When Henry Cavill was 17, Russell Crowe visited his school to film scenes for the 2000 film Proof Of Life.
‘One of the guys at school was playing Russell’s son,’ says Cavill.
‘The scene involved Russell coming to visit him. I was one of the Combined Cadet Force (CCF) kids chosen to be in the background.
‘Between takes everyone was standing around and I thought, “We all look like clunkers standing here staring at him.” So I went over and said, “Hello. My name is Henry and I’m thinking of becoming an actor.”
‘He was very encouraging. He told me, “Sometimes they treat you well and sometimes they don’t and sometimes the pay is great and sometimes it’s not. But it’s great fun.”
‘And then everyone else who had seen me chatting came over and started asking for his autograph. I waved at him and said, “Quick, run!” I remember he laughed.
‘A couple of days later I got a note from Russell that said, “Dear Henry, the journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step. Best, Russell.”
‘He also sent me a signed photo from Gladiator, an Aussie rugby jersey, some Aussie sweets and a jar of Vegemite. It was incredibly kind of him. It actually made me think, “Yes, this is what I want to do.”’
Thrilling though a chance encounter with a bona fide star must have been for a teenage boy, Cavill never dreamed his tale would have a Hollywood ending, but it has.
This week, the callow schoolboy becomes the first British actor to play Superman, in Man of Steel… and his mentor, Crowe, plays his father.
‘It’s amazing,’ he laughs. ‘It felt like he was there to greet me at the end of this long journey.’
Today, Cavill is standing on the set of Hollywood blockbuster Man Of Steel in Vancouver, telling me about the day he first donned the Superman cape.
‘I was infused with this childlike excitement. I had been to numerous fittings, through all the prototype phases, with hundreds of bits of the costume. I promised myself I wouldn’t look in the mirror until the whole shebang was ready.
When I turned around, it took my breath away. The “S” emblazoned on my chest, the boots, the red cape… Superman seeps into every boy’s consciousness.
‘I remember running around the garden with a makeshift cape, then later a hand-me-down from one of my older brothers.
‘The “S” is the third most recognisable symbol on the planet, after the Christian Cross and Coca-Cola. It isn’t a Hallowe’en costume. I was Superman.’
There was a certain poetic justice in that moment, which was not lost on ‘Fat Cavill’ – his phrase.
Staring back from the mirror was the once-obese teenager who had been bullied at that same boarding school where he met Crowe; the struggling British actor who had lost out on both an earlier role of Superman, then James Bond – to Daniel Craig.
‘I don’t know if I believe in fate,’ Cavill, 30, had said when we first met. But vindication is surely his.
As a teenager Cavill was overweight and unhappy. Aged 13, he arrived midway through the first term at Stowe, one of Britain’s most prestigious public schools, where fees are more than £9,000 a term.
‘I got there late and the other kids had all formed their groups and cliques,’ he recalls as we sit to the side of a gigantic green screen during a break in filming a scene where Superman flies.
Six foot tall and nearly 16st, with an impressively chiselled jawline, Cavill looks every inch the superhero.
‘I had been head boy at my prep school. I had ambition. I wanted to be head boy at my boarding school. I think, immediately, that put some noses out of joint.
‘There were a lot of popular kids with older brothers who were lined up to be the head of house. It’s human nature to want to get rid of the competition.
‘I was a fat kid so I was an easy target. “Fat Cavill” was the nickname, which was a totally fair nickname, because I was fat.’
The second youngest of five boys, Cavill was born and raised on Jersey by his mother, Marianne, and investment banker father Colin, now his business manager.
The family was close. Money wasn’t a problem.
But, suffering from Osgood-Schlatter disease, a common condition among adolescents, which causes swelling in the knee joints, Cavill couldn’t exercise.
‘Osgood-Schlatter disease is associated with growing pains and is pretty gnarly when you are a kid and you don’t know what’s going on. But it passes and it did.
‘However, it meant that I wasn’t able to do as much sport. So I lagged behind.
‘I was homesick. I wasn’t getting along with people. School was a scary place – whether that’s your fault or their fault.
‘There was nothing physical. I was a chubby kid but I wasn’t a weakling. I could have stood up for myself in that department. It was name-calling, and kids do that. So I comfort ate.
‘There was also a lot of crying down the phone to Mum and Dad, maybe three times a day. I’m from a big family. I like that pack mentality and I wasn’t getting it at school.
‘Eventually my mother said to me, “Look darling, you’ve got to stop calling because it’s just making it worse.” So I did and it got easier because there wasn’t a constant reminder of what I didn’t have.
‘Tough love worked. Now they can’t get a phone call out of me!
‘I’ve thought about it a lot over the years. Kids are cruel. When you put kids in that kind of environment, it’s what they do.
‘They are stretching their muscles; trying to work out who they are.
‘I don’t want it to be misconstrued that I’m whining about it now because I’m not. Nor am I condoning bullying.’
Cavill eventually settled at Stowe, lost weight, joined the CCF and started getting interested in acting.
