As someone who read – more like devoured – the Shadow and Bone books before she watched one second of the Netflix Shadow and Bone adaptation, and who went into this interview, and this show, with a pretty set idea of who these characters were, it’s a great thing to be surprised. Not surprised by what happens, per se, but surprised by the warmth, by the care, by the level of thought that was put into embodying something, bringing it to life in a way fans would appreciate.
This is especially true of characters who, on the page, might not have been my favorites (*cough* Mal *cough*) and others whose motivations take a lot longer than one book to take shape, and therefore, I was more or less ambivalent about for a while (*cough* The Darkling *cough*). And it ends up truly highlighting the strengths of characters I already enjoyed (Alina).
Spoken like a true book nerd, I know, but the fun thing is …so are these actors. We had a chance to talk to Jessie Mei Li, Archie Renaux and Ben Barnes about the world of Shadow and Bone, what attracted them to the roles, and also …how much work – and thought – they’d put into these characters, and let’s just say, it comes through beautifully.
“I think it felt like something unique and fresh to me when I started reading the first couple episode scripts,” Ben Barnes shared, “and then I got into the books and then I started to text with Leigh Bardugo and she would send me these black heart emojis. It piqued my curiosity.”
Okay, full stop. Yes, you read that right. Ben Barnes is that level of nerd, and we absolutely love him for it. Just as we love his willingness to step into a role that seems pretty straightforward, but is anything but.
“I have played the kind of traditional protagonist boy with swords a few times, where you win the girl and defeat the monster and find your way in the world. And I think that, looking at this from a different angle – being the most authoritative, powerful voice in the universe and obviously a much darker bend on it, was just very intriguing.”
Even that doesn’t truly capture the whole scope of who his character is, and fans who, like me, have gone through the entire journey of the Grishaverse, understand that dark kefta aside, General Kirigan (as they want us to call him), demanded not just an actor of Ben Barnes’ caliber, but also the kind of commitment he always gives to every one of his roles.
Well, that and nuance. It required a lot of nuance. But Ben has a history of playing villains and making them anything but mustache-twirling stereotypes. You know that meme going around about understanding the assignment? Ben Barnes definitely understood the assignment.
“I think the important thing for me was to try and ground them (these characters) in their humanity, and (in this case) to show where he is powerful and where are his moments of vulnerability, where he is cold and where (he has) his moments of confusion. Is there hope for him? Can he be redeemed?”
That’s the twenty-million-dollar question, isn’t it? But Ben didn’t approach this just from a romantic, idealistic angle, either. There was a lot of thought – and attention – paid to the way the relationship between General Kirigan and Alina was portrayed, and what fans can or should take away from it.
“I think, particularly with this story, (we had to) just to face head on the problematic nature of their relationship. This is a much older, more powerful man in a position of power that needs something from this young woman, and he’ll go to the ends of the earth to get that. But can I, as an actor, find ways to justify how he behaves, and can I find redeeming qualities in that humanity? Can I believe that perhaps this woman might also be a spark of hope and reignite his capacity for love again? Can I see it from that angle or will he just be this irredeemable villain? I think, for me, all of those things play into the dark grey areas of seeing this character.”
And they play into what makes him such a compelling figure.
But if Ben Barnes is playing the shadows, someone has to bring the light for there to be balance, and that’s Alina, played by newcomer Jessie Mei Li, a literal ray of sunshine who was almost beaming, not unlike Alina in the show, as we talked to her about this role and what it means to bring Alina to the screen.
“I was so lucky, we were all so lucky, that our writers were just amazing, and they had such a good idea of these characters and how they were going to develop,” she remarked, only to then go deeper into what it meant to portray Alina as half Shu – a change that was made just for the show. “I was able to bring a lot of my own experiences to Alina, given the fact that they decided to make her mixed race, which is something, in my life, that has definitely shaped who I am.”
The show goes farther than just making Alina mixed race, it makes that a plot point, something that makes sense within the politics of the world we’re inhabiting, and something that Jessie felt would be very relatable. “It’s something that I think lots of mixed race people understand … you never really feel like you belong anywhere and that can really affect you and how you interact with people, and so I could take that and give that to Alina. She’s told every day of her life that she looks like the enemy, and she’s never really accepted and that’s going to affect who you are as a person. You’re going to want to be I’m not the enemy, look at me, I’m gentle. I’m softly spoken, but also have this thick skin and the ability to stand up for yourself. “
For Jessie, all of this meant that, “It was so easy to slip into the role, given that I had experienced that kind of thing before, and I am so thankful for our writers who just did an amazing job at really making Alina feel like a real person.”
But that’s only half of it, and Jessie wanted to make that crystal clear. “Having so many amazing actors to work with, that’s half of it. It’s only fifty percent me, and the other half of every scene is whomever I am with. I owe a lot of these relationships to these guys, and everyone else that I was able to share a scene with.”
