The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Cavill Colossus, Part 2: Henry Cavill and the crafting of a public persona

Written by: Fiona Underhill, CC2K Staff Writer

I’ve been doing a lot of research into Henry Cavill recently. Watching Mission Impossible – Fallout prompted me to do a deep-dive into his IMDb and watch everything I could get my hands on. It is not unusual for me to become obsessed with an actor and devour everything they’ve ever done in a short space of time, and I attempt to unpack why this might be later.

Of course, part of going through these phases is reading and watching interviews and trying to find out more about the ‘real’ person. It helps to have a few biographical facts to add into the fantasy version of the celebrity you’ve created for yourself. In Cavill’s case, this has been frustrating. He is an enigma who has carefully guarded his privacy and lets a few well-worn stories out into the world. As Adam Baidawi noted in his recent GQ Australia profile (which is fascinating on about ten different levels, only one of which is Cavill’s disastrous #MeToo comments); “There are approximately three stories in the world about Henry Cavill…but those stories have been told. Over and over. And not a whole lot else.” So, what have I discovered?

The alumni of Stowe are known as ‘Old Stoics’ – which is a perfect description of Henry Cavill.

Henry Cavill is one of five (yes, five!) brothers and I regret to inform you that they do not all look like him. He grew up on the island of Jersey before being sent to the extremely prestigious and elite Stowe boarding school in Buckinghamshire. The alumni of Stowe are known as “Old Stoics” (of course, there’s a society), which is a perfect description of Henry Cavill. My perception of his upbringing is as traditional, conservative, patriotic, privileged and upper-class, and male-dominated. He went from a home with four brothers (two of whom went on to be in the military), to a single-sex private school, to being a member of a private gentleman’s club.

Part of my frustration with the interviews and profiles I have read is that none seem to interrogate Cavill’s extreme privilege within the British class system, and I put this down to none of the writers being British. It seems that the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch and Eddie Redmayne are fair game when it comes to complaining about British actors coming from posh private school backgrounds. Whereas Tom Hiddleston and Cavill get away with this more, perhaps because they appear in superhero franchises instead of Oscar-bait indies. Two out of the four main interviews I used as research for this article (from The Rake and the New York Times) take place in Mark’s Club in London. In fact, the Times interview goes from a Savile Row tailor to the exclusive and private club which Cavill is a member of, not because he’s a rich and famous movie star, but because of his family and school connections.

Cavill was discovered while still at school; it seems casting agents visit school productions at places like Eton, Harrow and Stowe and not say, the high school in Coventry I taught at for ten years which had an amazing Performing Arts department. If Cavill hadn’t been discovered at 17 and cast in The Count of Monte Cristo, he would have gone on to study Egyptology at Oxford and would have had a privileged and successful life. Numerous articles have been written on the topic of working class actors in the UK – Sight and Sound magazine’s October 2018 has a cover story by Danny Leigh titled; “The Class Ceiling – what happens to working class UK talent?” – which is just one recent example.

Cavill talks about the introduction of girls into the Sixth Form at Stowe (the last two years of high school, equivalent to grades 11-12) as disastrous in an interview with The Rake from October 2017, saying it’s “probably the worst thing you can do” and “a highly stressful situation.” This is one thing the school I worked at for ten years had in common with Stowe. It was an inner-city state school, but was all-boys until the Sixth Form as well. The kids at the school I taught at coped better with becoming co-educational than the situation Cavill describes. I went to university with many, many people who came from single-sex boarding schools and they did not handle their new found freedom and the introduction of drink and women well. They had never had friends of the opposite sex and this is something you can definitely tell about Henry Cavill.

One of the well-worn anecdotes about Cavill is he was unpopular and bullied at school; “all the cool guys would tell them [the girls] I was a knob. All the girls turned on me.” The armchair psychologist within me attributes Cavill’s stoicism and, what I view, as an obsessive desire to control his body to two main factors – one being the “Fat Cavill” narrative of being bullied for being a “chubby kid” (although I have tried to find photographic evidence of this, I would not describe him as fat). Part of the reason this “Fat Cavill” story doesn’t sit right is he was discovered at 17, while still at school and he worked as a model as well as an actor in the early days. So, this presumably “chubby, bullied kid” was doing quite well for himself.

