The year was 2019, just a few months shy of a global pandemic that would delay the second season of Netflix’s monster-slaying mega-hit The Witcher by nearly a year. Despite Henry Cavill playing a beefed-up antihero who grunted his way through the show’s initial episodes, bathing and bedding women in equal measure, it was actor Joey Batey who went sort of viral on social media. Well, it was Batey’s character, a bubbly bard named Jaskier, that people couldn’t stop talking about.
No, that’s not right either. Jaskier is great (and so is Batey by the way) but it was the devilishly-charming troubadour’s hit single, a little earworm called “Toss A Coin To Your Witcher” that stole the spotlight. Youtube covers, Spotify rankings, memes, and coffee shops co-opting the song’s title for barista tip jars — “Toss A Coin” inspired them all, but every artist knows you’re only as good as your next song. That’s why, when season two of The Witcher drops this month, Batey is trading out Renaissance pop anthems for angst-heavy folk metal ballads, a melodic move that signals an evolution in his lovable sidekick and might hint at what’s to come for Geralt’s former best friend.
We chatted with Batey about the slog of filming season two, how artists can lead Continent-wide rebellions, and why Jaskier’s firmly in his break-up album era.
What did The Witcher quarantine bubble look like while shooting this season?
Well, I’m an old man and I don’t leave the house anyway. So not a lot of my life changed, that has to be said. [Laughs] Henry and I would just send each other dumb Simpsons memes every so often. Paul Bullion, who plays Lambert, we played poker online together. That connection, I think everyone experienced that. Suddenly you’ve got to make so much more of an effort to reach out and not only make friends but keep your friends and make sure everyone’s safe and well. I was very grateful that everyone around me was so fantastic and had such a strength of spirit throughout that shoot.
Thinking specifically of Jaskier’s journey in season two, what’s the vibe like for the bard right now?
Well, we left Jaskier on the top of a mountain in season one. [Laughs] But since then he’s been able to really work out who he is and go on a journey of self-discovery where he’s no longer defining himself by a friendship. The Continent is growing darker. There’s the storm of war that seems to be approaching in the distance. How does an artist exist in that universe? How does an artist survive? Usually, in war and turmoil, artists are the ones first to get the wall. And he’s aware that he has a voice. He’s now famous, he’s now rich, and he’s worked out that they’re the things that don’t matter to him. For the first time, he’s learning to be the protagonist of his own story, rather than tell the stories of others.
Jaskier was definitely the main source of comedic relief in season one. He goes a bit darker this season. Which is harder: comedy or angst?
If you ever meet someone who is funny in real life, standup comedians, and so forth, they’re not funny all the time. Naturally funny people are people and they have facets to them that are layered. That’s something that I was so excited to explore in Jaskier in season two, that, yes, he still has that light in him, he still has that joyous spark and the naivete that comes with the character. But also, there is a real human here, a human that hurts, a human that feels fear, that feels pain.
You’ve got to do some mental acrobatics in order to get to those dark places in a very real and truthful way, but I don’t think Jaskier is ever going to stop trying to make people laugh because that’s one of his superpowers. I think the challenge wasn’t necessarily going darker or going lighter or telling jokes. The challenge was making sure that the dichotomy wasn’t so different. That it didn’t feel like two different characters.
Music plays a huge role in the character’s journey and season two is definitely Jaskier’s break-up album era. How did working on the songs inform the character and vice versa? And, are you ready to have another banger on your hands?
[Laughs] Who knows? Joe Trapanese, our composer on season two, he and I wrote the songs for Jaskier together, over the pandemic actually. We worked really, really hard on trying to distance ourselves a little bit from the pop-ier aspect and explore a more emotionally raw human, who is doing his difficult second album. He is trying to find a new artistic direction because all the best artists do. In season one, we saw him tell the stories of other people and tell the stories of the Continent. The music was almost more world-building. For season two, we really tried to make sure that the music was character building and it was driving the narrative for this character and showing that he wasn’t just the guy with the lute, just trying to earn coin. Now he’s showing a side to him that I think all art should, which is a vulnerable side. Perhaps even a flawed side and a weaker side.
What were you listening to while working on the songs for season two?
I’m always influenced by trad folk and we wanted to bring something Celtic into it, as well as some slightly more musical theater crescendos. I’ll be listening to some death metal, and then the next song on my playlist will be some trad ditty from a million years ago. It all feeds its way in there.
Maybe next season we can slip in some techno then?
[Laughs] Some dance house beats, yeah.
Where’s the strangest place you’ve heard “Toss A Coin”?
I once heard it at an airport. That was the weirdest experience for me because I’ve had people hum it on the train or sing it in the shop. I’ve had one or two pubs put it on. But an airport? They definitely didn’t know I was there. It was just playing on the Tannoy and I thought I was going mad. I was just trying to get my luggage through customs. I was like, “I feel like I’m having a mental breakdown.”
The Witcherverse is expanding. Do you think Jaskier might get his own spinoff series at some point?
Why don’t you ask me that question after series seven has ended?
You can always put out a musical or a sing-along one-off in the meantime though.
Right? Maybe we’ll find time to put out a Christmas album.
‘The Witcher’ returns to Netflix on December 17.