OF ALL THE Men of Steel on display at House of Secrets—a comic-book store in Burbank with red-and-blue renditions of Superman dotting the ceiling, the walls, and even the floor—none are as striking, or as symbolically fraught, as the one staring down at Henry Cavill. The actor is standing under a glowering, arms-folded miniature sculpture of Supes on a bookshelf, right next to a similarly intimidating bust of Batman. The two crime fighters battled it out in 2016’s aggressively hyped Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, one of three films for which Cavill donned Superman’s cape. It grossed $873 million worldwide and is the biggest box-office hit of Cavill’s career.
It’s also one of the most castigated superhero blockbusters of all time—a film to be debated on Reddit forums and convention floors for years, or at least until the next Batman/Superman team-up. When Cavill looks up and notices the troubled big-screen rivals standing near each other, he pauses, a muted smile flickering across his face. “Oh, well,” he declares wryly before moving on down the aisle. It’s an early-fall afternoon, and the 36-year-old Cavill has dropped by House of Secrets to pick up some reading material for the flight home to London. It’s his first visit to the beloved store, which might be the most Superman-centric location in the entire Los Angeles area. The offices of DC Comics are a quick drive from here, as are the headquarters of Warner Bros., the studio responsible for Cavill’s Krypton triptych: Man of Steel (2013), Batman v Superman, and Justice League (2017). This is the last place you’d expect to find him milling about, only because it’s almost too obvious a hideaway.
But here he is, cruising the store in a black V-neck shirt and light-blue jeans, his Kansas City Chiefs cap pulled down low. The getup is a valiant stab at anonymity, but it fails immediately. “Henry carries himself with a lovely sense of authority and confidence,” notes Lauren Schmidt Hissrich, the producer of his new Netflix fantasy series, The Witcher. “He doesn’t blend in very easily.” Indeed, once the half dozen or so customers get a look at the guy with the bumper-plate pecs and three-mile-wide shoulders—and the equally towering, semi-incognito bodyguard trailing him—a few start staring at one another with furrow-browed disbelief: Wait, is that dude . . . Superman?
As the six-foot-two, roughly 200-pound Cavill wanders around, he points out some of his favorite Superman story lines—Savage Dawn, H’el on Earth—and gushes over the work of novelist Aaron Dembski-Bowden. (“It’s not high sci-fi,” he enthuses, “but it’s deep sci-fi.”) I steer him toward writer Alan Moore’s brain-pulping early-’80s run on Swamp Thing. It’s a psychotropic tale of existential mutation that would likely make for a nervy bit of in-flight reading. But it seems like a good fit for an actor who’s undergone his own on- and offscreen metamorphosis over the past several years.
When the British-born Cavill began his career in the early ’00s, he was slotted in supporting roles, often as naïf, lovestruck young men. But ever since he signed on to play Superman—a part that required him to bulk up and become an IRL version of the world’s strongest do-gooder—Cavill has steadily transformed himself into the kind of leading man the major studios now crave: a pure franchise player, one whose dimple-chinned dashingness and carefully engineered physique can be plugged into all manner of big-brand properties.
Other superstars of his generation, like three of the four guys named Chris, tend to balance out their mega movies with smaller, less CGI-intensive efforts. Cavill, though, is unabashedly dedicated to the sorts of films that necessitate huge budgets, months of physical training, and mammoth Comic-Con rollouts. He was a double-crossing dandy in 2015’s late-night cable classic The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and a triple-crossing baddie in last year’s giddily ridiculous Mission: Impossible—Fallout. This month, he plays the long-haired, evil-eyed medieval-times outcast warrior Geralt on The Witcher, based on the best-selling book series. “I like that realm,” he says of both The Witcher and the larger fantasy-
and-fandom culture it represents. “These characters matter a lot to people, and they matter a lot to me.”
