henry cavill men's journal cover
Photographs by Jeff Lipsky

Man on a Mission: Henry Cavill Goes From Man of Steel to ‘Mission: Impossible’

As the Man of Steel, Henry Cavill has already saved the world on the big screen—but he’s not done yet. Playing the heavy in Mission: Impossible—Fallout, he’s taking on another franchise and (maybe) even loosening up.

HENRY CAVILL’S EYES NARROW slightly as he pictures himself. “Sexy. Like really sexy.”

The chiseled, 6’1″ Man of Steel star is imagining himself powering a new, gleaming, and burly toy. “As a big guy, it is nice to have a big one so I don’t look like a monster hunched over this tiny thing,” he says.

His eyes are fixed on the Ducati Multistrada Enduro Pro—a 1200cc, 152-horsepower off-road-ready object of desire at the Italian motorcycle maker’s Beverly Hills showroom. As he wanders among the bikes, Cavill, a relative newcomer to the world of two-wheeled thrills, delights in the details.

“Why is that only a 1200 and these are 1260cc?” he asks one of the salesmen. After receiving an exhaustive explanation about how the extra torque may cause the bike to slide while off-roading, Cavill nods approvingly. “Nice. Henry, by the way,” Cavill says, extending his hand.

This, by the way, is classic Cavill—a small, unprepossessing gesture done so matter-of-factly it might escape notice, but multiplied over the course of a day, it paints an unassuming, gentlemanly portrait of the 35-year-old actor. With each successive introduction, to one bike salesman after another (“Daniel, nice to meet you. I’m Henry,” “How are you, man? Henry,” and so on), to selfie-seeking Superman fans, be they 20-something Israeli tourists (“Edan, Henry”) or a middle-aged Midwestern couple (“Nice to meet you. Henry”) who also ask when they can next see him on the big screen. Here, he first mentions Mission: Impossible—Fallout.

“It is definitely worth a watch,” Cavill says, then raises one eyebrow. “And I have a mustache.”

This is the 2018 model Cavill—same statuesque frame and smooth, well-mannered comportment, now with an internal engine that’s quicker to joke and laugh. Anyone who thought the British actor known for playing Superman would be content to don a cape and save the world doesn’t know Cavill’s can’t-stop-won’t-stop ways. He is determined to take his career into unexpected terrain. The mustache is part of the plan, as Cavill plays the antagonist in Fallout, a morally challenged a-hole.

Henry Cavill at the Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada
Jeff Lipsky

“Can’t be a hero with that kind of facial hair,” he says with a grin. “It’s kind of the new black hat, the new scar on the face, the new English accent.” He emphasizes the last part with a pronounced Cockney and a sneer. This isn’t exactly Bizarro world, but it’s clear Henry Cavill is not in Smallville anymore—and he likes it.

In Fallout, Cavill gets to run around Paris with his unfamiliar mustache and try something new, cutting loose on a motorcycle. “They were like, ‘You have a bike license, right?’ ” recalls Cavill, whose only vehicle at the time was a Bentley Bentayga. “I didn’t.” The production worked around that, having Cavill ride on closed streets. He was instantly hooked, and an obsession was born. “I feel this incredible sense of freedom I haven’t found anywhere else.”

After shooting finished, Cavill got his license, sneaking in lessons, then cramming all three parts of the driver’s test into one day. When he passed, Cavill treated himself, buying his first bike, a Ducati XDiavel S. The sleek white cruiser caught his eye the moment he walked into a London dealership whose name was unmistakable: Metropolis Motorcycles. “I know, I know,” he says, shaking his head. “You can’t make that shit up.”

OF SUPERMAN’S powers, the most overlooked may be his ability to control an actor’s career. Even as Cavill moves beyond it, he knows that the role of Kal El will follow him for life—for better (the widely lauded Man of Steel) and for worse (the grim turns in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League)—a price he’s more than happy to pay. But the association with the all-powerful Kryptonian belies the arduous road taken by Cavill, an entirely self-made Man of Steel.

On a motorcycle, I feel this incredible sense of freedom that I haven’t found anywhere else.

