Lauren Hissrich is under a lot of pressure right now. Not only is she in charge of The Witcher, one of TV’s biggest fantasy shows, but she’s also having to deal with a particularly nasty fan backlash after lead actor and franchise lynchpin Henry Cavill stepped down six weeks ago. On top of that, Netflix (aka her boss) has had a bad year for subscribers, and is looking to her for help. If you or I were in Hissrich’s position, we’d probably be curled up in a ball, crying.
But Hissrich isn’t like you or I. When we meet, she’s got a great big grin on her face – and is excited to talk about the future.
“There’s always been expectation with The Witcher!” she laughs, chatting via Zoom from a closed production office in Soho, London. “When I think back to starting on the series five years ago, I think how sweet and naive I was… Has the expectation grown? Perhaps, but I’m not going to do my job any differently.”
“There’s always been expectation with The Witcher”
– Lauren Hissrich, executive producer
And why would she? The Witcher’s second season, out last December, remains one of Netflix’s most-watched releases. It racked up 142million hours of viewing time in just three days – and was greenlit for a third season before the second had even aired. Some may question her handling of Cavill’s departure – the rumours cite creative differences – but few other TV producers have built as big a telly behemoth as she has.
“I’m so grateful for [Netflix’s] confidence in us,” she says, “because I think a lot of shows end before this one’s going to. I’ll take all the pressure in the world if it means I can keep telling these stories.”
Up next is Blood Origin, a brand-new, four-episode prequel series that comes out on Christmas Day. It’s set 1200 years before the events of the original show, and details the creation of the prototype witcher – monster hunters who develop supernatural abilities at a young age in order to track down and fight terrifying beasties. For the uninitiated, Blood Origin might seem like an opportunistic cash-grab – the same content wrapped up in different paper. But expanding the world has always been the plan.
A couple of months before season one aired, Hissrich explains, she’d started to grow concerned that the planned 18 months between seasons was too long. People might get bored of waiting. So she rang up her superior, Netflix exec Kelly Luegenbiehl, and pitched a series of “sequels, prequels and closed-ended shows” that could plug the gaps. Luegenbiehl loved the idea, but said to wait and see how season one was received first. Obviously, it was received very well – and the pair were quickly back on the phone together, which is where Declan de Barra comes in…
“It was late 2019, and I was sitting in a cafe daydreaming,” says the Blood Origin showrunner wistfully, also via video call. De Barra was an integral writer on The Witcher season one, a sci-fi obsessive who knows Andrzej Sapkowski’s source novels back to front. “I got a message from Lauren [about doing a spinoff]. So I picked up a pen and started frantically scribbling on a napkin. What was on that napkin is pretty much what we have in the show today. The character arcs, the plot. I even had their names on there!”
And what a lot of names there are. Trying to keep track of all the elves, dwarves, monsters and mages is enough to drive anyone mad – but really, there’s only a few main faces in Blood Origin you need to know.
FIrst is Fjall, the beefy, beer-swigging warrior with a mean stare and an even meaner left hook. As part of Dog Clan, Fjall is charged with protecting the King of X’intrea, one of the most powerful Elven kingdoms. Unfortunately, he ends up in bed with the Princess Merwyn, which is a big no-no. Ousted by his clan, he wanders the land in disgrace, boozing and brawling as he goes. Eventually, he hears that his entire family have been butchered in a coup led by the same princess he’d been caught bonking.
“When we find Fjall, he’s quite lost,” explains Laurence O’Fuarain, the unknown Irish actor who plays him. “He doesn’t really understand his place in the society he’s been brought up in. He gets banished and he has to find himself within this new world that’s… not just about blood and guts and killing.”
The second character you need to meet is Éile. Played by Giri/Haji star Sophia Brown, Éile is a wandering musician who makes a crust playing songs for inns filled with pissed-up peasants. She used to be feared for her swordsmanship, a noble Queens Guard who turned her back on Raven Clan to become an artist. When she meets Fjall (in a kind of medieval drunk tank), they immediately hate each other. But then Éile suffers a tragic loss, and they end up on a shared quest for revenge.
“I see her as a messenger, a storyteller,” Brown tells us. “Éile is erratic but she loves deeply… Her and Fjall start off distrusting each other but grow to like each other more as the series progresses.”
Of the two, Brown is perhaps the better known – having appeared in an FKA Twigs music video and racking up recurring roles on British dramas like ITV cop show Marcella and underrated uni thriller Clique. But Blood Origin is still a considerable step up, for both actors.
