL: So becoming Superman becomes a kind of a cleansing thing for him.
CAVILL: It allows him to be who he is fully and freely — and allows him to relax in being Clark.
MITCHELL: Were you concerned at all about the kind of chemistry that has to exist between Clark/Superman and Lois? That can't be manufactured.
CAVILL: Well, it's our job as actors to make it look like it's not manufactured. If you have two actors who understand their characters — and therefore what they are trying to portray — then all they need to do is be the characters and there's a chemistry there.
MITCHELL: That's got to be the most practical explanation of it that I've heard.
CAVILL: I mean, there are these fantasies among people who watch movies where they're like, "Oh, there's a chemistry between them — something going on." And sometimes there is. But for me, it's more like, I go to work, I do a job, I play a role, and then I go home. I don't wear a cape at home. I'm not an invulnerable alien at home. I'm not in love with a woman called Lois Lane at home. I know there are a lot of people who like to get very involved in their characters, but I, personally, find it too involved. I just like to do it as a job — and it's my job to make it look real.
MITCHELL: But as you know, there are many actors who are quite skillful and can do a job, and then there are movie stars, who are different beings, and there is a presumption that they will bring something to it that is beyond professionalism.
CAVILL: Yes, I see what you're saying, but if you're a good actor, then you channel enough of yourself into the character so that you do get that other thing. Whether someone else would have played Superman better or worse would be up for a lot of debate on the internet forums, I'm sure.
MITCHELL: People can be incredibly proprietary about Superman. They think that the character belongs to them.
CAVILL: Yes, they do. Certainly, for younger guys, Superman is this mythological character that they've thought about and explored in their imaginations... But one thing I really like about Superman fans is that they're so open-minded and excited and honest. There's something beautiful about their enjoyment of it — something very Superman-like. All I could really focus on was representing the character in the truest, simplest way possible. There is a story that you have to tell within a certain amount of time, and you can only show so much of the character. So as much as the script is born from the source material, there are certain limitations. And then if this film is successful and we get the opportunity to do more movies, there's an opportunity to show more.
MITCHELL: Even though this is a much darker version of Superman in Man of Steel, there's still a kind of innocence to the character.
CAVILL: I wouldn't say it's darker. I think it's more realistic. The story exists in a darker world maybe in comparison to some of the other tellings, where Superman is more accepted and the colors are brighter — it's literally darker. But as far as describing the movie and the character, it's just more realistic—and in realism there are wonderful moments of light as well as darkness. Superman isn't moody or brooding or aggressive ...
MITCHELL: But he is melancholic.
CAVILL: There's certainly that, yes. He's also happy, though. When he sees his mum, when he sees their dog, he's happy. When he's approaching home again, he's happy, because he's allow to be who he is.
MITCHELL: When he's walking home to see Martha [Kent, played by Diane Lane], it's one of the times that he stands upright.
CAVILL: Well, he's home. Everyone knows what he is there — he doesn't have to hide. He doesn't somehow have to make himself seem smaller or less noticeable.
MITCHELL: So many of these characters that you've played have a very specific physical demeanor. In The Tudors, Charles Brandon has the physical arrogance of an athlete. He knows he belongs and he wants to be seen. Will in Cold Light of Day conveys such physical confidence, but when he has his family taken away from him and finds out that his life isn't what he thought it was, he suddenly doesn't know what to do with his hands anymore, which I thought was an interesting physical thing to isolate for that character.
CAVILL: A lot of the stuff you do as an actor — or I do, because I can't speak for everyone — is not always consciously thought out. A lot of the time, for me, it's actually just feeling stuff and it happens all in the moment and your body reacts.
MITCHELL: Is it always like that for you? Or is the physical element sometimes more considered?
CAVILL: With Superman, it had to be considered. But finding the physical aspect is important to me because that is often how we read people in everyday life.
MITCHELL: It's interesting because you've been cast as Superman before — you were going to do a version years ago with McG. What was it like then when you told your family that you got the part this time around? How did everyone react?
