Hundreds of fans lined the red carpet in a Manila shopping mall, desperately competing for selfies and autographs. Polite to a fault, Cavill signed hundreds of posters, action figures — even a heavy Superman bust one fan thrust at him that seemed dangerously close to knocking him out.
The red carpet was only a couple of hundred metres long, but it took Cavill almost two hours to reach the end. Throughout all this madness — screaming, crying fans, chanting his name — the 36-year-old Brit never broke a sweat.
As The Witcher’s showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich explained to news.com.au the next day, this Cavill quality is so strong it actually made her re-examine the character she’d hired the actor to play, monster hunter Geralt of Rivia.
“Geralt is an incredibly stoic character, and it’s something Henry actually brought to the role. In the books, Geralt talks a lot. He’ll talk to anyone, he’ll tell his story, where he came from, what he’s doing next. In the first episode, that’s how I wrote Geralt, and that’s what we filmed,” she explained.
“We realised in the editing process that he talked too much, so we started to pull back lines. What we realised with Henry is he can do so much with a look or a grunt, or a snarl of his lip. We realised the stoicism in Henry works really well for Geralt.”
Hissrich found herself in an unexpected position early in the development process for The Witcher, based on Polish fantasy writer Andrzej Sapkowski’s hugely successful series of novels. The novels had in 2007 been adapted into video games, of which Cavill, a lifelong gamer, was a big fan.
Barely had news surfaced within the industry that The Witcher would become a TV show that she had Superman himself banging down her door.
“The Netflix exec on the show said ‘Henry’s agents keep calling me. He’s in love with the material, he’s been a gamer all his life, he just wants to play Geralt — will you sit down with him?’ Now, you don’t say no to Superman knocking on your door. But I had to be honest with him: I don’t have a job to offer you. He was wonderful about that: ‘Great, I just wanted to let you know I was interested.’” Hissrich recalled.
And she said she was keen to find the right person for the role — be it Cavill or a complete unknown.
“When we did start the casting process, it was very important to me not to just go ‘Oh, there’s this guy who’s interested who’s pretty famous, he should play this role.’ I need to see everyone to know what I’m even looking for, so we saw 207 other potential Geralts. Henry was willing to audition for us, which is very rare for someone who has played Superman, let’s be honest. But he was that passionate and that dedicated to show that he was the person that could do this. It was an amazing meeting, and by the time he walked out the door we knew he was our guy.”
Set in the dark, brutal world of ‘The Continent’, The Witcher follows monster hunter Geralt, who has been outcast by society because of his differences. Hissrich insisted that, like all good works of fantasy, this world of witchers, gnomes, elves and monsters actually has something important to say about the real world.
“Fantasy’s always a reflection of our times. What’s interesting about these books, written in the 1980s, is we can step back and say ‘The world hasn’t changed much in the last 30-something years.’ We still have people who feel like they don’t fit in — and that to me is the central theme of The Witcher; what it’s like to be in a world that doesn’t accept you,” she says.
Hissrich gave a typically matter-of-fact response to a question about being a “female writer” during the Manila press conference.
“I never think of myself as a ‘female writer’; I’m just a writer trying to tell good stories,” she shrugged, earning the heartiest cheer of the day (no mean feat when you’re sat next to Henry Cavill). But speaking to her one-on-one the next day, I was still curious. Had she ever found it tricky making space for herself as the showrunner for such a stereotypically male series, filled with monsters, swordfights and beheadings?
“Not in the slightest. I think because I don’t approach this process with a ton of ego, because it’s not ‘me’. Yes, it started with me and a blank page two years ago typing words, but very quickly the process expands to include other people,” she explained.
“And a lot has been made about diversity in this show, and I think the misconception is that diversity is about skin colour, when it’s about experience as a human. I’m a woman, and I have certain experiences that a man might not have, and that goes into these stories. I can count on my male writers to do the same. I have writers who were born in Europe who were immigrants sharing their stories. It’s really about everyone bringing their own unique experience.”
And central it all is Cavill’s commanding performance as Geralt. Much has been made of the fact Cavill performed all of his own stunts in the show — admirable, sure, but I also wondered if he encountered any opposition behind the scenes. Surely some people on set would prefer the handsome leading man was waiting safely back in his trailer while a stuntman performed some of those potentially dangerous fight scenes?
“The truth is, the pros outweigh the cons. Henry’s safety comes first, so we’re never going to put him in danger. That being said, watching him perform his stunts, they aren’t fight sequences, they’re part of the story we’re telling. Often it’s ‘Acting, drama, story’, and then you take a break for the fight, and then you come back to the story,” said Hissrich.
“Because Henry performs our fights, they become part of the story. I would take that kind of passion and dedication over everything else.”
The Witcher debuts on Netflix on December 20. The writer travelled to Manila as a guest of Netflix.