“Second billing to his biceps”

The other factor that feeds Cavill’s insecurities is two of his brothers are or were in the military. His oldest brother 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. Cavill raises money for the Royal Marines Charity, which he says in an interview in Men’s Journal (August 2018) “alleviates some of my guilt for not joining in the first place.” In the same interview, he talks about body image issues stemming from being a chubby kid; “I am conscious about it…I also hold myself to a high standard, which I don’t often meet. Sometimes it is not healthy…I am hypercritical and I want to be, because there is so much space for me to grow and be better.”

It is frustrating the only real effort or training Cavill appears to put into his career is directed into his body. This pressure is internal (clearly he’s a perfectionist), but also comes from external Hollywood pressures (directors Tarsem Singh and Zach Snyder are very clear with Cavill about the body shapes they want for Immortals and the Superman films). I can’t find any evidence in any of the interviews with Cavill of him talking about acting as a craft or skill that needs work (and yes, I get actors are very pretentious about this). The only ambition he ever seems to have demonstrated, as regards acting, is from one of the well-known anecdotes about his life.

While at Stowe, Russell Crowe came there to do some filming on Proof of Life and Cavill “crossed a muddy rugby pitch” to tell him he wanted to be an actor. Crowe sent Cavill a care package with a note “Dear Henry, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” and they had a laugh about it years later when playing father and son on Man of Steel. Since then, Cavill showed acting potential in The Tudors, but has become disappointingly “action meathead” in his approach to roles. As Alex Williams notes in his New York Times interview from November 2017; “he always seemed to receive second billing to his biceps.” This is no more true than in Fallout, in which his pumping, reloading biceps have become a meme unto themselves.

2005 was a pivotal year for Cavill. He was 22 and filming two wildly different films to be released in 2006; Tristan and Isolde (a historical romance starring James Franco) and Red Riding Hood (a musical starring Joey Fatone). In this same year, Cavill auditioned to be James Bond, a role that went to the much older Daniel Craig and Cavill has been thirstily pursuing this role ever since. Cavill was also “attached” (no confirmation as to whether it got to the auditioning or testing stage) to 2006’s Superman Returns (the role which went to Brandon Routh).

The thought of Cavill auditioning for both these roles whilst sporting the long hair he has in both Tristan and Riding Hood is funny, but the producers obviously saw something in him. These were major blows, along with losing two roles to Robert Pattinson: Cedric Diggory and Edward Cullen. This may have contributed to him “taking control” of his career by changing his body as much as possible. Cavill’s obsession with being Bond has certainly influenced his career choices; from a Dunhill Black fragrance commercial, to The Cold Light of Day, through The Man From UNCLE and up to and including Fallout. I really don’t want Cavill to be Bond, for the sake of that franchise (which could make a much more interesting choice) and for his own sake; I would like to see him challenge himself with some different types of roles.

It’s a tricky line to tread – the private and personal, with the public persona that must deal with fame and celebrity.

Cavill’s career has many parallels with that of Armie Hammer; they both came from privileged backgrounds, Hammer was cast as Batman at the age of 19 (the project never came to fulfillment), they have both been in Tarsem Singh movies (Mirror Mirror and Immortals) and they both co-starred in Man From UNCLE. In Anne Helen Peterson’s infamous Buzzfeed article of November 2017Ten Long Years of Trying to Make Armie Hammer Happenshe describes UNCLE as “one demi-star plus another demi-star do not make a whole.” At the end, Peterson makes some good points about the privilege of being a good looking, straight, white male in Hollywood, similar to the points here about the privilege of attending the best schools in England. Cavill and Hammer’s careers have split down different paths now; Cavill is focusing on action franchises and Hammer has moved into critically-acclaimed independent movies. I would love to see what Cavill could do with something like Call Me By Your Name, but I can’t see it happening.

Hammer and Cavill also have different approaches to celebrity. I could give you multiple drunken anecdotes about Hammer: the Sorry to Bother You cast called him their ‘weed hook-up’ in a Sundance interview, his predilection for bondage is widely known, he is outspoken on Twitter (the Buzzfeed article prompted him to leave for a time) and Hammer’s wife is something of an insta-celeb, continually crafting perfect images of their family and children.

