What you need to know about ‘The Witcher’ series, according to star Henry Cavill and showrunner Lauren Hissrich

Paolo Abad

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What you need to know about ‘The Witcher’ series, according to star Henry Cavill and showrunner Lauren Hissrich

Katalin Vermes

Henry Cavill and Lauren Hissrich speak about the show’s journey from the books, the video games, all the way to the first season of the show

MANILA, Philippines – From the Man of Steel to the White Wolf, Henry Cavill is taking on yet another big, iconic role in one of the most anticipated television events in recent times.

If any of the first looks coming out are any indication, Netflix’s The Witcher ought to fill the vacuum – or the yearning for good high fantasy on TV – left in the wake of the monumental Game of Thrones.

Like the aforementioned show, The Witcher has everything from from turbulent geopolitics in a medieval-like realm to awe-inspiring mythical elements. But with its own rich lore – and a compelling hero – this new show seems to be gearing up to be the next big thing.

Cavill plays the silver-haired monster slayer and occasional mercenary sword Geralt of Rivia – the eponymous “witcher.”

With premiere day just around the corner, the actor, along with showrunner and executive producer Lauren Schmidt Hissrich (Daredevil, The Defenders, The Umbrella Academy), recently toured different countries including the Philippines to promote the upcoming series.

In their short visit to Manila, the pair met members of press and some fans, to whom they spoke about how this show came to be and what to expect from it.

THE WITCHER IN MANILA. Filipino celebrity Matteo Guidicelli moderates a talk with ‘The Witcher’ star Henry Cavill and showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich. Photo by Paolo Abad/Rappler

Netflix’s ‘The Witcher’ is based on a popular book series made before the video games.

The video games were a hit, and the third installment, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, an open-world role-playing game (RPG), was arguably the entry point for many of its fans.

However, this sweeping saga was actually born as a series of popular novels and short stories written by Polish author Andrzej Sapowski dating back to the 90s. These were later adapted to the popular RPG developed by Polish studio CD Projekt Red.

A self-avowed avid PC gamer, Cavill said that he, too, first encountered his own character Geralt through the video games.

Photo by Katalin Vermes/courtesy of Netflix

“I knew there was a series of books, but I just assumed that they were based upon what the games had created,” he admitted. “Little did I know that Sapkowski had written them way before, and the games were based on the books.”

Getting to play the titular role, Cavill considers the upcoming show to be “like playing another run of The Witcher 3 but with a completely different skin on,” he previously told IGN. “Yes, it’s Geralt of Rivia, the Witcher, but he looks like me now.”

Geralt is only one of the central characters, together with sorceress Yennefer of Vengerberg (Anya Chalotra) and Ciri (Freya Allan), the enigmatic Princess of Cintra.

YENNEFER. Anya Chalotra plays the sorceress Yennefer of Vengerberg. Photo by Katalin Vermes/courtesy of Netflix

For Hissrich, it’s her mission as its showrunner to make sure “all these characters are fully fleshed out.”

“I like to describe the story of The Witcher as a broken family coming together,” she said. “If we wanna make that collision course of them coming together the most interesting, then they all have to be interesting characters.”

“Making sure that we love these characters for who they are make their interactions all the spicier.”

LAUREN SCHMIDT HISSRICH. The showrunner speaks to the regional press in Manila. Photo by Paolo Abad/Rappler

From Hissrich’s unique female perspective, that means ensuring “that the stories we’re telling about women are as dimensional and interesting as the ones we’re telling about men.”

“It’s not about women being more important. It’s not about men being more important. It’s about making sure that all these characters are fully fleshed out,” she argued.

“The games tend to exist after the books. It’s a storyline which continues on from the finish of the books,” Cavill told Rappler in a separate round table interview, speaking as a fan of the series.

 “What Lauren has done wonderfully with this show is she’s taken the characters from the books – specifically Yennefer and Ciri – and she’s given them back story. So when you’re talking about character arcs and stuff, the character arcs from the show are going to be different from the books,” he added.

CIRI. Freya Allan plays Ciri, the enigmatic princess and Lion Cub of Cintra. Photo by Katalin Vermes/courtesy of Netflix

There’s a wealth of source material, composed of thousands of pages in the novels, plus short stories – the latter of which became the primary starting point for the series.

Hissrich elaborated, “Geralt – I think – in the short stories that we’re pulling from, is an incredibly fleshed out character. Sapkowski spent a lot of time so that we understand Geralt’s soul and his damage and where he’s coming from, where he wants to go, his dreams, and all of that – and I just wanted to make sure that we understood the same about Ciri and Yennefer.”

