LONDON — It’s not every day that you go shopping with Superman.
It was 10 a.m. on a sunny Friday last month, shopping with Superman one of those rare autumn days when the English capital seems to have swapped weather with Santa Monica, Calif., when I first spotted Henry Cavill, the British actor who has put his stamp on the Man of Steel for a new generation of filmgoers.
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. I pictured a hypothetical ad in Variety: “Wanted: Actor. Untitled Superman project. Must be as handsome as Ryan Gosling, as charming as Colin Firth and as ripped as any starting linebacker on the Dallas Cowboys.”
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 Mr. Cavill alongside Ben Affleck as Batman and Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman.
Aside from a Superman-ish forelock that tumbled down his forehead, Mr. 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 mustache.
“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-mustache-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 mustache?”
To the degree the mustache 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 Mr. Affleck jokingly referred to it as a “full-on porn-star mustache” during a “Justice League” reshoot.
Then again, Mr. Cavill has an uneasy relationship to fame. For years, he was a 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” and “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.” 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” installment.
In person, though, Mr. Cavill comes across less like a Hollywood action hero than an English gentleman in the prewar 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 bespoke 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, pausing in the aisles. “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 homemaker mother, Mr. Cavill grew up in 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 Mr. Cavill 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 toward 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 that 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 only goes 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,’” he said.
Listening to him speak in his clipped “Masterpiece Theatre” 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 Ls,” he said. “My Ls belong in the front of my mouth. For an American, an L belongs in the back of the mouth.”
Strolling beneath framed photos of noble and royal clients like Prince William, he paused before a glass case containing the red ceremonial uniforms and swan-feather helmets of the queen’s bodyguards.
“This is the reason why I like the idea of Gieves & Hawkes, because they do so much of the military stuff,” Mr. Cavill said. “The military used to be such an important part of high society. You could take prizes in the Navy and suddenly you became quite a wealthy man, because if you took four French ships, you were rolling around in gold and gems.”
After an hour of suit shopping (nothing was purchased), Mr. 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 to the acknowledged cool superheros, like 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?”
We paused in front of an unmarked white door of a handsome townhouse near Berkeley Square. The door swung open to reveal Mark’s Club, a storied and exclusive private club. “A lovely surprise,” said a handsomely attired woman with a bob at the front desk.
“Lovely to see you,” Mr. 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 crystal chandelier. I mentioned that, 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.)
I asked him what other types of people are members of Mark’s Club.
“Honestly, I have no idea,” he said, explaining 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 who 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,” he said. “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-12 p.m. girl.”
“To put it in simple terms, I never had ‘game,’” he said. It is fair to say, however, that those days are fading quickly.