Anya Chalotra is watching me. I have half-threatened to order a Venezuelan sandwich from the chalkboard at the London café we’re in – we are talking just after lunch – but I don’t trust myself to maintain a serious line of questioning and not get guacamole down my front while doing it. “Are you sure? I don’t mind,” she says. No it’s fine, Anya, please. Later, the café owner tours the tables to tell us they are closing in 20 minutes. “And what about your sandwich?” Anya points to me. Honestly, please, I had a flapjack, it was hearty. And after the interview: “Do you want to stay and have your sandwich now?” I mean I would, but they are closed, so it’s too late now, isn’t it?
Lunch aside, the point is that Anya Chalotra is a gifted and enthusiastic people-watcher. She confesses to this up front: “I’m obsessed with people,” she says, not not sounding like a serial killer, “and I’m obsessed with analysing people.” But it bulges out of every anecdote she gives, too. On being recognised in public: “Oh, I’m always stuffing my face. They always come up to me when I’m stuffing my face. Because I don’t mind going to the pub on my own, or eating on my own – I just sit in the corner and watch people – but they always get me stuffing my face.” On pandemic activities: “I was just staring into space, mainly.” On filming in multiple difficult climates as her character in Netflix series The Witcher traversed magically across continents: “The whole crew was in the sea, jeans rolled up, or wearing trunks. And I don’t know how I wasn’t cracking up, looking at all these people in their jazzy little trunks. It was quite a serious moment.” On east London parks, an objective ranking thereof: “Victoria Park. Always. The dog-watching there is hilarious. I just find their mothers’ meetings, in the park, hysterical.”
Watching, watching, watching. Which is what 76 million people did when the first series of The Witcher dropped in December 2019. This is partly because The Witcher was so much better than it had any business being: classically, television based on video game source material (it is, before anyone starts, also a book) has been hard to get right. But also, while other fantasy shows have tried to establish layer upon layer of lore they hope Redditors will squabble over forever, The Witcher pivoted, telling an overarching story of Henry Cavill’s Geralt of Rivia meeting his epic love-match in Chalotra’s Yennefer of Vengerberg, but set against a backdrop of an X Files-style monster-of-the-week format. Essentially, despite having magic and witches and m’lords, it was fun, erring towards the pesky mischief of old folklore rather than the trudging macguffinery of modern fantasy.
Chalotra’s Yennefer became crucial to the show’s success because, over the course of the timeline-bending first season, it was her character who appeared in so many iterations. When we first meet her, she has a curved spine (Chalotra wore a prosthetic hump for weeks on end: “We burned it,” she says, in actually quite a scary way) and a misaligned jaw, and is sold to a witch for half the price of a pig. But from there she grows into power, is unleashed as a dark adviser to various kings and is soon strutting around the continent, double-crossing lords, feuding, having sex so effectively the tower she’s in explodes, and the whole thing ends in a battle that gets “quite spicy” and ends up with most of the world in front of her being on fire. We see her grown up, youthful, nervous and powerful, which is a lot of parts to play for an actor relatively fresh out of drama school.
Chalotra did her foundation course at Lamda and a subsequent three-year degree at Guildhall, but she cut her teeth “performing for attention” by being born as the middle child in a family of three to a traditional-ish family in Lower Penn, Staffordshire. She performed in that classic childhood way all kids do: rouge on the cheeks, wearing adults’ shoes. “Oh God, my brother. I found a clip the other day where I’d dressed him up as Gareth Gates, because I was obsessed with him from Pop Idol. And another one – he was Peter Pan, my cousin was Wendy, and I have no idea who I was, but I was in a costume and I was bossing them about.” She was smart-but-not-in-that-super-academic-way at school. “I was annoying, more than anything. I remember, like, having to sit on my own… quite a bit.” But it was only when she was accepted by Lamda after an audition at 18 that she started thinking of herself as someone who could do acting as a career.
“I had to get into a drama school,” she says, “because in my family – I’m very heavily influenced by my Indian culture – my dad typically wanted me to be a doctor or a dentist or a pharmacist or a journalist or… Anything that was more academic than, you know, prancing about in costume for a living. So that was what I focused on throughout that whole process: treating it like exams.” The initial foundation course at Lamda was a full-throttle year of shows, rehearsals, pretending to be a tree – classic drama school fare – before she was catapulted up towards Guildhall. “That’s why I think it’s more interesting to take people who are a little bit older into drama school,” she explains, “because they’ve had that experience of university and they’ve lived and they’ve gotten some work on their own terms for a while, before they enter a world which, I wouldn’t say you have to ‘know yourself’, but it would be nice to know what I liked and disliked a little bit more before I went. I hadn’t properly developed my opinion on things and it’s probably only in lockdown that I really feel like I’ve grown in that way. I really feel like through lockdown I just developed a taste for things because I’ve had time. I never had time to watch the amount that I do now.”