Cavill grew up on the island of Jersey, the largest of Britain’s Channel Islands, where his father worked as a stockbroker. He is the fourth of five brothers who filled the family home with frenetic activity and who defined heroism for him in terms that transcended any comic book.

Cavill’s oldest sibling, Piers, spent a decade as an officer in the British army. Nik, the second oldest, is a highly decorated lieutenant colonel in the Royal Marines who has completed tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. He led an operation to capture a senior Taliban commander and later was awarded a medal for his service to queen and country. The headlines in the U.K. press referred to him as Henry Cavill’s or Superman’s brother, and the articles devoted as much or more ink to the brother playing the part of a hero rather than the one living it. This has never sat well with Cavill, who furrows his brow and shakes his head at their mention.

In the real-life story, the A-list star plays a supporting role. “Of course you fear for their safety, but you don’t make that an issue. Me worrying isn’t going to help in any way,” Cavill says. “Making sure his family is comfortable and looked after, just providing that comfort for him on the home front—that is my job.” Cavill also contributes his time and money to the Royal Marines Charity, which supports active-duty personnel and veterans transitioning into civilian life. “If I can raise money and help, then I am doing my part,” he says, “which alleviates some of my guilt for not joining in the first place.”

Cavill measures himself against his siblings who have served, and while he may not see himself as a role model in their mold, Charlie, the youngest brother, surely does. Once, he and Cavill got locked in a storage room while playing, Charlie recalls. After shouting themselves hoarse trying to get help, Henry, age 7, finally smashed the glass window in the door, climbed out, and managed to free his frightened little brother. “Henry took the older-brother role seriously, like it was his solemn duty,” Charlie says. “He always had my back. If anyone ever tried to pick on me, he’d shut them down with a word.”

Henry Cavill
Jeff Lipsky

Eventually, Jersey, which covers just 45 square miles, began to feel too small for Cavill. “By the time I was 13,” he says, “I was itching to get off the island.” He continued his education on the English mainland at the prestigious Stowe School, which has produced notables such as Richard Branson. “There is the cliché: It helped build character and prepare me for life,” Cavill says with a shrug. Translation: Boarding school was downright brutal. There was taunting and name-calling directed at “Fat Cavill,” and there was bullying. “I wasn’t one of the popular kids. I was a chubby kid, and I had ambition—so naturally I was an easy target,” he says. “It wasn’t like I have any massive emotional mental scars, but I didn’t have the best experience.”

Cavill was already active in school plays when Stowe was chosen as the setting for several scenes in the 2000 film Proof of Life. One day, Cavill crossed a muddy rugby pitch clad in shorts and mustered the courage to ask the film’s star, Russell Crowe, for insight: “Hi, my name’s Henry. I’m thinking of becoming an actor. What’s the acting world like?” A few days later, Cavill got a package containing a jar of Vegemite, a rugby jersey, a CD of Crowe’s pub band, and a signed photograph of the Australian star in Gladiator with a message: “Dear Henry, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

“That helped,” Cavill says. “I’m not saying it all hinged on that, but it gives you a boost if you are ever in doubt, that little thing of ‘maybe I should give it a shot.’ ”

More often, when in search of motivation Cavill would look within, mining his doubts and his flaws. Chubby at the time, Cavill was, and still is, plagued by body-image issues. “I am conscious about it,” he concedes. “Very much so. I also hold myself to a high standard, which I don’t often meet. Sometimes it is not healthy.”

More often, however, Cavill says his self-scrutiny provides ample grist for his mill. “I am hypercritical, and I want to be,” he says, “because there is so much space for me to grow and be better.”

I wasn’t one of the popular kids. I was a chubby kid, and I had ambition—so naturally I was an easy target.

This drive to improve, to diagnose and correct every defect or failing, was as intense before boarding school as it has been after. “Henry has always been really self-critical. I don’t want to say he’s a perfectionist, but he very much is,” says Charlie, who followed Cavill to Stowe. “He wants to prepare, to put his best foot forward and do the best job he possibly can—no matter what he’s doing. He never just wings it.”

