The Witcher cast & creators on monsters, magic and messing with timelines

Henry Cavill and chums talk us through The Witcher’s time-bending structure and more...

Before Henry Cavill walks into a London hotel room that’s stuffed with journalists to talk about his work on Netflix’s new fantasy series, The Witcher, the actor’s massive dog precedes him. As Den Of Geek and our fellow hard-hitting newshounds fawn over this actual hound (an American Akita called Kal), Cavill strolls in wearing a nice blue jumper and with his hair slicked back in a Superman-ish sort of way.

Once we’d managed to refocus our attention on the Hollywood megastar and not his adorable woofer, Cavill started to recount his initial exposure to The Witcher brand. Of course, this epic franchise originated as a best-selling book series by Andrzej Sapkowski, and it was previously adapted into a series of successful video games by the developers at CD Projekt Red.

“My first experience with The Witcher was when The Witcher 2 came out,” says Cavill, a famously avid gamer. “I had a very brief experience with that. I can’t remember what year that was now, but I was busy working and it just never really stuck. Witcher 3 came out – what was that, 2014? – and I really got stuck into that, and I’ve played it two and a half times through since that came out.”

And so, when Cavill heard that Netflix was developing a series based on The Witcher, he was determined to get in the room and put himself forward for Geralt Of Rivia, the title character, a stoic monster hunter with magical powers. The show’s creator, Lauren Schmidt Hissrich, spoke to us later in the day, recalling Cavill’s determined attempts to get involved with the project back in April 2018.

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As she recalls: “The first indication I got was one of the Netflix executives saying, ‘Will you please sit down with Henry Cavill.’ I was like, ‘Well, if I must!’ Apparently his agents had been calling, he had such passion about the show, he was a big gamer and had played Witcher 3 through several times, and he knew he wanted to be Geralt. And so his agents had been calling Netflix like every other day. We sat down and had a great meeting. We talked a lot about the characters. I informed him that the books actually were the first thing, that the video games were based on the books. He left that meeting and read all eight novels, which was incredible, and sort of found that the world had expanded even bigger than he could imagine. But I was also very honest with him: we didn’t have scripts yet, I didn’t have any job to give him, and even if I did, I wouldn’t cast the first person that I met, especially just because he was a fan of the show.

“So at that point, we started the casting process in earnest, and we met with 207 other potential Geralts, a tonne of auditions, because I really do feel like you need to see everything that’s out there. At the end of that, we were getting awfully close to production, and we just hadn’t found that person yet. And I realised that I still had Henry’s voice in my head a little bit. So I called him, we met in New York, he actually auditioned for the role – which is very rare for an actor of his calibre to sit down and read for you – and he nailed it. When he left that day, we knew we’d found our guy.”

Once he’d finally landed the role, Cavill was ready to put all of his research into practice. As he puts it: “I’ve been prepping for this role, unintentionally, for my whole life. And then when playing the games, I was playing the games and imagining how to make it into a TV show or a movie.

“And you have a very close connection after playing a computer game with a character, especially after you’ve played 200 plus hours of it. And so it definitely gave me a massive headstart when it came to how I wanted to present the character and what I believe the character to be. But still, it’s an adaptation. This is Lauren’s adaptation of what you find in the book. So it’s going to be different, and it’s going to have her lens on it and her vision applied to it. But for me, I always wanted to make sure the character was as true to the books as was humanly possible from my position as an actor.”

Witchers like Geralt are thought to be emotionless by a lot of people in the books, but Cavill was committed to the task of bringing personality to the role, even when the adaption process requires stripping away a lot of stuff from the books.

“The first book is a full book’s worth of Geralt’s long conversations,” Cavill recalls, “and it’s very nuanced and complicated, and you have vast amounts of inner monologue as well. When [like the show does] you bring two characters from the end of the first book and the second book to the very beginning of our storytelling, Yennefer and Ciri, that changes the framework. And so for me, it was very important that I found the essence of who Geralt was, and applied it to the TV show in my performance.

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“One thing I found in the books, in particular, was that Geralt starts talking one way to people. And in the case of kings and queens, he would know exactly how to talk to the king and queen. And he’ll be no different from any other courtier. But then, by the time that conversation is travelling through, and this person is trying to manipulate him, he becomes more and more direct, and more and more of a hardline character. And that’s what really interested me, in the books.

“But without that same opportunity through pages and pages of text, I had to get that hardline straight off the bat. And that hardline was very, very important to me, and that’s why I did the voice in it the way I did it, because it has a certain gravitas and one word in that voice can mean so much, or even no words – a grunt or a look or just anything, a slight shift of shoulders. That for me is who Geralt had to become with this incredibly stony exterior. And as we travel through the show, as we travel through the seasons, there’s opportunities there, whether it be interactions with Saskia or Yennefer or Roach or whoever it is, where you get to see a bit more depth to the character, and some of that nuance that’s written into a single story in Sapkowski’s writing.”