O’Fuarain was working as a doorman back home in Dublin when Netflix came calling. He auditioned 10 times before bagging the part of Fjall, but says he still feels like it’s “touch and go” for him in the industry. Brown, meanwhile, had actually decided to quit acting for good.
“I had got to a point where I just couldn’t do the process of auditioning anymore,” she says today. “I told my agent the news and we had a bit of a cry and it was settled… but then she emailed me that evening about one last audition.” Fast-forward two weeks and Brown was getting ready to embark on a whole new creative adventure with a fresh partner in crime. “There’s been a lot of emotions on this job for both of us,” she reflects. “I feel like we’ve really been able to lean on each other along the way.”
Of course, two newbies sharing their big break makes for a nice backstory, but it’s unlikely to pull in the numbers Netflix needs. Blood Origin had to have a star – and they don’t come much starrier than Michelle Yeoh.
Veteran of countless action classics like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Tomorrow Never Dies, and recently late-career smash Everything Everywhere All At One, Yeoh didn’t need much direction when it came to playing Scían – a proud fighter who kicks ass in nearly every scene she’s in.
“Scían is the last of a nomadic tribe called the Ghost Clan,” she teases. “The old King of Xin’trea decided our clan was insulting because we would not fight for his kingdom, so he poisoned our entire tribe. Scían was saved by Raven Clan, who adopted her and made her the sword mother of Éile.” When Fjall and Éile realise they need the help of a mightier power to take down Merwyn, they seek Scían’s aid.
“Their story is so magical,” continues Yeoh, before rattling off a typically philosophical blurb. “It’s not just a quest, it is a journey within, a journey with each other and a journey for love.”
“Our elves are like punk-rock kids kicking in the door”
– Declan de Barra, showrunner
Other characters include a returning Jaskier, the quirky bard played by Joey Batey; Mirren Mack’s scheming, pointy-eared Merwyn; and Chief Sage Balor, yet another fantasy surprise for comedian Lenny Henry, seen recently doing his best Bilbo Baggins impression in Lord Of The Rings spinoff The Rings Of Power. Best of all though is hammer-wielding dwarf Meldof, played by Francesca Mills. Her potty-mouthed rants, and love of a good pub sesh, fit snugly alongside Cavill’s lewder, cruder moments from the main show.
While there are similarities between Blood Origin and its brawny big brother, the same level of success isn’t guaranteed. Yes, The Witcher has millions of fans. Yes, it has plenty of the stuff those fans like (sex, sorcery and swordfighting). Yes, it’s coming out at Christmas to a captive audience of overstuffed, slightly sozzled sofa-surfers. And yet times have changed since Geralt first strode onto TV screens in late 2019.
Back then, Game Of Thrones had only just ended – and Hissrich’s adaptation lucked out as the first big-budget new fantasy show. In nearly every interview, Cavill was asked: “Is this the new Thrones?” Jump ahead to 2022 though, and the genre has gone mainstream. Titles like Amazon’s Wheel Of Time, HBO’s His Dark Materials and Lord Of The Rings prequel The Rings Of Power have joined the party. It’s become a very crowded room.
“The state of fantasy is just wonderful,” agrees de Barra, unperturbed. “We’re all very different though. Rings has a very elevated, classical style of elf. We’re more like the punk-rock kid, 1970s Sex Pistols kicking-the-door-in kinda elves. There’s plenty of room for all of us.” Does that mean we should expect more spinoffs like this one? “It was written as a close-ended piece but I’m a very smart writer, so there’s many ways [it could continue].”
And then there’s season three. Cavill’s final fling wrapped in September. His replacement, Liam Hemsworth (the second most famous of the three brothers), takes over soon but the internet is still having fun working out why the swap took place. Did Cavill, a book devotee, put his foot down and demand no more changes to the source material? Or was it a simple schedule clash with his proposed (and since cancelled) return as Superman? Naturally, we ask Hissrich.
“We’re going to try and talk about that next year,” comes the firm reply, not from Hissrich, but a strategically placed publicist sitting in on the call. They seem to have expected the question.
“That’s exactly what I was going to say!” chips in Hissrich. “I do have a lot to say and I think that there’s a lot of, you know… we’ll obviously never get into exactly why Henry left, all of the reasons, but I can say it’s been a mutually respectful relationship… So please, please, please come back in six months when we can talk.”
That sounds like a plan. Who knows, maybe there’ll be a new spinoff by then…
‘The Witcher: Blood Origin’ is released on Netflix on December 25