The 30-year-old star of Man of Steel, is jobless, having bided his time as director Zack Snyder took nearly two years to apply the finishing touches to his blockbuster reboot. The movie could propel the relative unknown to stardom faster than a speeding bullet—or be career kryptonite. Still, it’s unclear who most needs to be saved by Superman — Cavill or the rest of us?
IN A DARKENED EDITING BAY ON THE Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, California, Man of Steel footage rolls on a 70-inch screen. Finally, here’s the director Zack Snyder’s long-awaited, top-secret Clark Kent: swarthy and muscular, working at a bar on a lonely stretch of highway. No Brooks Brothers. No glasses. No Daily Planet. Instead, Kent, in jeans and a henley, is a drifter, bouncing from job to job, not yet ready to assume his true calling, not yet given the chance. Kent finds work far from any Metropolis. Among deckhands. And roughnecks. And wasted truckers who grope innocent women while he buses tables. He tells them to stop. They get aggressive, tossing beer, throwing punches. One connects and he takes it. Kent walks away, seething. He later lashes out, unleashing his long-pent-up wrath on inanimate aluminum and steel. This is Clark Kent struggling, grappling with the possibility of keeping his powers secret forever.
Thirty miles southwest of the studio, Henry Cavill, just shy of his 30th birthday, who plays this updated, emotional Kent, approaches beneath a section of scaffolding in Manhattan Beach. It’s a textbook sunny day, and Cavill emerges from the scaffold’s shadows. At first glance, he looks stone-cut: six foot one, in a blue V-neck sweater with freshly gelled hair and an ivory-smooth shave. I’ve been warned: “It takes a second to adjust, because Henry’s just so good-looking,” Amy Adams told me. “He’s dashing with just a hint of danger, and it’s kinda great. It’s super-hidden. But you know there’s a steeliness within him that makes the gentlemanly qualities all the more interesting.”
Cavill—”Rhymes with travel,” he says—likes the quiet down here by the beach. It’s low-density and private. When not in London, Cavill makes his home here with his girlfriend. Her name, he says, “is Gina,” which comes out in a way that suggests he doesn’t want to answer any more questions about his girlfriend. “She’s amazing,” he says. “Gina” is known to everyone else as Gina Carano, the MMA fighter turned actress who is also conveniently rumored to be the next Wonder Woman. Cavill has chosen to walk up the street, leaving the car at home. “I’m not much of a schmoozer,” he says, “not much of an eventgoer. I’d rather stay close to here. This doesn’t feel like L.A. It doesn’t feel like work.” But whatever Fortress of Solitude–like privacy Cavill and Carano are enjoying down here by the water might very soon vanish. “Henry’s about to be one of the more famous people on the planet,” says his costar Michael Shannon, who plays the villain General Zod. “Getting to play Superman is a blessing and a curse. It’s a hard character to capture. He’s devoid of animosity or sarcasm, but he’s not a dullard either. It’s an overwhelming movie, and Henry’s right in the middle of it, and he just carries it like a champ.”
It’s almost happened for Cavill before, this sort of Clark Kent–to–Superman transformation—twice, and one of those times, literally. “I was actually up for Superman before,” Cavill says. “I was very close to getting the job, and then the director changed and I was no longer part of the plan.” It was 2002, and Cavill was 19. The director, McG, dropped the project because Warner Bros. wanted to shoot it in Australia and he’s afraid of flying. (The studio finally got its next Superman film aloft in 2006, with a relative unknown Brandon Routh donning the signature spandex.) The other tentpole that eluded Cavill: “I screen-tested for James Bond when I was 22,” he says. “But Daniel [Craig] was above and beyond the best choice.”
