Henry Cavill talks about Geralt of Rivia, the genetically enhanced monster slayer at the heart of Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher saga, like he’s Hamlet. One tends to believe him: By his description, Geralt is emotionally stunted, but ready to burst. He’s torn by the concept of destiny, yet steadfast in his gun-for-hire mission to rid the Continent of monsters. He’s a loner who, over the course of Sapkowski’s books, feels the tug of romantic and parental love. Geralt is complicated, and — when you’ve spent as much time reading the books and playing CD Projekt Red’s game adaptations as Cavill has — a part worth fighting to play.
As the story goes, Cavill threw his long, silver wig into the casting ring before showrunner Lauren S. Hissrich had written a word of her adaptation of The Witcher for Netflix. Hissrich went on to audition over 200 actors to fill her leading man role, but time and time again, “It all came back to Henry,” she said at San Diego Comic-Con 2019.
But what makes Cavill the perfect Geralt? What is his own connection to the character? During an interview in the lead-up to the show’s release, the actor hesitates.
“I’m ... trying to work out if I want to answer that question.”
Luckily, he did. Below, Polygon talks to Cavill about exploring the dimensions of Geralt, throwing himself into the role, and the nuanced choices those glued to the show will find over season 1’s eight episodes.
Polygon: Did Geralt seem familiar to you? Did you recognize that character in everyday life? What were your touchstones?
Henry Cavill: It’s funny you say that, because the touchstones were part of me. I really feel a connection to Geralt and who he is and his nature, especially from the books. And having played the game for many, many, many hours, it was something that I had a connection with. And so it was just about bringing a version of me, which is a version of Geralt, into Lauren’s show.
What parts of yourself do you see in Geralt?
Geralt always wants to do the right thing. And his intention is there: His goal is to do the right thing, make the right choice, and protect the people who need protecting. But he’s also very willing to do some of the necessary, harder things that are required. And that may be from my military upbringing where I have that trait. Certainly the way he looks upon some of the machinations of politics may match my own. I just feel an affiliation with the character. And that actually could be from just having lived in the fantasy genre for so long; a lot of these characters have similar links to one another, and that can often be through one’s own psyche or through writers borrowing off each other. Geralt felt very familiar to me from the very beginning.
How did you find the sound of Geralt? His voice is well-known from the games and the Witcher audiobooks, which could be intimidating.
For me, the important thing was making sure the character was true to the law in the books. Due to the nature of the structure of the show ... Lauren, very courageously, has taken on this huge IP and applied her own lens to it, and has brought in her own vision, and with that, it was very much with the fantastic performances from the girls, from Ciri and Yennefer ... they built something extraordinary with these characters. And Geralt is existing alongside them. In the books, we have a Geralt existing by himself, and you basically have his inner monologue for most of the first book. There’s a lot of complexity and a lot of nuance in that, which is a different case with the show because Geralt is running on a tri-person storyline.
For me it was about boiling it down to the very essence of who Geralt is. In the books, there are complexities and nuance in long-held conversations, and if I were to use my own natural accent, that would have worked for me. But due to the nature of there being a selection of storylines, and those storylines being slightly adjusted and there being less of an opportunity to be extraordinary, verbose, and nuanced in long conversations, I had to boil it down to Geralt’s stony exterior and directness.
And with that, it was in the discovery of the voice. The voice for me really helped with the directness of it, because I could say something so short — and it can be a single word, or it could be three words — and it would mean as much as a sentence, with that particular voice involved. And I definitely pulled and borrowed from Doug Cockle’s performance in the games, which was extraordinary. He did an American accent, and he had it in a slightly different register. He had a bit more of a whisper to the tone. And I wanted to bring it down to a British [accent], and have a bit more stone and grit in there so it could convey all the necessary things that Geralt needs to convey in a few words rather than in a whole short story.
Were you looking for ways to separate Geralt’s senses from a typical human perspective? Fans of the games will understand the Witcher abilities on an interactive level, but they’re baked into Sapkowski’s source material, too.
It was very, very important to me that I expressed all of these things in the nuances of the performance. Because he can’t say, “I can smell this,” or “I can hear this.” And so throughout all of my performance, I have added those little details and those little pieces. It was important for me to have the audience understand that he has abilities far beyond a human being and that he uses them all the time, whether it be me breathing in and trying to see if there’s any scent on the wind, or just hearing something slightly different. It’s all small stuff. Whether they made the cut or not is another part of the storytelling, but they’re all in there, and on the day [of shooting], that was absolutely something I focused on enormously.