Fantasy fulfilled

Fantasy fulfilled

By Michael Pickard
June 14, 2023

Job Description

Casting director Sophie Holland might have helped build the worlds of The Witcher, Shadow & Bone and Wednesday, but she doesn’t want to be known as the Queen of Fantasy. DQ finds out why and learns about the challenges and controversies of casting.

In the world of television casting, Sophie Holland has carved out a niche for taking on big-budget fantasy series. She is currently working on season two of Wednesday and season four of The Witcher, while her recent credits include Shadow & Bone, The Witcher: Blood Origin and Vampire Academy.

But having also worked on sci-fi series The Peripheral, crime drama Young Wallander and the fourth season of psychological thriller You, Holland is keen ensure she doesn’t become pigeonholed in one genre.

“I am a fantasy girl. That’s what I love personally. I’ve always been a fan of those, so when they come, they’re really hard to say no to,” she tells DQ. “But I became very conscious a year or two ago when I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s really all I do.’ So then I was really grateful to get You, The Peripheral and Young Wallander, because it meant I was also learning to paint those pictures. If something like The Witcher drops on my desk, it’s very hard for me to say no, but you have to diversify. Otherwise you’d just be the ‘Queen of Fantasy.’”

Sophie Holland

A former actor, Holland built her experience in casting by learning from some of the biggest names in the business. She then started her own company seven years ago and immediately began forging partnerships in the US that have led her to work on numerous series for Netflix and Prime Video.

“What I’ve learned is that each casting director is different in their own artistic way,” she says. “Then you’re able to develop your own tastes of what you think is good. Although the role has grown beyond that now, really all you are hired for is your taste and your ability to identify actors you think are really talented and will go on to do huge things. But the challenge I had when I started out was that there was no money. So my job, for example, on The Witcher was to find new talent. Then that became a thing I became good at, and that then became my calling card.”

Based on the novels by Andrzej Sapkowski, The Witcher is billed as an epic tale of fate and family. It focuses on Geralt of Rivia, a solitary monster hunter struggling to find his place in the world. When he crosses paths with powerful sorceress Yennefer and young princess Ciri – who has a dangerous secret – they must learn to survive together.

The Netflix series, which launched in 2019, is led by former Superman star Henry Cavill as Geralt, with Anya Chalotra as Yennefer and Freya Allan as Ciri. Actors including Robbie Amell (Gallatin), Meng’er Zhang (Milva), Hugh Skinner (Prince Radovid) and Christelle Elwin (Mistle) have joined the cast for the third season, which launches on June 29.

Securing Cavill as the show’s star was a coup for Holland and her team, and meant she was then given “artistic autonomy” to build the rest of the cast around him.

“It really became a journey in partnership with [showrunner] Lauren Schmidt Hissrich, who was just like, ‘Sounds good, go for it’ with our suggestions,” Holland remembers. “It was all so scary but I had an amazing team around me. For Ciri, for example, we were able to look everywhere: drama clubs, agents, we put it out on social media. We went to the National Youth Theatre, all sorts of places, and we saw hundreds of girls, and then finding Freya was a moment of, ‘That’s who it is.’”

Henry Cavill has led the cast of The Witcher for three seasons but is being replaced by Liam Hemsworth for the fourth run of the Netflix series

Since the rise of social media, casting has increasingly come under the spotlight and in the glare of fan opinion when it comes to adapting hugely popular novels for the screen. Holland herself has become used to seeing every decision she makes come under scrutiny, not least when it was revealed last October that The Hunger Games star Liam Hemsworth would be replacing Cavill as Geralt in the already-announced fourth season of The Witcher.

“I feel like casting can always be a little bit bumpy, especially when you’re dealing with huge IP where fans are really, truly invested – and that’s a wonderful thing, but it is a double-edged sword,” she says. “To some extent, you feel beholden to their vision of it, so you do whatever you can to uphold that for them. But the truth is, real life happens and sometimes there do have to be changes.

