Henry Cavill, as anyone who has seen him in the flesh will tell you, is quite a commanding presence. When we meet, at a luxurious hotel suite in central London, he is sitting in a plush armchair as an enormous dog (Kal, his fluffy, black-and-white American Akita) paces back and forth in front of him. Cavill is six-foot-two and weighs 15 stone. His biceps are wider than most people’s thighs. So when he stands up to greet us, honestly, we’re kind of intimidated. It feels a bit like we have an audience with a king in his throne room.
We’re here to talk about the return of hit fantasy series The Witcher, based on Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski’s best-selling books – which only adds to the atmosphere. Cavill plays Geralt of Rivia, who is not a king – but he might as well be. Grouchy and difficult to deal with, the show’s silver-haired, solitary monster hunter is used to getting what he wants. Preferring to grunt expletives at or brawl with those he encounters, Geralt travels the fictional world of The Continent with his trusty steed Roach, decapitating beasties and shagging maidens. That is, until destiny dictates he track down and protect a young, orphaned princess called Ciri, who’s being pursued by an enemy.
At the end of season one, they finally met – but elsewhere, powerful sorcerer and Geralt’s main love interest Yennefer was blown up by her own spell while battling foreign invaders. Season two lands on Netflix tomorrow (December 17).
“This is a very different Geralt to last time,” says Cavill. “I pushed really hard to make sure it wasn’t all conflict, and that we see some three-dimensional depth to this character. There’s less of the grumpy snowman this time.” Indeed, for most of the six episodes we’ve seen, the gravel-voiced Gandalf is playing happy families up in some mountains. They’re hiding out with Geralt’s fellow witchers – also grumpy, also excellent at beating up monsters. As the new series progresses, he discovers a softer, more sensitive side to himself that informs his new, parental relationship with Ciri.
“As much as Geralt is fantastically good at killing things, it’s wonderful to see this gentle bond between [he and Ciri],” says Cavill. “We see more of the wisdom of the character. We see him trying to draw information out rather than just demanding it or shouting and fighting.”
That said, there is still plenty of fighting in the new episodes – and plenty of opportunities to watch Cavill do what he does best. Known for playing Superman in four blockbuster DC films, and an impressive cameo opposite Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible: Fallout, he has cultivated an action hero persona despite not being a household name. You would see him on a billboard, but less often on a magazine cover (unless it’s Men’s Health).
“I massively over-contracted my hamstring and tore it” – Henry Cavill
He is revered in the industry for his intense commitment to the job. For one scene in Fallout, Cavill needed to hang off the side of a military helicopter, battling below-zero temperatures while firing a heavy machine gun with one hand. It took multiple takes to get right. He says he is used to going through his “mental boundary”, but it sometimes gets him into trouble when he pushes too hard. On The Witcher, it could have ended his career.
“I was sprinting through the woods for a scene [in season two],” he says, clapping his hands together like a dad getting ready to tell his kids a story. “They had this fake snow down which is pretty slippery. I’d done one take already, maybe two takes, and because they make adjustments [between takes], I’d started to cool down. Then when I started running again my foot hit a bit of deadwood and it collapsed. I massively over-contracted my hamstring and tore it.”
Production was shut down immediately, and Cavill put on crutches. After a short break for Christmas, he came back with doctor’s orders: no more than five hours on his feet a day. “Initially, that was feasible,” he says, “but as things went on I had to work longer and longer. Eventually, I said: ‘Guys, look: I know we need to finish this but I can’t because if I do injure myself again then that’s my career over, let alone this season.’”
Freya Allan, who plays Ciri in the show, had just walked off set when the accident happened. “He’ll kill me for saying this but we were doing the same thing really, which was run along this tree-line and jump over this log,” she says. “I did my bit and was having a break in my trailer when someone ran over and said: ‘Oh shit, Henry’s fucking done something to his leg and has had to go off.’ I was like: ‘Oh my god, what are we gonna do if he’s fucking damaged himself?’
“This season was hard, but it’s so much better than last year” – Freya Allan
Ultimately, it fell on Allan’s shoulders to pick up the slack, which she relished. There are two relationships at the heart of The Witcher – and one is Ciri’s with Geralt. Now that they’ve finally met, it gives Allan a chance to dig into her character a bit more. Ciri was fairly passive in her first outing – captured, escaping, and then captured again – but in the new episodes she has more to play with. She learns how to fight, how to use a sword, and how to control the powerful magic inside of her.
