Here, Jessie Mei Li – aka the star of Netflix’s Shadow And Bone – talks feminist fantasies, Darklina shippers, and social media fears
It’s been 10 years since Game Of Thrones first roared onto our screens, so you’d better believe that we’re ready for a new fantasy TV show. And Shadow And Bone, which drops on Netflix today, is one hell of a fantasy TV show.
With a gripping story, high production values and obscenely talented cast, the adaptation of Leigh Bardugo’s popular novel series follows soldier Alina Starkov, whose life is turned upside down when she unleashes an extraordinary power that could set her country free.
You better believe, then, that Jessie Mei Li – who effortlessly brings Alina to life on screen – is a star on the rise. Here, Stylist chats to the actor about her role in the feminist fantasy, her thoughts on all those fans who ‘ship’ – as in, support a relationship between – Alina and the show’s villain, her social media fears, and how she spent lockdown preparing for her newfound fame…
Why were you so drawn to Alina Starkov?
I hadn’t read the books when I first started auditioning, and I remember reading the script I was given for the audition and I just thought, “Oh, I just… I get her.”
She starts off as a very typical First Army [Ravka’s first line of defense against outside threats, including the Fjerdans to the north and the Shu to the south] soldier. She’s a cartographer, and she has very low self esteem, she’s only got one friend who she really cares about and feels comfortable with, and when we first meet her she is incredibly ostracised; she doesn’t know who she is, or where she belongs. And then, obviously, she discovers that she’s got this mythical power.
Alina’s femininity isn’t first and foremost the thing that we see
The series follows her journey as she grows and she learns to love herself a bit more, and find out where she does belong, and grow in strength and confidence. And I think that trajectory was really appealing to me, because I hate it when you have a character who’s immediately just super strong and can do everything.
Alina, on the other hand, is quite vulnerable and quiet in lots of ways. And it was really appealing to me to have this character who goes through so many different iterations; I had very similar experiences growing up, actually. I just thought she was so well written. So yeah, I love her.
Why would you say the time is right for a feminist fantasy?
I was a huge Lord Of The Rings fan – I was in that generation! – but there are so few women in those stories, and in lots of fantasy. The few that do appear feel entirely unrelatable a lot of the time because they’re a Mary Sue, and I think what I really like about Alina is that while, yes, she is a girl, she’s also just a person. She’s a really nice, really realistic portrayal of a human being, which means that you don’t have to be a woman to relate to her; lots of people can see themselves in her.
I think it’s important to see female characters on screen who are complicated, and have flaws, and don’t always look amazing, and are just real human beings. And I really like that about Alina; her femininity isn’t first and foremost the thing that we see.
Did all of these decisions about Alina’s character factor into how she looks on screen?
Before I turned up in Budapest for filming, I made sure that I’d read the books by this point, and so I was aware that they are aimed at a slightly younger audience than the show. So I was thinking, “Oh no, what if I go there and they want to put me in false eyelashes?”
But then Monica, who’s our head of make-up, she looked at me and said, “I’m just going to put a bit of dirt on you.” And I was so relieved, because no one was trying to make Alina look sexy or alluring; she’s practical, and she wears trousers, and she doesn’t really care what she looks like – she spends most of her life having people talk about how she looks anyway because of her race. You know, so she doesn’t really give a fuck, and I like that. Also, it meant that I had less time in the make-up chair!
Alina’s spent her whole life trying to convince everyone that she’s not the enemy
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The Shadow And Bone books have such a huge fanbase; did you feel a lot of pressure when you were bringing this character to life?
I think I’m quite lucky, because some of the other characters in the story – well, fans have very passionate ideas about how they should look. But Alina’s character is written from a first person perspective, which means she acts kind of like a self-insert character. So I felt a lot of freedom, because it’s never going to be what people imagine. I’m just going to do what the writers have imagined and add a little spin of myself in there, too.
Obviously, Leigh Bardugo was quick to shut down any social media commentary about the show diversifying the book’s characters. What would you say to anyone who still has a problem with this?
Having read the books, it’s obvious that Alina’s race has been changed. And this isn’t an example of colourblind casting, it’s a purposeful decision; this was what the writers were looking for, and this is why I ended up getting seen – I wouldn’t have been cast otherwise.
Our writers are so diverse, which means there’s lots of voices in the writers room who could make these things authentic. And one of the writers, Christina, is Asian-American, and she was the go-to when writing Alina. So I was just really glad, because I think it adds a level to her character. In the book she’s just like, “Oh, I’m ugly,” whereas in the series she has like an actual obstacle that’s been holding her back her whole life. That’s the reason why she’s so softly spoken; she’s spent her whole life trying to convince everyone that she’s not the enemy.
I think some people don’t understand how hard it is casting these shows, because you’ve got to not only find someone who fits that description, but also who is a good actor – and in my opinion, everyone’s spot on in Shadow And Bone; some of them literally walked off the page for me.
Obviously you’re never going to be able to please everyone, but representation is really important and I think we should be seeing more diverse faces. So I’m pretty happy with the diversity in the show, and I hope that lots of people will be able to see themselves represented in it.
What did you find to be the hardest part of filming Shadow And Bone?
The hardest part? It was really fun, to be honest, so I think probably the hardest thing was that… well, I’m very “go go go go go!”, and this means that I can sometimes find it hard to sleep. But when you’re getting up to go in early for prosthetics, and then not really going to bed till late the night before because maybe all the cast have had dinner together… well, I ended up getting very little sleep, which is never good. Next time, if there is a next time, I will make sure to be getting my eight hours a night.