And speaking of Cavill’s Witcher performance, the actor also confirmed that it is 100% his unedited voice that you hear in the show. The voice changed a bit during the production, with Cavill saying this about the vocal performance he ended up settling on: “I think I definitely drew inspiration from Doug Cockle’s performance in the game. I didn’t want to copy his performance because what he did is his own and exceptional. So instead of making it an American accent like Doug did… Doug did it like a whisper with gravel… I just kind of made it less of a whisper and a bit more of a deeper, guttural gravel. And, yeah, it just allowed me to carry a lot of character through very little dialogue, or not as much dialogue or space to develop a character as [there is] in the books.” 

As Cavill touched upon earlier, the show’s creator Lauren Schmidt Hissrich did make the decision to divert away from the structure of the books and bring the powerful mage Yennefer (played by Anya Chalotra) and the lost princess Ciri (played by Freya Allan) into the story earlier than Sapkowski’s novels originally did.

Explaining the thinking behind this decision, Schmidt Hissrich says this: “What was important to me to keep were Geralt, Ciri and Yennefer. I mean, everything in a story is about the characters. Plot, monsters, magic – those things are great, but those are extras that don’t mean anything if you don’t have strong character stories to latch on to. So when I first pitched this to Tomek [Bagiński] and the rest of our producers and Netflix, I pitched it as a story about family, and a family that wasn’t together at first, and then started to find their way together, and against all odds actually needed each other in this world. That’s what I continue to come back to again and again.”

Intercutting between Geralt, Yennefer and Ciri’s stories means that The Witcher series on Netflix is jumping around between different points in time. Schmidt Hissrich had the job of making this make sense in the writers’ room. As she recalls, “I came up with this idea of timelines. And it was something that we all latched on to from the very beginning, in order to solve a logic problem, which is that I wanted to do the short stories from The Last Wish [a collection that Sapkowski originally released in 1993] but I also wanted Ciri and Yennefer to be a bigger part of the stories. So we knew we had to mess with time.

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“And it was quite easy in the pilot [episode] to mess with time. And then the poor writers’ room, I was like, ‘Hey guys, we’re going to do this thing.’ We had a big huge timeline laid out on our whiteboards in our writers’ office, which had, you know, Yennefer’s story spanning over about 70 years, Geralt’s spanning about 20, and Ciri’s over about two weeks. And it was, you know, just arrows pointing here and things over there, and what was great is that we wrote all eight episodes, and then we had time – because I’m a stickler for schedules and I like things to be on time – we had, then, the time to reflect back and say, ‘Oh, do we understand in episode two that we’re playing with time in this way? Okay, here, now, we can put back in this clue that will lead to something in episode seven. And we had the time to actually really flesh it out. So it’s probably one of my favourite parts of the series.”

On the topic of the show’s time-bending structure, executive producer Tomek Bagiński adds this: “It also means that all the episodes have been a great rewatching value, because once you watch the whole season and go back, you will see a lot more like little breadcrumbs all over the place and you can put the puzzle [together] by yourself and it will be fun. I think for some of the fans it will be great joy.”

Unlike Cavill, Anya Chalotra (who plays Yennefer) and Freya Allan (who plays Ciri) didn’t come to the project as pre-made Witcher fans, as they explained in a separate interview. In fact, as Allan told us, she’s still learning the ropes of the franchise now. She offered this brief anecdote with a laugh: “The other day I said to Anya, ‘Does Geralt have powers?’”

Casting her mind back, Allan recalls reading a “wishy washy” scene in her audition that “wasn’t really aimed at certain characters.” She was also told that she had been cast in a supporting role as Marilka, before being upgraded to the far more central part of Ciri. Both Allan and Chalotra had to learn horse-riding for the show, and, for Yennefer’s early scenes where the character is afflicted with a serious back problem, Chalotra had to get used to wearing a prosthesis.

Also, with Yennefer delivering the sort of magic-channelling poses that Doctor Strange would be proud of, and with Ciri unleashing a string of supernatural screams, both actresses had to find visual ways in their performances to convey their characters’ special skills.

Chalotra recalls overthinking it a bit with Yennefer’s magic moments: “More often than not, when I was really feeling it, tears in my eyes when I was doing the spells, it would look awful. The director would take me around to the screens and say ‘we’re not quite getting this.’ So I’d just go, [waves a hand nonchalantly in the air], and that would be the one.”

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Allan remembers Ciri’s powers being a bit simpler to portray: “For me, it was easy. I just have to scream […] I did the noise all night, for one of the scenes, and I literally just got exhausted the next day. But yeah, it’s fun.”

Another thing that sounds fun about The Witcher set is this: apparently Henry Cavill doesn’t just bring his dog to press events; he also brings him to work every day. As Chalotra jokes, “Geralt’s going to have a dog in season two.” Now that we’d like to see.

The Witcher season one is out now on Netflix, and a second season – which may or may not have a dog in it – has already been confirmed.