“I felt like Ciri wasn’t done justice in season one,” she says. “So I was excited to properly delve into the character and get to do all the fighting aspects as well… It was definitely hard, [all the extra training]… but it’s so much better than last year it’s crazy.”
The second relationship is Geralt’s with Yennefer, who is played by Anya Chalotra. Apart from the sticky end we mentioned earlier, Chalotra’s powerful mage had quite a good first season. She started out as a deformed wannabe witch who is sold by her father for less than half the price of a pig – and ended up as one of the most feared sorcerers in all The Continent. Along the way, she hooked up with Geralt. And then hooked up with him some more. Things didn’t work out between them, but it was heavily implied that they had unfinished business. Has she survived?
“Yes, I’m alive. I’m alive!” confirms Chalotra, before quickly checking with a nearby publicist. “ I think it’s fine to say that right? Oh yes, thank goodness. It’s in the trailer I think?” It is. The recent teaser, in which Yennefer can be seen riding a horse and screaming very loudly, has racked up eight million views already. Fans were ecstatic to learn Yennefer made it. But they also noticed that she wasn’t doing any magic…
“This season is definitely darker and much grittier” – Anya Chalotra
“At the start, she’s kind of worse for wear,” explains Chalotra. “She is a prisoner of war and she’s been stripped of her powers. She goes on this epic journey of finding her true self and she has to use her wits to defeat her enemies. This season is definitely darker and much grittier.”
Other returning characters include Jaskier, the fame-hungry bard played by Joey Batey; and Tissaia, MyAnna Buring’s terse enchantress who instructed Yennefer. There are new faces too, including Vesemir (Geralt’s grandfatherly surrogate dad, played by Killing Eve’s Kim Bodnia), but it’s still really the Henry Cavill show. When Cavill is on screen, platinum-white wig gleaming, yellow eyes shining, he inhabits the entire frame. Everyone else shrinks to accommodate him.
It’s the same later that evening at The Witcher’s glitzy London premiere. On the red carpet, fans shriek his name, and there’s a mad rush in the photographer’s pit to get the best shot. At events like these, Cavill is always done up to the nines in a double-breasted suit, tie and shiny shoes. With reporters, he is charming but firm, always ready with a joke or perfectly rehearsed answer. You can tell he really enjoys the job.
And why wouldn’t he? Playing Clark Kent, and now Geralt, has brought Cavill fame and fortune. He was reportedly paid more than $1million per episode to return. He’s constantly mooted as the next James Bond. And he’s become one of the most memed celebrities on the internet. Does he keep tabs on his digital profile?
“Yes, of course I do,” Cavill says. “I don’t look for the memes, but being on Reddit you see them.
“I don’t look for the memes, but being on Reddit you see them” – Henry Cavill
“It’s all good fun. Even the ones which are insulting to me. I get sent a bunch by friends and family. In fact, I just got one from Renzo Gracie [the jiu-jitsu master who’s trained Cavill for several of his films]. It’s a picture of him and I. He’s choking me out and it says: ‘When you meet your Jiu Jitsu friends in the club.’ It’s really funny!”
Even if he doesn’t get Bond, Cavill’s career is growing difficult to keep track of. Next year, he’s set to reprise his role as Sherlock Holmes in Enola Holmes 2; lead John Wick director Chad Stahelski’s reboot of Highlander; and head up Argylle, the latest spy thriller from Kingsman creator Matthew Vaughn. And if that wasn’t enough, in January he starts work on The Witcher season three.
With these top-tier series, the star can often grow bored and get itchy feet about being typecast. That doesn’t feel like a problem for Cavill. Plans are in place for a seven-series arc, so it’d be difficult to back out now. Anyway, he doesn’t want to. He has repeatedly said he’s “absolutely” in it for the long haul, “as long as we can keep telling great stories which honour [author Andrzej] Sapkowski’s work”. He might not be Hollywood royalty just yet, but if he keeps going like this, Cavill’s coronation is surely just around the corner.
‘The Witcher’ season two streams on Netflix from December 17