Ultimately, the teenage Cavill mapped out two possible paths for himself: One in acting, the other following his brothers into the military. He would attend Oxford, where he’d study Egyptology, then enter the army or Royal Marines. “I believe I would have enjoyed it enormously,” he says. “But I don’t know that you ever know if you can handle being shot at until you’ve been shot at.” Before he could find out and before he’d even graduated from Stowe, he was cast in the feature film The Count of Monte Cristo. “It was neck and neck,” he says. “Acting just pounced before the military did.” At 17, he left school early.

From the start, Cavill brought planning, dedication, and focus to his craft. “To work hard for it is fun,” he says. “I think I pulled that from the military side of my brain. I hate saying, ‘I wish I would have worked harder.’ That is not cool.”

Driven by an outsize work ethic, he had some successes, like his run as Charles, Duke of Suffolk, in Showtime’s sexually provocative period drama The Tudors. And there was a series of cruelly tantalizing near misses. Well before Man of Steel, Cavill was close to being cast as Kal El, only to have a planned reboot flicker out. Later, when another version of the comic book hero’s story was made, called Superman Returns, Brandon Routh got the role. Cavill missed out on a part in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire that went to Robert Pattinson, who parlayed it into stardom in the Twilight films. Cavill was author Stephanie Meyer’s choice to play Edward Cullen in that series, but he aged out of the part as the adaptations were delayed. At just 22, he had a brush with James Bond before the role went to Daniel Craig.

“You definitely feel gutted,” Cavill says. “But I am going to attack other projects and make them as amazing as the project I’d wanted.” And sometimes they come back. “I’ve discovered things never really go away,” he says. “For example, Superman. Didn’t get Bond when I was very young, but now Daniel is considering giving up the mantle, and there is an opportunity again.”

Asked if he intends to show the producers he’s interested in being the next Bond, Cavill laughs. “I think they know,” he says.

Henry Cavill
Jeff Lipsky

AFTER COMPLETING a lap around the Ducati showroom, Cavill comes clean about his purpose: He is prowling for a second bike to keep at his home in South Florida, where he spends the bulk of his scant downtime. Soon he circles back to the Enduro. “There’s something about that,” he says. “Even though I’m not really going to off-road, it is so sexy.”

“It is,” the salesman says, before ticking through the features that make it ideal for long road trips—to Baja, to Alaska.

“I could buy it right now and drive it back to Miami,” Cavill interjects. “ ‘Cancel the jet, guys. I’m riding.’ Actually, don’t. I have to fly the dog back.”

Some folks put Fido on the fuel tank, the salesman points out. “Yeah, no. My dog is a 100-pound Akita,” Cavill says. “Do you sell side cars?”

There is the Kal El, Man of Steel, of big-screen fame, and then there is the Kal, Man of Steel’s best friend, of Instagram fame, Cavill’s four-legged companion. The canine Kal is not only a social media star but also the subject of his own breathless profile on BuzzFeed titled “OK, But Have You Seen Henry Cavill’s Dog?” Similar sentiments populate Cavill’s Instagram feed and evoke a peculiar sort of pride in Cavill. “Thanks? But it’s not as if I made this dog,” he says. “Or did I? You should see his mother—hairy but beautiful.”

Extremely private by nature, Cavill has gradually pulled back the curtains on his daily doings on social media. Most of the time Kal is his muse, but the actor’s facial hair provided some competition for a while. “Kal has more longevity,” he says. “But the mustache got a particularly huge amount of attention because of Justice League.” After Cavill was called back to do reshoots on the DC superhero movie before Fallout had finished filming, his facial hair had to be digitally erased at a reported cost of millions of dollars. Naturally, the mustache then took on meme-like status.

Cavill embraced the ’stache and used it to help mold his portrayal of questionable CIA operative August Walker in Fallout. “He’s not a bad guy. He is just an antagonist to the protagonist,” Cavill says. “If you wanted to be saved, you called the wrong guy—I don’t do saving.”

This dive into moral ambiguity is a bit new for Cavill, but Fallout’s director saw it bubbling under the surface. “I’d heard nothing but good things about him, all of which turned out to be true: Hard-working, dedicated, positive,” says Chris McQuarrie, who also wrote the film. “I also had a distinct sense that he hadn’t been used to his full potential. I was interested in exploring his dark side.”

