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Super-Handsome Man: A Henry Cavill Primer

Superman is not a role they give to movie stars. Christopher Reeve was unknown when he took the part. The same was true for Dean Cain, Tom Welling and Brandon Routh; the best any of them could claim is a multi-episode guest spot on a TV show or, in Routh’s case, a supporting role on a daytime soap. Though some bigger names have been considered for the role (Nicolas Cage being the most bizarre among them), filmmakers seem to understand that when audiences look at Superman they should see only Superman, and not the actor who plays the part.

Though Henry Cavill is far from a household name, he is in fact the Superman actor with the biggest pre-cape career — and yet most comic fans probably had little idea who he was when he was cast as the titular Man of Steel. If you’re still wondering who Cavill is, where he came from, and whether he’s going to be any good in the film that opens today, look no further, friend. You have questions. We have answers.

Vitals
Henry William Dalgliesh Cavill, 30, born in Jersey, the fourth of five sons, is the first non-American actor to play Superman on the screen. (A British actor played baby Kal-El in the 1978 Superman: The Movie. We’re not counting that.)

Non-American? You said he was born in Jersey
Yes, but not the new one. The old one. Original recipe Jersey is an island off the coast of France. In contrast to New Jersey, Jersey Classic is a posh place full of rich people; the sort of place where a child gets named Henry William Dalgliesh.

So Jersey is near France? But Cavill is English?
Well… You know how people get confused by the England/Britain/UK thing? Brace yourself.
Jersey is a self-governing dependency of the British crown; a parliamentary democracy with its own administrative government. It’s one of the last parts of the old French Duchy of Normandy still held by the British crown, and the current Duke of Normandy is Elizabeth II, the Queen of the United Kingdom et cetera. Duke looks like a lady.

Jersey is not part of the United Kingdom. It is not part of Britain. It is certainly not part of England (or France). People from Jersey are typically referred to as Jerseymen and Jerseywomen. Because Jersey is a British crown dependency, many people from Jersey do identify as British, including Cavill. So you can call him British, but never English.

And technically the new Superman is a Jerseyman.

How posh is Henry Cavill?
Oh, quite. He’s well-educated upper middle-class posh. Boarding school posh. Rugby posh. Engaged-to-a-show-jumper posh. (They broke up.) He’s even army officer posh; his father served in the Royal Navy, one of his brothers is in the army, and another is a major in the Royal Marines. In fact, Major Niki Cavill is a bit hardcore; he was named to the Order of the British Empire for his service leading counter-insurgency efforts against the Taliban in Afghanistan. (Niki is a man’s name if you’re posh. Niki is also a man’s name if you’re a Royal Marine.)

Henry considered signing up for the military himself, but Russell Crowe persuaded him to pursue acting.

Russell Crowe? The same Russell Crowe who plays Superman’s Kryptonian dad?
Cavill’s boarding school played the part of Russell Crowe’s son’s school in the movie Proof of Life. Cavill, 16 at the time, asked Crowe for career advice. Crowe later sent Cavill a care package that contained sweets, a signed photograph and — rather cruelly — a CD of Russell Crowe’s music. Cavill told GQ he kept the box intact as a good luck charm, which presumably means he never listened to the CD, which may have made for an awkward reunion on the Man of Steel set.

There are no reports that Kevin “Jonathan Kent” Costner ever sent 16-year-old Henry Cavill anything at all.

What has Henry Cavill been in?
He was 17 when he got his first role, as the apple-cheeked son of Guy Pearce’s character in an adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo, released in 2002. He also played a gardener/lust object/muse in the underrated 2003 British movie I Capture the Castle, and he played posh schoolboys in a handful of British TV shows, including Midsomer Murders, where — spoiler alert — he was murdered after a run-in with Walder Frey.

His career low may have been playing a huntsman to Joey Fatone’s wolf in a 2006 adaptation of Red Riding Hood. At least, one hopes that was his career low. He also appeared in a direct-to-video Hellraiser sequel and made his first appearance in a comic-book movie as a dashing, swashbuckling cad in Matthew Vaughn’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess’ Stardust (which wasn’t exactly a comic, but whatever).

