Today: June 16, 2024

Man From U.N.C.L.E.: Henry Cavill & Armie Hammer

Henry Cavill (Man Of Steel) stars as Napoleon Solo opposite Armie Hammer (The Social Network) as Illya Kuryakin in director Guy Ritchie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. – a fresh take on the hugely popular 1960s television series.

Set at the height of the Cold War, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. centres on CIA agent Solo and KGB agent Kuryakin.  Forced to put aside hostilities, the two team up on a joint mission to stop a mysterious international criminal organisation, hellbent on destabilising the fragile balance of power through the proliferation of nuclear weapons and technology.  The duo’s only lead is the daughter of a vanished German scientist, who is the key to infiltrating the criminal organization. Together, they must race against time to find him and prevent a worldwide catastrophe ..

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is inspired by the ‘60s TV series.  Even though you’re telling a whole new story, were there any aspects of the original series you wanted to acknowledge or pay homage to?
AH:  Yes and no.  I’d say, anytime you approach a property that’s been done before and has people who really enjoy it or remember it nostalgically, you want to be careful.  You want to tread lightly because you want to make those people happy.  What we’re doing with this one is aiming to make those people happy, but also packaging it in a way that if you don’t have the past experience of watching it as a kid or anything like that, you can still go to this movie and understand what’s going on and appreciate the characters, whether or not you know who Mr. Waverly [Hugh Grant’s character] is. This is a whole new take for people who have seen it and also those who haven’t seen it.  So we were cautious and we were careful, but at the same time, we knew we were doing something new.

Guy Ritchie has said that he wanted to inject humour into the spy movie genre without tipping over to parody.  How did you balance Illya Kuryakin’s Russian accent within that tone?
AM:  I think the thing I was trying to do with the accent was just to sound as authentic as possible.  It’s funny – if you go back and watch American films, especially from the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, every Russian is sort of like an arch character, but that’s not really how Russians speak.  It’s sort of like the American interpretation:  ‘They were the bad guy there. They should sound bad.’  So that wasn’t what I was aiming for.  I really just wanted the accent to sound as universally Russian as possible.  I was just trying to incorporate whatever vowels and sounds I could pick up and hear from native Russian speakers.

Did you listen to Russian radio or something to get an idea of the contemporary Russian accent?
AH: A lot of YouTube.  [Laughs]  Yeah, YouTube is, I think, an actor’s greatest friend in terms of research.  Because there’s everything on there.

Henry, you’re English but playing an American spy.  Can you talk about how you shaped your American accent for this film?
HC: I think the hardest thing for me was the accent.  When we started, Guy said, ‘Okay, I want something a bit like Clark Gable, but not Clark Gable.’  And I said, ‘Okay, cool.’  So I sat down with Andrew Jack, our dialect coach, and he ran me through some Clark Gable stuff.  We worked on it.  We kind of got it down, and then we started shooting. And Guy kept on saying, ‘Okay, no, that word sounds wrong.  Come listen to it.’  I say, ‘Yeah, okay, it sounds weird.  And what’s weird about it?’  He says, ‘It just sounds too English,’ or ‘That one sounds too American.’  So we had to try and finesse it in different ways and eventually, a quarter way through the movie, it became an affected American accent, which was transatlantic and dated.  And that’s why Napoleon sounds the way he sounds now.

The origin stories of Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin are original to this movie.  Can you tell us a little about their backgrounds?
AH:  I’ve gone through it day by day.  [Laughs]  Basically, Illya was raised in sort of the heart of Soviet Russia.  His father was in the military, but then did something politically dishonourable and was sent off to the Gulags, like millions of Soviets at the time, so Illya was dealing with the shame of that.  He was also, from what they say in the movie, a sort of physical specimen.  So from a young age, he was chosen and put into government-sponsored schools and training programs where they were breeding him to become the super spy.

That’s why he doesn’t really have any other ambitions, except to be the best spy he can be.  He’s not worried about going home and eating a beautiful plate of risotto with truffles, or trying to line his pockets in the middle of a mission.  He’s just there to do the mission.  I think that’s why there’s such a fun rub between the two of our characters.  They’re even more diametrically opposed.

