Just how heavy is Superman’s cape? Ask Henry Cavill, the British actor who has the weight of history, expectations and a blockbuster budget all sitting on his broad shoulders. Cavill will portray “the last son” of the planet Krypton in “Man of Steel,” the 2013 release that Warner Bros. hopes will launch a franchise to fill the void left by Harry Potter’s graduation from Hogwarts and Christopher Nolan’s pending departure from Gotham City.
The film has been shooting in Vancouver but Cavill made a quick trip to Los Angeles recently to promote the film “Immortals” and he sat down with our Geoff Boucher for a lengthy interview that led to a Los Angeles Times cover story on that mythology film and the actor’s own life odyssey. There was plenty that didn’t make it into the story — most of it about “Man of Steel” — and you’ll find it in the Q&A below, including Cavill’s interest in “Red Son” and Mark Millar’s alternate “history” that imagines what would have happened if baby Superman’s rocket had landed in the Soviet Union.
GB: Superman and Clark Kent are two sides of the same coin — is there one of them that you have better or quicker affinity for when you walk on to the set?
HC: Hmmm. I have to be very careful what I say, only because I’ll get excited and talk about my process and then I might reveal too much stuff. Both are difficult and easy to play in their respective ways. Essentially, yes, one is a disguise but the one that’s not a disguise is so unreal that brings difficulties of its own with it. I mean, once the shroud is cast off, yeah, there’s that — but he can fly. [Laughs] Overall, there’s no one that’s easier or less easy than the other. It is a lot of fun having two characters in one role which are so intertwined with each other. It’s the same person, definitely, but it’s the presentation. And that is fun.
GB: When you consider your craft, what is the challenge you have right now as an actor? Especially as you move from something like the period-piece drama of “The Tudors” to films of the fantastic with “Man of Steel” and “Immortals.”
HC: Really, the approach I have is about focus on the moment and challenge at hand. I’ve got my head so firmly planted in what I’m doing right now, whatever that entails for the moment, and at this moment its been the 45-day lean and all the shirtless stuff and representing Superman in that physical way both efficiently and sufficiently for the fans. It’s also been about relating to the source material and this modern telling of the story. Next week it will be something else. As far as craft goes, the whole world has changed professionally. There are opportunities everywhere and I have more of a choice. I get to choose my direction more easily. There are scripts floating about which I can say, ‘I’d love to be part of that,’ and there’s a good chance I will be able to become part of that. It’s now about making the right choice of scripts. People have this belief that actors are able to go out there and say, ‘Oh I choose this job,’ but most of the time we’re just taking the job we can get. We don’t just get offered thousands of jobs; we might earn one job a year and that’s the one we’ll take because we’ve got to pay the rent. Now I potentially get the luxury of choice and it is more about making the right choice for a career path [to shape] the audience interpretation of me as an actor.
GB: Often, the difference between good and great are the things you don’t do. The things you turn down are just as important as the ones you take.
HC: Absolutely true. The wise person will turn down a lot. Not every job is a good job.
GB: In “Immortals,” you play Theseus, the son of a god who is reluctantly pushed to a date with destiny after the violent death of his mortal mother. Is there anything instructive in that as far your approach to Superman and trying to make relatable for a contemporary moviegoing audience? Both are heroic, earnest, honest and, in a way, both feel like characters of another time when you consider the relentlessly ironic age we live in.
HC: It is quite easy with a mythology-based story, really, because they’re designed to connect with an audience. Everyone is different, they have their different viewpoints on life, and different people will connect with Theseus or they won’t. Hopefully, we’ve given it enough of a general field of personality that almost everyone will have something they connect with in the character. It’s not something I deliberately thought about because that’s not who Theseus is; he doesn’t [care] about what people think. He exists because he exists, he doesn’t bend toward anyone or anything.
GB: What are some of the key differences you see between Kal-El of Krypton and Theseus of ancient Greece?
HC: If Theseus had super powers, he would be the Superman who didn’t grow up with the Kents. He would be the Superman who grew up in an unpleasant upbringing. You can imagine how scary and angry Superman would be as a personality if he fell into a broken family where the father cheats or there’s abuse. You can imagine how he would develop as an emotional person. It’d be a bit like the story in “Red Son,” he’s not evil but he’s very different because of environment. The upbringing of Theseus is the polar opposite — the absolute negative of — the upbringing that the Kents gave Superman. The interesting thing is that his upbringing makes Theseus a violent and dangerous force but at his core he is good and he wants to do good but it takes a lot of convincing to get him to a point where he thinks the world is worth it.
GB: That “Red Son” reference you made — that’s something that will catch the eye of comic book fans when they read it.
