Geek Interview: Shadow and Bone’s Jessie Mei Li On Being Biracial And The Significance Of Having It In The Fantasy World

Stop us if you’ve heard, or seen it before – a movie franchise or TV series based on a series of successful fantasy novels that had previously taken the literary world by storm. If the likes of Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, A Song of Ice and Fire and even The Hunger Games come to mind, then be prepared for the next fantastical claim to the throne, Shadow and Bone. 

Netflix’s latest TV series is an adaptation of the ‘Grishaverse’ books by writer Leigh Bardugo. Mainly adapting and taking characters from Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone and Six of Crows novels, which are the first 2 of the 5 books ‘Grishaverse’ series, this series is set in a fantasy kingdom called Ravka that has been physically split into nations due to a big dark sea, otherwise known as ‘The Dark Fold’. Filled with deadly creatures lurking in the dark, powerful witches and warlocks called Grishas are called upon to help destroy it. 

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Jessie Mei Li plays Alina Starkov, an orphan who believes herself to be nobody and later finds herself thrust into a world of magic and politics. As the main protagonist of the story, Alina is expected to save the world. For actress Li, Alina’s story parallels her own. 

Shadow and Bone

Shadow and Bone is her first Netflix series with her only other big upcoming project being  Edgar Wright’s psychological thriller Last Night in Soho. Unbeknownst to the new actress, Shadow and Bone has a strong fanbase who up till now have waited for over 9 years for an adaptation. The sheer vastness of the franchise was a shock to Li, who now feels like she’s got a huge responsibility of bringing Alina to life and meet fans’ expectations. 

“Alina from the book, she has thoughts obviously in the first person and she’s so funny, and I guess the biggest challenge was being able to really feel immersed in the fact that you know, Alina spends most of the time in peril and she’s in danger and she’s frightened, but also still give her a sense of humour, even if she’s not always being hilarious,” said Li in a roundtable interview with Geek Culture. 

“So that was probably one of the things that was really important that I wanted to make sure we could see that she’s laughing at the world even though she’s having such a difficult time, so I hope that that kind of comes through.” 

Playing Alina’s love interest Malyen Oretsev in the series is Archie Renaux, the 23-year-old model-actor who plays a tracker and a soldier in the Ravkan army. Having grown up in the same orphanage as Alina, the two have a very close friendship where they lean onto each other for support and are oftentimes incredibly protective of the other. When Alina finds herself whisked away from the army and the comforts of her best friend’s arms, Mal sets out on a difficult journey to find her. In certain ways, Renaux shares a small similarity with Mal, both in his characterisation and his own personal relationship with Li. 

“I can relate to Mal’s sort of struggle and the odds against him, on a fairly smaller scale though. I was a builder and a labourer before I became an actor so I guess looking up at that challenge is kind of similar in the sense that the odds aren’t in our favour, because [acting] is such a hard thing to get into. Obviously, Mal has a much more daunting task ahead of him in going up against some pretty powerful people,” chuckled Renaux. 

“Straight away Jessie and I became friends even before I had the part. We did a chemistry test and she invited me out to lunch and we spoke about the series and Jessie was getting me very excited. I had to remind her that I hadn’t actually got the part yet. Jessie is brilliant and a great co-star, so yeah it wasn’t hard to transcend that (their relationship) to the screen.”

Whilst an adaptation of the books, the Netflix series had made a couple of changes here and there to reflect the ever growing diversity present in media. This is particularly seen in the characterisation of Alina.

In the books, she was meek and quiet before growing into her confidence. Netflix, on the other hand, made her someone not to overlook right from the start of the show. Li stresses that the dated portrayal of women being weak and passive has to change and reflect what it means to be a woman in today’s day and age. 

“TV shows that are for entertainment, they’re there for you to fall in love with their characters and stuff so it’s important to make these characters realistic and explore themes that are important to everyone. The female characters in this show are the kind of women that I know in my life who have flaws, and they have fears and wants and needs. It’s so important that we see more well rounded, independent, funny female characters, because it’s representative of what women are. So often they are just  – and you see this in a lot of shows – they end up being objectified or just two dimensional,” said Li.

Alina in the books was full-blooded Ravkan but the series had made her half-Ravkan and half-Shu – in simple terms, a half-White and half-Asian girl. In some ways, Li feels like this change has helped her in portraying Alina to the best of her abilities as she herself is biracial.

“The reason they decided to make Alina, half-Shu half-Ravkan was to give her this real feeling of desperate loneliness, and, you know, completely being an outsider because her whole story revolves around ‘Where do I belong?’,” shared the 25-year old actress. 

Shadow and Bone

“And as a mixed race person in my experience, especially growing up in the UK, in a predominantly White area where all my friends at school are non-Asian, I was always the Asian one and I would be there speaking in really bad Cantonese to impress everyone.” 

“But when I’d be with my family, my Asian family or friends, I felt very English, and I couldn’t speak Cantonese, I couldn’t speak to my grandma. That feeling of never truly belonging anywhere is something that has just been so prevalent in my life. It changes who you are, and it changes how you interact with people, and how you come into new situations so it was really nice to be able to use that part of me and bring it to this character because that is exactly what Alina is.” 

With these added elements, viewers new and old to the franchise can experience and learn about the world and about Alina together with the characters on screen. As noted by the two co-stars, adapting a fantasy book into a series isn’t as easy as it seems. Apart from finding commonalities to bridge fantasy worlds with real life experiences in order to portray and sell a character, much of world-building comes from set design, costumes as well as giving varying perspectives of how each character interacts with their environment too. 

“The fact is that the book is written in first person, so it’s very much focusing on Alina’s story. [In the series], we’re going to get to see Mal’s journey and a lot of other characters’ journeys – what they’re thinking, what their thoughts are, their emotions and stuff, which is always helpful in understanding and getting a truer grasp on a character,” said Renaux. 

Li adds: “All of the sets, and the locations just felt real, the art department just did an amazing job. Like every single army tent was just filled with stuff, you can go in there and just essentially be in an army tent. Alina’s bedroom, everything was just so perfectly put together that jumping in and just existing in these places that Alina finds herself in was just so easy and that comes down to the hard work that everyone put into making the show look as beautiful and real and rough and lived in.”

Shadow and Bone wrapped up filming in Budapest last year right before pandemic lockdowns. At the time, the cast were out having the time of their lives only to learn that they can’t share their pride and joy.

The show was held off and showrunners were against releasing during the early parts of the pandemic due to fear of lackluster response. Releasing soon on 23 April 2021, Li and Renaux still hold the same fear, but are hoping for the best. 

“It’s been a long time, we wrapped over a year ago now, which seems completely wild. The fact that we’ve waited for such a long time for it to come out has meant that I kind of feel like I’ve accepted it. I’m kind of ready but I’m also still really scared,” shared Li. 

“Yeah, after filming we’d all go out for meals and have some drinks and stuff, back in the good old days when we could do that. now we can’t because of COVID,” added Renaux. “I think people are going to like it because they’re going to be able to just lose themselves completely in a brand new world. [Shadow and Bone] could be very fitting for these COVID times as a way of escaping.” 

Shadow and Bone

Whilst Netflix have had some hits and misses with their series adaptations, one thing is for sure – Shadow and Bone’s fantasy world is not one to be missed. Especially with Grishas, politics, romance and grit up their sleeves. 

Shadow and Bone stars Jessie Mei Li, Archie Renaux, Ben Barnes, Freddy Carter, Amita Suman and Kit Young and will release on 23 April 2021 on Netflix.