“Geralt’s journey is one of loneliness in the beginning, and a lot of being on the outside, and so we needed to understand what the world was to really set that up, so that’s why we started with those books,” she also noted.

Photo by Katalin Vermes/courtesy of Netflix

Who is Geralt of Rivia, ‘The Witcher’?

Geralt is a witcher, one among “stray children taught the ways of foul sorcery, their bodies mutated through blasphemous ritual,” in the words of the video games.

Cavill describes his character as superhuman – that is, with strength, speed, endurance and other limits exceeding that of an average person. 

In addition to this, “he can also cast basic spells,” also called Signs. “They’re not as strong as the kind of spells you’d have sorceresses and sorcerers cast, but when combined with their combat abilities and physical prowess, they can be incredibly deadly,” he explained.

“This is all part of a process which they gain from going through alchemical trials as boys and various amounts of training,” the British-born actor added.

Consequently, witchers have become sort of outcasts in this universe. As monster hunters, they are viewed to be unable to “distinguish good from evil; the flicker of humanity long extinguished within them,” which is also depicted in the video games.

HENRY CAVILL. The actor, known for roles such as Clark Kent/Superman, takes on Geralt of Rivia from ‘The Witcher’. Photo by Paolo Abad/Rappler

For Cavill though, Geralt is a lot more than just a fearsome wanderer, saying, “I think Geralt’s true secret power is his capacity to love and his belief in the world for being a better place – genuinely.”

“What he presents to the world is not necessarily how he feels on the inside,” he said.

Geralt, however, is far from being a valiant, swashbuckling hero. A witcher is no knight. They can exterminate dreadful beasts – or even assassinate men.

“He wants to be a hero, his passion, his desire is very much to be a white knight,” Cavill said in a later interview. “But unfortunately in the world that Sapkowski has created for him, it’s impossible to do that without committing dark acts, and therefore, you can’t be a white knight.”

Photo by Katalin Vermes/courtesy of Netflix

What is the Continent, the violent, monster-filled world of ‘The Witcher’?

“Just speaking for a start, it’s not a wonderful place to live,” said Cavill, describing the setting also known as the Continent.

The first upcoming season was shot in a variety of locations, including Hungary, Austria, the Canary Islands in Spain, and Poland, the birthplace of the entire saga – all to depict this vast backdrop.

“It was really important to us to go to as many real places as we could and capture actual beautiful backgrounds, so we were on the road a lot,” Hissrich said. “Video games already exist in this world, and video games are obviously CGI and animatics.”

Photo by Katalin Vermes/courtesy of Netflix

In the world of the Witcher, the Continent comprises the vast Nilfgaardian Empire – with its thirst for conquest – and the Northern Kingdoms.

Many beings or races, apart from humans, inhabit these lands. These include elves, dwarves, gnomes, and many others. Even witchers are sometimes considered as a race unto themselves because of their mutations.

“There’s a lot of tension between the different species that live on the Continent – even between the humans, there’s a lot of political tension,” Cavill told the press in Manila. “So everything at all stages is like a tinderbox, it’s just waiting for a spark to set it up.”

Photo by Katalin Vermes/courtesy of Netflix

World building was paramount with such a rich universe as The Witcher, and Hissrich wanted to go beyond the spectacle of battles and fantastic beasts.

“There’s a lot of cool monsters in those pages,” she said. “But I also knew that we wanted to appropriately build up what the Continent is and make sure that we understand the people that are in it – the politics of the place, the society, and the hierarchy – specifically where Witchers fit into that.”

“Basically, the themes of the show and the books [are] very based on real-world themes,” Cavill also told IGN. “How people feel about all these things, whether it be racism, social injustice, politics [is] something which everyone can follow.”

“As soon as you throw a monster in there, it’s okay as well – and pretty darn cool. So that gives you kind of free rein to throw in monsters whenever we want, and it’s like, well, The Witcher – because the whole world is based around the Conjunction of the Spheres and monsters existing.”

Photo by Katalin Vermes/courtesy of Netflix

The show relies heavily on computer-generated imagery (CGI) to depict those beasts, but they have tried to physically make them as well.

“What we would do with both set design and also monsters, is we would start with whatever we could find in the environment. For monsters, sometimes that was via prosthetics,” Hissrich explained.

“We’re a very actor-based show. If we could see the actor in some way, that’s what we would do. I don’t want to see Henry fighting something that’s not there. So we would try something organic and real as much as possible and then we try to build on that.”

