TV

Anya Chalotra says she's been changed by playing Yennefer in The Witcher

The drama of The Witcher goes beyond the screen as Anya Chalotra, aka Yennefer, talks about working with her co-stars and battling anxiety

Anya Chalotra plays Yennefer in The Witcher Image: Netflix

Anya Chalotra plays Yennefer in The Witcher Image: Netflix

The first major role Anya Chalotra landed after graduating from drama school happened to be Yennefer in The Witcher, which immediately became one of the most watched TV shows of all time.

Based on a book series by Andrzej Sapkowski and the acclaimed video games that followed, the Netflix series broke records on release, watched by 76 million households within a month. 

The fantasy epic is set on The Continent, where the amount of evil beasts, manic monarchs, political corruption and treachery almost matches that found in the real world.

Season three, released this week, will be Henry Cavill’s last as silver-haired Geralt, but promises plenty of monster mashing before his departure as he, his ward Ciri and Anya Chalotra’s Yennefer find their fates increasingly intertwined.

Yennefer has already been on quite the journey. Transformed from a disfigured youth into a powerful but flawed sorceress, she has enchanted Geralt and legions of Witcher fans.

Anya Chalotra speaks to The Big Issue via video from home about Yennefer’s – and her own – fight against the dark forces in the world.

The Big Issue: Where do we find Yennefer at the start of season three?

Anya Chalotra: She’s going in with her tail between her legs. And feeling very bad for the betrayal of Geralt. She’s trying to earn that back with a lot of effort, keeping her distance, knowing when she’s not needed, doing the best she can to train Ciri and help her hone her magic skills.

How have you seen Yennefer’s character evolve since The Witcher began?

Quite drastically. She allowed her magical ability to define her for so long, then she lost it all. Clarity came and I think she’s at a point in her life 100-plus years on, she knows what she wants and who she can be. You know, she can be better than her stubbornness and her fire and rage.

Does it take 100 years to be able to let go of the negative emotions that seem to drive a lot of things in The Witcher’s world and our own?

Yeah, you’ve got to live past 100. It takes time to see your potential. She’s doing the best she can to train Ciri and help her hone her magic skills. I know from caring about the people that I do – brother, nieces, nephews, sister – that your instincts really kick in when you start to think about the needs of others.

How would you describe the family dynamic Yennefer, Geralt and Ciri have?

Dysfunctional. And it’s very honest. I think they all need each other for the dynamic to fulfil its potential. What can I say, it’s complicated.

Does that reflect the behind-the-scenes dynamic between you, Freya Allen and Henry Cavill?

You know what, I think we are quite similar on and off screen to be honest. Not dysfunctional, but either we’re all quite similar or we’re all quite different. I can’t work out which it is. There’s obviously not the added maternal relationship or the romance, but I see them more as their characters than not because we’ve really been our characters more than we have ourselves together.

I asked how Yennefer has changed since the start of the series – how have you changed since The Witcher began?

Oh wow, so much. It was my first job out of drama school. So I’ve been through this journey, discovering myself in my 20s – and that’s hard enough – then you have to play this woman you have to meet every day for eight months of the year. And, you know, Covid has happened in that time. Lockdown. So I suppose I’m still figuring it out but we’ve very much informed each other. I don’t think that I’d be the person I am today without having to step up to Yennefer.

Yennefer is a positive character in many ways. What happens if you’re playing an evil villain?

Now I’ve realised what it does to me, I probably wouldn’t take the job. Unless they added another shade to the character. That’s what I love about these characters. They can be everything at any moment. There’s no good or evil. They’ve all got their own agenda. Sometimes it’s selfish, hopefully they all come to a more selfless point, and Yennefer is definitely making those changes.

As a wildly beloved character, how do you deal with good or bad comments from fans?

You have to care about every decision that you make. It affects so many people, you can’t deny that. I understand that creatively, conflict is always necessary.

If people have opinions on Yennefer, does it feel like they have opinions about you?

No, actually that’s something I can separate quite well. Because actually, no one knows me. This is quite a casual setting, so I feel quite chill. But when I’m in an interview and I’m wearing a certain designer or have a full face of makeup on, I definitely just naturally become a different version of myself.

How can we get to the real you?

You’re listening to the real me. I think the real me is in a hoodie, sat on a couch.

I read that you got into acting as a child because you liked the attention. Is there a limit to how much attention is a nice amount of attention?

As a kid I loved it, loved making my parents happy. If I couldn’t get the grades then I knew that I could make them laugh. So that was exciting for me. That has changed. I’m not very good with big groups so it depends on the attention. If it’s attention on my work and things I’ve put effort in then I like that. If it’s attention on me being me then that’s a bit unsettling.

The Witcher
Henry Cavill, Freya Allan and Anya Chalotra as Yennefer are a kind of dysfunctional family in The Witcher. Image: Netflix

In the trailer for season three, there’s a line: “For the first time I understand real fear.” What are you afraid of?

Real fear is loss. Losing people I love, doing something to hurt them. Fear of myself as well, my own mental state. I get very anxious and stuff. Things that are uncontrollable I am not very good at dealing with.

It’s odd to think that people who suffer from anxiety become actors.

It’s a constant battle.

Is one way to deal with anxiety to force yourself into a situation where you are the centre of attention?

It’s not forcing myself to be the centre of attention, I force myself into a character. That’s what I want, that’s what I am driven by. Growing up, I didn’t really know where I was from. I come from two very different backgrounds. There are many people in the world and I enjoy being all of them.

The Witcher season 3 streams from 29 June on Netflix

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