Cameron Cuffe: Superman Is Better Than Batman for One Hopeful Reason

Take it from Superman's grandpa.

Natsha Chomko, aka POST-WOOK, for Inverse

When Cameron Cuffe walks into a comic book store, there’s one aisle he zooms to faster than a speeding bullet: Superman’s. It’s been a habit long before he played the Man of Steel’s grandfather on TV.

Although bookstores arrange aisles alphabetically by title, comics are usually named after lead heroes. The 26-year-old star of Syfy’s Krypton finds a little poetry in the proximity of Green Arrow and Green Lantern. “A lot of comics are arranged with characters near each other,” Cuffe tells me. “It’s all about relationships.”

I met Cuffe during a Tuesday afternoon downpour in Manhattan, at Midtown Comics near Grand Central Station. He’s wearing horn-rimmed glasses that rest on his head of lush dark hair parted to the right. He talks up his favorite writers — Geoff Johns, Mark Waid, and Tom Taylor — as if they’re close friends, exhibiting the parasocial relationship of a fan.

“He gets Superman,” he says of Taylor. “Only someone who gets Superman can write Injustice.” As Cuffe delves into the nuances of DC Comics graphic novels, like Kingdom Come and Birthright, it becomes almost unfair how much he pulls off Clark Kent chic.

Cuffe’s passion for Superman — born in 1938 from Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel — runs deeper than the depths of the Phantom Zone. Raised on the cartoons but forged by comics, Cameron Cuffe believes superhero universes are places of awesome wonder, and a worthy proving ground for one’s moral compass. In the DC Universe, truth and justice aren’t old-fashioned; they are radical ideals to strive toward.

Cuffe isn’t delusional. He knows Superman is a work of fiction. Even if it’s one of the best fictional franchises in American history, it still doesn’t mean Superman will swoop down and save us from disaster. Cuffe wants to believe that Superman can be real through everyday kindness. To prove it, the actor hopes to use his budding celebrity as a force for good as a mental health advocate.

“I try to be as open and honest about my mental health as I possibly can be,” he says. “I want to get more involved in charities that increase aid, especially for those who can’t afford their own. I suffer from anxiety and depression, and that doesn’t make me any less of a human being. It doesn’t make me unable to do the things I love.” He adds, “I always found people sharing their stories makes me feel less alone.”

See also: Cameron Cuffe: “Superman Is the Ultimate Immigrant Story”

Spend an afternoon talking comics with him, and it’s obvious Cuffe’s passion for Superman isn’t in the power fantasy of bending steel but an ambitious quest for peace.

He shows me his phone’s wallpaper: It’s the final, fifth panel of a page in All-Star Superman #10, by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. In it, Superman comforts a suicidal teenager about to jump by telling her that “you’re much stronger than you think you are.”

"No one will ever see me as Batman."

“It’s such a beautiful moment,” he says. “No one will ever see me as Batman. I’m not the guardian protector of the night. But I can do that for someone. Any one of us can show someone there is hope. We can believe in the best of them.”

After two decades idolizing Superman, Cuffe is a fan who’s ascendant in his role as Superman’s grandfather, “Seg-El,” on the Syfy series Krypton. Set decades before Superman (or “Kal-El”) crash lands into a Kansas farm field, Krypton follows Seg-El’s last-ditch efforts to save his planet. He is constantly challenged by Krypton’s narrow-minded leaders, who refuse to acknowledge their inevitable doom. Season 2 of Krypton premiered on June 12.

Cameron Cuffe as "Seg-El" in the Syfy series 'Krypton'.Steffan Hill/SYFY

Professionally, Cuffe plays Superman’s grandfather. But personally, Cuffe aspires to be just like his hero. “To this day, when I’m in a tricky situation, I ask: What would Superman do?” he tells Inverse. “People say Superman isn’t relatable. I think he’s the most relatable.

“Everyone in their life will have an opportunity to be Superman, probably more than once. The importance of Superman is that you take that opportunity.”

