Beneath the Mantle:
A Sensitive New Age Superman?
F*** met the man who will be Superman, Henry Cavill, for an exclusive chat in L.A.
It probably comes as a surprise to no one, but Superman has one hell of a handshake.
By Superman of course, we mean Henry Cavill, the British actor and heir apparent to the iconic mantle of Superman, in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel. I’m seated in a room in the Montage Hotel, Beverly Hills with several other writers — flown in from across the globe for an interview with Superman — when a 6’1”, impressively muscled Cavill strides into the room. No one exclaims at the likeness, or winces from the aforementioned iron handshake that Cavill gives when he introduces himself, but the unspoken consensus in the room says it all: boy, does this guy look the part.
What does strike one as surprising, however, is how mild-mannered Cavill is in the ensuing interview. It only serves to underscore the fact that, while movies are occasionally accurate representations of reality, more often than not they’re Bizarro mirror images of the real world, 180-degree inversions of fact and personality.
In the DC universe, Superman’s identity is hidden beneath the gentle, bespectacled facade of Clark Kent, reporter at The Daily Planet. In this universe, Cavill’s introverted (dare we say geekish) pleasures — fantasy novels, quiet walks and introspective turns of mind — are obscured by his public image as an actor best known for action-packed movies such as The Cold Light of Day, Immortals and The Count of Monte Cristo.
In person, Cavill’s only apparent superpower is his charm, an understated mix of self-deprecation and frank humour. In place of heat vision, the actor has a penetrating gaze, as well as a tendency to mull deeply over questions before answering them. This holds particularly true in the case of queries that probe into his own biography, as if Cavill too has a secret identity to keep.
Despite his guardedness, we came away with a handful of intriguing facts from beneath the mantle. To whet your appetite, let’s just say that the Man of Steel sure likes his computer games.
What did you have to do to get Superman’s body, and how tough was the training regime?
I had to make very good friends with Mark Twight, my trainer. It was just hours of training every week… lots of mass gain training, which means eating a lot of food and lifting lots of heavy weights and bulking up to reshape the body.
After that, when I got a certain size, it became a process of leaning the body down so I didn’t look like a big chubby superhero, so that you could see the muscle structure underneath.
Training was for about one-and-a-half hours every day, which doesn’t sound too bad until you try it... and then it becomes torturous. Mark would take no prisoners, and the rowing machine was an absolute nightmare. One thing he used to say when I was on it was, ‘Don’t believe the lies’, which was his way of saying to switch your brain off and find your real limit.
When you’ve finished training with Mark, you’ve left everything in the gym. One thing he would always say is accelerate out of the gym… you don’t go ‘okay, now it’s the end’ and taper off, you work harder and harder until you literally exhaust every last fibre of energy in you.
He wouldn’t let you lie down after finishing, either. He would say ‘That’s what a dog does’. You’re supposed to stand and walk it off. What I really like about Mark is that he knows how far to push someone to their limit, and if that was their real limit or it was the limit they believed in their head.
And the ‘Superdiet’? I assume it consisted mainly of green stuff and chicken breasts and nasty stuff like that?
[laughs] Well surprisingly, no! It’s one-third carbs, one-third fats and one-third protein in every single meal, and I ended up eating a lot. I was having thousand-calorie shakes at one stage... and I loved them. I do love eating. It was quite sad when I finished them. I keep hearing other guys going ‘It’s so difficult to get 5,000 calories down’, and I think ‘Oh, really?’ As you can probably tell, [putting on bulk] wasn’t tough. The training, on the other hand, was extremely difficult.
How did you feel the first time you put on the Superman costume?
There’s no feeling quite like it. It’s all very surreal. You can be there for the costume building, the costume tests, popping in and out of scenes... and you’re training very hard, meeting with the director and the producers. But when it’s all finished and you put that suit on, that’s when it becomes real.
Were you intimidated by how iconic the role of Superman is? What was the most psychologically challenging aspect of playing the part?
That’s a tricky question. The most psychologically difficult thing was actually the sheer immersion. There’s a lot of pressure from the outside related to playing the role, and doing it correctly, but I think I just put all that into the physical conditioning. If you start worrying about that kind of thing, it can be detrimental, so you want to put it somewhere else, where it won’t do any damage.