Did either of you go back and watch The Man From U.N.C.L.E. TV series?
AH:  I did watch the original series. I didn’t necessarily do it to learn any parts because David McCallum played the part of Illya Kuryakin, and he did a great job.  But it was a very specific role at a very specific time for a very specific show, which is very different from the movie that we’re making now. The bones are similar.  The characters are largely the same.  But it’s a very different show than our movie.  So there wasn’t really anything I could pull off of it.  More or less, it was just to give myself the historical context, and understand why we were making this movie.

Guy Ritchie described Illya and Napoleon as “the straight and the loose,” and a lot of their friction comes out of that – people who are such opposites having to work together.
HC:  I love that.

AH:  It’s funny, watching people being put into uncomfortable situations that they don’t know how to deal with.   And that is pretty much Illya’s life outside of spying.

How did you find the balance between playing it straight and having fun with that opposition?
AH:  You just had to find the truth in the situation – to be the goofy Russian guy, who’s all thumbs, who doesn’t know how to talk to this person.  It would be very easy for that to get caricaturish, so you have to find the truth in it.  Why can’t he deal with this person?  Why is it that he is socially inept?  What is the cause of that?  And then just play it like it’s not funny.

Did you watch any spy movies that you found helpful or influential as you were shaping these characters?
AH: I don’t know that there was really one movie, per se, that influenced this for me.  I would honestly be hard-pressed to pick my favourite spy movie, to be perfectly honest.  What we were doing was so specific, and tonally what we were doing was so different from anything I’ve ever done, or really anything I’ve ever seen, except for maybe some other work that Guy’s done before.  We really felt we were on a new path and a new trajectory, so we just trusted Guy.

There’s a lot of action in this movie.  How was it for you as actors to handle the physicality of your roles?
HC:  I think that the real physicality came with Armie.  The fight, despite it looking very rough, was very short.  It didn’t take long to shoot, and it wasn’t very complicated.  It didn’t require much in the way of fitness, either.

AH:  It’s maybe fifteen seconds of fighting.  It’s quick.

HC:  Yeah, but Armie had to run for three days straight, chasing that bloody car.  [Laughs]  He had to be fit for that.

AH:  I’ve had better days.  And I’m not the one who’s that physically fit.  Henry is Superman; he’s sitting in the car, relaxing.  And I’m out there, sweating, running, ‘Oh, Guy, you’ve got the wrong guy for this job.’ [Laughs]

Henry, you play a very casual, sophisticated guy, compared to Superman.  What’s it like to have such a change in mindset between characters?
HC:  It’s the joy of being an actor.  You get to play these different roles, and then see yourself in these sort of imaginary characters.  It’s fun.  I wouldn’t want to play the same character over and over again forever.  You’ve got to mix it up, and break it up. Otherwise it just gets a bit boring. And as I said, Napoleon is really fun to play. And as much as Superman is a very stoic character, it’s also very cool to be Superman. He’s got superpowers, and he does some pretty wild stuff.  It is fun to switch and change.

You’ve both have a diverse filmography, but are there any kind of movies that would be an ideal future project for you?
HC:  I think probably just a great range of different movies.

AH:  And to just keep working.

HC:  Yeah.  And just to have consistent work.  I mean, Armie’s now got a full-fledged family.

AH:  Diapers are expensive.

HC:  He’s got school to pay for one day.

AH:  Think about that.  [Laughs]  I’m going to go lay down!

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is in cinemas from Friday, 14th August.

Paula Hammond - Features Editor

Paula Hammond is a full-time, freelance journalist. She regularly writes for more magazines than is healthy and has over 25 books to her credit. When not frantically scribbling, she can be found indulging her passions for film, theatre, cult TV, sci-fi and real ale. If you should spot her in the pub, after five rounds rapid, she’ll be the one in the corner mumbling Ghostbusters quotes and waiting for the transporter to lock on to her signal… Email:

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