Henry Cavill goes undercover in The Man from U.N.C.L.E
When not saving the universe, the British actor likes a quiet pint down his local pub
I hope Henry Cavill will forgive me for noting that there is the slightest kink in the bridge of his nose. Aside from that, the British actor deals in the manly perfection prized by the creators of 1950s cigarette commercials.
His triangular upper-body barely contained in a neat cream shirt, he radiates the sort of crisp swagger that we thought to have died with Douglas Fairbanks. As he speaks, he whacks his thigh with a military gusto that registers throughout on my recording.
“I made Tristan and Isolde and The Tudors in Ireland,” he barks, as I curl my pink, creased, hideous body into a seat opposite the great frame.
Indeed, he did. He also spent four years playing the Duke of Suffolk in The Tudors and shot The Count of Monte Cristo here at the start of the century.
“I really do love Ireland,” he says. “It’s impossible not to love Ireland. It taught me to love the rain. I’m genuinely grateful for that. I used to moan about it, but now I embrace it.”
You will know Cavill best for his role as Superman in Man of Steel. Of course they cast him as the indestructible vigilante from beyond the stars. In comparison, all other candidates looked like, well, me. This week he takes on another chiselled avatar of popular culture: Napoleon Solo in Guy Ritchie’s suave take on The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
Jumping around“Pretty much all of what you see is me,” he says. “There is some stuff too risky. It’s odd. There’s this bit where I jump onto a boat. I can do that. I can jump onto a boat. But if I do hurt my knee or whatever then they have to reorganise and that costs so much money.”
I’m sure they haven’t designed the boat that Henry couldn’t jump upon. He’s had the training. Raised in the Channel Islands, Cavill was head of the combined cadet force at Stowe School – alma mater of David Niven – and feels he would have gone into the army if he hadn’t made it as an actor.
As it happened, he left the school early after securing a role in that undervalued version of The Count of Monte Cristo.
“I’ll tell you a funny story,” he says. “I got this letter at the time saying: ‘Henry is not to communicate with any of the boys. He is not allowed to visit. He will not get an “Old Stoic” tie. He is not allowed to any of the reunions.’
“My mum thought: ‘What the hell.’ We phoned them up and, somewhere in the system, they’d got confused and had hit the button on the computer for ‘expelled’.”
Manly thigh slap.
Conspicuous failureCavill secured parts here and there after Monte Cristo. He toyed with moving to Los Angeles. He had long, uneasy conversations with bank managers. But it took a conspicuous failure for him to finally register with casting agents.
“I got cast in Tristan and Isolde. And I thought, when this comes out, I’ll decide. If it doesn’t do it for me, I will pull the plug. It wasn’t a huge hit. It didn’t make my name. I was thinking maybe of joining the Navy air wing.”
This was 2006 and a certain unavoidable franchise was grinding back into action.
“Then I got a screen test for Bond,” he explains. “I thank [007 producer] Barbara Broccoli so much for that. When I got that test, I got shortlisted for the part. That got my name in Variety. I was one of four guys – Daniel being one of the others, of course. Suddenly, I was the guy who was almost Bond. I wasn’t exactly ‘a name’. But it was enough for producers to say: ‘Okay. Maybe give him a go.’ ”
The Tudors got him on the telly, but it was the role of Superman that made his implausibly heroic face an emblem of the age. A lot has changed since Christopher Reeve stepped relatively quietly into the role. The studio, at that point, still had both hands on the gears of the publicity machine.
In 2013, when Man of Steel was released, no PR wonk had any control over the torrent of internet chatter. As Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice approaches, Cavill is the subject of more digital banter – good and bad – than any sane fellow could handle.
“Mostly bad,” he says with the slightest twitch. “I make the choice not to look at it. There is sometimes a point when you wonder what people are saying. You look and it destroys you. The internet is full of hate. This is how I see it: if I read those things, then they exist for me. If I don’t read them, then they just don’t exist – the spitefulness and the venom. Nobody is going to come up and say: ‘I believe you dated that girl for publicity reasons.’ That’s a crazy thing to say.”
He treats the internet as if it were Schrödinger’s cat in the famous quantum physics analogy? If he never opens the box, then the cat will never die?
“Ha ha. That’s right. If you don’t read it, then it doesn’t exist.”
The upside is the adulation he gets at events such as Comic-Con in San Diego. They worship the stars at those fan conventions.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever had the feeling of what it must have been to be a Roman emperor,” he laughs. “We did this interview on a balcony and every time I walked out there would be this roar. I’d step back and they’d go quiet. Such a fun feeling.”
Super-shtumThere are eight months to go before Cavill squares up to Ben Affleck’s Batman. During that period, he must remain silent about every tiny detail of the picture. Even his nearest and dearest remain out of the picture.
“It’s not that hard,” he says. “If they get into questions I have to say: ‘I’m not going to tell you that.’ That makes it easier for them. Then they don’t have to lie to anybody and they can enjoy the film.”
Very sensible. Then there are the folks down the pub. Cavill recently bought a mews house in Kensington. When not saving the universe, he spends evenings in a local hostelry whose clientele, he says proudly, have never once summoned the gossip rags. Mind you, I’m sure there’s no gossip to report. Right?
“Oh, I barely drink,” he says with a broad smile. The toothy twinkle is brighter than most explosions.
nThe Man from
U.N.C.L.E. is out now on general release and is reviewed on p10-11