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The Witcher on Netflix: Henry Cavill on casting spells and casting horses

Henry Cavill, Anya Chalotra, Freya Allan and showrunner Lauren Hissrich reveal what makes the new TV series so magical.

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Henry Cavill plays Geralt in The Witcher.

Netflix

Wayward witches. Crumbling kingdoms. Monster slayers. And a cauldron-full of sex and violence. Yes, Netflix's new fantasy series The Witcher has it all and then stirs in Henry Cavill

The TV adaptation of Andrzej Sapkowski's popular book series is streaming now on Netflix. Fans of the spin-off games -- not to mention Game of Thrones fans antsy for a new series -- can expect more than just monsters and magic, though. 

Cavill stars as Geralt of Rivia -- a stoic, pragmatic wanderer who kills fiendish creatures for money and who occasionally helps humans in need. His monster-killing missions in the show's fictional setting, known as The Continent, don't always go as planned. At least Geralt always has his trusty horse Roach to listen when he needs to vent about unappreciative villagers. 

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Henry Cavill as Geralt with his horse Roach in The Witcher.

Netflix

"I really enjoy the horse work," Cavill told me earlier this month during The Witcher press tour in Los Angeles. Cavill smiles as he talks about his work with horses on the set. "I do a lot of talking to horses. If I could spend most of my professional career on or around horses, I'd be happy."

He even had a hand in casting the horse that plays Roach. "It was very important for us that Roach and Geralt have a relationship," showrunner Lauren Hissrich said. "Henry and I would get into long debates about what Geralt would say to Roach. Would he say, 'C'mon Roach' when he needed him to follow? Henry said, 'No I'm the master, I wouldn't need to say that to Roach. If I tug him, he will move.' Our goal was to put enough in there that Roach is responding without looking like Mr. Ed."

In addition to Roach, Geralt also makes friends with a foolhardy bard named Jaskier (Joey Batey) who sings of Geralt's adventures to the amusement (or annoyance) of anyone within earshot. 

Don't expect Geralt to join in the singing, though. "I prefer to sing with my sword," Cavill said. There goes any possibility of a musical episode.

Bring on the monsters!

Geralt kills quite a few monsters in the series, though Netflix has remained mum about the kind of creatures he faces. Suffice to say, these monsters aren't the ones posing a threat in stereotypical fantasy stories. And wouldn't you know it? More often than not the real monsters are the people who hire Geralt in the first place. 

"We talked a lot in the writers room about sentient monsters," Hissrich said. "There are obviously monsters in this world that are just monsters that do bad things and should be killed. But those kinds of monsters aren't very interesting to me. I want to get into monsters that have a backstory and are far more complicated. That's how battles end up becoming more interesting."

In the series, Geralt finds himself face to face with monsters he's driven to fight, and some he's tempted to save -- even if that means having to deal with a crowd of angry villagers who don't understand the difference. 

"Witchers were originally created to kill monsters, but now the communities treat the Witchers like monsters," Hissrich said. "They're only doing what the people asked them to do. That's a running theme in The Witcher: Everyone needs someone who is worse than them to make themselves feel better."

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Princess Ciri (Freya Allan) must learn how to survive in a harsh world she's always been protected from. 

Netflix

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The TV series doesn't just cover Geralt's monster-slaying adventures. The cast also includes Princess Ciri (played by Freya Allan), who must flee her castle during a deadly invasion to find Geralt for protection, and a disfigured girl named Yennefer (Anya Chalotra) who goes through a powerful physical transformation. 

"Because the series is called The Witcher, Geralt is always going to be at the forefront of these stories," Hissrich said. "I think what makes Geralt more interesting are the fascinating characters around him. I wanted to have stories about Yennefer and Ciri that weren't seen through Geralt's lens but were presented in and of themselves."

Throughout the series, these two female characters undergo signficant changes as they struggle to survive. 

"You see how feisty, stubborn and curious she is at the start," Allan told me of her character Ciri. "She seems like she's ready to take on the world, but I think that has a lot to do with her living in a safe environment. When she's suddenly thrown into a dangerous environment, she realizes how much has been kept from her and how brutal the world really can be. She has to very, very quickly adapt, develop herself and learn because she has to survive ultimately."

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Yennefer (Anya Chalotra) goes through powerful changes in The Witcher. 

Netflix

Yennefer also has to find a way to survive in a world that torments her because of her appearance. 

"We debated in the writers room for days on end about how to approach Yennefer's transformation and her desire to be beautiful," Hissrich said. "This is a woman who had grown up being abused because of her physical deformities. And even though she had grown accustomed to her deformities, her looks always bothered her. That's part of her vulnerability that we show throughout."

The power of appearance adds layers to the story.

"I would love to as a writer to say that, 'No, Yennefer does not want to be beautiful,' and then tell that story," Hissrich said. "But is that realistic? This woman has been tortured because of the way she looks. If she has the chance to look different, wouldn't she take it? Then we go down that path for a while." 

As Yennefer's story develops in the TV series, it's easy to see why fans are fascinated with her quest to become the most powerful witch. She has a big chip on her shoulder, demanding that the world give her everything she thinks she deserves. 

"I had to play her growing up from a troubled girl into a confident woman," Chalotra told me. The whole experience was very exciting to commit to."

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Humor shows up in the series, such as during one of Geralt's fights.

Netflix

Horsin' around

The Witcher isn't all action and angst. Amid the chaos, there's quite a bit of comedy. When Geralt isn't telling his horse Roach not to judge him, there are humorous moments between Geralt and his bard buddy, Jaskier. 

Even when battling monsters or getting tortured by muddled humans, Geralt is quick to respond with a sarcastic line or two. Even a raised eyebrow during a dire situation can get a laugh, which is something Cavill can relate to.

"My sense of humor really falls in line with Geralt's," Cavill told me. "So I threw it out there and performed comedic lines as I naturally would say it myself. I definitely feel some affiliation with Geralt for sure."

The need for comedy isn't a new device in The Witcher. It's true to form to the books themselves. 

"We went back to the source material for a lot of it," Hissrich said. "The books are hilarious. That was important for us to keep."

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Geralt (Henry Cavill) will find that humans can sometimes be a bigger threat than the monsters he's hired to kill. 

Netflix

Fans might be looking forward to seeing Cavill slay monsters and bed women.  But the creators say there's more to the show than that. 

"In the world of fantasy, you always think first of sword fighting, magic, monsters, gratuitous sex and lots of violence," said Hissrich, "but it means nothing if you don't care about the characters it's happening to."

In approaching The Witcher, Hissrich looked at who she cared most about in the story and how to look at them as individuals with specific motivations. She wanted to understand their personal journeys and what scared them most. 

"I built them up as independent characters, and then smashed them into each other to see how they change each other," Hissrich said. "That really is at the core of the series. It's what we'll continue to do even when they meet and it's not happily ever after. Sometimes they bring out the bad stuff in each other, and how they deal with the repercussions of that is interesting."

Viewers can see Geralt, Jaskier, Ciri and Yennefer in action when The Witcher debuts Dec. 20 on Netflix.

Originally published Dec. 6.