CAVILL: When I got the part this time, it was very surreal and difficult to process because I had come close to some big stuff before, and your brain is always ready for that letdown of the thing not happening. Obviously, this time there wasn't that letdown, but, honestly, I didn't really know how to react or behave. I remember calling my family and saying, "I got the role." They were like, "Oh, great! That's fantastic!" and then they started making all of the right noises, but I knew that they didn't really know how to react either. I mean, getting a role like this is such a wonderful opportunity. It was incredibly exciting — I remember looking in the mirror and going, "I'm Superman." But it was also one of those things where you go, "This isn't winning the lottery — it's getting a lottery ticket. Now I've go to work out which numbers to scratch ..." So I saw it as more of an opportunity than, you know, "Okay, I've won."
MITCHELL: What kind of emotional investment had you made when you came so close to doing the Superman movie with McG?
CAVILL: You make an emotional investment — you do. But I think that you're always ready to accept that it didn't happen. I remember going, "I'm really excited about this — I really want it to happen. It would be a wonderful opportunity." But if something doesn't happen, then it doesn't happen. My mother and father sort of raised me to look at things that way.
MITCHELL: What do your parents do?
CAVILL: My mother works in a bank and my dad is the head of my management team and also works in finance.
MITCHELL: They sound like very practical people.
CAVILL: They are very practical people. My mother and father have also raised five boys so they know there's only so much that can be controlled. If I spend all my time being upset about having lost a job, then the next however many auditions I have are going to be useless. So as you're going through the process, you get excited and put your all into it. But you don't get carried away, because until you do the thing, nothing hasn't happened yet. The rest is just talk.
MITCHELL: You've come close to playing James Bond before, too — and that character clearly means something to you. You must have a similar feeling about Bond that many people have about Superman.
CAVILL: But who Bond is, for me, really depends on how the actor plays the character.
MITCHELL: Who is Bond for you then?
CAVILL: I would say that, for me, Bond is a combination of [Sean] Connery and [Daniel] Craig.
MITCHELL: What aspects of each?
CAVILL: Well, I just loved the coolness of Connery's Bond. He just sort of oozes cool. And Craig was very real and powerful — you could practically smell the danger on him. There was a danger to Connery's Bond, too, but sort of at his leisure. To play Bond, though, and then for the world to perceive you in a certain way, is very different from playing Superman. Bond is not this ideal figure.
MITCHELL: You don't think Bond is an ideal figure?
CAVILL: I wouldn't say Bond is an ideal figure, no. The character has been performed in so many different ways that people go, "Oh, that's an interesting take on Bond." But with Superman, there are certain limitations for an actor. You can't go past certain boundaries because then you cease to be what the character is. I guess the difference is that Bond is a very human character. But kids in India who've never watched TV don't run around with James Bond T-shirts on. If there is some sort of trouble at home, kids don't think that James Bond is going to come save their mum from their dad, or their dad from their mum. They don't think, "Bond is going to come and save me." Superman is a different sort of idealized figure.
MITCHELL: What kinds of stuff did you read as a child? Were you a big comics reader?
CAVILL: I didn't read comics as a kid — though, obviously, I've read a lot since. [laughs] I read mostly historical fiction — lots of stuff set in ancient Rome and ancient Greece. I also liked sci-fi and fantasy: David Gemmell, Raymond E. Feist. It's a nice escape from the world. As much as I do love real-life stories, they can often make you hurt in a way I'd rather not hurt.
CAVILL: Well, if something really did happen, then you feel empathy for the person. For example, I read a book recently called Beyond the Bear by a chap called Dan Bigley [co-written with Debra McKinney], which is a wonderful story — a true story — about how this guy was a superman in a sense. [The book is about Bigley's recovery after surviving an attack by a grizzly bear that nearly killed him.] I was reading it on a plane, and I had to put the book down and pull myself together every now and then. So I'd rather feel empathy for a character that's fictional, so it doesn't quite tie into personal experience as much.