It’s interesting to think of someone going through the dual whirlwinds of back-to-back drama schools and then being cast in one of the most-watched TV shows the world’s biggest streamer ever made sitting down and actually becoming a person, but that’s what Chalotra, now 26, spent the last year doing, thanks mostly to pandemic lockdowns stopping all known whirlwinds in their tracks. “What do I like now? Hmm. Well it’s a really obvious answer [this is not an obvious answer, by the way], Danish film. Thomas Vinterberg. That’s what I’m really into, right now. I like the writing, I like the space, I like the colour grade.” A lockdown interest for photography was going well until The Canal Incident. “My recent camera… well, I kicked it in a canal, basically.” Why? “A bike bell dinged. I’d been crouched down taking some pictures of flies on the surface of the water – beautiful – and I thought I’d put it in my bag. But then I kicked it and it just… dropped.” It’s a harrowing story, actually, to hear Chalotra tell it. “It was like slow motion. I could hear the soundtrack in my head and then the music stopped. I called my brother – he has the same camera – and was like, ‘You’ll never guess what happened: the camera, the grand camera, has just gone in the bloody canal’. I didn’t go in there because… I just saw it sink to the bottom. There were bubbles. So now I’m just on my iPhone and a disposable, until I can earn myself a new one.”
I’m intrigued about how someone who so fanatically watches dogs, flies, trunk-wearers and sandwich avoiders deals with suddenly being the one who is watched. Obviously, actors are used to being perceived – before The Witcher, Chalotra appeared in another Netflix show, Wanderlust, and in the John Malkovitch-as-Poirot series, The ABC Murders (there was a very modern non-kerfuffle, about her character singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow – a song released in 1939 – in a series set in 1933), as well as receiving critical praise for her turn as Jyoti in the Theatre Royal Stratford East’s production of The Village. But there’s a difference between being described as “compelling” in a four-star Guardian review and going from 400 to 914,000 Instagram followers almost overnight. Was that weird? “Oh, I never wanted a blue tick in my life,” she says, airily, and it’s one of the first times I’ve ever heard someone say that where I’ve actually believed them. “I was on, like, MSN and Facebook so late. Like, so late. And I think it’s because I have such a huge family – I have about 35 first cousins – so I come from a big family, and I’ve always been quite content with that world.” Did she have to archive any embarrassing old selfies when the dumptruck of fame rolled around? “Never a selfie taker. Was never a selfie taker. But what I had to hide was, well, family photos. They don’t need to be part of that at the moment.” She’s still fairly offline – “I choose to go on when I have a nice collection of photos to post” – so busies herself away from the hum of social media with photography, cooking (“I cook so much. I love cooking my meals – it’s a great joy”), sitting in the corners of pubs darkly watching people go about their lives and kicking expensive electronics into bodies of water.
After Chalotra’s photoshoot, as I got in everyone’s way and annoyed the photographers who were just trying to pack up and leave, I asked them what they thought of Chalotra while we waited for her to emerge from the dressing room in civilian clothes (in a very timely four or five minutes – there is no “this actress was really late” gossip to be had here, sorry). ‘Very hard-working,” they said, and humoured me with, “a perfectionist. And loves her clothes.” Do you love your clothes, I ask her? A moment of pondering. “I do. I love love love fashion. But I’m very specific. In terms of buying, I like charity shops and secondhand designer pieces – I’m into that. Because then you get the quality without such a huge investment.” She starts talking with the frantic excitement I recognise from a fellow eBay-head, and I ask her the best thing she’s ever got from the auction site, which is apparently the most serious and difficult question I’ve asked all afternoon. “Oh God that’s hard,” she says. “Probably a chair? A lovely chair. That’s my best eBay get. Ooh, but I can tell you my dad’s: a 99p printer. My dad went to collect it and said, ‘Keep the change.’ ”
Another actual question spurred by a photographer trying to get me out of the way of some cables: is she a perfectionist? Is she a better actress in this series than she was in the last one as a result? Chalotra rues, a little, going into The Witcher with only a couple of smaller experiences of working on screen, but recognises her performance came off as green to pretty much none of the 76m viewers apart from her. “I don’t want to undermine other people’s enjoyment of it, but when I watched season one I was cringing at most parts,” she says, “but it doesn’t mean I wasn’t so proud of the work that I’d done. I criticised every part of it and felt that I didn’t believe enough about my work, but I put so much work into it, so I can really appreciate when I watched it, like, the emotional attachments in each scene and what I had to go through to deliver that.” After a leave-it-all-on-the-floor approach to last season – there was screaming, destruction, rebirth, nudity – season two’s Yennefer is a more stable, fully formed character, and gives Chalotra a chance to build on the good work of two years ago without exactly returning to the well of it. “I suppose because I exposed so much of myself in season one – it was actually fulfilling, because it just means I have done everything now – I really have shown so much of myself to the world, and being a perfectionist I’m like: well, I’ve done that bit now. I’ve done the ‘learning in public’. Am I better now? I dunno. We’ll see.”
The Witcher season 2 is out on 17 December on Netflix
Photographer’s assistant Espen Øydvin; hair by Dayaruci at Wall Group using Sam McKnight; makeup by Justine Jenkins using Seeds of Colour