The 30-year-old Cavill grew up on the small English Channel island of Jersey. The fourth of five brothers, he yearned to escape the “shackles of parenting” and followed his third eldest brother to boarding school in England. Yet a profound homesickness plagued the then-13-year-old — so much so that he found himself blubbering to his mother on the phone daily.
“It was my mom who eventually said, ‘Look, you’ve got to stop calling. You’re just making it worse on yourself.’ And it probably broke her heart to say that to her little boy. But it worked and now I hardly ever call,” said Cavill with a laugh.
That lesson in perseverance benefited Cavill during his grueling physical and mental preparation for the role and again now as he embarks on a globe-trotting jaunt that is certain to obliterate any remaining vestige of anonymity.
Warner Bros. laid the task of updating Superman in the hands of director Zack Snyder (“300,” “Watchmen”) and producer Christopher Nolan (“The Dark Knight”), but it’s up to Cavill to convey the message that Clark Kent is not too stodgy or strait-laced to fit into the current mythic landscape, the one riddled with ironic and damaged superheroes.
The gamble seems to have paid off. Early box-office results are pointing to a giant hit, with the weekend domestic receipts on track to earn over $100 million. Reviews of the film have been mixed, but Cavill’s performance has been widely praised. Times critic Kenneth Turan wrote that Cavill is “a superb choice for someone who needs to convincingly convey innate modesty, occasional confusion and eventual strength.”
To the film’s screenwriter, David S. Goyer, Cavill made the character more human than he imagined Superman could be. “He feels real. He doesn’t feel like this ethereal angel,” said Goyer. “Somehow he found a way to embody Superman but not get lost in Superman.”
Cavill has been waiting 10 years to don the cape. Originally in talks to play Superman for director McG in an iteration that never got off the ground, Cavill played a series of journeyman roles over the years — the highest profile being Theseus in the muscle-bound Greek mythology movie “Immortals” — before getting a second chance to fly.
It’s no wonder the studio kept returning to the British actor. His chiseled cheekbones and cleft chin are so tailor-made for the role of Clark Kent, Snyder couldn’t have asked for more if he carved it himself. But it’s his work ethic, more than his good looks, that has earned him the closest comparisons to his character.
Cavill read every Superman comic he could get his hands on, trying to understand “the soul of Superman,” a man Cavill calls, “a freak, someone who has no idea where he comes from and no one can ever empathize with him. He’s the loneliest soul on the planet.”
Then he trained. For five months before filming began, and continuously during the six-month shoot, working to turn his body into something more powerful than a locomotive, a physical specimen that looks like the work of computer enhancements but isn’t.
“The toughest stuff is the shirtless stuff,” said Cavill, dressed casually in a white T-shirt and black Levi’s, fresh from a visit with Elmo on the set of “Sesame Street.” “You’re exhausted enough as it is and then you have to cut your calories right down. You’re not eating anything and you’re worried about looking just right. Couple that with a Vancouver winter. It’s not amazing.”
But Cavill never broke. Soon, Snyder became oblivious to his needs.
“With the depth of his dedication to the work, you’ve got to be careful not to take him for granted,” said Snyder. “You just go, ‘No, Henry will be fine.’ ‘Well, we’ve got to shoot this outside. He’s supposed to be naked and it’s the middle of the winter,’ and I’d be like, ‘No, Henry will be fine.’”
Until he wasn’t: His trainer had to pull him off set when Cavill’s lips turned blue, the actor moments away from hypothermia. “The trailer had been heated on full-blast all day and it took me half an hour to 45 minutes to stop shaking,” recalled Cavill.
In the next week Cavill will be reuniting with his parents and brothers in Jersey for a brief five hours to premiere the movie on the 45-square-mile island, before embarking on a month-long international tour that will take him to Sicily, Madrid, Shanghai and Brazil.
It will be a welcome respite for the actor, who has been working since he was 17 but is just now being forced to grapple with the challenges that come from global fame.
Over the last few months Cavill has established some new personal guidelines in order to maintain a semblance of a private life: girlfriend talk is off-limits, so is his current residence. Weeks before the film opened, Cavill found that he could no longer pop into a bar for a quick drink without prompting a frenzy of autograph seekers.
It’s been unnerving for a man who doesn’t like to disappoint.
“I’ve always had a wariness, I’ve just been less efficient at practicing it for fear of offending people,” said Cavill, who will next star as an American spy in Guy Ritchie’s film adaptation of the 1960s TV series “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” “That’s something I’ve always been bad at doing up until now. But try wearing my shoes for a couple minutes and then you’ll see it’s OK.”