Photo by Katalin Vermes/courtesy of Netflix

Cavill views Geralt’s approach to these monsters as “more of a target,” saying he’s not just a “slayer of monsters, he’s an investigator.”

While there are creatures that are unequivocally predatory and savage, there are also cursed individuals or creatures “deemed a monster by the locals but in Geralt’s mind it doesn’t commit monstrous acts, so it’s not a monster.”

“He approaches and assesses everything as a ‘Am I seeing everything right here? Is it a monster? Is it not a monster?’,” he mused in a separate interview. “That’s the kind of stuff I love about Geralt’s approach to everything.”

Photo by Katalin Vermes/courtesy of Netflix

How Henry Cavill transformed into Geralt

Becoming Geralt of Rivia has been an ongoing process, Cavill said, having grown up as a voracious reader of fantasy and being an avid gamer.

“Every book I’ve picked up to read just for the sake of reading or enjoyment in my free time – more often than not – has been part of the fantasy genre,” he said.

“I was playing the games, thinking how they could make this into a movie or a TV show. And then, after I met with Lauren and read the books, it all happened quite naturally, internally speaking.”

Photo by Paolo Abad/Rappler

Cavill recounted it as an arduous waiting period of going back and forth with his agents for weeks on end, until he finally was able to finally meet Hissrich.

“When I first met Henry, we had such a good meeting, and we really digged, got in-depth to the character, and the way that I wanted to tell these stories,” the showrunner corroborated his story. “But I was very honest. I said, ‘We don’t have scripts yet. We haven’t started the process. I don’t have a job to offer you.”

It was much later that he was able to fly in to New York to audition and eventually bested 207 other actors for the lead role.

Photo by Paolo Abad/Rappler

“At the end of the day, what I realized as I had continued writing those scripts, I always had Henry’s voice in my head,” admitted Hissrich, which Cavill jokingly remarked as a “terrible prospect.”

“One of my favorite things about Henry is how seriously he takes the job. He not only shows up prepared, knows Geralt inside and out – better than I do now,” she added.

“But he also shows up on time, ready to work with a great attitude. To me, that’s all what I want at work every day, so that partnership has just been amazing between us.”

Photo by Paolo Abad/Rappler

Cavill had to go through 2 hours of hair and make-up with (having made sure to name them) Jacqui Rathore and Ailbhe Lemass, respectively. He cycled through 3 different silver wigs, all in the name of transforming into Geralt.

The actor is also no stranger to strenuous physical training. He became Superman in the DC Cinematic Universe, and played spies in the action-filled Mission: Impossible – Fallout and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. He points out, however, that physically preparing for The Witcher is much different.

“For this one in particular, because of the athleticism of Geralt’s fighting style, there’s a lot of pirouettes, there’s a lot of explosive movements, and a lot of uneven ground,” he explained, even describing what it’s like to fight with swords.

Photo by Katalin Vermes/courtesy of Netflix

“You build up the right muscle groups which you can’t protect like knee joints or whatever it may be: hips, elbows, shoulders. That was what me and my trainer focused on the most. Aside from the aesthetic, we had to make sure that my body could keep up with the schedule and the fights.”

Cavill also happened to perform his own stunts – no doubles whatsoever, at least for this one. “It’s very important that the character exists within the action, and for audience immersion it’s important that they know that I’m there doing the same thing,” he argued in a separate interview.

“I always liken it to [having] a crying scene and for whatever reason I’m having a bad day and I can’t cry, I don’t get another actor in to come cry for me. So, for the action, if I’m gonna take on a physical role which has a lot of athleticism to it – or whatever it may be – I’m going to bring myself up on that level so I can perform that role to the fullest.”

Hissrich echoed this point: “I don’t just want to see people banging swords against one another. You could do that on any show.”

“To me, every fight is about what is the story that fight is trying to tell. How is that fight furthering the relationship between two characters? Do they want to fight? Do they not want to fight? How is that part of the story?

Photo by Katalin Vermes/courtesy of Netflix

As the show is set to hit the streaming service soon, Cavill merely expressed his excitement, saying, “This has been a very long journey for both of us, and we’ve both put everything we have into this.”

“For me, personally, this is a dream come true,” said Cavill, speaking about his role as if it was destiny. “To have this so close to being released is an incredibly exciting time for me. And I think I can speak for Lauren, who’d say the same, we just can’t wait for you guys to watch it all.”

Netflix’s The Witcher begins streaming on December 20. – Rappler.com

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Paolo Abad

Paolo Abad writes, edits, and shoots for a living. He is one of the founding partners of the online radio platform Manila Community Radio.