As Cavill browses the aisles, some of the clientele sorta-discreetly close in on him. (Joe, his imposing but not unpleasant security guy, keeps an eye on the onlookers while rifling through comics.) The actor preempts any awkwardness by turning around, shaking hands, and chatting everyone up before they can tap him on the shoulder. One customer imitates Cavill’s fierce “fist cocking” motion from Fallout; another bonds with him over Alien, a film that spooked Cavill when he was a way-too-young kid living on the English Channel island of Jersey. (“Dude,” the actor says, “walking up to bed that night? I swear there were those things on the ceiling.”)
Yet while Cavill tours the floor, he sounds apologetic for not being more caught up on the comic-book realm. “I’ve been quite disconnected from all of this for quite a while,” he says. “I’m very behind.” It’s been nearly a decade since he was hired for Superman duty and almost two years since he last played the character, in the troubled Justice League. That film required extensive reshoots in which Cavill’s Fallout mustache had to be removed via digital effects; his upper lip looked as if it had been stuffed with wet cotton balls. Although the resulting film was seen as a slight improvement over Batman v Superman, it was considered a financial underachiever, despite making more than half a billion dollars worldwide. A planned sequel was quietly euthanized. Oh, well.
There have been numerous reports—some from rumor-ravaged fan sites, but others from credible industry publications—that Cavill’s time as Superman is finished. You can sense the question forming in customers’ heads as they watch him ring up his purchases and exit House of Secrets: Wait, is that dude . . . STILL Superman? Cavill’s stayed silent about such gossip for a long time, to his occasional frustration. He fought for years, facing down countless rejections and close calls, to land a part as cosmically iconic as Superman. It’s a role, and a character, he guards fiercely—and insists he hasn’t let go. “The cape is in the closet,” Cavill says. “It’s still mine.”
JUST A FEW hours earlier, Cavill’s daily workout was interrupted by a cameo from Tupac Shakur. The actor was in a private gym in L. A., where he’s been spending a few days for business. Over the past two decades, Cavill has grown accustomed to exercising in whichever city he happens to land in. Maybe London. Or Budapest. Or Abu Dhabi. They’ve all served as home somewhat recently, though he notes that he doesn’t really live anywhere: “I’ve been a bit of a nomad for 19 years,” he says.
On this particular morning, Cavill was sweating it out when Tupac Shakur’s 1998 hit “Changes” came on. (You know the tune, the one in which Tupac’s raging, mournful lyrics about social injustice are paired with a surprisingly banging Bruce Hornsby sample.) He hadn’t heard the song in years, and as he listened to it, Cavill—a guy who’s regularly unmoored—was briefly frozen in his past. He flashed on an image from his days as an English boarding-school student in the late ’90s, sitting in a dorm with a trio of friends as the song played. “It was the craziest sense memory,” Cavill says. “I was like, ‘Whoa.’ I had my whole life ahead of me as a kid back then. I believed in myself. But I was terrified nothing was going to happen.”
We’ve now grabbed a window-side booth at a restaurant across the street from the comic shop, where Cavill is having a midday iced coffee. In conversation, he is thoughtful but rarely wanders beyond his self-set parameters: He doesn’t discuss his love life in any way, and even a seemingly innocuous query—like asking if he has a favorite among the countless memes his Superman mustache inspired—finds him demurring. Yet as he describes this flashback to his old dorm, he smiles—which is unexpected, given how deeply unhappy he says he was during those years.