Born and raised in London with the West End “right on [his] doorstep,” Cuffe grew up the middle child in a household that fostered his early interest in theater. He pursued the arts on the encouragement of his father, who dreamed of working in Hollywood. “My dad grew up in a blue-collar family in Boston. He wanted to be a film producer, and it was never a reality for him. He encouraged us to follow our dreams.”

In performing, Cuffe found an outlet he didn’t even know he needed. “I’m quite an introverted person,” he says. “I never felt like I fit in anywhere. I was quite lonely. I was lucky I discovered acting when I was a kid. That really helped me escape my own head. I was allowed to pretend.”

Cuffe was born in the 1990s, a decade he considers “the golden age” for kids’ TV. When X-Men, Spider-Man, and Power Rangers ruled the airwaves, Bruce Timm’s Superman: The Animated Series was his favorite show. “And, of course, there was Batman, Batman Beyond, and Justice League,” he reminisces. “That’s one of the first examples of a shared universe on television. Everything happening in cinemas now — it started there, in the modern era.”

Besides the cartoons and movies, Cuffe also loved the comics. Up and down Midtown Comics, Cuffe takes me on his life story — as told by Superman. “Jeph Loeb wrote the first single issue I bought. The “Public Enemies” run of Superman/Batman,” he says. When Cuffe first arrived in New York as an adult, he worked as a production assistant for $180 a week. He killed time between these very same shelves.

“I couldn’t afford lunch. But every break I would go to Midtown Comics. Even if I didn’t have money, I would flip through [books] and talk to the guys about what’s coming out.”

He spots a favorite on the shelf, Superman for All Seasons. Another Superman story by Loeb and artist Tim Sale, the comic aesthetically evokes Norman Rockwell’s 20th-century Americana. As Cuffe thumbs through it, he’s rendered speechless at the pages of a boyish Clark Kent sipping pop soda with Lana Lang in a diner. A few pages after that, Superman soars, soaked in the glow of a Metropolis sunrise.

Cuffe grew up in London, a far cry from a place like Smallville. Just what does a Brit see in truth, justice, and the American way?

“Great question, and also a great comic,” he says, laughing to himself. (Real quick, Google Action Comics #775.) “There’s nothing old-fashioned about being good and decent. The way I thought about the ‘American way’ was freedom, happiness, and the pursuit of justice. Making sure other people have the right to pursue it no matter who they are.”

Cuffe honed his stagecraft in the UK, at the Lir National Academy of Dramatic Art in Dublin, before performing for Park Theatre and Donmar Warehouse in London. A British Theatre critic, reviewing a 2014 production of City of Angels, where Cuffe played “pretty boy” Peter Kingsley, raved that “he can act very convincingly. One to watch.”

Aside from a bit part in the 2016 Meryl Streep film Florence Foster Jenkins, it was hard to watch Cuffe anywhere. “I was in a big battle with rejections,” he says.

Every day was a struggle until one day something clicked. He found himself at a screening of Eddie the Eagle, with star Hugh Jackman in attendance. Non-Brits may be unfamiliar with skier Michael Edwards, upon whom the film is based, but he was “a pop hero” in Cuffe’s homeland. “He was terrible, but he was so enthusiastic, so happy to be at the Olympics. He didn’t care how he did.”

It was here that Superman’s would-be grandfather heard wise words from Wolverine. “Hugh Jackman, before the screening, said this story is important because we live in a society that too often celebrates winners, as opposed to people who play for the love of the game.” The sentiment hit Cuffe like a locomotive. Here he was, so concerned with trying to win that he forgot how to play.

“Everything you do, try to find the love in it,” Cuffe advises. “Whatever happens will happen.”

Cuffe, with showrunner Cameron Welsh, on stage at San Diego Comic-Con 2018.SyFy

Months later, an email came from his agent. It was a casting call for Krypton, a new prequel series set on Superman’s home world. Cuffe decided he would give it a shot, but would be happy to “just be a fan” and binge the show from his living room.