And one of those people she was able to share a scene with, the one character you’d say is intrinsically tied to Alina, is Archie Renaux’s Mal. And Mal is a character, I, for one, couldn’t really connect with in the books. But show Mal changed all of that, and so my first order of business was to tell Archie how much he made the character work, but also to ask him how he approached a character that might seem too straightforward, at times, to be as interesting as the others.
“I just think at the center of each character is heart, and that really was the most important part of putting Mal together, was making sure he had that heart and friendship, relationships… something for me personally when I watch films, I always end up crying at friendships for some reason. Maybe it’s because I have such a close group of friends that I love and would do anything for, so I kinda know what it’s like.”
This is perfectly fine, we can’t relate, and we aren’t having feelings, nah.
He continued. “I know when I watch things, I’m like I believe in that relationship and that makes me feel something. So that’s what I wanted. I wanted the relationship to be important, and people to buy into it,” something that leads people to, “empathize with Mal and see what he’s going through and feel the emotions. And that’s again partly to do with the writing as well.”
But it wasn’t just about Mal, it was also about building his relationship with Alina in a way that people will care for it, even if they might not have cared about Malina before. And for some of you I know this feels like a steep hill to climb, but it worked on me, and I never expected to be saying this.
“In terms of the relationship, I think that chemistry is something that came very naturally.” Archie told us. “Jesse is, mind the pun, but a real beam of light and energy and happiness. She’s very great to work with and that’s actually great for our show,” he explained, and a part of me would have loved for you to see Jessie’s face at the compliment, because it was exactly what he described. “I remember even in our chemistry test, before I’d even gotten the part, she invited me out to have some lunch. We had some lunch and she was getting all excited about starting work and starting filming and I had to remind her that I still hadn’t got the part yet, sort of calm things down a little bit.”
Have you noticed how all these people only have good things to say about each other? It’s truly heartwarming to see. And we’re not even done yet!
“In terms of preparing for Mal, actually, Ben helped me out a bit in the audition process, as well. He called me up and he’d already read the books,” because, you know, understanding the assignment, “(and) auditioning was quite rushed, they were looking to cast (Mal) quite quickly. So, he said, for the show to work we have to believe in this relationship (Alina and Mal’s), (have to believe) these two people are all they need. It’s the beating heart of the story.”
The rest was just about getting into Mal’s skin.
“Mal goes through a lot and loses quite a bit, in terms of Alina being at the palace and it’s very glamorous and nice. And Mal is out in the wilderness trying to find a way to be reunited with her. He goes through a lot, so that was difficult, and you have to think of something personally in your life to compare it to, and then try and use that to portray that emotion in the show. Hopefully people see that and empathize a bit.”
For Jessie, however, it wasn’t just about getting into Alina’s skin, it was about what she could take from Alina, and what Alina could take from Jessie.
“She’s so strong and I think, Alina, where I can be a bit silly, she’s got such… there’s a certain, especially near the end of the series, it’s like strength but it’s almost like serenity. She’s steady, and she knows herself or she’s on the way to knowing herself. And that calm strength, I really like. Obviously, as a person I’m a little bit more ridiculous. So, I think I’d love to stay with Alina’s strength and her ability to say what she wants and what she needs.”
These characters, the way they inhabit this world, is going to hit you hard. It hit us hard. But the world they have created is a big part of what makes the whole thing feel like the Grishaverse so many of us already knew and loved. And seeing it come together was as exciting for them, as it was for us.
“We were all in the group chat, weren’t we?” Jessies asked her castmates, to nods.
Archie picked up the thought: “We were all texting each other. I’ve said before, watching yourself is a hard one, but I found myself fanning over everyone else’s performance and the way that they brought their respective characters to life. I’m like yeah, well I’m alright but Jessie, and the way Kit did this, and Ben and everyone was like… it was so incredible and made me immensely proud. Having spent 6 months with all these guys and then seeing the final product, I was like, “Oh my god, I love everyone. I love you all.”
To which Jessie had to expand. “It was so exciting, especially seeing the bits we weren’t present for. All the scenes that I wasn’t present for, even though I tried to sneak onto set whenever I could on my days off. Seeing Mal’s journey, I hardly saw any of that. That was so exciting and shot so beautifully. And some of the later scenes with the Crows. I was completely blown away. Like Archie said, we were all just messaging each other about it all week. Just everyone was doing the round of, “Oh my god, you’re amazing.”
“I love that bit, I love that bit, the way you said that line,” Archie laughed.
Imagine if they were this excited to see themselves how you’ll feel when you finally get to see it. As Mr. Ben Barnes, who gets the last word in this one, said, “I love adventure stories and fantasy stories, and I love the allegory, the dark versus the light and all of the other themes that we sort of thread through it, and it just sort of seemed like those things allowed it to feel like something contemporary and something that was worth telling in 2021.”
You’ll find out why soon. We can’t wait to talk to you about it.
Shadow and Bone premieres on Netflix April 23rd.