November 10 Henry Cavill was raised to fly

In “Immortals,” the hyper-stylized Greek mythology movie that opens this weekend, Henry Cavill plays brave Theseus, a man who is told by gods and oracles that he has a date with destiny. Cavill can relate, in a way, because a little more than a decade ago, while he was still at a boarding school in Buckinghamshire, England, Cavill shook hands with the future.

The campus of Stowe School was being used as a backdrop for the kidnap thriller “Proof of Life,” and between shots, star Russell Crowe was amusing himself by booting a rugby ball through the posts as dozens of boys at a safe distance watched with wide-eyed fascination and a bit of fear. Cavill was in the crowd and decided that they looked foolish, so he marched up to the movie star and introduced himself.

“I took his hand and said, ‘Hi, Mr. Crowe. My name is Henry, and I’m thinking of becoming an actor. What’s it like?’ And we talked just a bit,” the 28-year-old Cavill recalled. “A few days later I got a signed picture of him in ‘Gladiator’ that said, ‘Dear Henry, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.’ You can imagine how I felt when I got to the end of that first journey of a thousand miles and I’m working with Russell Crowe. …”

Indeed, Cavill and Crowe have been in Vancouver filming Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel,” with Cavill playing Superman and Crowe, the hero’s doomed alien father, Jor-El, a role that Marlon Brando memorably handled in 1978 — five years before Cavill was born. The cape of Superman is heavier than it looks: There is intense pressure to live up to the history of the hero and to create a franchise that will fly for Warner Bros. now that Harry Potter’s magical box-office run is over and Christopher Nolan’s Batman series is drawing to its own conclusion with next year’s “The Dark Knight Rises.”

During a Los Angeles visit to promote “Immortals,” Cavill was asked again and again about that other movie, but most times the sculpted star politely steered the conversation away from Metropolis and back toward ancient Greece. “Immortals” is from Relativity Media and the producers of “300,” Mark Canton and Gianni Nunnari, and its fevered battlefields and liquid physics will remind many moviegoers of that 2006 Snyder release, which continues to hold the record for one of the biggest opening weekends of any R-rated film. The movie went on to gross $456 million worldwide.

“Immortals,” which also carries an R rating, tells the tale of Theseus, who is the son of Zeus but unaware of his heritage. When he watches his mother die at the hands of a mad king named Hyperion (Mickey Rourke), Theseus must decide whether he will fight for a cause or surrender to despair. The movie also stars Freida Pinto, Luke Evans, Stephen Dorff, John Hurt and Kellan Lutz and was directed by Tarsem Singh, who is now at work on a Snow White film for Relativity called “Mirror, Mirror” and has showed himself to be an adept architect of the surreal with “The Cell” and “The Fall.”

Cavill said his stage background and his love of mythology made it no problem, really, to step into the sandals of antiquity. He’s also had considerable experience in days-of-yore fiction, appearing in two of Kevin Reynolds’ films, “Tristan & Isolde” (2006) and “The Count of Monte Cristo” (2002), and on four seasons of “The Tudors,” which aired on Showtime in the United States.

“I’ve always been a fan of these sort of worlds, the imagery and fantasy, so it wasn’t too much of a stretch to get there in the first place,” Cavill said of his sword time. “I think we get too focused on making oldy-woldy stuff seem oldy-woldy. It wasn’t any different, really. It was a long time ago, and we may have spoken a different language and worn different clothes, but people were the same. There were bullies and love and laughter and teasing and fun and games and family and drinking and sex and violence and betrayal. Those things are still part of who we are, and those things make great stories.”

For “Immortals,” penned by screenwriters Charley and Vlas Parlapanides, the story centers on the lost Bow of Epirus and King Hyperion’s desire to retrieve the magical weapon so he can bring about the fall of Zeus. Cavill trained for six months to prepare for the “Immortals” shoot in Montreal, where horses, extras, village sets and fortress walls were used to add solidity to the film — Singh was adamant that the movie not be all green-screen and “flimsy” like a video game in its visual representation of old Earth and the realm of the gods.

He also made a point to avoid the familiar portrayal of the gods as graybeard lions. “I wanted the gods to be young and powerful,” Singh said. “If you could present yourself at any age, if you could live forever, wouldn’t you make yourself young and beautiful and strong? I know I will get complaints for doing that, but if you look at Renaissance paintings, they took young men’s bodies and stuck old man’s faces on them. If you could look like anybody you wanted, wouldn’t you want to look like Luke and Henry?”

Cavill was born on the tiny isle of Jersey off the coast of Normandy, France, a chunk of land shaped like a craggy bow tie that covers less than 50 square miles. By 13, Cavill, the fourth of five brothers, was “keen to get off the rock” and made it to Stowe School, which shaped much of his personality and steeled him for “the rejection and disappointment” of the acting world.

Cavill is a private person, and, even on the set of “Immortals,” where everyone is caught up in the intense tribal life that is required for a cast making a battle-heavy action film, the actor was a bit elusive, according to Dorff, who plays Stavros, a key compatriot to Theseus. “I have to say I still don’t know the guy too well, and it’s kind of strange,” Dorff said. “I usually know more about people after I work with them. He’s very quiet and to himself. He’s very nice, but I got to know everyone else, but not him. I hope he does well with Superman. That’s a tough one. Bryan Singer tried and couldn’t pull it off, and he’s a pretty damn good director.”

Singer’s “Superman Returns” in 2006 might have been respected more than it was enjoyed, and its $391 million in worldwide box office was considered a disappointment in view of its $270-million production budget and the many, many millions more spent in marketing. Cavill was actually picked to play Superman for that go-around, but when filmmaker McG was replaced by Singer, the job went to Brandon Routh.

Now Cavill finally gets his chance to fly and, as mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent, work in a newsroom with Amy Adams as Lois Lane and Laurence Fishburne as Perry White. The shoot has been “absolutely grueling but incredibly fun,” Cavill said, but the strange stuff will be seeing his face on Slurpee cups, bus ads and action figures.

“I met the guy who is making the action figures the other day, and it was an absolutely wonderful experience, but I was absolutely stunned by the whole experience, too,” Cavill said. “I was shaking hands with a guy who is making a toy out of me. I don’t think there’s any shame in being really excited about it. It’s mega-weird, but as long as you don’t get too wrapped up in it, it’s great. And you know, I don’t want it to end.”

– Geoff Boucher (for LA Times Hero Complex)

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