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Sporting a gravelly growl, twin swords and a white wig, Henry Cavill leads Netflix’s fantasy epic The Witcher as monster hunter Geralt of Rivia.
The new series, an adaptation of author Andrzej Sapkowski’s novels (which were previously adapted by Polish game developer CD Projekt Red as a video game trilogy), is a big-budget swing by the streamer aiming to fill the adult fantasy void left in the wake of Game of Thrones‘ final season earlier this year. Having made a name for himself in blockbuster films in such roles as Superman, the man from U.N.C.L.E. and a mustachioed CIA assassin opposite Tom Cruise, Cavill is returning to the small screen as the titular magic-wielding sword-for-hire.
Cavill sat down with The Hollywood Reporter to discuss his latest starring turn, which had him performing his own stunts and fight choreography (“I like swinging a sword around”), adopting a new spin on an iconic character (“it has to be at least as good or better”) and his experience working with that long white wig.
How much of what we see onscreen in these fight scenes is actually you swinging a sword?
That is 100 percent me. It is very important to me that I continue the character into the action. The character must exist within the action as well as in the dialogue scenes and everything else, because so often you see projects and it’s all act, act, act, then action beat, then act, act, act. I wanted the story to continue seamlessly all the way throughout. Especially in episode one, [fight coordinator] Wolfgang Stegemann and I and his team designed the fight to tell the story. That was incredibly important for us and quite difficult as well because we had to put the intensity of that relationship between those two characters who fight into that second piece and, in the first piece, make it contrast very much to the second piece. You see the different intentions in the fight, you see what [Geralt] is capable of and then you see what he is not willing to do and what he is willing to do. All of that was vitally important to us. I also enjoy it, to be fair. I like swinging a sword around.
What was the training like for this role?
It’s funny, I didn’t have any specific sword training. When I arrived it was about a month and a half before we started shooting. I was working with [sword/fight master] Vladimir Furdik, and we did some basic warm-up stuff with the sword and I got comfortable using a sword again. Otherwise, it’s all instinct for me. I’ve done some stuff before; I’m not a complete stranger when it comes to swords. It was all about letting it fly and relying on my physicality and applying it to the love of fantasy I have. I’ve lived in the genre since I was a kid and it’s my jam. To be able to swing a sword around if I have some choreography so I don’t look silly: perfect.
Is fantasy connecting with current audiences more than it has in the past?
Is it? Lord of the Rings I suppose is a big turning point, when everyone said, “Oh, those books that we all love” — whether secretly or openly — “actually can make great movies.” I’m sure there was plenty of stuff before that as well, but that really opened a door, I think, especially for the business minds at studios who saw they could make some serious money off of this. It’s not just a small group of people; everyone likes these stories. Game of Thrones was just another chapter in the saga, and Witcher will be the next one.
You’ve done a number of blockbuster films in the past few years. What about this project was appealing to go back to television?
This project, specifically, was the lore, the story, the IP. I was, and still am, a huge fan of the games. Have you played them?
Yes, they’re incredible.
Aren’t they good? So, playing through them, it’s hard to imagine what a movie or a TV show would be like. They’re so immersive; the world they build is so incredible. Then I read the books, and they are extraordinary. It was one of those things that because I grew up with the fantasy genre and I hear Netflix is making a TV show, it was, for me, the exact role I want to go for. This is the stuff I live for. I love doing my best to stay faithful to the lore.
It’s a very difficult task when you have a series of books. Books are very difficult to adapt anyway because you’re talking about inner monologues of all sorts. But, for me, especially in this, it’s about boiling the character down to his essence so the truth of the character can fit within the structure of the show.
What [showrunner] Lauren [Hissrich] has done — quite courageously in taking on this huge IP and bringing her own vision to it — is write up the backstory of Anya [Chalotra]’s character [Yennefer] and Freya [Allan]’s character [Ciri]. The ladies have done such an extraordinary job with those characters. Anya is exceptional. Freya gives such a vulnerable strength. To see them perform like that makes you realize the possibilities of these adaptations. For me, it’s about making sure that I stay as true to the character from the books as I can.
You mentioned the “essence” of Geralt. What is it?
