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“I was blown away!” Cassie Clare on The Witcher

Culture

Cassie Clare is a real scene stealer in the phenomenal season 3 of The Witcher - here she tells us how she tapped into Eartha Kitt and researched energy and tantric sex to bring Philippa the sorceress to vivid life

Cassie Clare! Your new favourite actress is back, stealing The Witcher with her own kind of sorcery. Yes, Netflix’s fantasy series has returned for a third season of intrigue, magic and Chapman Brothers-esque monsters – and the main headline is that this will be Henry Cavill’s last season on the show. Which is sad for fans but also exciting, for the stakes seem particularly high now – and boy, does this season deliver. No spoilers here but The Witcher hits new highs for excitement and skulduggery, with some truly inspired, dizzying set pieces and Shakespearean twists and betrayals. One of the major pluses is several very cool characters take more of a centre stage, not least Cassie Clare’s sorceress Philippa. A deliciously manipulative advisor to the kingdom of Redania, she is a bisexual polymorph wielding powerful energies, who is always busy plotting with – and occasionally whipping – her ally Dijkstra (Graham McTavish); the pair of them coming off as fantasy versions of Merteuil and Vicomte from Dangerous Liaisons. As you will see from our interview, Cassie is a livewire, a dancer/singer/actress who’s creative to her bones but who also has a certain steely intensity. He dedication to the role meant a lot of research and preparation and the result is a poised, powerful and seductive performance in which holds the screen like a Classical Hollywood idol of yore. Put simply, she’s pure screen magic…

How was the filming of the show for you?

It was so much fun that I can’t quite believe it happened. I really fell in love with this character Philippa, and learned so much from her. And from everyone around me, the cast, the crew. But the most enjoyable part was getting into that Philippa zone – [puts on spooky voice] ‘we’re here’…

You can tell that you are really enjoying yourself in the role…

She relishes life. There’s old school Hollywood stars who I really admire and I used them and the way they relish life and talk – where every moment is delicious. They seem to relish all the good and the bad of life. I feel Philippa is like that – even when things are messy she’s enjoying that mess of life. So yes, there are those moments when you see that sparkle in my eyes.

Can you describe The Witcher for people who haven’t seen it?

For those who don’t know much about The Witcher world: mages, sorceresses like Philippa are sent to kingdoms to be advisors. And it goes well or not well for different mages, they all have different experiences. Philippa has been an advisor to the Kingdom of Redania for a long time and she also has a partner. You don’t always see the mages working with anyone else but she has Dijkstra played by the marvellous Graham. Between the two of them they are the real Redanian intelligence. They collect intel from across the continent, using that for their kingdom’s advantage, and things don’t always play out the way you imagine them to. The dynamics between Philippa and her kingdom and Philippa and Dijkstra is not always easy to work out.

Which old Hollywood actresses inspired you? You can see that type of screen star in her stillness…

Which as you can see is not really me as a person! I had to find that. That stillness came from various inspirations. I had a list of short meditations I could do in between takes and before takes that would help me get really present. Really listening to other people because that’s what Philippa does, she’s always collecting intel in the moment. She might be looking at you and having a conversation with you but there’s all this other stuff going on around her that she’s picking up on.

There were women like Eartha Kitt – everything she does feels like such a sensory overload. Her voice vibrates through you, her movements hypnotise you. Angela Bassett for that directness, that stillness, the regality. People like Viola Davis for that quiet strength. So it was like picking this sources from people who have inspired me throughout my life and in my real life too – I have some family members who can just give you a look.

Her relationship with Dijkstra is fascinating, there’s some great scenes. Poor Graham gets a whipping at one point…

Well you know, all I can say about that is: don’t mess with Philippa. I wouldn’t. And also don’t believe everything you see or hear. Make sure you dig deeper for what every action and word means because nothing is throwaway with her. On the surface it might look like, ‘she’s not a very good friend’, or it might look like, ‘they have a kinky relationship’, but there are much deeper physical and psychological reasons for everything she’s doing. She’s not here with us in three dimensions, she’s working with energies, people’s traumas and past lives, and bonding people to her through trauma and passion and love. It’s all very complicated! I had to research lots of different areas, like the BDSM world and how somebody who hasn’t been a part of it may think of it as just whips and chains, but to those who know a bit more about it, it’s about trust, surrender, and all kinds of deeper themes. I learned about energy, reiki, and tantric sex for some of the other scenes that come up. Not only did I learn a lot by being Philippa, I also learned a lot by learning about her world and everything she’s interested in.

In those sex scenes, it looks like quite some adventure, going to bed with a Sorceress, and taboo busting…

It’s risky! It was so important to myself and Cal Watson who plays Eva, and the writers and everybody – and I can’t give too much away –  but the main point we were trying to focus on was showing real connection, and a real form of love. And maybe a type of intimacy scene that we haven’t seen before. That is led more by the heart and less by the physical. I researched into tantric sex and energy and releasing traumas from peoples bodies. It’s a spiritual experience being with Philippa.

The impressive thing about the series, is that there’s these great horrible monster fights but the intrigue and power plays is the gripping bit…

It’s those twists and turns and thinking that you know what a relationship is and in one sentence it all turns on its head. That’s why we want people to come along on this journey, the tension builds at moments, then the rug is pulled from underneath you. I’m really excited for people who maybe haven’t read the books or played the games too, those new to the story who will really enjoy the rollercoaster.