Cavill’s career during this period was maybe more notable for the roles he didn’t get.

All right; what hasn’t he been in?
Superman! Cavill was reportedly director McG’s choice to play the Man of Steel in his Superman movie, but when McG dropped out, replacement director Bryan Singer cast Brandon Routh instead.

Cavill was also one of the final two in contention to play James Bond in Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale. At fifteen years younger than his rival Daniel Craig, his casting would have taken the franchise in a very different direction, but the world was not ready for a movie version of James Bond, Jr.

Cavill was also author Stephanie Meyer’s first choice to play Edward Cullen in the Twilight movies, but by the time the movies were made she said he was too old. Too old for Twilight; too young for Bond. Henry Cavill may be one of the only actors in the world grateful for the ageing process.

Fortunately for Cavill, Showtime TV series The Tudors came along and cast him as one of King Henry VIII’s frat pack. This led to increased exposure for Henry Cavill, and increased exposure for Henry Cavill’s buttocks, because it was that sort of show.

Cavill also landed a small role in Woody Allen’s Whatever Works, the lead role in crummy Joel Schumacher Nazi zombie horror movie Town Creek, and the lead in truly awful thriller The Cold Light of Day, which was so bad that it spent a couple of years on a shelf before finally seeing… the cold light of day.

His biggest break before Superman came when arch-visualist Tarsem Singh decided Cavill was handsome enough to play an oiled-up shirtless Greek god in the movie Immortals.

How handsome is he, actually?
If you can’t see for yourself, let me make it plain; Henry Cavill is absurdly handsome. Implausibly handsome. He’s probably in contention for the title of “most handsome man that ever lived.” He’s so handsome that the entire entertainment industry has been secretly colluding to try to make him famous so they can put his face on things and sell them. He’s handsome.

Now, sure, some people will say, “Pfft, I prefer Benedict Cumberbatch”, and that’s OK. Weird, but OK. Henry Cavill is not the universal ideal; just the closest thing we have to it. If it weren’t for his very slightly bumpy nose he might actually be impossible to look at, but like a Persian rug he has one minor imperfection so as not to offend god.

Actually, he has two imperfections. He dresses terribly. Giant ties, ugly shoes, suits that fit like a balloon. Unless he gets a stylist post-Superman, watching Henry Cavill make fashion faux pas is going to become a new sport for supermarket tabloids.

OK, so he’s handsome. Can he act?
He’s improving all the time!

Cavill is probably a few years away from an Oscar nomination, because at that level of handsome you don’t need to be able to act. But he seems enthusiastic about the work, and he is notably less stiff with each new role. Reviews for Man of Steel have tended to praise his performance.

How’s his American accent?
Improving all the time!

Is he a nerd?
Not a comics nerd, but he is a fantasy nerd. He’s a fan of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time novels, and he’s so big on Skyrim and World of Warcraft that he famously missed the call from Zack Snyder offering him Man of Steel because he was in the middle of a game. He’s also a mythology buff who wanted to study Egyptology at university, which is pretty solidly nerdy.

Is he going to be hugely famous?
Superman actors don’t tend to have stellar careers. Christopher Reeve kept working up to and even after the tragic accident that paralyzed him in 1995, but he was never a marquee name outside of the franchise. The same holds true for Cain, Routh and Welling. They all have steady careers, but none of them can get a movie made on the strength of their names. Maybe audiences struggle to adjust to the idea of Superman in other roles, or maybe there’s a certain wholesome blankness that filmmakers look for in a Superman actor that they don’t value as much elsewhere.

If you’ve seen Cavill in interviews, you’ll know he shares that quality. He seems very pleasant, very charming, and utterly lacking in guile. It’s hard to imagine him with, for example, James Bond’s steely edge. He’s rumoured to be the lead in Guy Ritche’s Man From UNCLE adaptation, so audiences may see another side to him there. If that works out for him, he may yet be the first Superman actor to also be a proper movie star.

If not, Henry Cavill can always fall back on being perhaps the most handsome man that ever lived.

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