In the books — let’s take The Last Wish, for example. We have chapter after chapter, short story after short story where you have an intimate understanding of who Geralt is because of the intimate conversations he has. You see him, whether it be talking to a ruler of a nation and coming in very eloquent and knowing, not really how to manipulate, but ingratiate himself to certain people. And then you see his tact change throughout, when he realizes this ruler isn’t going to be a good person on his behalf. They’re going to try to manipulate and use him. You see his tact change and eventually he becomes incredibly direct with someone who is not used to it, and he remains steadfast. That is who Geralt is.
He is this incredibly direct person who, in other chapters, has this stony exterior that he forces upon himself, because it’s not his natural instinct, to survive in a world or commit actions that are necessary. To carry out the lesser evil.
These things are explained with nuance by [author] Andrzej Sapkowski over a whole book. We have a show to do it in with three characters. For me, it was all about picking out that cold exterior, that directness, and everything else that comes in emotional beats — love, caring, camaraderie — have to come out in separate moments, otherwise the character is going to be all over the place.
Geralt has become iconic through his portrayal in the games and novels. How much do you take, or leave, from those iterations of the character for your performance?
There’s always going to be influence. Since he’s so much more verbose in the books, if it’s my natural accent and I’m talking in a scene with a king or a queen, it’s fine if he’s being eloquent in my accent and suddenly he gets more and more cold and direct. That’s great, but when you don’t have that volume of text or opportunity to represent that hardness, I called upon Doug Cockle’s performance [in the Witcher games], which is fantastic because he’s not super verbose in the games. He can’t be, because you’re playing a game. There are quests to go on and monsters to kill. So, I took an idea from him in the sense of adding that roughness to the voice. You can carry so much gravitas through so little dialogue and it helps. I didn’t want to imitate him; that’s his work. There’s a whisper to Geralt’s accent in the games, where for me it was more of a heavy gravel — and British as well. There’s a visual aspect to the fighting style in the games and Wolfgang and I did not copy that, but it has to be at least as good or better. In the games you’re playing a non-real character who can do extraordinary things. If I can make it look like my character can do something similar or better, perfect. That’s what I wanted.
You have a wonderful chemistry with Joey Batey, who plays the bard Jaskier. How natural was that relationship for you two?
There was no working on that. Joey is a fantastic actor and did an extraordinary job of representing the polar opposite to Geralt. In the books, they are very, very close friends. That is so obvious. They speak to each other fondly. The opportunity is different in this story because Jaskier turns up and he’s not an immediate player straight away. We sort of had to show that essence of Geralt and Joey playing the complete opposite, which creates a wonderful dynamic. If I were to play it more directly like the books, it wouldn’t quite have the same sense of two fated friends. They’d just be like, “Hey, buddy!” Instead, Geralt cares deeply for Jaskier, whether he wants to admit it or not.
This show has an impressive production quality. How did this experience compare to recent big-budget films you’ve done?
You’re talking about slightly less budget for four times as much screen time. The parallels stop when you say, “Oh look, there’s two projects with a slightly similar budget.” A movie puts all of that budget into two, maybe three, hours of actual footage. A TV show has 12 hours of footage that will be reduced down to eight, so the production value is very high, but to compare it to a movie is very difficult.
How was working in that wig?
The wig went through an evolution. When we started the project, about a month and a half before shooting, the wig hadn’t even begun to be made yet. That’s a super short turnaround for a wig and my hairdresser hadn’t been brought on yet. When she did, the wig had already been finished, and it was a matter of just letting it evolve. She took it home, was recoloring it, making it look as real and as natural as possible. By the time she really got her hands on it, it looked incredible and I loved it. The hour and a half I spent in the chair working with it was the time — well, one, that I learned lines — that I transformed into character. Once the wig was on and the costume was on, makeup was done, contacts were in, I felt like Geralt. I was right there. All it took was to switch on the voice.
The show has a blend of CG monsters and suit performers. Which do you prefer shooting fight scenes with?
There are pros and cons with both. Obviously, there’s a lot a suit performer has to go through — more breaks are needed, you may have two performers and it also complicates wire stunts. At the same time, it’s something to interact with, so you can work on that choreographed dance and make something feel more real. With a CGI monster, you don’t know where anything is and you’re putting your trust into the VFX team and, ultimately, the showrunner. That can be trickier because you don’t know where it’s going to end up. But there’s enormous freedom. You can’t put a foot wrong because they just put the monster wherever you put your foot.
The Witcher premieres on Netflix on Dec. 20.
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