In Netflix’s new hit series, Shadow and Bone, Jessie Mei Li plays lead character Alina Starkov — an orphan bullied for her mixed-race parentage. Alongside her lifelong friend Malyen Oretsev (Archie Renaux), Alina is sent on a perilous mission, during which she finds she has powers beyond what she ever could have imagined.
Based on Leigh Bardugo’s “Grishaverse” novels, Shadow and Bone is set in a complex fantasy world, but its themes are universal. At first hampered by her “otherness,” Alina eventually finds that her differences are her greatest strength. That doesn’t stop the people around her from continuing to harm her, though, or to fear the very gifts that could ultimately save them and their kingdom.
It’s a parallel to both modern times and her own life that 25-year-old Li hasn’t missed. Being English and Chinese herself, Li told NYLON over the phone from her hometown in England, “I've spent most of my life being othered by literally everyone, and having people comment on my race all the time.”
“Alina's whole arc is basically someone who doesn't believe in herself at all, and then realizes that she was powerful the whole time,” she adds. “But she'd been so downtrodden, and I think having had those thoughts and those feelings myself, it was easy just to bring that and give that to the character.”
Read on for our chat with Li about understanding Alina, drawing from her own experiences, and why the show will always be different from the book — and that’s OK.
What initially drew you to the role of Alina?
When I get an audition through, what I always like, and this is just my personal preference, is when you get a description of the character. Because sometimes I think some actors like to come up with it themselves, but Alina had a really interesting character description. They said how she's got a finely tuned sense of fight or flight, she's a survivor, she's learned to keep her head down and all these nice little details. And I thought, OK, this sounds like a really interesting character with a lot going on. And then obviously I read the scripts that they've given for the audition. I thought, oh, this is a really interesting person in a very interesting setting. From that first audition, just really, really intrigued to find out where it was going to go and started reading the books and then thought, oh, this could be really, really fun.
With the books already having their own fan base, were there any nerves going into making this about making sure that the fans that already existed were happy?
I think the existing fandom, they were all very, very excited, which was really nice. I think certainly for some of my cast mates, especially when their characters are so beloved and have such a clear look and then clear character. So they were quite worried about not doing it justice. Whereas I felt really lucky to be playing Alina because, I think everyone's Alina is different because the first book is first-person narrative. So I felt like I had way more freedom just to do something a bit different with her than having to live up to the expectations of people reading it. I think what's nice about adaptations is you take the thing that people like, and you do have to change it because it's not the same as reading a book, you've got to, cut things out and to show things visually. So, you know, it's never going to be the same. And I think overall, although I've sort of been avoiding things, I feel like the fans of the books have enjoyed it. So that's really, really good.
What's it been like to see such a great response to the show?
It's sort of surreal. I think for so long, it was just this kind of like secret thing that I couldn't wait for my friends and family to see. It's only been a few days that it's been out and I keep sort of forgetting about it. I'm currently staying in my hometown, just came back to stay with my mum for a bit. I went for a walk earlier and already loads of people were like, "Oh my God, I've seen the show!" It's a really weird thing to be happening, I think it'll take some getting used to, but it's not bad. I think I'm just a bit overwhelmed at the moment.
What was your acting background before Alina?
I always liked acting growing up, it's just fun. It's just playing, isn't it? But I never really thought that I would, I don't know, find any success job-wise and I didn't necessarily think I was that good of an actor. So I ended up going down a very different route. I went off to university to study at 18, because I just thought that's what you do and didn't have a good time. So I dropped out. I was a teaching assistant, and I just wanted to do things that made me happy, because I spent so much time just sort of chasing something that I didn't actually want to do. I didn't actually want to go to university, so I go, "I'm just going to do something that makes me happy."
I started going to little courses and workshops and things for acting and meeting people who were pursuing it as a career. I auditioned for drama school and I — probably the worst audition that anyone has ever done. I auditioned for the two big drama schools and didn't get into either of them. But I just thought, this is fun. And then after just going to so many different auditions and just kept trying, kept trying. I eventually went to an audition for a TV show that was for a part that was for a half Chinese, half English character. And the role ended up going to a different actress who was already quite famous. But I ended up getting along pretty well with the director.
