Superman takes on game of fame

Basking in the limelight is not easy for Henry Cavill, who has been flirting with A-list stardom since 2013's Man Of Steel

In person, actor Henry Cavill is more English gentleman than Hollywood action hero.
In person, actor Henry Cavill is more English gentleman than Hollywood action hero. PHOTO: NYTIMES

LONDON •It's not every day that one goes shopping with Superman.

It was 10am on a sunny Friday last month, one of those rare autumn days when the English capital seems to have swopped weather with Santa Monica, California, when Henry Cavill, the British actor who has put his stamp on the Man of Steel for a new generation of filmgoers, came into view.

Military erect, his arms folded purposefully, he was standing outside Gieves & Hawkes, the Savile Row clothier that has been outfitting the British gentry since King George III.

He was hard to miss. Regardless of one's age, gender or sexual orientation, it can be agreed that the man is a specimen, a 99.9999 percentile hunk, a super man.

He had arrived on Savile Row from his home in London's genteel Kensington district to browse for suits on the eve of the publicity blitz for Justice League, the superhero blockbuster-to-be featuring Cavill, alongside Ben Affleck as Batman and Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman.

Aside from a Superman-ish forelock that tumbled down his forehead, Cavill looked more like a romantic lead from an E.M. Forster period drama, wearing a royal blue Cifonelli blazer, a dandyish confection of curls and a distinctly retro, and distinctly absurd, handlebar moustache.

"It's for a role - Mission: Impossible 6," he said sheepishly, referring to his giant crumb catcher. "It makes me feel a little odd at times. People think I'm some crazy handlebar-moustache-growing person."

"But," he added gamely, "I'm also playing around with it now, growing it a bit longer. Why the hell not? When else am I going to grow a handlebar moustache?"

To the degree the moustache was intended as a disguise, it failed. In recent weeks, the whiskers had seemingly become more famous than he was, inspiring countless tabloid items after Affleck jokingly referred to it as a "full-on porn-star moustache" during a Justice League reshoot.

Then again, Cavill, 34, has an uneasy relationship with fame. For years, he was Hollywood's king of the near miss. He lost out to Daniel Craig to be the next James Bond and also to Robert Pattinson on both Twilight (2008) and Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire (2005).

Although he has been working steadily since he was a teenager, he always seemed to receive second billing to his biceps.

But he has been flirting with A-list stardom ever since he inherited the role of Superman in Zack Snyder's 2013 franchise reboot, Man Of Steel, followed by featured roles opposite Armie Hammer in Man From U.N.C.L.E. in 2015 and, now, Tom Cruise in his latest Mission: Impossible instalment.

In person, though, Cavill comes across less like a Hollywood action hero than an English gentleman in the pre-war sense, a vestige of an era when leading men were described as "dashing" or "debonair", and civility meant something.

In a less august setting than one of London's oldest custom tailors, he might be fair game for the "paps" (paparazzi), as they say in England, as well as for any hormonal young woman with a smartphone and an Instagram handle.

"You go to the pub and you're sitting there with your friends having some drinks, and you keep on feeling like people are looking at you or checking their phones," he said.

"You think, 'Shut up, they're not looking at you. Maybe that's just my ego.' Then one person comes up and says, 'Can I get a photo, please?' All of a sudden, it's like terror cells just woke up. 'Yay, it's photo time.'"

He certainly was not raised to draw attention to himself. The son of a stockbroker father and a housewife mother, Cavill grew up in a family of five boys on the island of Jersey, a crown dependency off the Normandy coast, and was educated at Stowe, an elite British school.

His very British breeding may explain why he carries himself with an utter absence of Hollywood star ego. He listens deferentially, even to shop managers and waiters; laughs easily, if self-consciously; and bashfully glances towards the floor at any mention of his cover-boy looks. It is an awkward British charm familiar to anyone who has seen a Hugh Grant movie from the 1990s.

Browsing the aisles of Gieves & Hawkes, he said he is still trying to figure out how to carry himself like a star or even dress like one.

"I've typically always been very classically English and I've enjoyed that classic cut and I thought, 'Great, well done, you found your identity,'" he said.

Understated goes only so far on the red carpet, however, so lately, he has experimented with dressing more like a star, including his head-turning blazer that day, rendered in a shade of blue that might be called electric. "I thought, 'Living in the world you live in, in the public eye, in Hollywood, try to be different.'"

Listening to him speak in his clipped accent, it seemed odd to imagine him achieving crossover fame playing, essentially, a wide-eyed American farm boy (albeit with X-ray vision) who speaks in a Yank accent as broad and flat as the Kansas plains. You can thank long hours with a dialect coach for that.

"It's things like L's," he said. "My L's belong in the front of my mouth. For an American, an L belongs in the back of the mouth."

After an hour of suit shopping (nothing was purchased), Cavill suggested coffee at a place he knew a 10-minute stroll away.

Wandering through Mayfair, he discussed the weight of the Superman legacy. Too often, he said, popular culture has gotten it wrong about Superman, interpreting his do-gooder ethos and blue tights as "cheesy and, maybe, a bit boring", compared with the acknowledged cool superheros, such as Batman and Iron Man.

"There's so much more in there," he said. "It's like a movie about taking the super-pill. Imagine you have the ability to do absolutely anything you wanted. What do you choose to do with that power? How would you choose to use it? How do you exert it upon others? How do you accept failure? How do you love?"

He paused in front of an unmarked white door of a handsome town house near Berkeley Square. The door swung open to reveal Mark's Club, a storied and exclusive private retreat. "A lovely surprise," said a handsomely attired woman with a bob at the front desk.

"Lovely to see you," Cavill answered chipperly.

He looked effortlessly dapper as he settled into a sofa beside a fireplace in the drawing room, which looked like a den in a viscount's country estate with its oil portraits and a crystal chandelier. In this setting, he looked more like James Bond than Superman.

"When Daniel gives up the mantle, we'll see," he said with a smile, adding that he would not find it "taxing" to play both characters, should the opportunity arise. He already owns the requisite silver Aston Martin DBS.

When asked what other types of people are members of Mark's Club, he said: "Honestly, I have no idea."

He explained that he had just been invited himself. "It's a very old establishment-type thing. You can't just pay your way in."

He was unsure whether other movie stars were members.

"I don't even know what that means anymore," he said of the term. He said he would "worry" about someone who constantly thought of himself as a star.

"They're clearly injured on the inside. That's problematic."

He certainly never expected to be called a star. In school, after all, he had been chubby; other boys called him "Fat Cavill".

Even as his profile rose, he never thought of himself as a Lothario when he was single. He declines to "chum the waters" by talking about his current relationship, though the tabloids have him dating Lucy Cork, a 25-year-old stuntwoman.

When he was dating, he said: "I couldn't do the whole, 'Hey, can I get your number? Cool,' and then call them a week later. When I like someone, I like someone. I don't play hard to get. I can't be texting four or five different women all at one time. I can't do my Wednesday girl, my Monday girl, my Friday girl, my weekend girl, my after-12pm girl. To put it in simple terms, I never had 'game'."

It is fair to say, however, that those days are fading quickly.


• Justice League opens in Singapore cinemas tomorrow.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 15, 2017, with the headline 'Superman takes on game of fame'. Subscribe