If you transfer that anxiety elsewhere, it may actually help you, and how it helped me in this case was in the gym, with me thinking ‘First things first, I have to look like Superman’. Every time you feel weak, you think of that, and of fans being disappointed, so you push yourself that much harder.
But as far as pressure from the outside, if I let that affect me during the shoot itself, it would have been destructive, like Kryptonite.
How much was Christopher Nolan involved in the making of the film?
Chris Nolan wasn’t there during the production itself, although I’m not sure how much work was done behind the scenes. I’m sure Zack had a phone call or two with him, but this is definitely Zack’s baby. He was the man in charge, and we created the character together, as opposed to having too many outside influences.
Can you share Zack’s vision and concept for Man of Steel?
There’s only so much I can really say without giving away stuff, but we wanted to make it very real; as realistic as one can be, when one talks about a super-being from another planet that can fly. That was the idea — to make it one of the more realistic, believable movies that Zack’s done.
What’s the origin story for this incarnation of Superman?
Well, we’re taking a lot from the source material and being very true to it, but we are also recreating what the franchise is, and bringing it into the modern world. There’s no particular comic book that we’ll be drawing from directly... we’re taking it from all the sources, and mashing them together.
Did you have any expectations of how making the movie would be like?
I didn’t know what to expect. Zack had spoken to me of it, and I didn’t want to have any initial presumptions so as not to sully the character. When I read the script I was blown away, it’s a great script... one of the best I’ve read. There’s so much on the page that humanises the character, and all that’s left is to do my job of portraying the emotions there accurately. You have to add a human element to this incredibly alien being, making him fit and yet stand out at the same time, and that was my job, but the script helped immensely.
Is Zack a collaborative director? Did you have space to give suggestions?
Very much so, it’s a collaborative process and Zack wants us to talk to him about stuff and work with him on his ideas. If you say, ‘how about I do this’, he’ll say ‘I don’t know if I like it yet, but give it a shot’.
What kind of research did you have to do to prepare for the role?
To see me without a comic book at that stage was very rare… even when I was eating. I got as many comic books and collections as I could get my hands on, and studied and read through all of them. I wanted to get a real sense of who this character is, on a deep level.
As much as growing up with the comic books would have been a different experience, it was so nice to get the chance to indulge in the Superman myth all in one go, like being able to watch an entire TV series through a box set.
I noticed that, while things vary between the storylines and the artists and the representations, there’s always this baseline of personality that’s difficult to describe... but I felt it, and it infused every single action I have when performing.
From the trailer, there seems to be a strong focus on that human element.
Yes! That’s the most important thing with this movie. It’s so easy to make it fantastic, and ‘chocolate box’ and exciting and hyper-coloured, but there’s a very real story behind the Superman character, and we wanted to explore the difficulties that Kal-El, Clark, Superman, in all his facets, was going through in various situations.
Growing up being so very different and not knowing why... that would be petrifying, and lonely, and that’s the human element we wanted to follow, because that’s what makes it different.
That being said, the tone of the movie will be familiar; you’ll recognise the realm you’re in, but we’re hoping that the story will be refreshing and new.
What was it like working with costars like Russell Crowe and Amy Adams?
Working with Russell Crowe was fantastic. He’s one of those veteran actors who have had so much experience, and the gravitas that he brings to the role is extraordinary. You get to feel him as an actor, and feed of his vast experience, and that’s quite rare.
Amy Adams is a wonderful actress. I can’t describe in words how nice it is to work with her. As a person, she has a great energy on set, really fun to be around, professional... you knew when action was to be done, it was go-time for her, and after the cut you could talk to her like a normal person, which is a really wonderful thing.
You were at Comic Con 2012 in San Diego. What was the experience like?
It was nerve-wracking, and one of the first times I got really nervous. You’re showing the character to the people that really matter. I remember standing off-stage, with Zack showing the trailer on the big screen, and I got really excited, my adrenaline just spiked through the roof. I vaguely remember stepping out onstage and thinking ‘Okay, these people can ask any question they want... I just hope they’re gentle with me’. And thankfully they were, [they were] wonderful and I couldn’t ask for more in terms of support and friendship.
