Anyone who’s got a Netflix subscription has probably seen teasers of the new original fantasy drama series called The Witcher, which begins streaming on December 20.
The show was created by Lauren Schmidt Hissrich (The West Wing, Daredevil) and based on the novels of Andrzej Sapkowski. It stars Henry Cavill (Man of Steel, Mission Impossible: Fallout) as mutant monster hunter Geralt of Rivia. Alongside him are Anya Chalotra (The ABC Murders, Wanderlust) as Yennefer of Vengerberg, the ambitious sorceress who pays a terrible cost for beauty and power, and Freya Allan (The War of the Worlds, Into the Badlands) as Princess Cirilla “Ciri” of Cintra, on the run from the forces that massacred her family and people.
Neither Yennefer nor Ciri is a shrinking violet, and while the actresses who play them are new to the industry, they have embraced the challenge of bringing two iconic, powerful women to life.
Cosmopolitan got the chance to talk to The Witcher’s female leads, and here’s what they had to say about the women they portray and their experience working with industry veterans Lauren Schmidt Hissrich and Henry Cavill.
Ciri and Yennefer are two strong women who persevere through very painful circumstances. Can you talk about how you see your character, her strengths, and the motivations?
Freya: What I love about Ciri is that you see her strength through how vulnerable she is, the fact that she has seen the most horrific things and experienced the most overwhelming amount of loss. And she’s going through the pain of that, yet she continues on, and that takes a huge amount of determination and drive and real strength.
But also, I think that you get to see her strength through how open-minded she is able to be and 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 may have totally opposing views to hers…You see her strength through her vulnerability and how gentle she is.
Anya: For Yennefer, in this series, we see her discovering her powers. She discovers what those powers are, where they lie, where they’re from. And actually, in looking at her backstory and the tragic childhood she had, we learn that those insecurities and fears all feed this chaos inside her, which actually becomes a source of her power. And that becomes a strength.
Not only that, she’s very resilient, and I think that resilience mixed with all the suppression she’s had as a child and confusion and such an abusive upbringing make her one of the most powerful mages of the Continent. She also won’t take no for an answer, and she’s very unapologetic, and I think that’s a great strength of hers which she uses to her advantage.
For Anya, what do you think is the significance of Yennefer’s transformation, and how high was the price that she paid for that transformation?
Anya: It was a huge moment when she transforms because of the choice she makes 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 as powerful and beautiful. And she learns later on what the consequences of that were.
She sacrifices so much. The event…[with] the baby is a huge turning point for her in the series, when she realizes that actually her goals are the same, to find true connection and unconditional love. But her attitude towards the institution and her views back then as a child have changed. She doesn’t want to be what society wants her to be.
How was the experience working with Henry, and how are we able to bond on the set? Did he give you some advice about acting?
Anya: It was a joy to work with him. 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 us all joining forces to make this brilliant. So it was an absolute joy to work with him. And we obviously work together quite closely, so we had some really great times on set, and I look forward to working together again.
Freya: Yeah, he’s such a fan of The Witcher that it’s so clear how excited he is about it all. And it’s so nice to be around someone who was so excited despite having been in this world, in this industry, for so long. He has such excitement and passion for it, and he works so, so hard.
Also, we had some really, really great conversations where he talked me through things I was worrying about, with what happens after the show comes out. Because he started out acting when he was about 17, he knows how I could be feeling, and it’s been really nice to have that. He’s been really supportive. It’s great to have someone to speak to about things that I and other people in my life don’t know about, but he does because he’s very, very experienced within the industry and with dealing with everything that comes with it.
The Witcher is helmed by a woman, and women directed two and wrote five of the eight episodes in the season. How do you feel this contributed to how women are depicted on the show and your characters in particular?
Anya: I think Andrzej [Sapkowski], in the novels, wrote such strong characters. All the women had such strong attributes, and they have been developed by this incredible team. I mean, one of the reasons I wanted in on this project was because Lauren [Schmidt Hissrich] was running it! I was really excited to see what she was going to do, and the idea she had about developing Yennefer and Ciri, giving them storylines that were independent from Geralt’s. I think all the women’s voices within the writing room or the women creatives were to thank for the way these characters are portrayed in our series. It’s such a gift to have them working on this project.
Aside from what you guys play, who are your favorite characters?
Freya: Jaskier! Oh, because he is hilarious. I was watching one of the episodes last night, and I was literally in stitches. I replayed this clip about five times, I just couldn’t stop laughing. He’s like, ugh! He’s just brilliant.
Anya: Yeah, I would say the exact same thing. Jaskier’s a brilliant character, and Joey [Batey] brings him to life in a beautiful way. And he will touch hearts, he grows as a person and he will as Jaskier. Also, a dear character is Istredd and, oh, I could name a lot. Tissaia is wonderful, and I think the way they developed her character in the series is brilliant.
What did you do to prepare for your roles?
Anya: To prepare, I think before I got on set, I would read the script again and again and again. And new things came up every time, I became more familiar with the way Yennefer thought and how she responded. The others supported me when I was on set. Other than that, immediately before, I would make sure I walked as my character, that was huge. Costume and makeup, hair and prosthetics all helped me as well. So it would just be getting into a headspace. And I had a lot to help me with that.
Freya: I didn’t want to overprepare because I felt like I very naturally connected to Ciri and there were so many parallels that I could draw between us and our lives and the stages we are at in our lives. But before filming, depending on the scene, I would have a playlist that I would often listen to, but also, like Anya said, just sitting in the makeup chair and having them coat you in mud or whatever it is really kind of allowed you to get into the mind [for] whatever you were doing that day.
What were the traits of your characters you could relate to or feel connected to as you play those characters?
Freya: Ciri really values her voice and her opinions, and I’m exactly the same. That often comes with her being a bit stubborn as well, which I am also, definitely. And she’s also very determined and, same. There’s so many similarities between us, those are a few.
Anya: For Yennefer, I think her fearlessness and she will always find a way to get through, over the hurdle, to fight through that obstacle, and I’m exactly the same. I don’t take no for an answer, also exactly the same, and there’s a lot of things that also Yennefer’s brought out in me! I’ve got her to thank for a few things as well.
Season 1 of The Witcher begins streaming on Netflix on December 20, 2019.
*Answers have been edited for clarity.