Cavill had wanted to leave home ever since he was a kid on Jersey, a British territory known for its stunning beaches. He can appreciate the island now. But back then, it felt way too small. “I was desperate to get away,” Cavill says. His parents, who worked in finance, sent him and his four brothers off to get a private education, nearly causing the family to go broke. In his teens, though, Cavill’s big concerns were slightly more myopic: Somehow he had become one of the most unpopular kids. He’d do things he considered chivalrous—like admonish his classmates for flicking up a girl’s skirt—and find himself branded a “lemon.” (The nickname, he explains, means “a boy who tries too hard with the chicks.”) And he was picked on for his weight, earning another taunt: “Fat Cavill.” “I was a chubby kid,” he says. “I could’ve very well gone down the route of just accepting my lot in life and being like, ‘I guess I’m not going to do anything.’ ”
Cavill eventually slimmed down, thanks in part to playing sports like rugby. But it wasn’t until he began acting in school stage productions that he felt more comfortable in front of others. “It actually helped me survive,” he says. “Even the kids who were nasty to me at times and took pleasure in squashing me—when I finished a play, they’d say, ‘Wow, you’re really good.’ And I was like, ‘Okay, this is where I draw my strength from.’ ”
Such an origin story, of course, is just the sort of outcast-overcomes-the-odds mythos that superstar actors sometimes inflate (or even create) to seem more relatably mortal. But in Cavill’s case, the alienation he experienced as a teen—the way people made him feel overweight and undervalued—helps explain the roles he’d seek out: the imperfect heroes who must push themselves to physical and emotional extremes just to be understood by others.
IT WAS NEAR the end of Cavill’s boarding-school years that he landed his first movie role, as a wide-eyed 19th-century teen in 2002’s adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo. Director Kevin Reynolds, who’d worked on such blockbusters as Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, auditioned “a crop of tadpoles,” he says, before settling on Cavill, who was just 17. Cavill also ended up in a relationship with a woman he met through one of his on-set colleagues. “I really hadn’t dated much at that point,” he says. “I had my first love on that movie.”
Cavill appears in only a few moments of Monte Cristo, but the job earned him an agent and convinced his parents he should pursue acting full-time. Reynolds, who’d helped shape Kevin Costner’s career, was another early believer. “Even back then,” the director says, “I felt like Henry had the moxie and the ability to become a star.” The rest of the industry wasn’t so sure. Over the next several years, he found himself “living on sofas, and by the good grace of girlfriends and friends.” Cavill auditioned regularly—and sometimes terribly. For 2003’s The Lion in Winter, he read with Patrick Stewart and walked out flustered. “I was so shit,” he says. But at least he went back and tried a second time—a move that earned kudos from Stewart. “It’s terrifying going into auditions,” Cavill says. “You put your hand into a dark hole and just hope that something comes out. It’s not like being fast or strong, or being good at football. Sometimes the acting is just bad.”
His most infamous tryout took place in the mid-’00s, when he was up for a role that seemed well suited to his black-tie-ready handsomeness and deep-voiced dryness: James Bond. To screen-test, he had to walk out of a bathroom wrapped in a towel and reenact a scene from one of the Sean Connery–era films. “I probably could have prepared better,” Cavill says. “I remember the director, Martin Campbell, saying, ‘Looking a little chubby there, Henry.’ I didn’t know how to train or diet. And I’m glad Martin said something, because I respond well to truth. It helps me get better.”
Cavill recalls being the 002 choice for 007, losing out to Daniel Craig. It was the beginning of a long run that positioned him as runner-up: He missed out on lead roles in Tristan + Isolde, Twilight, and an early Superman film that was never realized. “I wasn’t ecstatic about not getting these things,” Cavill says, “but I was so used to disappointment from the acting business, and also from boarding school. ‘No, you’re not good enough’—that wasn’t anything new to me.”
He did procure a four-season run on the Showtime historical drama The Tudors and later a role in the madcap swords-and-slaughter fantasy film Immortals. That 2011 hit, which featured Cavill as a virtuous Greek action figure, would reach number one in the U. S., make a quarter of a billion dollars worldwide, and expose him to filmgoers—in every way possible. “It was my first experience working on a movie and having my shirt off for most of the damn time,” he says. He was put on a strict six-month diet and underwent extensive martial-arts training to help him slim down. “It’s very emotionally taxing,” he says. “When you add the lack of food and the pressure on top of that, it’s tough.”
When Immortals was released, Cavill was already halfway through filming Man of Steel, making him the third actor, and the first Brit, to depict the hero onscreen. Man of Steel required more working out than Cavill had ever endured, with entire filming schedules coordinated around his shirtless scenes. He’s always felt like a custodian of the heroes he’s portrayed, whether it’s an Athenian warrior, a Kryptonian orphan, or a monster-slaying Witcher. That’s why he subjects himself to such torturous training. “I’m representing important characters here,” he says. “I don’t want to be a dumpy Geralt or a fat Superman.”
