HENRY CAVILL: SUPER SPY
He’s a proper English gentleman who became Hollywood’s all-American badass. But strip away the tights, Savile Row suits, and secret identities, and who is Henry Cavill?
I’m having an afternoon beer with Superman.
More specifically, I’m having a proper British pint, a golden, glistening glass whose shimmering depths promise all the glory of that most fleeting of moments: the English summertime. It’s a rare sunny day in west London. We’re sitting in the sweltering beer garden of a pub in leafy Twickenham—near where England’s national team plays rugby union, the bone-crunching football-with-no-helmets battle royale often described as “a hooligan’s game played by gentlemen”—and 32-year-old Henry Cavill is drinking his second pint of pilsner top (a pilsner with a dash of lemonade) and radiating contentment.
Cavill is wearing a shapeless dark green Royal Marines hoodie (his brother Nik is a lieutenant colonel who served three tours in Afghanistan and in the invasion of Iraq) and sporting a wildly tangled beard that would guarantee his anonymity had he not spent much of 2013’s blockbuster Man of Steel sporting, well, a wildly tangled beard. But no one bothers him. We are far from Hollywood, in every sense. “If I suggested to an American journalist that we do an interview over a beer,” says Cavill, “they’d find it very weird.” (Full disclosure: I am also British.)
Beer, wooden tables, small dogs. The scene couldn’t be more English if Her Majesty the Queen showed up with tea and crumpets. It’s fitting, because Henry Cavill is a very English Englishman. Born in Jersey, the idyllic island in the English Channel (not the industrial zone adjacent to New York City) and educated at Stowe, the private boarding school, Cavill embodies what his fellow countrymen would identify as “officer class.” Men with Cavill’s privileged upbringing and schooling are often accused of being snobs. But they’re also described as steadfast, honorable, and unfailingly polite. Cavill is the latter. He is a gentleman. He is old-school.
So it came as something of a surprise, back in the U.K. in 2011, when Cavill was cast as the all-American Last Son of Krypton in Man of Steel, director Zack Snyder and producer Christopher Nolan’s dark, controversial take on the Superman origin story, in which Cavill’s carefully controlled moral turmoil suggests that Superman’s true superpower is a stiff upper lip. His compelling performance established Cavill as an A-lister, cementing his spot in next year’s sure-to-be-blockbuster Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, in which he squares off against Ben Affleck’s Dark Knight, and two subsequent ensemble Justice League films, DC Comics’ answer to archrival Marvel’s The Avengers movies.
Before all that, however, Cavill appears onscreen as a character who couldn’t be more different from his clean-cut Kal-El. This month he plays the cynical, debonair thief-turned-super-spy Napoleon Solo in The Man from U.N.C.L.E., director Guy Ritchie’s frenetic reboot of the Cold War TV series. Joyfully unpretentious, the movie is a fast-paced marvel of period production design, like Mad Men, but with fights and car chases instead of pitch meetings and cigarettes. Playing opposite Armie Hammer (the Winklevii in The Social Network and the masked star of The Lone Ranger) as ascetic Soviet hardman Illya Kuryakin, Cavill’s Napoleon is a scoundrel with style. Forget truth, justice, and the American way—Solo is out for himself.
Having claimed the mantle of cinema’s ultimate good guy, is Cavill now also angling to take ownership of the most charismatic jerk in cinema?