With Shadow and Bone less than a month away from our Netflix screens, we chatted with the cast and creators of the show in roundtable interviews to talk about their upcoming eight-episode series. Pulling from Leigh Bardugo‘s Grishaverse novels, season 1 of Shadow and Bone is primarily based on the first book in Bardugo’s series, also titled Shadow and Bone. In this first trilogy comes the incomparable character of The Darkling, played in the show by Ben Barnes. A mysterious and powerful figure, The Darkling is a Grisha and also the leader of the Second Army of Ravka.
For those who need a quick lore download: Grisha are people who can manipulate matter at its most fundamental levels, known as Masters of the “Small Science”. The Darkling happens to be a rare type of Grisha known as a Shadow Summoner. He can manipulate shadows around him and is reportedly descended from the Black Heretic, aka the creator of the Fold (a massive shadowy swathe of land separating the country of Ravka). Being the powerful Grisha he is, he also leads the Second Army of Ravka which consists exclusively of Grisha.
Casting for The Darkling
In talking with Leigh Bardugo about the casting of The Darkling, also named General Kirigan in the series, Bardugo talked about the importance of getting the casting right. “I think the first step was getting Ben Barnes. That’s always a good plan. We talked really early about how hard it was going to be to cast this role because he has to be compelling and seductive, but also [he has to have] the gravitas to move mountains and rule armies. So, we really needed a unique actor for that. And I think Ben brings this tremendous vulnerability and intensity to the role, that, in another actor’s hands, could have gone horribly awry.”
For those familiar with the Grishaverse books, it’s hard not to consider Ravka a rather safe space for the Grisha. In a world where so many people reject and fear the unknown, Grisha are often treated like second-class citizens. If they’re not being hunted by witch hunters, they’re being experimented on, or burned at the stake, or sold into slavery. It’s a tough world out there for them, and The Darkling has a decidedly pro-Grisha stance that might sometimes have a point. “I’m glad that you think The Darkling has a point,” Bardugo responded. “To me, it’s not interesting to read a villain who you can write off. I want there to be a moment in any story where you look at the antagonist and you think, ‘Well, you know, he’s not entirely wrong. I could maybe I can maybe go along with this.'”
Familiar Paths for Ben Barnes
Ben Barnes is no stranger to the world of franchises. From playing Prince Caspian in The Chronicles of Narnia and a young Dunstan Thorn in Stardust, all the way up to playing Billy Russo in The Punisher and Logan Delos in Westworld, he has traversed through multiple fandoms. But, for him, playing The Darkling was still a new experience. “I haven’t played a character that is at the top of the hierarchy in terms of the power of the world. [He] is someone with status, somebody who can whisper the word ‘quiet’ under his breath, and everyone in the room falls silent. You know, they say that you don’t play the king, other people play the king for you in the way that they react to you. I hadn’t really experienced that before.”
“It’s sort of this running joke that my friends say I’m ‘Boy With Sword.’ He’s coming-of-age, he’s finding his way in the world, and finding out what’s important to him in his identity,” Barnes jokes. “What I love about fantasy is the allegory. The way you can have physical, literal light versus dark, but what does that all represent? And The Fold obviously is [The Darkling’s] past and his demons, but it’s everyone’s demons and everyone’s subconscious. You can’t go around it you have to go, you have to go through it, and on the other side, hopefully, there’s a little more clarity on your identity and where you fit in.”
“You know I’m always drawn to these characters, as evidenced in Westworld and The Punisher, [to] people that are light and dark, [with] those gray areas in between, because we’re all complicated human beings. It was interesting to kind of imbue what I’ve learned from [the] fantasy genre because [I] do love it.”
Humanizing the Villain
One of the choices that surprised fans when it came to Barnes’ character was the reveal that he was named General Kirigan. The character is most often referred to by his title, The Darkling, in the books, and Barnes spoke to this new name for the character. “Well, I think, we chose to call him General Kirigan, as opposed to The Darkling from the outset, to have that be something a bit more nefarious that other people could level at him later in the show and I think that just fed into the theme of being able to humanize him,” he explained.
“I think your job as an actor when you’re playing a character that’s as problematic as he is, and as manipulative and as dark as he is, you want to reach for the humanity. You want to try and find the warmth and vulnerability in him. You want to find the why; you want to find the reasons why he behaves how he does and says the things he does. Some of those reasons are to safeguard and protect his people, and some of those reasons are more to do with his own past and how isolated he feels he’s become.”
He continued, “I think it’s intriguing for me to walk that tightrope in the first few episodes. [When] we’re not quite sure if he’s charming and powerful and helpful, or actually, [if] there’s something more nefarious at work. But confronting those topics head-on with something that I was very keen to do. Especially as it relates to the power dynamics between him and Alina, and whether there’s any sort of real kernel of love and chemistry and connection between them.”
The Darkling’s Purpose
When you have a character named The Darkling, it’s not hard for the mind to make up assumptions about that character. But, as I’ve said before, there might be a bit of method to The Darkling’s madness and I spoke to Barnes about this. “My job as an actor is to find justification in all that character’s behaviors and to find every single word that’s on a page. Words are very sacred to me. If a character delivers a line I want to know why he’s chosen each of those words. He doesn’t say, ‘Fine, I am your villain,’ but he says ‘Fine, make me your villain.’ He doesn’t believe that he is the villain of the story and I think all villains that you truly believe in understand their own motivations.”
He went on to explain, “For him, he’s tried every which way to protect his people, and he’s tried every method. We see him in other explorations, being a bit more like the rebel leader of the revolution. I think at this point he feels like he’s been boxed into a point where these are his only options, and he feels like you have to keep those plans secret. He feels that he has to cheat, steal, lie, and manipulate in order to help people understand what’s good for them. And, yeah, there’s hubris in that, certainly, and it’s absolutely unforgivable, and irredeemable, but it’s still interesting. It’s still an interesting character arc to navigate.”
Whew! Well, it sounds like we’re in for a wild season of Shadow and Bone. Don’t forget to follow The Beat for more coverage of the show as we approach its release date.