Depending on whatever profile or interview you read, Henry Cavill is either the luckiest man in Hollywood or the most cursed. Over the course of his relatively short career, the legend persists that Cavill was a hair’s breadth away from being cast in the lion’s share of the biggest franchises of the past twenty years. You name it, Cavill was allegedly the front-runner before falling at the last hurdle: James Bond, Batman, Edward Cullen, a role in the Harry Potter movies, and of course, Superman, albeit in a totally different project from the one he was ultimately cast in. Most of these aren’t true according to Cavill himself — he did audition twice for Potter in the Cedric Diggory role but wasn’t in the final two for the part against Robert Pattinson; he didn’t even get sent a script for Twilight, although author Stephenie Meyer was said to be a fan; and he never met Christopher Nolan for the Batman role. However, he did audition for Bond at the age of 22, getting as far as a screen-test, and was cast in a version of the Superman role that was to be headed up by McG and entitled Superman: Flyby, but once financing fell through, McG was out and Bryan Singer was in, and he came with his own casting choice for the lead.
Read any Cavill profile in the lead-up to the release of Man of Steel and you’ll see a lot of variations of this story. Some will do the fact-checking, others won’t, but the narrative will always be the same: Doesn’t it suck for this guy, who had a respectable career in bit-part film roles and a starring role in a hit TV series, that he’s never broken through? It doesn’t matter that he was never up for Twilight or battling it out with Daniel Craig to become Bond; it just seems like he should have. It feels like the correct narrative to present in the rise to stardom story of Henry Cavill. Celebrity journalism and Hollywood PR love two angles in particular: The second chance comeback and the overnight star. Neither are rooted much in real-life and each narrative overlooks the grinding reality of acting: Slogging it out in audition after audition, taking on the nothing roles in iffy projects, trying to stop people getting sick of you before you’ve ever really become a thing. For Henry Cavill, a man now headlining one of the biggest and most creatively questionable franchises in entertainment for whom the old-school A-List label doesn’t fit so neatly, both narratives have been a major part of his career. A guy who got the Superman role before he turned 30 was suddenly simultaneously a symbol of second chances and overnight fame. His image is a mass of contradictions that betrays the relative simplicity of his career and stardom.
Cavill isn’t posh — he’s a comfortably middle-class guy with a stockbroker father who grew up on the tax haven of Jersey — but he still fits a specific mould of British actors that inspires discussions of poshness. He was educated at two fee paying schools of great repute, like a sizeable portion of the country’s current output of thespians, whose private educations predate lofty ambitions and the work to match. This is nothing new in British culture, and indeed, a ‘good education’ in the private system now seems like a necessity for those entering the field, but Cavill has mostly avoided the label of ‘posh’ throughout his career, despite carrying many of the markers that would have any working to middle class Brit cracking jokes about how much you pay your butler. Perhaps that’s because it’s never been as central to his image as it has with someone like Benedict Cumberbatch or Eddie Redmayne. Those two actors are unavoidably of the upper-middle classes, whereas Cavill seems more rough and tumble, a bit more, for lack of a better term, ‘normal’. That has its benefits, although it’s notable that Cavill still fit the bill for those meaty period drama roles that keep British actors of a certain lineage in steady work. Then again, his version of a period drama was one less concerned with history than good old fashioned fucking.
Following several years in bit-parts, from The Counte of Monte Cristo to I Capture the Castle and even a Hellraiser sequel, Cavill landed the role of Charles Brandon, 1st Duke of Suffolk, in the Showtime series The Tudors. Even by the standards of glossy television dramas sexing up history, this was a show that took the concept to levels beyond a mere stretching of the facts. At times, the ‘pretty people fucking’ slant taken on the show, on a period of the British monarchy that was already mired in sex, veers wildly into purposeful camp. You can’t have a show where Henry VIII looks like Jonathan Rhys Meyers and pretend for a moment that fidelity to the details of the period is your priority. It dares you to complain about the nitty-gritty of details as they force the veritable trophy shelf of hunks to strip off in every episode. Cavill works well in the show because, while it’s obviously a major opportunity in terms of his career, he knows there’s no way you can keep a straight face doing half the stuff he needs to. He’s in a soap opera with nicer costumes and he’s doing to do what needs to be done, preferably with his shirt off.
The Tudors was never the kind of show you banked your whole career on, and what is interesting about Cavill is the way he candidly talks of wanting to be a big, bankable star. He’s not shy about discussing money, nor does he dismiss the role that money plays in his industry. In an interview with British GQ, in which he declared he wanted ‘to be one of those names that producers want to hire because you put bums on seats’, he said, on the matter of money: ‘God, all those people who say, ‘Oh no, the money doesn’t matter.’ Yeah, right. They’re either mad, or they’re lying. I mean, come on. ‘Oh no, don’t pay me anything, it’s for the arts.’ I’m sorry, no. Pay me the money. I’m not doing it for charity. I’m not a nonprofit organisation. Plus it’s expensive flying back and forward to LA. You need a job that pays money.’
