THE tall, handsome guy with the square jaw and the Midwest manners was comfortably anonymous when he arrived at the lunchtime patio of Il Piccolino on Robertson, but the staff began whispering when the gentleman stepped back outside to have his photograph taken for a major metropolitan daily newspaper. By the time Brandon Routh sat back down for lunch, his secret identity was pretty much shot.
"They figured out who I am, but, you know, usually I don't get too many people recognizing me. My hairdo in real life is not like Superman. It keeps me pretty safe at this point. But I know it'll happen more when the movie comes out."
The movie is "Superman Returns," which lands in theaters on June 30 and should instantly transform Routh from a mere mortal actor with some soap-opera credits into the iconic hero of a Warner Bros. franchise of the first order. A week before Routh took a corner table and ordered a chicken-and-broccoli pasta dish (what, you expected something with capers?), the young actor was on the cover of Entertainment Weekly for the second time -- not bad for a guy who has so far starred in only a movie trailer. Such is the power of that red-and-blue suit, perhaps the most famous piece of clothing since Santa's fur-lined ensemble.
Principal filming of "Superman Returns," directed by Bryan Singer and also starring Kevin Spacey and Kate Bosworth, wrapped in Australia just before Thanksgiving. Since then, Routh has spent time with his girlfriend, made it home for the holidays with his family in Iowa, and even jetted off to Italy to hoist a torch during the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics. On deck, the promotional circuit for the film will take him to London, Tokyo, Paris, Brazil and other places the small-town kid has never been.
Wearing the cape is a tall order, the 26-year-old knows. He's aware that Christopher Reeve struggled to find other film roles after wearing it, and that, decades ago, George Reeves became bitter when producers didn't want him for other work and kids on the street kicked him to see if he was invulnerable.
"They still might," Routh said. For the record, he promised not to kick back. "I'll just start wearing shin guards."
Over lunch, Routh chewed as much on his thoughts as he did his arugula salad. He spoke carefully too; he has been displeased with some aspects of the early media coverage and he is bracing for the ride through the strange gantlet of the international press junket.
"I've already learned some important and good lessons," he said.
What have been the sticky points? Routh, who works out diligently, isn't happy that some people have the impression that his physique on screen is the creation of CGI special effects and a magic suit.
"For people who haven't seen me in person, they don't understand," he said with a sour expression. "It's actually the only thing I get touchy about -- no, not touchy; the only thing I worry about is people getting the perception that it was all going to be fake."
The actor wore the expression of a guy who tells himself that he's fighting a losing battle. Fake and real are hard to sort out in a movie that makes you believe a man can fly. Routh, for instance, has brown eyes, but contact lenses made them blue in the movie. But not blue enough -- the filmmakers went back and tinkered even more with his irises in the close-up scenes. There are so many CGI images in the film that Routh himself admits that in some segments he is not sure if he is seeing himself or just a hard-drive approximation of himself, real muscles and all.
A REAL MAN IN TIGHTS
WHEN the filming wrapped, Routh got one souvenir: The makeup and hair people gave him a framed lock of artificial hair, the spit curl from Superman's famed brow. It was a great memento but also a reminder of the tug between real and fake. "I never actually used the hair curl on screen, my own hair was just easier [to style] and looked good."
The strange sensation of seeing yourself taken into new artificial realities extends even beyond the movie theaters.
He mulled the whole process of becoming Superman, a physically rigorous role and one that carries the threat of typecasting, and then watching the strange and sometimes shrill echoes of it through pop culture.
That most recent Entertainment Weekly issue, for instance, had a full-page, up-close photo of Routh as Clark Kent -- but the actor said the photo had been concocted from a picture of him as Superman altered on a computer to add eyeglasses and a different haircut. Stranger than that, Routh has been browsing the Internet to check out the new line of Superman action figures and other toys that bear his likeness and all the fake MySpace sites that claim to be the portal of the real Routh.
Another sigh. "I shouldn't worry about it. I should just let it go....
"Hey, it's all part of the show."