MITCHELL: What you're describing, though, sounds kind of like the kind of empathetic leap that you make when you're working on a role.
CAVILL: Oh, it is like that — very much so. It's the same with human beings. If I'm talking to someone and they're feeling a certain way, I will definitely tie into that very quickly. You have to learn to read emotions and feelings when you grow up in a family with four brothers — especially if three of them are a lot bigger than you. [laughs]
MITCHELL: When did you identify this empathy?
CAVILL: It's actually more over the past five years or so that I've become very aware of it, and probably over the last three years that I've become aware of how acutely it has affected my daily life.
MITCHELL: It's interesting that you've only begun to recognize that relatively recently because you've been acting since you were a teenager.
CAVILL: It is surprising that I identified it so late. I never really questioned it when it came to my acting because I just figured, Okay, I'm playing this and I'm feeling it and I'm tying into certain things that I may have experienced. But it became something where, in my daily life, I'd ask myself, "Why did I react that way?" or "Why did I feel that way?" But I think that the hurt aspect is just something that exists in a lot of great stories because people can associate with it. If there's one thing that we're very good at as humans, it's remembering the bad stuff. For some reason, it's always the pain that gets you.
MITCHELL: I read a story about you meeting Russell Crowe, plays Jor-El in Man of Steel, when you were 16. He was filming a movie on the campus of your school, so you went up and told him that you wanted to be an actor, and he was very encouraging.
CAVILL: Yeah. It's just one of those bizarre things in life, I guess. I was still in school when that happened.
MITCHELL: It sounds like he was a complete gentleman to you.
CAVILL: Oh, very much so. But you treat anyone normally, and they'll treat you normally back.
MITCHELL: When you come into contact with someone who has an enormous body of work like Woody Allen, as you did on Whatever Works  — was there any nervousness on your part in meeting with him?
CAVILL: Well, I was cast in the movie without having met him, so I met him on set. It was very brief — like, "Hi. How're you doing? Nice to meet you ... Okay, I guess I'll come back on one of my workdays ... See you then." I mean, my role in that film was so small — I was only there shooting, like, three or four days.
MITCHELL: Did you ever get to work with Peter O'Toole on The Tudors?
CAVILL: I never got to work with him, unfortunately.
MITCHELL: You must have gotten to meet him, though, right?
CAVILL: No, never got a chance. They had what they called the "pope unit," which was like a separate unit for shooting Peter. So no chance.
MITCHELL: Amazing. [laughs] But you definitely got to work with Kevin Costner and Diane Lane on Man of Steel, right?
CAVILL: Oh, yes — they're both really good people and enormously giving. Kevin and Diane were both there to do off-camera stuff for some of my scenes. I mean, Kevin was standing 200 meters down the road for a scene where the camera was only on me — the guy really didn't have to do that. But he really helped me because he clearly knows that when you're in a situation where you've having an emotional moment, you want the other actor there. You don't want an AD with a clipboard talking on the radio as a stand-in as you're trying to emote to your father.
MITCHELL: You seem to have a pretty down-to-earth attitude about all this, where you're all professionals doing your jobs, and as long as you treat somebody as a professional, then you get the same treatment in return.
CAVILL: Ideally. [both laugh] I can't say that's always the case. Ideally you do want people to treat you professionally in return, but not everyone necessarily does that. This acting job — it pays very well and you get to live a wonderful lifestyle, but it's something that I love doing, so I want to work with other people who enjoy it as well ... Maybe if I met the Queen I'd be nervous, though I'd probably be more nervous about doing things the right way because it's a very formal occasion.
MITCHELL: You have to observe all the protocols.
CAVILL: Right. But I wouldn't necessarily be star-struck. I haven't been yet. But I don't know what happens in the future — maybe one day I will be. You never know.
ELVIS MITCHELL IS A SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT FOR INTERVIEW.