For many, this comment reads as arrogance, but I appreciate the brutal honesty of it. Having money is a huge player in determining the roles you can and cannot take as a jobbing actor. I doubt Cavill’s properly struggled for cash in the way many working class actors have been forced to deal with between jobs, but he’s keenly aware that it’s the dollar/pound signs that do most of the talking, even before talent. It feels fundamentally more honest than claiming your financial support system plays no role in whether or not you make it, as if every actor can afford to fly from London to L.A. for auditions on the regular or live in the most expensive cities in the world without a regular salary.
The Tudors did, in Cavill’s own words, give him more ‘sell-ability’ with American audiences, although it took a couple of years after the show’s end for him to truly hit his stride. He had a supporting part in a Woody Allen movie (yes, really), the lead in a Joel Schumacher directed occult Nazi horror (yes, really), and the starring role in Tarsem Singh’s Immortals, where his image first fully melded together the sexy period drama stylings of The Tudors with a more action oriented role. Immortals isn’t great, and Cavill’s not great in it, although it is certainly, in the words of Roger Ebert, ‘the best-looking awful movie you will ever see.’ Many audiences saw it for one simple reason: The new Superman was in it.
Months before his 28th birthday, it was announced that Henry Cavill had been cast as Clark Kent in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, the newest reboot of the classic Superman tale that would bring the character up to date for modern audiences and kickstart DC’s long-awaited expansive franchise of superhero lore. Marvel were already ahead of the game with a series of films that had reached unprecedented levels of success, so DC would have to do something special to avoid playing catch-up. Cavill’s casting felt familiar in the vein of DC’s rivals: An actor with that kind of up-and-coming buzz around him — think Chris Evans or Hemsworth — who has the benefit of already looking like he should be wearing a cape 24/7. In discussing his new Superman, one who wasn’t the unknown entity of Brandon Routh but had a less established presence than Christian Bale pre-Batman, Snyder talked of his earnestness and him having ‘a lot of the qualities that you would hope for in Superman. And they’re not put on. That’s the thing that surprised me. I want my Superman not to be faking it. It’s an easy thing to say but, in truth, that’s not a thing you get, normally.’ Cavill’s potential as Superman — earnest and charming and self-aware enough to pull it off — would be unleashed to its full potential eventually, but not in a DC movie. Man of Steel is an interminable slog, although upon its release, critical word was more positive than it would become in retrospect. Under the creative control of Snyder, the DCU centred grim nihilism over hope and vibrancy, and Cavill suffered for it. He’s not a good Superman, but he’s not playing a good Superman in the first place. He looks the part, but even in a franchise that prizes creating stunning iconography over good characters and story, he can only do so much. It’s to his credit that he at least seems to enjoy and appreciate playing the role and being as involved in this wavering franchise as he is. Compare his promotional work for these films to Ben Affleck, who always looks like he’s trying to scramble away from a crime scene.
The labour of being Superman is its own exhausting process. Cavill is more muscled and sculpted than any Superman before him, and even the macho heroes of Marvel seem slim next to him. It seems telling that the darkest superhero franchise seems determined to have the most masculine looking men in its roster (although it also must be said that Cavill seems more naturally built for such extremities than poor Ben Affleck, who looks perpetually exhausted). Like his candidness with money, Cavill is surprisingly open about the necessity of maintaining a body like his for both work and press expectations. While talking to Men’s Fitness, he said, ‘I stay fit enough to feel comfortable with taking my shirt off at the beach, because someone’s going to take a photo, and then it won’t all of a sudden be, «Hey look, fat Superman!» in the Daily Mail or something like that. It’ll just be, «Hey, look, Henry Cavill at the beach,» and I won’t be ashamed to see that photo.’ He also admitted that he would probably never take on a role that would require a full ‘Christian Bale in The Machinist‘ style physical transformation because ‘I’m not going to choose work to make people go, «Oh, wow, he can really act because he can lose lots of weight.»‘ His attitudes towards a fear of fatness aren’t encouraging but are also a solid sign of the brand of on-screen masculinity he knows he has made his name with, and that keeping up those appearances is a full-time job. When you sign onto a franchise that could eat up more than a decade of your career in your prime, you have to be prepared to stick to the superheroic lifestyle.
Cavill’s not the best Superman, but he may be the best Napoleon Solo. In between hero gigs, he finally got the role that enhanced the best of his abilities and showed him to be the old-school leading man many had hyped him up as for close to a decade. This is not just another weak excuse for me to talk about Guy Ritchie’s remake of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., a movie I may be somewhat obsessed with, but it is a good opportunity to dig into why Cavill is so good here when he was so weak in the role that should have made him the bankable property he yearned for. As Napoleon Solo, he is given plentiful opportunities to be endlessly charismatic and unabashedly joyful. Never before has Cavill looked like he was having so much playing a role. He completely owns his image here and bounces off the cast with such ease. Stylistically, it’s pure GQ photoshoot come to life, but isn’t that Cavill in a nutshell? He lives his life in that liminal space of hyperreality, the ultimate masculine form every day, dressed to the nines and camera ready. It’s no wonder he’s so good (and funny) as Solo, although it remains an eternal shame that the movie flopped as hard as it did.
