‘Man of Steel’: Henry Cavill found ‘essential’ insight in ‘Red Son’

Nov. 21, 2011 | 3:37 a.m.

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.

henry cavill Man of Steel: Henry Cavill found essential insight in Red Son

Henry Cavill (Kristian Dowling / Associated Press)

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.”

portrait Man of Steel: Henry Cavill found essential insight in Red Son

Henry Cavill stars in mythical “Immortals” and the upcoming “Man of Steel.” (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

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.

superman gallery2 Man of Steel: Henry Cavill found essential insight in Red Son

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.

superman red son Man of Steel: Henry Cavill found essential insight in Red Son

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.

red son Man of Steel: Henry Cavill found essential insight in Red SonHC: 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.

manofsteel Man of Steel: Henry Cavill found essential insight in Red Son

Henry Cavill as Superman in “Man of Steel” (Warner Bros.)

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.

henry cavill immortals premiere Man of Steel: Henry Cavill found essential insight in Red Son

Henry Cavill at premiere of “Immortals” (Mario Anzuoni / Reuters)

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.

henry cavill bow arrow Man of Steel: Henry Cavill found essential insight in Red Son

Henry Cavill in “Immortals” (Relativity Media)

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.

henry cavill ap Man of Steel: Henry Cavill found essential insight in Red Son

Henry Cavill (Kristian Dowling / Associated Press)

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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20 Responses to ‘Man of Steel’: Henry Cavill found ‘essential’ insight in ‘Red Son’

  1. Ravens.Son says:

    Great Interview, i'm looking forward to seeing Henry's take on the man of steel.
    Was hoping to see a question or two about the Legendary Christopher Reeve though.

  2. infinitemkys says:

    Dam he is good looking.

  3. palmstring says:

    I like to see how he fares in the latest superhero installment. I didn't enjoy very much on "Superman Returns," whose only highlight I know was the rescuing the plane.

  4. Serbella says:

    At least Cavill read some of the Superman graphic novels. That's more than some of these no-talent hacks (*coughsBret Ratnercoughs*) did. Note to studios: For the love of God, PLEASE keep Ratner away from the X-Men franchise, or any other superhero franchise, for that matter. He's done enough damage. As far as Man of Steel goes, I'm willing to reserve judgment until I actually see the movie. For the record, I did enjoy Brandon Routh in "Superman Returns." I know he needed to be re-introduced to the movie audience, but the worst part about that movie was the Lex Luthor land grab. Been there, done that. Supes needed battle scenes between him and a giant robot, for example. Something we hadn't seen before.

    • Guest123 says:

      Agreed. Dear Movie Industry,

      Do us less pain and agony by keeping Brett Ratner away from any comic book movie, and any movie for that matter. He lacks the talent, intelligence, and grace found in directors like Zack Snyder and David Fincher.

  5. Canary says:

    D.J. DesJardin is an awesome VFX Supervisor. Some of his credits include THE MATRIX and SUCKER PUNCH. No doubt this movie will LOOK amazing. Kudos to Cavill for calling him out. It's true, they do have a lot of professionals on this movie who KNOW what they're doing, to not only impress the fanboys/fangirls, but to the general movie goer as well.

  6. guest says:

    ": 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."

    just gonna throw peter pan out there

  7. andre' says:

    This is it…. This may very well be THE most anticipated movie of all time.. Ok, perhaps not of ALL time but surely for many of us fan boys. I've been following my favorite hero since I was a little boy and he has been such a big part of my life – The death of superman left me in tears at the mall many years ago – It was a rough day.

    But I'm sure we can all agree that there's just is no other hero like Superman, and never could be, and as far as hero's go, no one can match Superman's iconic prowess. The ultimate hero so to speak. The first time I saw a picture Henry Cavill it was obvious that he is the man. He truly reminds me of superman in justice league crisis on two earths. The young, fresh, kind of heart and ready to bloody rumble all encompassing look which Henry Cavill has absolutely nailed. (Good genes I'm sure).

    But if this doesn't convince you that he is the man then surely nothing will. We have to allow a little elbow room for the creative process of others. In this case one can very easily get upset or feel bereft of something that has been so commercially free and available to all of us. So, I feel, we should give some credit and support to everyone involved for having the courage to take on something so HUGE and opinionated from the get go.

    This Henry Cavill chap really seems to have his head on his shoulders and from what has been produced by the creative talent in this fellowship I have no doubt this movie is gonna be breathtaking.

  8. pat says:

    er, nope. Forget movies overall, it's not even my most anticipated superhero movie of the next few years, to be honest. I'm supposed to care about this movie more than Dark Knight Rises? Avengers? Sequels to Iron Man, Thor and Captain America? lol. No. About the only thing this would take priority over is the Spider Man reboot and Ghost Rider. Really not looking forward to the Spider Man reboot at all, even though I like Emma Stone. But Singer did a lot of damage to the Superman brand and Snyder and Cavill are uninspiring as well. They kind of make me fell hopeless about the movie really. But I'll still probably see the movie, Hey, I saw Superman Returns, didn't I? And this can't be any worse than that, can it? Surely not.

    • Andre says:

      You make some good points Pat. Those other hero movies and sequels are sure to make big waves in the future.

      I guess I’m just optimistic. The idea of a proper live action Superman film just sends my imagination into overdrive.

      I for one think the Spiderman reboot movie had to happen and so far it looks great. The other spiderman films where just silly. Glad they’re bringing it into the “real world” style like with batman and not holding onto that over-saturated cheesy style the other spidey films had. It just feels evolved and progressive, and look, I’m not the only one who thinks a reboot was necessary. Looks who’s making the movie.

      Anyway, we all have our own opinions and tastes. I really hope Superman works, but if it doesn’t work and flops.. well..then I’ll just have to do it myself one day! :)

      • chuk says:

        I think the new superman films will be nothin short of spectacular he's the greatest superhero of all time & this will put him back at number 1 ahead of spider-man

  9. VoyagerG says:

    My goodness is he handsome! I enjoyed reading this interview, he's thoughtful, well-spoken and intelligent. I'm excited to see this new version, whether the look and concepts last or not, it's just one man's vision. Like the Salkinds had theirs. Superman is a dynamic character sometimes. It's still exciting that we have a new movie coming out.

  10. brian says:

    He's looks nothing like Christopher reeves or Josh Welding from smallville. Just becouse you can get someone with blue eyes and muscle body dont mean nothing, but will see. I guess it's his hair, it's too poofy, it needs too have that super pat down slick look like Christopher Reeves, they need to work on that. I actually liked Brandon Routh, he was close look, in fact he did a great job playing Clark. Playing Man of steel plays itself by standing there with power conception, but Clark takes skill and swag to acomplish, but hey thats my opion. Just do something with that hair Hollywood, and I might change my mind on that look, and stop changing the dam suit Hollywood dumbies.

  11. gabriel says:

    brian… forget acting credentials… a great producer.. a great set designer.. you are homing in on hair? and that he looks like nothing like reeves and wheldon? i know this may be sacriligious to some but you dont have to be the second coming of reeves to make this work. did i miss something or didnt superman the movie have one of the longest worst scenes in superhero history? ( the lois lane flying scene and her voice over).. i worked in a movie theater and this scene turned out to be an intermission. i do agree about not liking the suit.. he needs the red over the blue.. and the cape needs to stay on… but maybe we were seeing shots fo him before the cape was put on with cgi?.. just a thought

  12. @AlexisCeule says:

    Fantastic interview Geoff! Great questions and clearly, Henry enjoyed opening up to you. That's not a learned skill, so bravo!

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