To work hard for something is fun. I hate saying, ‘I wish I had worked harder.’ That’s not cool.

Cavill felt good being a badass, and it showed. “There is a fight scene in the film—it’s in all the trailers,” McQuarrie says. “Henry pumps his fists in preparation to deliver a beating. He improvised this simply as a grace note—a character flourish. But it’s the moment everyone reacts to most viscerally. You spend months shooting insanely dangerous and complicated sequences designed to thrill people, and Henry cocking his fists steals the show. That should tell you a lot about Henry.”

Another thing you need to know is that Cavill is pretty obsessed with fact-checking himself in real time. When that mustache comes up—yet again—he mentions it was inspired by a heel in a Superman comic. “We were playing around with ideas,” Cavill says, “and I found this character Elias Orr in ‘Superman for Tomorrow’…or ‘of Tomorrow’?”

After a quick web search on his phone, Cavill looks up. “Yes, it is ‘Superman for Tomorrow’—one of my favorite comics,” he says. “This guy Orr has some questionable morals and a certain look that is kind of cool.”

It doesn’t end there: Cavill pulls out his Google Pixel 2 XL to check: the character he played in a high school production of Grease (Sonny), the first film he auditioned for (I Dream of Africa, not Out of Africa), and the destination of his next motorcycle road trip to visit Nik. “My brother lives down in Plymouth,” Cavill says. “It’s Plymouth, isn’t it? Maybe it is Portsmouth. Let me make sure.”

Several search terms later, he continues: “Ah. Yeah, it is Plymouth, England. Good. I always get the two mixed up despite the fact that I’m English.”

I point out that he could let himself off the hook since he hails from the Channel Islands, not the British mainland. “That,” he says, raising his index finger for emphasis, “is no excuse.”

Henxry Cavill in Paramount / Mission: Impossible - Fallout
Paramount / Mission: Impossible – Fallout

A LITTLE WHILE later we arrive at the Beverly Hills Hotel. As we try to make our way to the Polo Lounge for lunch, Cavill agrees to pose for several photos (“Nice to meet you. Henry.”) and holds the door open for a passing stream of ladies, then asks the host for a table outside.

Peppered throughout the restaurant are a host of Hollywood players—studio executives, powerful agents, producers—finishing their lunches. As Cavill passes, nudges and nods are exchanged, a reserved form of recognition that isn’t lost on him.

Now that Cavill has earned a seat at the table in Hollywood, he is determined to use it. In addition to starring in a second blockbuster franchise, Cavill is leading the push for a new, reimagined Superman film. More than ever, he is realizing his goal of steering the projects he’s involved in. Several years ago, Cavill launched Promethean Productions with his friend Ben Blankenship and his brother Charlie, a venture that’s starting to gain traction.

As we settle into a banquette beside the arbor, Cavill avoids the bread basket and asks only for sparkling water and an Americano, conspicuously eschewing an entrée or anything to eat at all. He’s feeling reflective and is actually pleased with what he sees. “Done Superman. I’m in Mission: Impossible,” Cavill says. “Bucket list is looking pretty good.”

It hasn’t been easy to get this perspective. “I have had barrels of shit advice,” he says. “But all the good advice is to just enjoy it. Smile more. Because we are here, and as far as I know, this happens only once. As far as I know. So smile for fuck’s sake.”

Cavill makes clear he is not letting up so much as lightening up. He brightens as he talks about the house he’s building, a sun-soaked Fortress of Solitude in South Florida; plans to go diving and to take up sailing; and motorcycle tours to come in England and, once he has his new bike, the States.

Still thinking about advice after he’s signed the check for our long food-free meal, Cavill recalls the words of a friend in the U.S. Special Forces. “When he joined this unit, he was just volunteering for everything,” Cavill says. “That is what I would say to myself. Do it. Try it. Test yourself. Scare yourself. Enjoy that stretching of yourself, and embrace it.”

As he stands, he slaps his palms down on the table in finality. “Say yes to everything. Every fucking thing,” Cavill concludes. “Apart from dumb shit, like drugs or a boy band.”

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