We finished filming at the end of February 2020, and a week later we were in lockdown
And what was the easiest?
Honestly, it was so much fun, and the cast are all so, so close. We just spent loads of time together, everyone was so supportive and, you know, it felt like having best friends around you all the time. So I think the people are what made it easy for me.
Obviously a lot of people can obsess over really tiny details of shows on Reddit and social media, so are there any in particular that you hope that Shadow And Bone fans will notice?
This is a spoiler, but there’s a moment when Alina is supposedly assassinated, and then we realise that it’s not actually Alina – and that’s not in the books, so I think that’ll be quite a cool moment for fans watching at home.
And what would you say to all those Darklina and Malina shippers out there?
It’s taken me until now to really understand shipping, because I didn’t understand it as a concept for a long time – but people are very, very passionate about it.
Obviously, Mal is very, very different to the Mal of the books, and Archie [Renaux] brings this raw, vulnerable gorgeousness to it. But what I like about it is that, despite the fact that they like each other, it’s almost platonic in a way; they haven’t really taken a step into talking about any romantic feelings yet, and I like that because it’s very rare to see healthy friendships, especially between male and female characters, on screen. And yes, it may turn into something more, but for now he just cares about her and she cares about him, and you know there is real love there.
We do get the very obvious impression that General Kirigan is a bit of a snake
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With Ben [Barnes]’s General Kirigan/Darkling character, on the other hand… well, it’s understandable why so many people ship him and Alina, based on what’s written in the books; Leigh wrote them to be a bit push and pull, and his personality is a bit more ambiguous. But I think that, in the show, we do get the very obvious impression that he’s a bit of a snake. And, while he’s not totally evil, he doesn’t treat Alina well and we literally see that happen, so it’s – it’s really odd, this shipping thing. And I hope that people will watch it and see Alina just for her, you know? For her journey, and not for her pairing up with anyone.
Over the years, fantasy has become something of our go-to genre during troubled times. Why do you think this is?
I think there is a real kind of escapism with fantasy. You know, especially when everyone’s been stuck indoors for ages and horrible things are happening everywhere all the time. I think being able to completely just forget about everything and just immerse yourself into something completely new, something to get excited about… well, so much of it is unexpected and exciting, so it can bring people together in a way.
We all grew up on fairy stories and fantasy, so when you watch a series like this there’s a part of you that still gets this childish excitement from it. It’s good versus evil, it’s light versus dark, and it’s complicated but simple at the same time, and I think we crave that. And I think we crave just getting away, you know, going on a little imaginary holiday to Ravka or wherever. I think we crave the escapism of it all.
How have you found the last year, on a personal level?
We finished filming at the end of February 2020, and I came home, and a week later we were in lockdown. It was like a complete crash back down to reality, as I’d spent six months with all these amazing people and having a great time, and suddenly it was just…
Well, lots of my family members work in the NHS, so I became the designated cook. And it also meant that I also spent a lot of time by myself just going for walks, and going and sitting outside, because that’s all we were allowed to do and I just wanted to spend as much time outside as possible. I listened to podcasts, I spent a lot of time talking to friends – all the Zooms! And that was nice, because there were friends that I ended up catching up with who I probably wouldn’t have done in different circumstances.
I was actually diagnosed with ADHD last summer, which was a massive revelation to me
Did you learn anything interesting about yourself during that time?
Definitely! I had all kinds of epiphanies – I’d spent my whole life thinking, “What’s going on with me?” and I ended up doing loads of research and I was actually diagnosed with ADHD last summer, which was a massive revelation to me, my family, my friends. And I probably wouldn’t have looked into it if I was busy, because that’s the nature of the way my brain works; it doesn’t have time to slow down.
I also think that just taking that time to be by myself and not be distracted was really good. It helped me get to know who I am, at this moment, and what I care about.
Have you been able to prepare yourself for the global fame that’s sure to come with Shadow And Bone?
They were originally planning to release it earlier, but then, given the circumstances, loads of things were delayed, and there was part of me that just wanted it finished. But then, as time went on, I think it has been really important to sort of just get used to the idea, because I think if it had come out early, I wouldn’t have been as ready as I feel like I am now. I’m quite shy about all these things, so it has been good to get my head round things, because I think the show’s pretty good. I know I’m biased, but I feel like it might be quite popular!
Do you feel there’s a sense of responsibility that comes with fame, particularly with how you use your social media platforms?
There are things I’m really passionate about and care about, so if I do have the ability to speak up for those, then that’s great. But social media is a real minefield, because it’s important for everyone to be able to say what they think, so I feel weird about influencing people; I want people to make up their own minds and find things that they believe are true for themselves. So having that sort of… I don’t know, it’s quite a scary thought. Just look at the state of the world and the way we use social media, and how toxic it can be and how awful it makes people feel – I’m quite conflicted about it.
It’s the same as any other show, but with just a bit of added zhoosh!
I was actually going to get rid of my social media before and then decided to keep it, because it’s nice to have a presence, and to share things with people who are so passionate about the books and the show. But at the same time, I’m also always a little bit wary; there needs to be more tolerance and sort of understanding of the differences between facts and opinions.
Finally, what would you say to anyone who doesn’t think that fantasy is for them? Why should they watch Shadow And Bone?
Yes, there are strange creatures and magic and all the stuff you expect with fantasy, but there’s also just really nice stories, and interesting relationships to invest in, and characters to fall in love with. It’s the same as any other show, but with just a bit of added zhoosh!
Shadow And Bone is streaming on Netflix now.
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