Were you a comic book fan yourself as a child or a teenager?
I certainly am now. But you see, I went to boarding school and all you got to do in boarding school was study, write essays, maybe watch a bit of TV, eat, sleep and do sports. There were no comic books stores around.
I would say that there’s a big comic book fan base [in the UK], but it’s not as accessible as in the US. It wasn’t like I was able to go to the comic book store and get a new comic book every week, but certainly when the role [of Superman] came along... boy, did I jump on it.
As an actor, have you ever dreamed of playing a superhero?
That’s a tricky one, because you never know what kind of story is being told in that medium. But with the way this has turned out, and the way we’ve worked on this story, absolutely, I would dream of playing this character.
To be honest, I don’t have a childhood memory of idolising Superman in particular. I certainly think every kid runs shouting ‘I’m Superman’, with a tea towel draped around their shoulders at one stage. But I had no conscious memory as a boy of a single moment when I went ‘Cool, I’m Superman’.
It was probably the cartoons that were my first introduction to Superman, rather than watching any of the old TV shows or the movie itself. I think it was just waking up in the morning before school and flipping through the channels, watching the cartoons.
It seems that there are two diverging trends in superhero movies. Do you prefer the more realistic approach or the more ‘over-the-top’ sci-fi approach?
I prefer the more realistic approach. It’s more natural, and honest. There’s so much of a sci-fi element in it anyway; to run with that in all aspects makes it atonal, whereas running with the least obvious bit — that is to say the human element, which is usually less covered — enhances the fantasy of it all.
Perhaps you can give us some insight into Clark Kent. How do you make Superman vulnerable, apart from Kryptonite?
Again, it comes back to the human element; because he’s alone and there’s no one like him. That must be incredibly scary and lonely, not to know who you are or what you are, and trying to find out what makes sense. Where’s your baseline? What do you draw from? Where do you draw a limit with the power you have? In itself, that’s an incredible weakness.
An aspect of the movie explores Superman’s origins. What are your origins as an actor?
I started out doing various school plays, and my parents responded well to them. Obviously at twelve to thirteen years old, that’s a nice feeling to have. Then I went to Stowe boarding school, where I was terribly homesick.
They had a really good drama department, and I dealt with my homesickness by throwing myself into drama. A casting group came round for The Count Of Monte Cristo, and I happened to look just right, with a bit of acting experience. I got an agent halfway through that… I just got really fortunate and never looked back.
So if you weren’t an actor, what profession would you have attempted, and why?
That’s a really good question. I’m from amilitary family, my father’s from the Navy, and my eldest brother is in the Army, while my second eldest brother’s from the Marines. I probably would have gone down a similar route.
When I was seventeen, I was still thinking of getting a scholarship, going to a good university, study something and feel out what the Armed Forces were… certainly a more economical plan for me and the folks. I hadn’t really thought about it otherwise, as I’ve been very fortunate, and things have worked out.
At one stage I was tempted to say goodbye to the acting industry because things won’t working, but I stuck in there, because of the Bond screen test, as a matter of fact. Even though I didn’t get the role, I thought ‘If I can get to second on that sort of thing, perhaps I can get to first on other big things.’
Do you regret not having gotten the part of James Bond?
I think James Bond would be a lovely character to play, but I think Daniel Craig’s done such a great job, and he’s so perfect for the role now. Maybe my time will come in the future.
I’d rather the movie hire the right guy and be fantastic, than hire the wrong guy — including me, I do think I was the wrong guy for Bond at the time — and make less of a story. Daniel completely nails the role. I’m flattered that Martin Campbell wanted me, and maybe in the future we’ll get to work together.
James Bond has a larger-than-life, almost mystical quality as a character. Do you tend towards wanting to play characters that are fantastical or larger-than-life?
[emphatically] Yes, good question. Most of the books I read are sci-fi and fantasy genres like David Gemmell and Dan Abnett, and I do like a fantastic story. And it does influence my character choices. Having said that, having played so many fantastic characters, it would be nice to play someone more grounded in reality. But certainly, those are the stories that I like to read and that I like to tell.
How did your family initially react to your wanting to be an actor?