He had a good audition, but he didn’t get it. The producers tested him again, only to pass on him again. And then again and again. This process would repeat itself until Cuffe, skeptical at yet another tryout, wound up in Los Angeles before producer David Goyer. After one more test, he got the part. He was now, officially, Superman’s grandfather.

Weeks later, Cuffe was standing before the cameras as Seg-El, a roughneck Kryptonian forced to watch his parents’ executions. In the final scene of the Krypton pilot, Seg-El stands atop a stone floor emblazoned with that iconic, shielded “S” — the coat of arms for the House of El. He’s holding the red cape of his grandson, Superman, gifted to him by a time traveler named Adam Strange.

While it was an important moment for Seg-El, “because he’s the Last Son of El, the responsibility to carry his name,” it meant something more for Cuffe.

“I felt it was our time,” he says. “The beautiful thing about comic books is that the story continues, and the responsibility of the storytellers’ futures is to leave it better than we found it. To be part of that is such a huge honor.”

“I’m really excited about Krypton Season 2,” Cuffe says, after a year of television in the books. “For me, Season 2 is the story I’ve always wanted to tell in this world. Last year, we did the hard work of introducing the world. This year, we really take an even deeper dive. We have a bit more fun with it. ”

Though Krypton is bringing more aspects of Superman’s comics to life, Cuffe says Krypton will never be a traditional “superhero” story. That may be a relief for anyone weary at the high volume of comic book superhero adaptations out there today.

“Our stories take more inspiration from Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica, not The Flash,” Cuffe says. “It’s not about putting on a mask and fighting crime. It’s about the society these people live in. Great science fiction isn’t about robots or aliens or monsters. It’s about us. It’s about how people relate to each other. In that sense, Krypton is very science fiction.”

Krypton hasn’t forgotten its roots. Season 2 introduces Lobo, played by Emmett Scanlan, an oversized brute who speeds across the cosmos on a rocket-powered Harley-Davidson. Lobo first appeared in DC’s Omega Men in 1983, but was reimagined later as a parody of dark ‘n’ gritty anti-heroes who were in vogue with comics at the time. Lobo has long been a fan favorite.

“We wanted to embrace our comic book roots,” says Cuffe. “Lobo is one of the most wild, fun characters out there. As fans will know, Lobo is a shades-of-gray character. He’s utterly self-interested. Whatever aligns with Lobo’s interests, that’s the way he’s gonna go.”

Introducing Lobo is just one way Krypton is having fun with the source material, Cuffe says. While many film and TV adaptations of comics present the colorful panels as overly serious, rain-soaked, foggy affairs, Cuffe refuses to be embarrassed by Superman. It’s a perspective he gleaned from Richard Donner’s landmark 1978 film, Superman.

On a recent Tuesday, Cameron Cuffe introduced Inverse to his personal history with Superman at Midtown Comics in New York.Eric Francisco

“There are so many bits of wisdom from the production of that movie,” he says. “Richard Donner had a golden rule on set: We take the job seriously, but we don’t take ourselves seriously. I think that’s a great rule. This is Superman. There’s meant to be a sense of awe and wonder. Christopher Reeve understood that inside and out.”

Despite decades of new Superman stories told since 1978, Cuffe argues the film has the greatest line in all of Superman history.

“In that movie, where Lois asks, ‘Who are you?’ He says, ‘A friend.’ That’s who he is.”

Superman has an unshakeable image that is both helpful and hurtful. His convenient superpowers, his chiseled good looks, and his red-and-blue costume all sum up a character who is often thought of as less edgy and too vanilla compared to superheroes.

“People think he is perfect, that he is the boy scout. That’s not who he is,” he says. “Clark Kent is just a guy who can do incredible things, and decides to be a superhero because it’s the nice thing to do.”

“He is aspiring to be Superman as much as anyone else. It is an ideal he strives toward. He doesn’t always know the right thing, but he’ll always do his best to make the right choice. That is such a human story.”

See also: Cameron Cuffe: “Superman Is the Ultimate Immigrant Story”

Cameron Cuffe is a member of the Inverse Future 50. ‘Krypton’ is airing now on the Syfy channel.