It was near the end of Cavill’s boarding-school years that he landed his first movie role, as a wide-eyed 19th-century teen in 2002’s adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo. Director Kevin Reynolds, who’d worked on such blockbusters as Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, auditioned “a crop of tadpoles”, he says, before settling on Cavill, who was just 17. Cavill also ended up in a relationship with a woman he met through one of his on-set colleagues.
“I really hadn’t dated much at that point,” he says. “I had my first love on that movie.” Cavill appears in only a few moments of Monte Cristo, but the job earned him an agent and convinced his parents he should pursue acting full-time. Reynolds, who’d helped shape Kevin Costner’s career, was another early believer. “Even back then,” the director says, “I felt like Henry had the moxie and the ability to become a star.” The rest of the industry wasn’t so sure. Over the next several years, he found himself “living on sofas, and by the good grace of girlfriends and friends”. Cavill auditioned regularly – and sometimes terribly.
For 2003’s The Lion in Winter, he read with Patrick Stewart and walked out flustered. “I was so shit,” he says. But at least he went back and tried a second time – a move that earned kudos from Stewart. “It’s terrifying going into auditions,” Cavill says. “You put your hand into a dark hole and just hope that something comes out. It’s not like being fast or strong or being good at football. Sometimes the acting is just bad.”
His most infamous tryout took place in the mid-’00s, when he was up for a role that seemed well suited to his black-tie-ready handsomeness and deep-voiced dryness: James Bond. To screen-test, he had to walk out of a bathroom wrapped in a towel and reenact a scene from one of the Sean Connery-era films. “I probably could have prepared better,” Cavill says. “I remember the director, Martin Campbell, saying, ‘Looking a little chubby there, Henry’. I didn’t know how to train or diet. And I’m glad Martin said something, because I respond well to truth. It helps me get better.” Cavill recalls being the 002 choice for 007, losing out to Daniel Craig. It was the beginning of a long run that positioned him as runner-up: he missed out on lead roles in Tristan + Isolde, Twilight and an early Superman film that was never realised.
Watch Henry Cavill's Witcher workout below...
“I wasn’t ecstatic about not getting these things,” Cavill says, “but I was so used to disappointment from the acting business, and also from boarding school. ‘No, you’re not good enough’ – that wasn’t anything new to me.” He did procure a four-season run on the Showtime historical drama The Tudors and later a role in the madcap swords-and-slaughter fantasy film Immortals. That 2011 hit, which featured Cavill as a virtuous Greek action figure, would reach number one in the US, make a quarter of a billion dollars worldwide and expose him to filmgoers – in every way possible.
“It was my first experience working on a movie and having my shirt off for most of the damn time,” he says. He was put on a strict six-month diet and underwent extensive martial-arts training to help him slim down.
“It’s very emotionally taxing,” he says. “When you add the lack of food and the pressure on top of that, it’s tough.” When Immortals was released, Cavill was already halfway through filming Man of Steel, making him the third actor and the first Brit to depict the hero onscreen. Man of Steel required more working out than Cavill had ever endured, with entire filming schedules coordinated around his shirtless scenes. He’s always felt like a custodian of the heroes he’s portrayed, whether it’s an Athenian warrior, a Kryptonian orphan, or a monster-slaying Witcher. That’s why he subjects himself to such torturous training.
“I’m representing important characters here,” he says. “I don’t want to be a dumpy Geralt or a fat Superman.” Cavill swears by high-intensity intervals and bodybuilding exercises. “I know what it feels like to go from out of shape to in shape,” he says, “and [afterward] I’ll look at myself like, ‘Man, well done’. It’s not like I’m a golden god – I’m just proud of what I achieved. And then you can take your clothes off in front of your significant other, and they’re like, ‘Goddamn, you look great!’ Like, ‘Yes! I’m making other people happy’. ” Yet some have suffered for Cavill’s intense love of the gym. “I wouldn’t say we ‘worked out’ so much as I acted as Henry’s trainer,” jokes costar Ben Affleck of their time on Batman v Superman. “I really had to help him increase muscle mass – before my coaching, he looked like Gumby.” He adds, “In all honesty, we did work out together. And I hated it.”
Read more in the February issue of Men's Health, on sale now.