Cavill swears by high-intensity intervals and bodybuilding exercises. “I know what it feels like to go from out of shape to in shape,” he says, “and [afterward] I’ll look at myself like, ‘Man, well done.’ It’s not like I’m a golden god—I’m just proud of what I achieved. And then you can take your clothes off in front of your significant other, and they’re like, ‘Goddamn, you look great!’ Like, ‘Yes! I’m making other people happy.’ ” Yet some have suffered for Cavill’s intense love of the gym. “I wouldn’t say we ‘worked out’ so much as I acted as Henry’s trainer,” jokes costar Ben Affleck of their time on Batman v Superman. “I really had to help him increase muscle mass—before my coaching, he looked like Gumby.” He adds, “In all honesty, we did work out together. And I hated it.”
AS AN ALIEN do-gooder stranded on Earth, Superman was obviously going to be a bit aloof, and there were times in Man of Steel when it was apparent that Cavill’s charms were being buried underneath all of the brooding. It wasn’t until the big-screen remake of the TV show The Man from U.N.C.L.E. that viewers got an idea of the actor’s innate playfulness. Cavill played a swanning, conning American agent named Napoleon Solo. And although it wasn’t a hit, it marked a crucial moment in his career. As Solo, he was droll, at ease, and effortlessly sexy.
Watching U.N.C.L.E., says director Christopher McQuarrie, led him to cast the actor as the evil-genius villain of Mission: Impossible—Fallout. “Something in
Henry’s comic timing told me he had talents that weren’t being exploited,” says McQuarrie. “I found he had a charming sense of humor—at which point I knew he could be a villain. The best villains enjoy their work.” Cavill’s U.N.C.L.E. performance also made an impression on Schmidt Hissrich, The Witcher’s producer. She first talked to him about playing Geralt before the series even had a script. In the ensuing months, she met with 207 other actors about the role. “But all the time I was writing, I kept hearing Henry’s voice in my head,” she says. “In the books, Geralt is fearsome, but he also has this amazing dry wit. We needed someone to play both ends of the spectrum, someone who could see all the trauma of the world he’s in but could also step back and roll his eyes once in a while.”
The Witcher combines the sneaky charisma Cavill displayed in U.N.C.L.E. and Fallout with the sinew and strength he built up for his superhero roles. After working on Fallout, Cavill was keen to do his own stunts on The Witcher, including rigorously choreographed sword fights. But he was most excited, he says, about the chance to understand Geralt’s place in the world. “It’s funny how much he’s actually like us,” he says. “Geralt has that thing of trying so damn hard and being misconstrued or not appreciated—of people having a negative opinion of you, despite you actually trying to do the right thing.”
Which brings to mind Cavill’s lengthy stretch as Superman—the three movies that made him an international star while also leaving a large segment of fans unsatisfied. He’s cautious when discussing the films themselves, so consider these assessments the height of his candor: Man of Steel? “A great starting point. If I were to go back, I don’t think I’d change anything.” Batman v Superman? “Very much a Batman movie. And I think that realm of darkness is great for a Batman movie.” Justice League? “It didn’t work.”
Cavill almost reprised his Superman role for a blip-sized cameo in this year’s Shazam! but says he couldn’t do it because of his Fallout schedule. That absence—coupled with the fact that The Witcher could wind up as a Game of Thrones–like epic that eats up a huge chunk of his calendar—furthered the speculation that his time in the cape was finished. “I’m not just going to sit quietly in the dark as all this stuff is going on,” Cavill says of the rumors. “I’ve not given up the role. There’s a lot I have to give for Superman yet. A lot of storytelling to do. A lot of real, true depths to the honesty of the character I want to get into. I want to reflect the comic books. That’s important to me. There’s a lot of justice to be done for Superman. The status is: You’ll see.”
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