After missing out on Bond, Cavill found steady work on television. He played Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, in 38 episodes of Showtime’s The Tudors. While shooting the sex-soaked period drama in Dublin from 2007 through 2010, Cavill spent his downtime buried in Robert Jordan’s fantasy series Wheel of Time. “The books are about the rise of a chosen one with great powers,” Cavill says. “I’d stay up until five, six in the morning reading. I couldn’t put them down.” Then, in 2011, he scored his first lead, playing Theseus in Tarsem Singh’s Immortals. Cavill valiantly—shirtlessly—avenges his mother’s murder, confronts his own destiny, and saves all of humankind.
Not without gratitude, Cavill compares his early résumé to hiding in plain sight. “It was just jobs here and there,” he says, modest as a Smallville farm boy. “Until I got Superman.”
Seated inside FishBar, Cavill, whose blue left iris permanently features an alien spot of reddish brown, weighs his dining options. “If you’re looking for healthy, the mahimahi is good with the spinach and the steamed broccoli,” he says. “But I keep wanting to get the fish and chips.” It’s a possible culprit for his childhood nickname. “I was fat,” he says. “I was Fat Cavill.”
At boarding school, Cavill was prone to homesickness. “I bawled on the phone to my mom four times a day,” he says. “I became an easy target.” Being Fat Cavill didn’t exactly boost the boy’s self-esteem, but it did help him form an early understanding of his breakout character’s inner life. “My version of Superman,” he says, “is essentially of a guy who has spent his whole life alone.” Cavill overcame his own loneliness by acting in school plays, several per year, to the point where he decided to focus his studies on drama. At first, his stockbroker father, Colin, discouraged the decision. “He wanted me to get a proper degree first,” Cavill says. But then casting agents showed up on campus, looking for teenagers with the right dramatic pedigree and posh enough elocution to join a filmed adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo. Cavill, then 17, got a part. “My dad,” he says, “was like, ‘Okay, you have a professional job now, so great, go for it.'” Cavill’s path was settled, and the role whipped him into shape. “I lost one and a half stone”—21 pounds—”and I wasn’t Fat Cavill anymore,” he says, arching an eyebrow and, also, settling on an order. “I’m going for the fish and chips.”
The other touchstone moment at boarding school involved Russell Crowe, who plays Cavill’s father, Jor-El, in Man of Steel. “He was on campus filming Proof of Life,” Cavill says. “Everyone was standing in a semicircle, and I thought, ‘We look ridiculous, staring like he’s some kind of prize pony.’ So I walked up and said, ‘Hi, my name is Henry. I’m thinking of becoming an actor. What’s the acting world like?’ He said something like, ‘Sometimes it’s great. Sometimes it’s not so great. It’s fun acting. And they pay well.’ Then everyone ran up and asked for autographs, and I turned to Russell and said, ‘Run.'” Several days later, Cavill received a package from Crowe containing snacks, a rugby jersey, and a CD of the actor’s band. “There was also a signed note,” Cavill says, picking up a fry. “It said, ‘Dear Henry, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.'” On the set of Man of Steel, Cavill reminded Crowe of their meeting. “I told him, ‘I was the fat one who didn’t ask for your autograph.’ He looked at me blankly, and then he actually remembered.”
“When I found out I got the part,” he says, “I was home playing World of Warcraft. Zack called, and I thought he was calling to let me down easy. But then it dawned on me that he was giving me the part. I had to play it cool. Be appreciative, respectful, professional. But the second we hung up, I just sprinted up and down my stairs cheering and whooping like a madman. I kept looking in the mirror, going, ‘I don’t believe it. I’m Superman? I’m Superman!'” In fact, he was Snyder’s chosen one from the outset—the only actor screen-tested on film by the director for the part.
Cavill credits his early and unlikely confidence to his parents. “They taught me to believe in myself,” he says. “And as much as there were times where I really didn’t, you muscle through. You end up believing in yourself even more.” It’s also worth noting that Colin and Marianne Cavill, parents to five boys, are actually in the business of raising sons who look and act like heroes. Cavill’s oldest brother, Piers, spent a decade as an officer in the British Army. Nik, the second-oldest, is a highly decorated Royal Marine, having served in Sierra Leone and Iraq and as an infantry commander in Afghanistan.