And he was saying, "You haven't got any credits or anything, but I think you're great. So I'd really like to help you out." So he said to me, "I've set you up to have a meeting with a friend of mine, who's an agent in this really good agency. And she can give you some advice." I went along and just thought like, "OK, cool. I'll just go and get some advice and it'll be super laid back." And it turns out, he had said to them, “Have a meeting with her and see what you think." And they ended up signing me that day. I completely owe everything to, his name is Paul Andrew Williams. I owe everything to him because if he hadn't have just done that for me, I wouldn't be here now.
It just took that one person to believe in you!
That's the thing it's like, sometimes you just need to get a leg up. And it just takes, yeah, one person.
Alina has a mixed race background in the series, being part Shu. Did your own background impact your interpretation of the character?
When I first auditioned, I saw that they had changed Alina's race. In the books, it wasn't specified, but we assume that she's white. In recent years there were more instances of colorblind casting, which is really cool. And it gives opportunities to actors who may not have them. But at the same time I was thinking, ah, it didn't sit right with me. Then I read the script, I thought, “So they're actually acknowledging it. They're not just casting for the sake of it, they're putting it into the story.” It's identity-conscious casting, which I love.
I was able to draw on that thing that lots of biracial people have, or even, you know, there might be Asian diaspora living in the UK, for example, or whatever country. And you never really do feel like you fit in anywhere, and you're constantly being othered. And in my experience, it was never obviously as vicious or nasty as the sort of comments Alina gets, but I've spent most of my life being othered by literally everyone and having people comment on my race all the time.
So I was able to sort of draw on my own experiences a lot. And that feeling of never really... Everyone's perception of you really changing your perception of yourself. Alina's whole arc is basically someone who doesn't believe in herself at all, and then realizes that she was powerful the whole time. But she'd been so downtrodden, and I think having had those thoughts and those feelings myself, it was easy just to bring that and give that to the character.
And it was just really nice for me because, while we were filming and certainly since the show has come out, I've been talking about it a lot more than I have ever in my life.
No one has ever really been interested in asking me about this stuff. And I've had so many conversations with journalists about the Asian hate crimes that are going on. And I'm really happy that people are talking about this stuff because for so long, Asian people have been invisible. I'm really proud to be part of this new wave of films and actors and people who — there is more diversity now, and people are opening up their minds to things a bit more and acknowledging that there is racism towards Asians. Because in my lifetime I've been told, "Oh no, Asian people don't get racism." You know? So yeah, it was a really good experience to be able to play someone that I really felt like I understood.
What about this series do you think connects so well with audiences and especially with younger people, what makes Shadow and Bone so special?
Well, the main theme really of the show is about identity. And I think you mentioned that like young people, especially, that's what happens to you when you're going through your teens. You're finding out who you are, or well into adulthood. You know, I still don't really know who I am, but it's about finding your place, and everyone goes through that. Everyone goes through the, "Oh, I don't belong here, I don't belong there. Oh, I'll try and fit in here, I'll try and fit in there." And then actually realizing that actually I fit in wherever I want to. And that's the journey that Alina goes on.
I think especially young people will be able to see characters that they feel connected with. There are so many, and there are lots of different faces and different sexualities. It's all kind of just incidental, and it's just accepted in this world, and that's cool. And while yes, there's a bit of violence and stuff, mostly it's quite earnest. It's not cynical, and it's about love and it's about friendship. I think when I was growing up, there were lots of YA things, and they're all quite dark. And while Shadow and Bone has dark elements to it, it's actually quite a positive, hopeful show. I think it's got nice characters who care about each other and do the right thing.
Definitely surprisingly rare, especially in fantasy and YA.
Yeah, I think so. I'm hard-pressed to find things that are kind of similar that aren't too violent. It's something that I think is quite an easy watch — you can watch it with your family and talk about your favorite characters with your friends.
What you would like to see for Alina in a possible Season 2?
It's so interesting, because I felt like she can go in so many different ways, where we've left her. It almost feels like this past season was Alina's origin story. Where we've left her is kind of where she has really become Alina Starkov as she's going to go forward. I think in the books it hints that Alina may be tempted by power and things. And that will be really interesting to play, because so far we've seen quite a mild, quiet, softly spoken character. It would just be really interesting to see what happens when she gets all this power and this attention, if it does change or if it doesn't.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.