Superman Returns
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Credit: Warner Bros.

Brandon Routh looks back on Superman Returns and how it changed his life

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Apr 23, 2018, 3:00 PM EDT

Can't get enough Brandon Routh? Neither can we. When we talked to the actor for Superman's 80th anniversary, he was such a pleasure to geek out with that we want to offer you an expanded version of our chat contained in the previously published oral history. Please enjoy these extra tidbits.

Take me back to when you were first cast in the part. What was going on in the world, or even just your life, at that time? How would you characterize the era?

Brandon Routh: I was cast in 2004. As far as politically, we were involved with fighting Iraq. It was the Bush presidency. I was 24 or 25 at the time, and Superman was the biggest enterprise in my life. That whole journey was transformative. It was a seven-month process from initially meeting about it to getting cast. I did a screen test for McG in a Stan Winston-designed suit, and it was all foam. Stiff latex foam. People often ask, "What was it like when you first got into the Superman suit," and the answer is that I got in this bizarre suit, and then had to wait my turn to do a screen test, so I was sitting in this little green room waiting area by myself, reading a newspaper or magazine, in this suit. And just thinking, "What a bizarre world am I in, that this is happening?!" So I laughed at myself.

I read with Sophia Bush, and it was a very different script. I think there were five or six other gentlemen who screen-tested at that time. But halfway through that first round, it looked like it had fallen apart, or was gone. I was devastated. And then there were murmurings of Bryan Singer coming on to direct, and then eventually I had a meeting with him, and the ball started rolling again. That was a very up and down time for me!

There is video footage of your screen test with Bryan Singer. You're getting your hair cut, and you seem surprised at their reaction.

Yeah, that was my second screen test, my final screen test with Bryan and his crew. I was not aware that a behind-the-scenes film crew would be there, and I was not aware that anyone else was testing, necessarily. There might have been, but I just didn't know if I was the only one in contention or not.

But I showed up, and they were shooting everything, and they started talking to me about things that seemed, not pre-ordained, but like the decision had already been made about me? So I was a little shocked, because it all seemed like they had already made a decision, so I was excited by that, but it also made me a bit nervous. It boosted my confidence, even if my suit this time was a Superman T-shirt with a red sheet as a makeshift cape on my back! It made me think they had already been thinking highly of me, for a long time.

Superman Returns

Credit: Warner Bros.

A lot of the actors who've played Superman have been telling me they feel a bit of imposter syndrome, trying to play a basically a Jesus figure, trying to live up to Christopher Reeve's iconic interpretation. What kind of pressure did you feel?

I don't think I felt any imposter syndrome going in. If anything, I felt imposter syndrome going out. And that's probably closely related to the fact that we never made a sequel to Superman Returns. Even though the film was largely well-reviewed and very well-liked, it didn't make the money in the cinema that would propel it toward a sequel. I was probably too naïve going in to feel much of an imposter syndrome, but I took it incredibly seriously. I was honored to play Superman. I wanted to represent Christopher Reeve, and also represent the people who had been fans of Superman for so long. I wanted to do justice to the character — not only Chris' version, but all the other iterations of Superman, and hopefully all those various aspects of Superman that people were looking for. [Laughs] That's kind of an impossible task.

I see Superman in Superman Returns largely as a savior figure, a Christ-like figure, for sure. One who is lost and feeling like he doesn't fit in, but still has a role to play, and has to work on his own self-identity and self-confidence. He shows his humanity more than we've maybe seen before because he's going through real human emotions and struggles in the movie. So what I focused on was what it would be like to be the most enlightened being on earth – a lot of thinking, a lot of meditating, a lot of acting exercises. I tried to build that into the way he spoke and had interactions with people, but also the way he moved, his physicality, to have him be flowing and move without effort. For a 24-year-old, that was very challenging, but I did my best!

I could see his qualities that existed beyond his superpowers – the qualities of maturity and enlightenment and awareness and humanity and generosity. These were things that I wanted to bring to the character, because we'd seen the superhero. That's what I paid attention to. Which was maybe more emotional experience than some people wanted! Because people hadn't seen Superman represented in so long, they wanted the broader experience, the superhero abilities, versus the emotional qualities and the teaching lessons that he represents. They wanted more fighting and fisticuffs. And we were also coming into a time in cinema history where effects were bigger, and people wanted to see that action and explosions and bigger-than-life stuff. Now we've come to a point where we've seen so much of that, we've become overloaded, and we want more story. We're circling back to that area. Maybe Superman Returns was a little before its time! [Laughs]

Did you ever meet Henry Cavill? Apparently, he also tried out for Superman Returns

I met Henry extremely briefly at Comic-Con four years ago, in the hallway, as we were crossing paths. We just said hello and congratulations. He would know better than I would if he tested for the McG project? I think he might have tested for that? I don't know if he tested for Bryan's film or not. I've heard rumors that it was between us for that, but I don't know how close he was on that in the end. But I didn't expect to see him at Comic-Con, so we literally got ten seconds of shaking hands and saying hello. He's a physically impressive dude! He fits the role well, just even in that. Seeing him in person, it was startling to me how much he looks like Christopher Reeve in a different way than I do. I don't think Henry and I look much alike, but he shares one quality with Chris, and I share a separate quality with Chris.


Well, we're a different body type. I'm taller than Henry. I'm ectomorphic. I have a long frame, a long torso. I'm not sure if Chris did or not, but I have more of a swimmer's body, so weight looks different on me. And I gained about 25 pounds of muscle, and weighed about 225 pounds during the movie. Chris was taller than me. He was 6'4".

How tall are you?

I'm 6'2 ½".

Not by much, he's not taller than you!

[Laughs] I met Chris' sons, and they're tall, too.

Brandon Routh, Superman Returns

Credit: Warner Bros.

It seems like you've gotten to have a lot of fun with having been Superman...

I think for a long time, I felt I had to take it seriously, to honor the character, to honor Christopher Reeve's legacy, to uphold that image. Not that I don't feel that anymore, but as I've grown as a human being, I know you can have both sides of it. I'm able to poke fun in a light-hearted manner and be more at ease with it. And also just know that it was just a character I played, but I'm obviously not Superman. Not that I ever thought I was Superman! [Laughs]

But there's a certain attachment that I had to create when I played the character, a stronger bond than I have now, in some ways. In my work, in my other work life, he pops up in a lot of the projects I've done. We put Easter eggs in a crossover episode of DC's Legends of Tomorrow when Ray meets Kara from Supergirl: "Oh, she looks like my cousin."

And there was the Fortress of Solitude joke.

Yeah, that was part of a set, so I took a photo on my Instagram. And when I did a show called Partners, we had a little bit of putting on the Clark Kent glasses. So it pops up. It's fun to throw that in there. As I've gotten further from playing the character, I guess I can enjoy it in a way. Most of the presence of Superman in my life comes from interactions with fans. I get a lot of joy out of it because I see people who've been touched in the course of their lives in many different ways, just from watching Superman Returns, and the image of Superman that I represent to them. What the legacy of Superman brings to them. I see smiles and joy and tears on people's faces all the time when I interact with them, which is the best part of Superman. The seriousness is important for some aspects – when you have to save the day – but the best part of Superman is the joy that he brings to people, to the world.

And I have that in daily life with my son, who is five. He knows that Dad played Superman, and even though we've talked about the green screen and the wires, he still wants to believe in the magic: "But you can really fly! You're really strong!" And I fly him around the house, we do silly things, superhero fights. He's the Flash. I think he's a bigger fan of the Flash than Superman. But Superman is still one of his favorites.