People keep saying Jessie Mei Li's life is about to change. How couldn’t it? As the lead of Shadow and Bone—Netflix’s Game of Thrones–level, book-to-TV fantasy series with a devoted global fan base—Li seems headed for superstardom. The question is whether they're ready for the ride.
“I quite like how my life is now,” Li says with a laugh on Zoom. “I’m a bit unsure about how I’m going to deal with it all.”
Li is comfortable with their private life in Bristol, England. They're relatively off social media except for about 16 Instagram posts (most of which are Shadow and Bone promos), and they're a newcomer to the mainstream public eye. Before the Netflix gig, their biggest role was Claudia Casswell in The National Theatre’s production of All About Eve, which was also their stage debut.
Li didn’t go to drama school, but they're a natural in the spotlight as Alina Starkov, an orphan refugee and mapmaker who discovers that she has the rare power to summon sunlight. Her ability makes her both the country’s long-awaited savior and a wanted target; she’s welcomed by royalty and trains with Grisha, elite supernatural soldiers, but she’s torn apart from her best friend, Malyen Oretsev (Archie Renaux), and hunted by criminals. An outsider in this world of opulence and magic, naive Alina leans on General Kirigan (Ben Barnes), a shadow summoner whose dark powers complement her own, but she’s not safe with him either.
Fans of the series will notice one (very intentional) difference between the books and the Netflix adaption: Alina is mixed race, hailing from the warring countries of Ravka (inspired by imperial Russia) and Shu Han (which reflects East Asia). Li, who is Chinese and English, could personally relate to the nuances of their character’s identity. “I’m really glad to have been able to play a part in [the show],” they say, especially during a particularly painful period in time for the AAPI community. “And I hope that people can watch the show and see what Alina goes through, and sort of feel that they get it and they feel represented by it.”
Here, Li tells us about becoming Alina Starkov, bonding with the Shadow and Bone cast, and their hopes for an “evil” turn in Season 2.
Shadow and Bone already has a huge following because of the books. When did you realize just how devout the fan base was? Was it right when your casting was announced in 2019?
You know, it was actually even before then. I got cast in maybe May of that year, and they didn't announce the casting until October—we all had to be [very secretive] about it. At the time, I was following Leigh Bardugo, the author, and Eric Heisserer, our showrunner, and some of the writers on Twitter, because by that point, I'd been in touch with a couple of them.
My dad, who's quite big on Twitter and was sort of following [along], started to say, "You do know people have been tweeting about you. They found your Twitter and they think you're playing Alina." I was like, "Really?" And they were! There were fans already saying, "Oh, we think we've found Alina and Inej." Because by that point, me and Amita [Suman] knew each other as well. I was like, "Oh, there's a lot of excited fans for the show." Then the casting come out, and it all just [gestures an explosion] blew up. I don't think I was aware of how much enthusiasm and excitement was going to come our way.
What were your conversations with Leigh like about bringing Alina to life? Is there anything you personally wanted to add?
When I first got the call saying I got the job, that same day, I got an email from Leigh. And in the email, she said how she had seen my original tape, and she said, "She's the one I want." And that meant so much, because having that blessing from Leigh meant that, okay, she liked what I brought. So I felt safe in that she would trust me to make decisions and she would be okay with them. I asked her, "Is there anything that's really important to you that can't be omitted?" And her thing was, "Well, Alina is really funny." And my first thought was [whispers] "Oh, God, I'm not that funny."
That was worrying to me, because I thought, I hope that I can still capture all of the experiences that Alina has and all the trauma that she goes through and all the pain and loss and excitement, but also, still keep her sense of humor. That was constantly in my mind: I hope that it kind of works and we still see that sense of humor that Leigh was talking about. But we know that she's still very much taking her situation seriously.
It’s really exciting to see an Asian actor in the lead for a fantasy project like this, which isn’t specifically an “Asian” movie or TV show. What was it like for you to inhabit this role?
When it came to the things about Alina's race, I just understood it, and I knew how I wanted to play it. I was so glad that her race is actually talked about, because it could have been a case of [the show] just wanting to up the diversity. But when your story takes place in a country that is at war and the story is about finding where you belong and identity, there is no better way to show that than what they have done.
As a mixed-race person from the Asian diaspora living in a country that your parents aren't from, it's so relatable. Especially given the climate at the moment and the conversations that are going on and the violence towards Asians, I think it's really important that people can see that that happens. You're hearing about it more and more, but honestly, most of my life, people have almost denied that people are racist to Asians.