“I naively was incredibly excited when we bagged Liam because the journey of Geralt, we felt like it wasn’t quite over. We’re excited to see the new path this character is on, which you will find out all about in season four when we get there. It didn’t feel like it was done, so then I was super excited to find somebody else to pick up the sword. I think he’s kind of perfect for it and I’m really excited to see what he does.

“The fans have been nervous about casting decisions made before with this IP particularly, and I hope we have earned their trust enough that they will give us a shot come season four. If they do give us a shot, I think they’ll be really happy with what they see.”

Ludicrously, Holland was even the subject of death threats when a casting call for one particular character in an earlier season was leaked online.

Holland also worked on fellow Netflix fantasy series Shadow & Bone

“The fans got hold of it and some of them chose to react in a certain way,” she says. “At the time, I was like, ‘Is my address online? Are we safe?’ I had a very young baby then and I just didn’t understand social media in the way I do now. That was a job that catapulted me into more of a visible position, so it was all completely new. But then once that’s happened once, well, it’s like, ‘OK.’

“We’ve had quite a journey on The Witcher. But because of that, it’s probably the closest one to my heart.”

When it came to working on Wednesday, Tim Burton’s series based on the classic Addams Family IP originally created by cartoonist Charles Addams, Holland took charge of casting UK actors for the series, which stars Jenna Ortega as the title character. The supernatural drama follows Wednesday’s time as a student at Nevermore Academy, where she attempts to master her emerging psychic ability, thwart a monstrous killing spree and solve a mystery that embroiled her parents 25 years earlier.

“Fortunately, and like any other kind of show, you are never isolated or on your own,” the casting director says. “When I started working with Tim Burton, there was an enormous pressure on myself to do a good job for him, but ultimately you have to come back to your own instincts. You have to come back and trust yourself.

“Fantasy is the perfect opportunity to celebrate representation from different worlds, which is what I find so interesting. But you can’t look at that. You have to look at it one role at a time, literally one piece of the puzzle at a time. And then you slowly build it and, before you know it, you look up and half the puzzle is there and then you start to see where you’re coming from.”

Wednesday, another high-profile Netflix show, stars Jenna Ortega as the Addams Family character

Self-tapes have become a huge part of the auditioning process, thanks in part to the Covid-19 pandemic preventing auditions from being held in person. Though Holland still advocates for in-person recalls or chemistry reads, she believes self-tapes have democratised the auditioning process and offered more accessibility to the industry for people who may not live in London.

It’s also helping Holland and her peers to uncover new talent at a time when the sheer volume of scripted series being made has put a strain on the acting pool.

“There are conversations about whether we are going to run out of talent, but I actually don’t think that is a genuine concern,” she says. “The concern might be that we have to work a little bit harder because you have to open the door to find new talent. You can’t just wait for it to come to you. I think back to when I was an actor and I couldn’t get in the room, and now I feel like actually it would be a very different industry for people to have a go.

“The industry is changing and people aren’t super happy with it. They liked the way it was, but I truly didn’t. I didn’t like the closed doors. I like the fact those doors are open now. I like the fact the representation is better on screen – and we’re seeing a very pivotal change. That’s a really good thing for the industry and for everybody who watches those programmes. And it makes them see themselves in a different light. That’s really important.”

The secret to the job is hoping “you don’t hire any dickheads. You just want them to be good people,” she says. “But otherwise, casting is just hard work – and relentless. You just have to keep going until it’s done and you’ve done it to the best of your abilities. That’s the only secret, really.”

But which of her favourite shows does she wish she had cast herself?

“I’m obsessed with Jeanie Bacharach’s The Bear,” she says of the casting director behind Hulu’s Chicago-set kitchen drama. “She bought casting up to a level of art. I thought the casting on that was just superb. The chemistry was amazing, the performances sublime, the scripts stunning, and I thought she did the most extraordinary job. And if you haven’t seen it, you definitely should. It’s wonderful.”

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