At a remote farm near Tamworth, Australia sits a classic farmhouse surrounded by rows upon rows of corn. Walking among the corn stalks is a figure that millions of fans around the world can immediately identify – Clark Kent, the alter-ego of the iconic Super Hero Superman, at home on the Kent Farm where he grew up. “It was late afternoon; the sun was setting,” recalls Brandon Routh, who spent his first days playing the Man of Steel on this meticulously recreated set. “I’d just walk outside the farm and enjoy it.”
That’s when it hit him: “It’s pretty incredible to be Superman.”
Routh, a virtual unknown, was just getting used to the idea that he was picked from among hundreds of actors to play the Man of Steel by the time he arrived on-set half-way across the world, after months of physical training, to begin the work of portraying the mythic, larger-than-life character. Tall, soft spoken and polite, Routh embodies what director Bryan Singer describes as “our collective memory of Superman."
Singer, who previously garnered acclaim and box office success with the X-Men films and The Usual Suspects, knew from Routh’s audition tape that he’d found the right man for the role. “The other actors I saw were just playing the role; Brandon transcended that,” the director explains. “He was acting but he was also being the character. It’s uncanny.” His instincts about Routh were confirmed once he saw the 6’3” actor in full Superman regalia for a costume test. “He had razor stubble, I think. It didn’t matter,” Singer remembers. “There was Superman. He just looked radiant. It was amazing.”
Singer wanted to shoot the Kent Farm scenes first to allow Routh to experience what it’s like for the character to be wholly himself in the environment in which he grew up. “There’s something about discovering who you are as you grow up, knowing that you’re a product of these parents who have raised you, and he is very much a product of the Kent family,” Singer describes. “They always ask, which is the costume and which is the disguise? In reality both are his identities. There’s a bit of showmanship in being Superman; a bit of the way you present yourself; and there’s definitely a character in Clark, a charade he’s putting on to make himself awkward and invisible in the office. But he is the Clark raised on the farm by his parents, and I never wanted to lose that. I told Brandon, even at points where he’s portraying the role of Clark and being awkward, the foundation of Superman and Clark is how you were raised. That’s the true character, and that’s why it was important to see glimpses of him at the farm.”
Like the character of Clark Kent, Routh was raised in the American Midwest. “Brandon is from Iowa,” says Eva Marie Saint, who plays Superman’s on-screen adoptive mother, Martha Kent. Saint also once co-starred (in Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront) opposite the late acting legend Marlon Brando, who though digital recalibration plays Routh’s on-screen Kryptonian father, Jor-El, in Superman Returns. “There’s something so grounded about Brandon,” she continues. “And he worked so hard to train, to learn how to fly. He’s so handsome, and dedicated and earnest. I don’t think just any actor could have done this role. He’s just a normal young man but there is a strength there, like Superman.”
As shooting progressed and Routh began to feel more natural in Superman’s skin, he began to channel his own natural optimism and determination into the role. “What I love about Superman and what’s in the character for me is that he is an inspirational, strong, aware, open-minded character,” Routh explains. “Those are the characteristics and abilities I wanted to bring out in Superman. I think that part of me always believes that there’s a way to fix something. There’s never a dead end in a situation.”
In Singer’s film, Superman faces a singular challenge that is more devastating to him personally than any super villain – a world that has learned to live without him, a world in which he may no longer have a place. Even the love of his life, Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth), has become engaged to marry someone else. “He goes from the Kent Farm to Metropolis trying to figure out, ‘where do I really belong?’” says screenwriter Michael Dougherty, who wrote the script with Dan Harris, both of whom previously collaborated with Singer on X2: X-Men United. “So, he goes back to the Daily Planet and thinks, ‘OK, this is where I belong; I’m home. I can rekindle what I had with Lois.’ Only, guess what? Everything has changed. So, he is utterly lost and has to navigate through this challenge essentially alone.”
“He has never experienced these things before,” says Routh. “And he matures throughout the course of the film. We see him grow as his relationships with people change. And through the course of it he figures out how much Lois means to him, and how much being on Earth means to him, and his contribution to Earth. He has to think his way out of this hole but works on not panicking about it.”
While Superman’s world has undergone such drastic change in the time that he has been gone, Superman himself has stayed the same. “When you sink someone whose soul is as clean as his body into a world that has changed so much, a world that is so contemporary, with darker, deadlier influences, it’s interesting to see what happens when those two things come together,” says screenwriter Dan Harris.
Lex Luthor, master criminal and Superman’s greatest enemy, is played by Kevin Spacey. The last time director Singer worked with Spacey won the latter a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as Keyser Soze in The Usual Suspects. Now the artistic director of London’s Old Vic Theater, Spacey did not hesitate when his old friend approached him to play the role … as long as he could return to London in time to start his next play. “I’ll forever be grateful to Bryan for having finished me in exactly the six weeks that he said he could finish me,” says Spacey. “We finished on a Friday night at eight thirty at night, and I was on a ten fifteen plane back to London because I had to be onstage the following night in a play for which we had already sold tickets with people thinking I was going to be there. It all worked out beautifully.”
Though Spacey’s Lex is concerned with more earthly pursuits than the betterment of the human condition (“He just wants his cut,” Spacey explains), the actor was excited to be a part of a film that is much more than a sum of its parts. “There’s something to the fact that Superman defines for us good and evil in really clear, definitive ways,” he says. “Each time it has been discovered – whether it started as a comic and then went to radio and then went to television, and then ultimately feature films – I think it has always in a strange way come at a time when people need their heroes and need those things to be defined. People need to believe in heroes and I think very often movies give people the opportunity to embrace something that’s a lot harder to embrace in real life. The truth is, the world is full of heroes. They don’t necessarily fly around but we see feats of heroism and remarkable things every day.”
“People think that they can’t be that way, that they shouldn’t be that way,” Routh adds. “But I think sometimes we stop ourselves from being as inspirational, great and strong as we could be because we’re afraid we’re going to be too much, and I think some of the times we’re probably not enough. So, I hope that this film and Superman can put that back in people’s minds.”