On the other hand, as Alex Williams writes in his Times article; “Mr. Cavill has an uneasy relationship to fame.” In the same interview, Cavill describes people asking for photos of him as “like terror cells just woke up.” Cavill is more private and guarded than Hammer; he has an instagram account where he drops the occasional selfie of himself with his trusty hound Kal (this account is probably managed by one of his many assistants), but I can’t imagine him being outspoken on a topic such as Brexit. These are personal choices and it is a tricky line to tread – the private and personal with the public persona that deals with fame and celebrity. The public image is a facade that a team of people work together to create and the lines between reality and fiction frequently blur. As much as they may not want to, “selling themselves” is part of an actor’s job, particularly when promoting a movie.

I wonder what the female gaze would look like on Henry Cavill?

Henry Cavill has twenty-one titles on his IMDb page and in twenty of these, he does not have a female director or cinematographer. The only exception to this is The Tudors, a television series which ran for four seasons. The Tudors had women directors for less than 20% of its 38 episodes. I searched for magazine profiles and articles where Cavill is interviewed by a woman, or photographed by a woman, but found nothing. It doesn’t help the magazines he gives interviews to have titles such as Men’s Journal, Men’s Health and Men’s Fitness. I wonder what the female gaze would look like on Cavill from a director, cinematographer or photographer?

I also tried to find out the make up of Cavill’s team of managers, agents, publicists, PR and assistants. I couldn’t find much information, but I get the distinct impression this inner circle, as well as his “extraordinarily tight circle of friends” (as described by Adam Baidawi in GQ) does not contain many women. I mention all of this because if a woman had been writing the recent GQ profile, or if a female manager/publicist had been involved this may have helped avoid Cavill’s unfortunate #MeToo comments. A female friend may also have advised the then 32-year-old against becoming involved with a 19-year-old.

“Maybe I’d capture something real…”

I love GQ Profiles and three in particular have stood out to me across the years. The first is “The Full Tatum” (February 15th 2011) in which Jessica Pressler goes on a drunken camping adventure with Channing Tatum. The second (and my personal favorite) is “Chris Evans, American Marvel” (June 14th 2011) by Edith Zimmerman. This is an unbelievable story which involves a lot of drinking. Zimmerman goes back to Evans’ house and climbs out of his window in the early hours of the morning. One of the things I love is it’s a perfect snapshot of a time when Evans was famous (after The First Avenger) but not too famous (before The Avengers) and could only happen then and there. The other thing is the interrogation Zimmerman does of both herself and Evans in her writing; “maybe I’d capture something real about the Captain America star – or as ‘real’ as could be hoped for/faked in the time we had together” … “I couldn’t figure out if he was a goofy, warm, regular dude or just playing the character of a goofy, warm, regular dude.” “[did he] trust that his actual normal self would be enough to accurately and appropriately fill a celebrity profile…he still seemed worried that I’d make him look like an asshole.”

“He’s real.”

The final fascinating example is “Tom Hiddleston on Taylor Swift, Heartbreak and Great Bolognese” (February 14th 2017) by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. Hiddleston comes across as open and vulnerable and Akner describes him as “He’s there, he’s present, he’s yours, he’s heartfelt, he’s real” and says “the world might not be ready for the kind of earnestness and sincerity that comes along with Tom Hiddleston.” Hiddleston is an interesting case-study, particularly in relation to Cavill. My only frustration is that, again, we have a misinterpretation of British education and class (by an American writer). Hiddleston had the most elite British education it is possible to have; The Dragon School, Eton, Cambridge and RADA. If you looked up the combined cost of this education, your eyes would  be watering by the end. However, Brodesser-Akner describes his background as; “they lived in a modest home….solidly middle-class, but Tom’s parents sacrificed to send him to the best schools.” I would describe myself as “solidly middle-class” and I can tell you that no amount of sacrifice on my parents’ part could possibly make a dent in the sort of school fees we’re talking about. I wish people would call men who attended Eton, Harrow, St Paul’s or Stowe what they are – upper class, elite, part of the 1% and recognize that attending these schools affords you a unparalleled level of power and privilege (Don’t believe me? Watch Lone Scherfig’s The Riot Club). Most commonly associated with access to political power, these prestigious schools and universities, with their unique networks also offer access to the acting world. It is amusing that Hiddleston, who left Cambridge with a double-first in Classics, clearly reels from his three month “relationship” with Taylor Swift. Celebrity does crazy things to people – I’m honestly surprised Cavill hasn’t been a Tay-Tay squeeze yet.