While nowhere near actually influencing matters of global security, Cavill’s work ethic for Man of Steel seems to follow his family’s code of honor. “Henry’s commitment was legendary,” Amy Adams says. “He would get up to work out at three every morning so he’d look right in the suit all day. His discipline is extraordinary.” Snyder had a goal in mind for sculpting Cavill’s body. “When I was doing 300,” the director says, “I wanted the guys looking like they could survive life in the woods, like they could hunt things down and kill them. For Superman, for Henry, you want that . . . and a little more.” Since the movie wrapped, Cavill has lost nearly all the bulk he put on. He no longer looks like a man-bear. “I’m not eating 5,000 calories a day anymore,” he says. He’s also cut back on the grueling Tabata workout methods employed by his trainer, Mark Twight, the record-breaking speed alpinist who has become Hollywood’s go-to sensei for creating musculature that looks computer-generated but isn’t. Aside from his caloric intake, Cavill, showing both respect for trade secrets and a reasonable fear of Internet trolls, refuses to divulge any additional numbers. “I will say I was a lot bigger as Superman,” he says. “A lot bigger. I’m not saying how much. It’s modesty about the weight — I’ve always been worried about my weight — but I also don’t want to invite that debate: Henry weighs this, so he’s the perfect Superman. Or, Henry doesn’t weigh this, and therefore he’s not believable in the role.”
Cavill reviews his rigors, months of them, calmly and dispassionately. “We did some of the first shots in Plano, Illinois,” he recalls, “and they’d get me up at the crack of dawn, and we’d go to work in this tiny gym at the bottom of the very cheap motel we were staying in. We’d go for an hour, an hour and a half, and then we’d film all day in 100-degree temperatures.” A later shoot outside Vancouver found Cavill, shirtless in near-freezing temperatures and lashing rain — a Seahawk helicopter pushing 80-mile-per-hour downwinds on his head — doing take after take of a scene in which Clark Kent rescues men from a burning oil rig. “He’s out there for hour after hour,” Snyder says, “and I never hear a peep. Not a complaint. Never ‘Can we hurry this up? Because I’m freezing.’ I sort of expected it, you’d expect it from anyone, but it never came. I don’t think it’s even in the realm of possibility for Henry. He’s that dedicated. He’s that strong.”
It’s been nearly two years since principal photography began on Man of Steel —162 days of shooting, 16 months and counting of post-production — giving Cavill plenty of time to consider whether he’ll become the next big thing or the next Brandon Routh. At the moment, he’s jobless — reading scripts, looking for a project, hoping the studio picks up its option on the contract he signed to play Superman in at least two sequels. “The hardest part of acting,” Cavill says, “is not being guaranteed work. Every job could be your last.” He gathers his thoughts, smacks his palms on the table. The right eyebrow shoots up again. “But I cannot wait for this movie to come out,” he says, exuding the same kind of enthusiasm that drove him to race around his house like a golden retriever when he first got the role. “The studio just showed me the completed cut. I literally asked to watch it twice in a row. I’m so excited. I just want to show it to the world.”
Cavill is keenly aware of the utter frivolity of a popcorn movie and his special-effects-enhanced portrayal of a superhero. Cavill knows the superhero’s resonance is need-based. He’s studied the role, the history, the gravitas. When Superman connects with an audience, Cavill understands it’s not about a fantasy but about hope, an unrelenting belief in the existence of good. It’s a high-risk project and a high-risk role precisely because it carries that weight. A casual Superman, Cavill recognizes, is an ineffectual Superman. “And Henry,” says Snyder, “is heart-attack serious.”
“This character matters so much to so many people,” Cavill says. “I want to get that right. I want to do it justice. I want people to believe in the character and have faith in the character and kids to grow up wanting to be Superman.
“Or, forbid,” he says, “there’s people who are going through hardship and wishing that this character would turn up and save them.”