Outside of Superman, Cavill’s roles have been pretty thin on the ground, mostly because the time needed to be Superman takes up the majority of his time. One can’t necessarily blame him for taking nothing roles in nothing action movies in-between being Clark Kent: At least he won’t have to change his intensive workout schedule. In the realms of his personal life, Cavill has played a less savvy media game than he has with his heroic image. While he was previously engaged to showjumper Ellen Whitaker, it’s in his pairings with fellow celebrities where things got more interesting from a publicity angle. First, there was his time with Gina Carano, which felt like a good fit until they broke up (twice). Then, there were two weeks with Kaley Cuoco.
From the offset, his fling with the star of The Big Bang Theory felt all wrong. Why the hell was People Magazine, the go-to reliable source for such occasions, confirming a relationship that had literally just started? Why were they doing paparazzi walks to the supermarket mere days into this? How was it that I seemed to know every single detail of a ‘relationship’ that lasted as long as some colds I’ve had? Whether or not the partnership was real — and it’s easy to see why, a whole year before the chaos of Hiddleswift, we all thought it was a failed PR pairing — everything about it felt staggeringly inauthentic and mannered for an audience that was never especially interested. As quickly as they had reported it, People announced the break-up. He then went on to date a 19 year old student, but has since found love with stuntwoman Lucy Cork. Boy’s got it bad too. He even posted a gushing, oddly melancholy but undeniably sweet Instagram caption on a video of her in full training mode, wherein he calls her ‘my Lucy’.
We've all been hurt, we've all got it wrong, trusted the wrong person, made the wrong bet, turned the wrong way, made THAT mistake. What we've experienced is important, it defines us. But what is more important, and often forgotten, is that we decide how it defines us. The experience, decision or moment itself does not. Others will almost always try and define you by past transgressions more quickly than your past successes. I've made mistakes, I've been someone I'm not proud of plenty of times. I've fallen down. I've loved the wrong person. I've failed. I've been hurt. I've hurt. That's life! In life we are going to get it wrong….alot. What I've tried to do and still try to do each time though is recognise those mistakes and mould them to my advantage. Make them a way to better myself. We've all had a bad experience thanks to someone else. Don't let that bad experience decide how and who you are. Don't let it hold you back from love or success or giving something a go. Don't vent your pain onto or at others in an attempt to bring them down and hold them back and cry your fury to the world. Don't let it turn you into the monster that hurt you. Use that experience! Run with it. Take the sum of your past and make it your tool to approach the future with. Move forward and love the experiences you have, use them to define you and make you the best version of yourself that is humanely possible. Your life is yours and will be whatever you want it to be. Love, grow, pursue, strive, challenge yourself. Be afraid so that you can be brave. The video above is what positive forward motion, determination, bravery, strong will, dedication and self respect looks like. This is my Lucy. She is one of the best stunt women in the world. She has defined herself. She continues to define herself. She grows, everyday. She is Lucy Cork because she says so.
I would be a terrible celebrity writer if I got through this entire piece without mentioning The Moustache. Seldom has a simple display of facial hair caused such contention in the industry, and not in many years has one man growing one made him so darn happy. I don’t think Cavill’s ever displayed the level of pride in his work that he has for that moustache, which he’s grown for a role in Mission Impossible 6. To his credit, he wears it well. If Superman is the new age Crossfit gains stud of hyper-masculinity, this moustache (often accompanied by his naturally curly hair) is the more casually rugged version of that sharp edged macho man. It’s also not the kind of moustache men his age or actors in his field tend to grow unless it’s for a role, but you get the sense he really wants to keep it once the filming is done, even if it means more obscenely costly CGI to keep Clark Kent clean shaven. For an actor who has struggled to make an impact, it’s a strange delight that some upper lip hair has done the job more effectively for some than donning the most iconic superhero uniform in the genre.
Henry Cavill is ridiculously attractive in that mould Hollywood loves so much, and he’s proven himself malleable enough to pack on the muscle when needed, but is it enough? Should it be enough? He’s definitely had moments to shine, like The Man From U.N.C.L.E. but if we’re being honest, those are few and far between, and audiences expect more from our leading men than just looking the part. Perhaps Cavill will one day put in the work and turn out some staggering dramatic performances, or maybe work on those comedic strengths he showed in U.N.C.L.E., but it also seems like he’s pretty happy to just be that action man du jour. There are worse things to be, and it’s a narrative that satisfies him more than it does a certain superhero co-star. He nailed the aesthetics of Superman, and maybe that’s all he wants or needs. Call it luck, call it timing, call it industry expectations, but The Henry Cavill Type will always have a place in Hollywood, especially when one needs to create striking iconography. Despite the swirling stories of perpetually missed chances and the speedy rise to the top, Cavill’s trajectory and output is par for the course in Hollywood. He didn’t get Bond or Batman but there will always be other chances for that type, just usually without the moustache.