“You do a lot to try to get to know Henry Cavill.”

Contrast these GQ profiles (all written by women) with the recent GQ Australia profile on Henry Cavill, written by Adam Baidawi. Baidawi makes an effort to try to penetrate Cavill’s bullet-proof exterior; “you do a lot to try to get to know Henry Cavill.” However, he doesn’t get far; “Speaking with Henry Cavill is frustrating. He’s persistent in his politeness, persistent in his flawlessness. It’s incredibly pleasant to be around, but also feels a little like a character – a likable one, but maybe a touch underwritten. You’d say Cavill is as infallible as Superman. But, Superman had Kryptonite; it’s not yet clear what Cavill’s might be.” By the end of the interview Cavill’s Kryptonite is being asked about the #MeToo movement. These comments have been widely publicized, but the main lines that (understandably) upset people are; “I think a woman should be wooed and chased…it’s very difficult to do that if there are certain rules in place. Because then it’s like: I don’t want to go up and talk to her because I’m going to be called a rapist or something.” Oh, Henry.

In an interview with Alexandra Pollard in The Independent on September 1st 2018, the actress Olivia Cooke said; “I mean, they (men) don’t need to not speak to us – just don’t be gross and don’t be a dick. It’s dead easy.” She was then asked about Cavill’s comments and called them “So idiotic…Come on public schoolboy, you can do better than that.” Thanks Olivia for summing up my entire argument! Cavill’s #MeToo comments are only one of the missteps in what is a strange, but revealing interview. Baidawi bizarrely punctuates the article with cringe-worthy bon-mots from a document saved on Cavill’s phone, “Advice from an 80 year old man.” Baidawi also misspells Cavill’s dog’s name – whatever happened to journalistic integrity?

The interview in The Rake magazine from October 2017 is more fawning and includes quotes that sound like flat, generic press-releases from Ben Affleck and the Royal Marines Charity, praising Cavill. The Men’s Journal article from August 2018 contains an anecdote about Henry heroically saving his younger brother Charlie from a locked storage room when he was seven by smashing a glass window. This may get added to the list of stories that the world knows about Henry Cavill, or we’ll just carry on not knowing him at all.

Fame is seductive but how do you handle it once you’re there?

My advice for Cavill’s team (to help redeem him from this bad publicity) is to let him be interviewed by a British woman, preferably in a pub, over a few beers. Baidawi notes that Cavill is: “never more talkative than when he talks about his desire to find someone to spend his life with.” In The Rake, Cavill says; “I am really happy with the position I am in because I am making great money and I am doing things that I love, and I am going to crazy places, but the reality of all these things that seem cool in storybooks is that it does get lonely. I have Kal now, and that has changed my life.” I am in no way defending Cavill’s ridiculous #MeToo comments, but I have some sympathy for an ultra-famous person trying to date. (Cue a gif of Woody Harrelson wiping his tears with fistfuls of cash).

I’ve been critical of Cavill in this essay, but I also see the pitfalls of fame and understand his reservations about opening up publicly. I clearly don’t have a healthy relationship with celebrities; I get obsessed and create fantasies that cannot possibly be lived up to in reality. I spent the first part of this series ranking his films, mainly by hotness. I’ve discussed Cavill’s body image issues whilst also examining his body in detail in. I’ve also done an awful lot of guesswork, making assumptions about someone based on interviews and his public image. But I’ve also tried to research and delve into the “real” person, while acknowledging this reality is limited to what a celebrity chooses to reveal and share. If I were in that same position, I’m sure I would do the same. I would be hiring someone to help me craft the perfect insta-account and PR/publicists would help me control my own narrative. I find celebrity culture and star image fascinating; fame is seductive, but how do you handle it once you’re there? There are no easy answers.