Then there’s also the hardcore fans, who are already involved in this character –  do you check out what they say…

I definitely did when I was preparing for the role, building my Philippa folder, which was very extensive. I looked at a lot of stuff, the novels, the games and I really tried to refine my search when it came to those things and not learn too much information that Philippa herself wouldn’t know. I had to be strict with myself not to delve in even further. If I knew things I shouldn’t it might change the way I played her.

I wanted very much to pay homage to Philippa from the books, pay homage to Philippa from the games, and then bring my own flavour. This character means a lot to people and I did put a lot of pressure on myself, but I had to tap out at some point so I could just focus on doing the job well, rather than please everybody’s individual imagination.

You feel a sense of ownership over stories that you love so I really wanted to pay homage as well as release the shackles of that pressure so I could actually do my job properly.

What was it like being on such a big production?

I was blown away, its such a complicated and well-oiled machine. Every now and again, I’d think ‘who’s doing the schedules and how does their brain work like that?’ I don’t know how you get all the right people in the right place at the right time, with sets working at different times. I really was blown away – it is a huge production and huge feat of organisation.

How was it working with Graham?

I love working with him. You’ll have seen that Dijkstra can be quite terrifying, a very very intelligent man, very quick and not one to mess with. I even get the shivers thinking about those two together. Graham is the sweetest, funniest guy you will ever meet. He’s so opposite to the character. He was gracious with teaching me things I didn’t know because he’s been acting brilliantly for so long. But when I think about him I just think about the laughs. Often trying not to laugh in the middle of a very serious scene, where we’re judging everybody. He’d lean over whisper something funny before the action and I’d be there trying to keep it together for the whole scene.

Then there’s Henry Cavill too…

Captain Cav!

His final season – what is he like?

He’s lovely. Henry is a sweetheart and his dedication to this character and story is really palpable in the room. And actually it is for everybody. I was blown away by how much people were pouring themselves into these characters, the layers, and trying to get all this detail. Led by our lead, Captain Cavill. One of my favourite days on set was a day when I got to work with Henry Cavill and in between every take we were cracking jokes – he has a lovely little laugh! – and what I loved the most was how much we were talking about character. Our characters’ objectives. We were communicating about what is actually being said under the surface in this scene. Things we can’t say with our words but we’re trying to say with our eyes. That was delicious, that’s the kind of thing actors really enjoy. I had great moments like that with Anya [Chalotra, who pays Yennefer] as well, where you get to sit and talk about character for ages. That was one of my favourite days on set, talking about why Henry’s character does what he does.

It’s good to know that depth of thinking goes into everything…

Without giving away spoilers, there are big group scenes throughout the season, some that I was and wasn’t involved in. Have you ever seen those 3D cameras where they film a performance and you can turn your phone and look anywhere? I honestly wish The Witcher was filmed like that because with some of the scenes it actually isn’t possible to film the level of detail that was going into it. To the point where I’m on the side watching other characters delivering their lines and I’m completely lost in it, until I go, ‘oh, its my line. I’m in this!’

You need one of these cameras so you can watch Henry for the whole of the scene, watch MyAnna [Buring, who plays Tissaia] for the whole of the scene. There’s characters lining the room that you might not even get to see.

Going back a bit, how did you get first become interested in acting?

I started dancing when I was really young, two turning three, and the first job I wanted to be was a choreographer, but I couldn’t say it properly –  my dad said ‘you’re going to have to learn to spell it first’. Then he introduced me to Blood Brothers, the film, and then I saw Aretha Franklin and I said ‘I want to sing as well!’ And then my mother got me into acting when she took me for the National Youth Theatre when I was about 15. I hadn’t separated acting as a job –  you act when you sing, you act when you dance, and I hadn’t seen straight acting as a path for me. But from then I loved it. I’m a musical theatre girl at heart but acting is at the core of everything. From that time in the National Youth Theatre I really got the bug, and so my dream is musical theatre films.

What do you do outside the singing and dancing and acting?

It’s funny when your passion and hobby is your work – it’s all consuming. But I have this thing: why should I have to wait until I have a job to be creative? You can’t see here, but I have my keyboard and my microphone so I’m always creating. I also like writing and I love directing.

And have just take n up rollerskating but that’s because I cant go to the gym and do squats – I find it so boring. Instead I skate around and then can’t walk the next day.

Finally, why should people watch The Witcher?

Even if you don’t like fantasy I believe you’ll love The Witcher. I haven’t seen another show where you get this other world happening, of monsters and fighting and different species intertwined – and then you zoom in and hear the people with real relatable stories where you can be ‘that happened to me’. You can learn about different people who you might not know in your real life. ‘I didn’t know people experience the world like that, that’s change my perspective on love and heart and family’. And then swishy swishy with the swords! It’s very exciting, get on board!

It’s converted me to a hug fantasy fan. Coming from a musical theatre background I was like, ‘but where are the songs? Where’s the dancing? Don’t kill each other!’ But when there’s a reason for the fighting, when there’s a reason behind these broken bonds, and kingdoms fighting each other, it means so much more. You’re so invested. I love it. I’m waiting to watch Season 3 like a fan, I need to find out what happens…

The Witcher is on Netflix now. 

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ényí Okoronkwo

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