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Netflix’s The Witcher series has found its Yennefer and Ciri.
Freya Allan (The War of the Worlds, Into the Badlands) and Anya Chalotra (The ABC Murders, Wanderlust) join Henry Cavill as Ciri and Yennefer, respectively, in the upcoming fantasy series based on the series of novels by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. The books previously inspired a best-selling video game franchise by Warsaw-based game studio CD Projekt Red.
Ciri is the young princess of Cintra, one of the kingdoms at the center of the plot. Yennefer, meanwhile, is a sorceress and Geralt of Rivia’s (Cavill) main love interest. She is also a mother figure to Ciri.
Rounding out the cast are Jodhi May (Game of Thrones, Genius) as Queen Calanthe; Bjorn Hlynur Haraldsson (Fortitude) as her husband, the knight Eist; Adam Levy (Knightfall, Snatch) as the druid Mousesack; MyAnna Buring as the head of the magical academy at Aretuza, Tissaia; Mimi Ndiweni and Therica Wilson-Read as novice sorcerers; and Millie Brady as the outcast Princess Renfri.
Lauren Schmidt Hissrich, who previously served as producer on Netflix’s Daredevil and The Defenders, will run the show and exec produce alongside House of Cards and Game of Thrones‘ Alik Sakharov. Sean Daniel, Jason Brown and Kathy Lingg at Hivemind Entertainment are also exec producing the series along with The Fallen‘s Tomek Baginski and Jarek Sawko from Platige Image.
Last month, Hissrich took a break from social media following backlash from an outspoken set of fans over a leaked casting notice calling for black, Asian and minority ethnic actresses for the role of Ciri (the casting call was just one of many for the role as Hissrich explains she was casting a large net for potential actresses).
On Sept. 10, she tweeted: “It’s time for a Twitter hiatus. The love here is amazing, and the hate is enlightening, like a real-life Trial of the Grasses, except I HAVE to read less and write more — or we won’t have a damn finale. Be back soon with more insight and more Roach. Be nice to each other, okay?”
She has since returned to the social media platform.
Hissrich spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about her new casting choices and the fan backlash she has received before the series has even gone into production.
This was an intensive casting process. How long of a road was this?
We hired our casting director in June and we’ve been working really intensely since. We have at this point cast about 50 people total. It really ranged. There were some people who I had in mind from the minute I started writing this character and then there were other characters — Ciri is the perfect example — that take a really exhaustive search. We ended up seeing over 200 young women from all over Europe and really saw a great group of girls, but then when we met Freya, she read for another role. I actually went to London to meet with her in person and we knew it right away.
The role of Ciri specifically caused a bit of backlash last month. Why do you think certain fans reacted that way?
It boils down to a couple things. One, this property has such a passionate fan base. I think any leak at all was going to attract this type of attention, and with any attention comes backlash to that attention. I do think that whatever information is trickling out there, there will be people responding positively to it and people responding negatively to it. I think that’s just part of making a television show, and especially a show this big. In terms of why people responded so strongly, I think the fans really have pictures of these characters in their minds and I don’t blame them for that. I get it. When I read my favorite books I certainly imagine characters a certain way. There’s obviously a couple lines of description of Ciri in the books and people become very enamored with their own vision of it. I think coming in as a writer and saying my vision might look different than yours is scary for fans, but truthfully I don’t think it has to be. One of the things I feel most strongly about is people being afraid that we’re going to strip out the cultural context of The Witcher, to remove its Slavic roots, the very thing people in Poland are proud of. That couldn’t be further from the truth. What I’ve always wanted to do is take these Slavic stories and give them a global audience.
Does the fervor and anticipation around the series make it more appealing to you, or is it intimidating?
It’s certainly not what attracted me to the project. What attracted me was how I felt about the books. I fell in love with them, the characters and the stories. The fervor around it took me by surprise at first, frankly. I had been on Twitter since 2013, but when I first stuck my neck out I was surprised with the response. It’s something I feel really strongly about right now. I’m in this position to peel back the curtain a tiny bit to show people the process of making television. I wanted people to understand that I’m not trying to make this property my own or put my stamp on it, or make an American or female vision of it, or any specific vision of it. I just wanted people to know that I really respected the material. Truthfully, the controversy about Ciri, my own politics or the fact that I’m a woman, to me, just interacting with the fans has helped an enormous amount, because they see I’m on their side.
The Witcher series, while centered on Geralt, features many strong female characters. Will the show feature Ciri and Yennefer in prominent roles alongside Geralt?
Yeah, what’s interesting is the first couple books are told from Geralt’s perspective and when I was reading them I saw that there are all these other characters who are very strong and powerful; not just the women, by the way. They can be pulled to the forefront so it doesn’t always feel like just Geralt’s journey, because the journey of one man is never going to be very interesting. It’s only going to be as interesting as the people he interacts with. That’s why these characters are rising in prominence in the series.
Did you intentionally cast lesser-known actors opposite Cavill, who is an established name?
Not specifically, nor were we looking for a movie star when we cast Henry. We’re looking for the best actors for these roles. Period. End of story. It comes down to the best actor for the role. Henry’s obviously a big fan of the franchise. We met in early April and had a very general meeting. I then went off and met with hundreds of other candidates for Geralt and never really got Henry out of my mind. In casting Anya and Freya, the cool thing was we were open to anyone and both of them, to me, embody the spirits of the characters.
Did you specifically pull from the book series or did you also draw inspiration from the Witcher games? Does that muddy the waters a little bit to draw from too many sources?
It does muddy the water a little bit for me. I’m a huge fan of the games. That being said, what I really tried to steer away from is that the video games right now are the sole visual representation of these stories and we needed to create our own visual representation. As I’ve been developing the series I’ve actually pulled back from playing the video games because I wanted to make sure the show we were creating was its own unique thing.
Have you started production?
We’re in prep. It’s coming up soon.
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