With a chiseled jaw, a thick head of brunette hair, and wide, muscular shoulders, Clark Kent is the American dream, fighting for justice, conviction of truth, and—of course—the American way.
But while Superman may be an American icon, Henry Cavill’s Man of Steel is not. The British actor is the first non-American to secure the coveted role as DC Comics’ most famous superhero, starring in the comic book reboot, in theaters today. But 30-year-old Cavill (which rhymes with “travel”), a relatively unknown actor to the mainstream movie audience, was far from being a superhero in Hollywood before he landed the role that will inevitably transform him into a household name.
The second youngest of five boys, he attended school in England, where he took an interest in plays like Grease and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But his adolescent days were not idyllic—Cavill, who didn’t yet have the six-pack of steel he would be known for, was nicknamed “Fat Cavill” by his classmates, and taunted to the point of tears. “I was fat,” he told Details magazine. "I became an easy target."
At that same age, Cavill had a chance run-in with his would be co-star and idol, Russell Crowe. "He was filming Proof of Life and it was in between setups and Russell was standing there with this big semi-circle of people just staring at him,” Cavill told Details in an interview last month, noting that he approached Crowe and asked him some questions about acting. Soon after, Cavill received a package from Crowe with a rugby jersey, a CD from Crowe’s band at the time, some Australian snacks, and a special signed note that read,“Dear Henry, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." When the two reunited for Man of Steel, Cavill reminded Crowe of their encounter: “I was the fat one who didn’t ask for your autograph.”
But let’s rewind. Cavill was discovered at age 17, when producers were looking to cast a young actor for the role of Mondego in The Count of Monte Cristo. Afterward, Cavill continued to have a healthy, working career, taking roles in BBC’s The Inspector Lynley Mysteries, Midsomer Murders, and the telefilm Goodbye Mr. Chips. And then the mainstream American audience came calling, with Cavill cast in 2003’s I Capture the Castle, 2007’s Red Riding Hood, and Tristan and Isolde, where he starred opposite James Franco and Sophia Myles.
From 2007-2010, Cavill had a substantial recurring role on Showtime’s NSFW historical drama The Tudors, playing the first Duke of Suffolk (dubbed “Most Dashing Duke” by Entertainment Weekly), in the hit show that took home an Emmy for Outstanding Casting for a Drama Series in 2008. When Tudors wrapped, he scored roles in the 300-esque mythological flick Immortals and a Bruce Willis thriller, The Cold Light of Day, but still the title of leading man in a successful blockbuster still seemed out of reach.
Yet in 2005, Cavill’s biggest break yet seemed to be near. Reaching the final stages of auditions and even performing a screen test, Cavill was pegged a favorite to play James Bond in 2006’s Casino Royale. But, in the end, 22-year-old Cavill was deemed too young to portray the dashing agent of Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The role, of course, ultimately went to a significantly older Daniel Craig. “Daniel was above and beyond the best choice," Cavill later admitted.
The reverse then happened: Cavill was writer Stephenie Meyer’s first choice to play the now iconic role of Edward Cullen in the adaptation of her Twilight novel series. But vampire Edward exists in the body of a 17-year-old, and Cavill was this time deemed too old to portray the heartthrob by the time the film was produced. Robert Pattinson instead took the role. Ironically, this was the second role he lost to Pattinson, having also auditioned for the part of Cedric Diggory in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
And, in 2006, he was almost cast as Superman in Superman Returns, but was again rejected near the end of the casting process. Because of these many “almost” roles, Empire Magazine dubbed the actor the “Unluckiest Man in Hollywood.”
Seven years later, the actor had a second shot at Superman. For his role as the Man of Steel, Cavill further shed his childhood chubbiness and went on a strict diet of 5,000 calories a day, beefing up with a strenuous workout routine. "I lost one and a half stone," he said, (that’s 21 pounds) "and I wasn't Fat Cavill anymore."
But with a handful of actors—George Reeves, Tom Welling, Brandon Routh—having conquered the role before, how will Cavill’s rendition hold up? According to Cavill, he didn’t watch any previous films or television shows in preparation for his role, relying solely on the comics—originally created by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster—for reference.
Early reviews of the film have been harsh, but Cavill’s Clark Kent has appealed to certain critics. “Man of Steel can't erase the memory of Christopher Reeve, who made us believe that a man could fly. But it's the Superman this century deserves, shucked of some of his aw-shucks mannerisms while retaining the Kansas-bred Clark Kent earnestness,” said Chris Knight in the National Post. The Los Angeles Times praised Cavill’s performance, saying it “soars over an erratic plot,” and dubbing him “muscular yet sensitive,” while adding, “think Jack Kerouac spending way too much time in the gym.”
But regardless of the reviews, one thing is for sure: the once-bullied schoolboy from England has been now inducted into a legacy of super men: Those select few who have played the Kryptonian hero. And while his friends, family and girlfriend—mixed martial artist Gina Carano (Haywire)—may have taken a moment to take notice (“I thought to myself this is ridiculous! I just won the role of a lifetime and nobody's answering their bloody phones,” Cavill recalls of gaining the role), American audiences already have.