HC: Oh, yes, I’ve done my research. I stocked up on source material and buried my head in it for a while …. I didn’t see a lot of comic books growing up. At boarding school there wasn’t much time for much of anything except education. Up until I was 13 [before I arrived at Stowe School] it wasn’t so bad, but at boarding school you are there and there’s a small village nearby but you are not getting to stop by a shop on the way home to buy a book. I mean, you might get a chance to watch a little TV at some stage of the day but otherwise you’re in class, studying, eating, playing sports or sleeping. I didn’t get a chance to indulge in comics as a kid, which I’m actually quite happy about because as an adult I get to read the best of it. I can pick up a whole series and read them in one go, too, I don’t have to wait a week or a month for the next issue to come out. It’s like watching a box set of a TV show, you can go nonstop. I like sitting there and diving in until I’m brain dead. And I do enjoy them; as an adult I have retained my sense of wonder and love of stories and fantasy world. I really liked “Death of Superman” and “Return of Superman,” those are my favorite ones, and “The New 52” is great stuff and “Earth One,” although I know people think that is a mixed bag. With “Red Son,” I thought it was interesting as a different perspective. It was out there and I like that. It was essential to my character research, too. When you’ve got two polar opposite viewpoints of the same character, you will see what the authors consider the important baseline trend. I got to see that and see the different ways he would have developed and that was very useful to me. And because we are retelling the story and we are doing our own reinvention and a modernization for the screen, I get the opportunity to add my own interpretation of how he developed. So that was cool to look at “Red Son” and see what changed, what didn’t change and what that reveals about the baseline of Superman. You can find what is essential to Superman and what is nature vs. nurture by locating that baseline.
GB: I always smile a bit when fans lash out and say some new interpretation of Superman is inaccurate because usually at the center of that criticism there’s an unrecognized assumption that the “real” Superman was whatever version they read or watched when they were at a formative age. The character changes constantly according to the year and the medium. Even the most fixed parts of his mythology and visage have a wobble and blur if you step back and really look at it clinically.
HC: Absolutely, and everyone will take what they want and everyone will have their favorites. And I think it’s great that it does change. It should change and should evolve. I think “The New 52” stuff is fantastic because it is an evolution of the character. Initially, people will just rail against it and others will love it and they debate it. They care, which is great, but all of it is part of this evolution and in 30 years they will forget. In three decades when someone dares to put a pair of red underpants on the outside [of Superman’s costume] again, someone will go crazy and say, ‘What are you doing?! This isn’t Superman anymore!’ It’s all mythology and people take what they want from it …. Superman is a bit more clear-cut than Theseus but people can still look into the character of Superman and have polar opposite opinions about what he is and who he is. That’s the wonder of mythology. We make the interpretations and hear the messages we want to hear.
GB: I read once a long time ago — and I’m not sure if this is true at all — that Superman was the first character in Western fiction who flew horizontally without wings. Even if he wasn’t, the idea of flying like a swimmer in the sky without any obvious propulsion is pretty nutty on close inspection. Here’s a random question: Do you do the flat-palm flying or the follow-your-fist approach?
HC: The fist thing is quite a natural thing to do once you’ve gotten into the mind set of being horizontal and flying. Because there is no inner propulsion system that you can dial up. You do it in a very human way. ‘I am now going faster,’ that’s when the clenched fist thing kind of happens. It’s all fun.
GB: You have to have supreme confidence in your director on movies like “Man of Steel” and “Immortals” because so much of the finished product is not visible to you there on the set or during your performance. Is that nerve-racking in any way for you?
HC: You’re given art to work from and Zack sort of describes everything to me. D.J. [John Des Jardin, the visual effects supervisor] and Zack and everyone involved in all the visuals, I trust them completely. There’s no point in not trusting them. You do your stuff, you do your bit and then stand back and then leave it to the professionals.
GB: You’re also working with Amy Adams, who has some remarkable variety in her work coming off of “The Fighter” and with “The Muppets” on the way.
HC: She’s a wonderful person with really good, high energy. I’m really glad she got the opportunity to do “The Fighter” and show her chops as an actor.
GB: For an actor, playing Superman might invite some surreal encounters — the fans do take this very seriously. Have you had any interesting sidewalk moments since they announced your casting?
HC: No not really. I’ve been in a cocoon, really, with work. I haven’t had a chance to get out much. Nothing really nutty but people are very excited sometimes and sometimes very nervous — and they shouldn’t be nervous, I love meeting everyone — but nothing strange so far. I’m ready for that part of it when it happens.
GB: Christopher Nolan is an intriguing presence in this project as producer and also sharing the story credit with David S. Goyer. The extent of Nolan’s hands-on work isn’t all that clear to people on the outside. He’s obviously been extremely busy with “The Dark Knight Rises,” but what sort of interaction have you had with him on “Man of Steel”?
HC: I haven’t seen him. He’s a busy man. I haven’t met him yet and I really look forward to meeting him.
GB: With months on the set, the intensity of the action sequences and the gym demands of wearing a suit like that — this must be an exercise in stamina at some points and invigorating at others. What stage are you in right now?
HC: It’s very exciting, I’m really enjoying it. Get stuck in there, getting my hands dirty and just immersing myself in what is the job. I’m loving every second of it. It’s incredibly hard work at some points. I’m just coming off of a 45-day lean because there were various shirtless scenes that I’m sure you probably saw online over the past month. To lean and to train and to work 12 hours a day is taxing on the willpower and the body, but the stuff we’re getting is fantastic and really, really fun. And I get to wake up every morning and say, “I’m Superman.” I’m not complaining.
— Geoff Boucher
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