The Women of Netflix's The Witcher on Strong Female Leads and Working with Henry Cavill
The hype is building for Netflix’s new series The Witcher, an adaptation of the Polish fantasy novels and stories featuring the “Witcher” Geralt of Rivia, a monster hunter with supernatural abilities. Geralt is played by Henry Cavill (Man of Steel, Mission: Impossible—Fallout), who is in Manila right now to promote the series with a fan event and a special screening of the first episode.
Esquire caught up with Cavill’s co-stars Anya Chalotra and Freya Allan, who play Yennefer and Ciri, respectively, to talk about their roles and what it's like to work alongside Cavill, an admitted fanboy of the franchise.
While Cavill is a huge fan who’s played and replayed the video games and even delved into the literature by author Andrej Sapkowski, both actresses were completely unaware of The Witcher property prior to being cast. “I had no idea The Witcher existed before getting the brief,” Chalotra confesses, “I mean, nothing. It’s quite good, actually, since [Yennefer] is such an iconic character.”
Anya Chalotra is Yennefer, a powerful sorceress and Geralt’s love interest.
Anya Chalotra is the powerful sorceress Yennefer.
Chalotra is Yennefer, a powerful sorceress and Geralt’s love interest. Fans of the video game know Yennefer as the raven-haired beauty opposite our hero but the Netflix series digs deeper into her past and we get to see her before her transformation, for which she pays a steep price.
On the motivation behind Yennefer's choice
“It was a huge moment in episode three when she transforms because of the choice she made, and how, in that moment, there is no going back. There's no questioning what she will sacrifice to be the version of what society views is powerful and beautiful; she learned later on what the consequences of that were. She sacrificed so much and when we see [what happens] in episode four, that’s a huge turning point for her in the series.”
'She’s very unapologetic and I think that’s a great strength.'
On where Yennefer's internal chaos comes from
“In this series, we see her discovering her powers. And she discovers what those powers are, where they lie, where they're from. And actually looking at her backstory and the tragic childhood she has, we learn that those insecurities and fears all feed this chaos inside her—which becomes the source of her power. And that becomes her strength.”
On why Yennefer is a powerful mage
“Not only that, she's very resilient and I think that resilience mixed with all the suppression and confusion she had as a child [as well as] an abusive upbringing makes her one of the most powerful mages on the continent. She won’t take no for an answer; she’s very unapologetic and I think that’s a great strength.”
Freya Allan is Ciri, a young princess who survives an overwhelming loss.
Freya Allan is the strong princess Ciri.
Witcher also follows the growth of the young Ciri, who, like Yennefer, also goes through intense tragedy and difficult trials. Like Chalotra, Allan had no idea what The Witcher was. “I was the same [as Anya],” she says. “I hadn’t heard of The Witcher at all. But when I got the audition, I googled it and read [up on it].”
On how Ciri turned overwhelming loss into strength
“You see Ciri’s strength through how vulnerable she is. The fact that she has seen the most horrific things, experienced the most overwhelming amount of loss, and she's going through the pain of [her loved ones] dying—yet she continues on. And that takes a huge amount of determination and drive and a real strength.”
'You see her strength through her vulnerability and how gentle she is.'
On how Ciri's vulnerability is her strength
“I think that you get to see a strength through kind of how open-minded she is able to be. [You see] how gentle and kind she is, because she's able to understand other people's viewpoints and see the goodness in people, despite the fact that they have totally opposing views. And so I think it's nice to get to see this strength rather than the immediate choice of being physically strong or, you know, fighting or killing people. You see her strength through her vulnerability and how gentle she is.”
On why playing a vulnerable Ciri was challenging
“My character’s storyline was challenging because she loses all the people she loved in her life and she is suddenly very, very, very alone. And I've never had to experience being as alone as she is. And so I'm feeling that amount of suffering and loss but also having to survive and not be killed or kidnapped or anything else. So that was definitely a huge, huge challenge.”
The actresses celebrate the powerful feminist bent of The Witcher.
The actresses celebrate their characters, particularly with Netflix’s deliberate and powerful feminist bent. Charlotra says, “I think Andrej, in the novels, wrote such strong characters and all the women have such strong attributes. I just think that they have been developed [well] by this incredible team. I mean, one of the reasons I wanted to do this project was ‘cause Lauren was running it. I was really excited to see what she was going to do.”
Charlotra was intrigued by showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich’s treatment for the series. “She had the [idea] about developing Yennefer—and Ciri—and you know, giving them a storyline that was independent from Geralt. I think all the women's voices within the writing room or the women creatives are to thank for the way these characters are portrayed. So it's such a gift to have [all these women] working on this project.”
Henry Cavill is Geralt of Rivia, a monster hunter with supernatural abilities.
They found Henry Cavill a joy to work with.
Asked about their experience working with Cavill, both women effuse positively about the actor. “It was a joy to work with him,” Charlotra says, “he’s so humble. And from the moment I met him, he's just very approachable and was so enthusiastic about working on The Witcher and playing Geralt and bringing it to life and, you know, joining forces to make this brilliant. So it was an absolute joy to work with him.”
As Geralt’s love interest, Charlotra had a good share of screen time with Cavill: “We worked together quite closely so we had some really great times on set and yeah, I look forward to working together again.”
“He's such a fan of The Witcher,” Allan adds, “it’s so clear how excited he is about it all. And it's so nice to be around someone who’s so excited despite having been in this industry for so long. He has such an excitement and passion for it. And he worked so, so hard.”
Their favorite characters are not Yennefer, Ciri, or Geralt.
As great as their experience with Cavill was, it might surprise folks to know that neither Geralt nor their own characters are their favorites. When asked which character from the series was their favorite, both respond with, “Joey!”' Joey Batey plays the bard Jaskier.
“He is hilarious,” Allan stresses, “I was watching one of the episodes last night and I was literally in stitches. I replay this clip, I repeat this clip about five times. I just couldn't stop laughing. Joey’s just brilliant.” Charlotra agrees: “Yeah, I would say the same. Jaskier’s a brilliant character. And Joey brings him to life in a beautiful way. He will touch your heart. Joey does as a person and he will as Jaskier.”
They are choosing to focus on the positive reaction of fans of The Witcher.
Asked if they’re ready for the scrutiny of die-hard fans, who have already expressed their opinions with the release of teasers and stills. Fan-favorite Yennefer, in particular, has gotten some mixed reactions with regards to her appearance, but Charlotra says she has “focused on all those positive reactions out there.”
She says, “A lot of times I know it would be so easy for me to, you know, with the pressure of playing such an iconic character, to read—because I care about those fans, that's why we’re doing this—and to focus on on the negative things, but actually, there is so much positivity out there, and I've really chosen to focus on that and also focus on on on the work. I want to bring this to life in the most truthful way.”
Allan concludes, “I think that the best way for us to look at it is that we have worked really hard to portray these characters well—as well as possible and that’s all we can do. The whole crew and cast have worked hard so, at the end of the day, that’s all that we can now do and you can just hope people enjoy it.”
The Witcher premieres on Netflix on December 20.