If people did say something demeaning or racist about my family or myself, they would say, "Oh, it's just a joke," and, well, it's not—you're still saying it. Seeing more representation onscreen is great, but also acknowledging these issues in a fantasy setting allows people to see more objectively how silly that kind of behavior is.
Absolutely. You and Archie are such a team on this show. What was it like working with him?
From the moment I saw Archie, the moment I walked in, I just adored him. He's so himself. He likes what he likes, and he's just unapologetic like that. He's also one of the most kind-hearted people I know. Even when you're sort of joking around, he won't hear a bad word about anyone. He won't have it. No slander. He's just so kind.
I felt like we were able to have this really great relationship in terms of work, where we could have a laugh and we could have fun, but we could also sit in silence and do our own thing, like you do with your best friend. With that level of comfort, as actors and as friends, we could then bring that to the scenes we were doing. We need to be invested in this relationship, this friendship, and know that these two people do really trust each other and have known each other a long time. It was a joy working with everyone, but I was really, really glad when they cast Archie.
What was the first meeting like? Was it at the table read, or did you meet up before that?
The first time I met Archie was in his chemistry reads, and he just shone in comparison to everyone else. He was just so perfect. The second time he came in to read with me, I took him for lunch and I was telling him, "You're going to love the others, they're so cool! We'll all go out before we go to Budapest, we'll have such a good time." And he was like, "Jessie, I haven't gotten the job yet."
Good thing he did.
I was just like, "I'm really confident in you." So it was so nice. We all just gel really well. We're all really different, but as a group, just come together and support each other in this beautiful sort of family way. We're so lucky with that cast.
You guys seem to have all bonded really closely. I've seen some of the Instagrams; they look very fun.
One of the best parts of the show is meeting these people. Genuinely, I speak to someone in the cast every day of my life.
Is there a group chat?
We have a group chat, phone calls, and everything. They have all made my life better in some way. We had such a good time on and off set. I was very much wanting to make the most of it, and I'd quite often be like, "Come on 'round, come for dinner, we'll have a dinner party!" We ate together pretty much every day.
We'd go out and we'd go off and do ridiculous things on the weekends. And it was just so nice to be able to have your downtime, but also, we were still so invested in the show and building those relationships. I feel like a lot of the onscreen chemistry between actors is just great, because everyone knew each other. And we all knew that we were in a safe place.
I want to ask about working with Ben, too, because Alina and the Darkling's dynamic is so complex. What was building that like?
Oh, it was so good. Ben is so hardworking, and he's so considerate, and he really wants to make things work. Getting that relationship right was important to both of us, because while it's problematic and it's toxic, we don't know that at first, and we need to be invested in it. I think the fact that it is complicated is what makes it so interesting. We got to know each other really well. I think I spent the most time with Ben than anyone else in the cast. We had horse-riding training at the start together, and we had most of our scenes together at the start as well. We were given homework and had to watch the 2011 Jane Eyre adaptation with Michael Fassbender.
Oh, I can see that now.
Yeah. That was a dynamic that our director had mentioned, so we watched that. And that was really helpful. So it was so great working with Ben. My concern, almost, was that he was going to be one of those people who's always giving unsolicited advice, because he's older than me and has more experience, but if anything, it was almost the opposite. He always wanted to hear my opinion. We discussed everything together. And it really was a collaboration between myself and Ben, the writers, and the directors.
Is there anybody you wish you had spent more scenes with, or a character you wish Alina got to interact with more?
The only people I really didn't spend any time with, like in a scene, were Dani [Danielle Galligan] and Cal [Calahan Skogman], they play Nina and Matthias. I'm looking forward to doing scenes with Dani one day, if that ever happens or in a different project, because I love that girl so much. I really cherished the days I had on set with actors who weren't around as much, like Zoë [Wanamaker] who plays Baghra and Kevin [Eldon] who plays The Apparat. I had such fun with those two, they were absolutely amazing. Kevin is hilarious. I was so ill when me and Kevin were filming the library scene, and he was so sweet the whole day. Literally, you can see my face is swollen in it.
I couldn’t tell at all.
Oh, God. My mom watched it and she said, "You've got a fever." And I did.
What would you like to see from Alina if there is the opportunity for another season?
That's a difficult question. I have no idea what they would want. We've watched Alina's journey and she's always wanting to do the right thing. But I think it would be interesting to see that other side of her that's slightly hinted at—the side of her that is kind of seduced by her power and the possibility of her life with Kirigan and things like that. I'd like to give her an opportunity to, I don't know, maybe be a bit evil. Why not? Maybe just for a minute.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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