I was thinking about going to a drama school instead of university, and my father initially said ‘Absolutely not... go to a university, get a proper degree, and if you want to go to drama school after university, that’s fine. But get a real degree so you have something to fill back on, rather than chasing the acting dream without going anywhere.’ From my father’s perspective, he wanted to make sure that his son had a livelihood and can take care of himself and his own when the time comes.
You were speaking earlier about the isolation of the character you play. Where do you call home?
I call home wherever I lay my head. I don’t really have the luxury of calling anywhere home; home base, where my parents are, will always be home of a sorts. I do have a place in London, but how long I spend there? Different story. London is where a lot of my stuff is, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s home.
You mentioned enjoying fantasy novels. What else do you do to unwind from acting?
I really enjoy walking. There’s something about the solitary act of it that’s very peaceful. Walking through cities and nature are very different, but they both provide the visual input to help structure one’s thoughts, and a sense of rhythm in your head. I wish I had enough downtime to go out with a backpack and explore the world and my surroundings.
I love playing computer games as well... I’m a really big PC gamer.
Cool! Which genres are you into?
I’m more of an RPG guy, particularly MMORPGs [Massive Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games]. It varies enormously, I like all sorts of games and I can lose myself for hours in them. I got Guild Wars 2 when I was in London, but I haven’t had the chance to sit down and really get into it just yet.
How about genres like Action RPGs or First Person Shooters?
First Person Shooting isn’t so much my thing unless it’s online. Halo was more of an Xbox thing for so long, and they weren’t releasing it on PC at the same time. I love the idea of interacting with people, so online multiplayer games are really my thing, whether sci-fi or not. I love the immersion, and I’ll play almost any game I can get my hands on.
Are your family members excited about your role as Superman?
Oh, yes. Here’s something interesting: I have two nephews, aged 6 and 4. One of my nephews is known for telling wild tales in school, and I’m fairly sure he gets that from my brother as well. During one of the classes, he was asked to talk about his family members, and what they do professionally. And so, he started saying, ‘My uncle’s Superman’.
You could see the teachers going: [puts on an exasperated face] ‘Not this again.’ Naturally she tells him off; but my nephew’s adamant about it, as he’s adamant on every tall tale he’s told. When my sister-in-law came to pick him up, the teacher talked to her about it: ‘He’s at it again, this is a really bad habit.’ So my sister asked, ‘What did he say this time?’ ‘He said his uncle’s Superman.’ ‘Well… actually, he is.’
Do you feel more secure in your ability to play Superman now, as compared to seven to eight years ago?
Definitely, I feel a lot has changed. I’ve been acting now for twelve and a half years, and that’s 75% of my acting career right there. I got to play the same character for four years every summer for The Tudors, and that character was constantly shifting and evolving and changing. The things I’ve learned from that are vast.
Out of acting experience alone, I definitely feel more ready to play a character like this… but also, in terms of live experience, this is a very real incarnation of what this character would be like if he really existed. In a sense, you have to go through life and experience its ups and downs, the tears and the laughter, before you can portray it more accurately.
How similar or different are you in personality to the character you play?
Some differences are starker than others, for instance I can’t fly. But there are certainly similarities. I try to be the best person I can, but I make mistakes like everyone does. Personality-wise I try to do the right thing, and try to look after the people I love to the best of my ability… and hopefully I’ll succeed at that.
What’s your real-life Kryptonite?
That’s a very good question, one that I’m not too sure I’m willing to answer. [smiles and thinks] My real-life Kryptonite is not being able to protect the ones I love. That’s the one thing that can really affect me and bring me low. My heart, giving that to someone, that gives them complete power over me… yeah, you might as well be giving me a piece of Kryptonite.
Throughout the process of making Man Of Steel, when did you start to feel most like Superman?
Every morning when I put the costume on; the first time it happened, I looked at myself in the mirror and had a big ‘oh my god’ moment.
Then there are the times when you’d see people look at you — they don’t realise you noticed — and you feel that the lines of the role are being blurred. That’s a really good feeling, because these people are standing behind the smoke and mirrors... if a crew member is standing there looking at you in a certain way, something has to be going right.
And that’s when you start thinking: ‘I’m Superman, this is crazy.’
By Raphael Lim