Initially he was torn between joining the Army (his second eldest brother, Major Niki Cavill of the Royal Marines, was recently awarded an MBE for his work in Afghanistan) and treading the boards, but then came that transformative meeting with Crowe.
Cavill is one of a legion of public-school-educated actors currently setting the pace in film and TV, including Damian Lewis (Homeland), Benedict Cumberbatch (Star Trek Into Darkness), Eddie Redmayne (Les Misérables) and Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey).
A few months after our interview in Vancouver, I meet him in the bar of a London hotel. He acknowledges how lucky he is to have had a private-school education.
‘There are a lot of great British actors who aren’t public school-educated and they are doing well. But I do think public school does give you a sense of fortitude.
‘There’s something about the education they give you. It’s tough. It’s “welcome to life, kiddo”. They instill in you the need to work hard and, yes, hard work pays off.
‘Public school certainly readied me for Hollywood. It prepared me for the rejection and being told: “No, you’re not good enough. Go away. Try harder.” Public school teaches you how to deal with all that crap. It teaches you to knuckle down and get on with it.’
In his early twenties Cavill grazed on the relatively unglamorous lower slopes of his profession – Midsomer Murders and The Inspector Lynley Mysteries – before graduating to films, including I Capture The Castle, Tristan & Isolde, Red Riding Hood and Stardust.
There were near misses.
In 2004, director Joseph ‘McG’ Nichol was casting for his version of Superman and Cavill was offered the part.
Then the studio pulled the plug on the director and opted instead for Bryan Singer. Singer preferred another unknown, Brandon Routh. The resulting 2006 film – Superman Returns – was forgettable and played poorly at the box office.
Soon after this setback, Cavill was approached by Eon Films, which was looking to replace Pierce Brosnan with a younger, more vital James Bond. Would Cavill try out for the part of 007?
‘I got shortlisted and it came down to me, Daniel (Craig) and possibly a third man.
‘Obviously I was disappointed not to get it. Who doesn’t want to play Bond? But I tried to be positive. I thought, “OK, if I’m getting close to a role that size, it’s a good sign.” ’
Instead, he landed the less prestigious role of Charles Brandon, 1st Duke of Suffolk in the unashamedly sexy and violent period drama The Tudors, made by American company Showtime. Jonathan Rhys Meyers starred as an insatiable Henry VIII. The series was a hit, particularly in the States, where Cavill was starting to build an influential fan base.
One admirer was Zack Snyder, the director of 300 and Watchmen.
Fast forward six years and Cavill is on the set of Man Of Steel with Snyder, the director, briefing him and his fictional father Jor-El, played by Russell Crowe.
With an original story by Christopher Nolan and David S Goyer – who together re-booted Batman with Christian Bale – DC Comics and Warner Bros have high hopes that Man Of Steel will be the first of a lucrative franchise.
Published in 1938, the first Superman comic told how Kal-El was born on the doomed planet of Krypton before being rocketed to Earth by his father.
Adopted by a Kansas farmer and his wife, he grows up as Clark Kent, becoming a newspaper reporter while battling nefarious villains as Superman.
Nolan’s precise take on the cartoon classic is under wraps but Snyder says that although it sticks to the broad themes of the original story, this film explores the existential side of the superhero. The teenager leaves Kansas to ‘find himself’, improbably working on a trawler and an oil rig.
For Cavill, the transformation to superhero was a gargantuan physical challenge.
‘The production hired a trainer, Mark Twight, to work with me. I’ve always been physical but I’m not always in the gym. In pre-production I was knackered all the time.
‘It was wake up, eat yoghurt and fruit or an omelette, then two hours of stunt training in a special studio: fight choreography and wirework for flying scenes.
‘After lunch, it was cardio work on the treadmill and rowing machine.
‘At first it feels as if everything is getting broken down as you find all the right muscles to develop a base strength.
‘Once you get beyond that, it becomes very exciting. You start to feel powerful and really good about yourself.’
At his peak, Cavill could deadlift 31st. Every morsel of food was accounted for.
‘We started on 3,500 calories a day and then, as I got stronger, it went up to 5,000, because I could lift and burn more.
‘Mark’s rule was one-third carbs, one-third protein, one-third fats. I couldn’t drink alcohol. But towards the end of the shoot, when I’d done all the shirtless scenes, I’d have a drink at the weekend.’
I am loath to mention the Curse of Superman, but it is the elephant in the room.
Proponents of the Curse cite Christopher Reeve’s paralysis in a riding accident; the death of George Reeves (star of TV’s The Adventures Of Superman) from gunshot wounds in 1959; Lois Lane actress Margot Kidder’s battle with addictions; the box-office suicide of Singer’s film version…
‘I don’t believe in fate,’ he laughs. ‘You always hear about the Curse. Is there one? I don’t think so. I think it’s coincidence and bad luck.’
Action and reaction, he insists, have led him to a point where his career will fly or plummet to Earth.
Fat Boy Cavill to Man Of Steel – it has already been an epic journey.