We have eleven days until the official release of Shadow and Bone on Netflix. We spoke to series star Jessie Mei Li about her experience taking on the main character of the Grisha trilogy. Li plays Alina Starkov, a young soldier in the First Army of Ravka. She’s a cartographer and was raised in an orphanage alongside her childhood friend Mal (Archie Renaux).
When it is revealed that she is a Grisha and the fabled Sun Summoner and harnesses the potential to destroy the odious Shadow Fold that plagues the country, she is taken by General Kirigan (Ben Barnes) to train and become the savior of the country. But, along the way, there are some twists, some turns, and some surprises in store for her that will alter everything she knows to be true. She’ll meet friends and enemies along the way, and she’ll learn to harness her legendary power one way or another.
Enter The Grishaverse
For Jessie Mei Li, entering the complicated world that is the Grishaverse came with an immersive experience. “I feel like the world that Leigh [Bardugo] created is so immersive and so exciting that you can just get super lost in it. The production value on this show and the amount of passion that went into it just made everything so believable. The amount of passion from the cast, everyone really loved their characters [and] really wanted this to feel super authentic so in lots of ways it felt really easy to slip into it.”
“Having to keep everything in mind all the time can be quite tricky, but when everything is literally there for you and your character’s written so well. We owe so much to our writing team and to Leigh herself. I feel super lucky to have been able to bring her to life because I think she’s a great character.”
Wit and Humor
All of the Grisha trilogy, which includes Shadow and Bone as its first novel, is written from a first-person point-of-view, through the eyes of Alina. For some actors, this meant approaching a character you only ever saw from another person’s point of view, but for Li, this meant taking on the privilege and the burden of being the eyes through which the reader learns about Ravka and the Grisha.
“I think one of the things that I was worried about,” Li said in taking on the role of Alina, “was, you know, I spoke to Leigh via email before we met and I said, ‘Is there anything that’s really important to you for Alina.’ And she said, ‘Alina is very funny.’ And I said, ‘Yes, she is.’ Because she’s in the book, she’s so witty and we’re in her head so she has all these little sarcastic comments and things. But given the nature of the scripts that I’ve read and the fact that they brought to life some really intense traumatic events for Alina, I was worried about bringing this sense of humor to her, but also making her feel actually grounded in the story.”
“She was really experiencing these things so it was kind of like a fine line to walk between keeping her being funny and having a sense of humor, being able to laugh at the world and have a twinkle in her eye when appropriate, but not making her seem like she wasn’t taking it seriously. Again, so much of that was in the script, but I really hope that we toe the line enough so that we see her personality but we still feel what she goes through.”
One of the people that Alina meets when she arrives at The Little Palace where Grisha are trained in the capital of Os Alta is Genya Safin. Played by Daisy Head in the series, Genya is a tailor, a branch of Grisha Corporalki who can alter the appearance of people. During the events of Shadow and Bone, she befriends Alina and acts as a bit of a mentor and ally to her as the newcomer in the group.
We talked to Head about Genya’s relationship with Alina, and Head was happy to sing Li’s praises. “Honestly, it’s a testament to Jessie and how wonderful a scene partner she is. She’s just generous, giving, and so, so talented. I just had so much fun, and for me, I didn’t have to work hard to create the chemistry because it was there from the get-go. She’s such an infectious human being.”
She continued, “I think a mutual respect for each other, definitely shows on screen with our characters. No relationship in life with anyone is easy, and everyone has history. They definitely have a unique bond in the fact that they are both natural outsiders, so that was an instant connection for our characters.”
Half Shu, Half Ravkan
And that outsider identity is elaborated on throughout the series. One of the major changes from the novel was Alina’s race. Originally Alina’s race was unspecified though largely believed to be Ravkan, however, in the development of the series, the show’s version of Alina became mixed-race. Alina became half-Ravkan and also half-Shu. Shu Han is the nation to the south of Ravka, separated by a large mountain range. The Shu people are based on Mongolia and China, with Ravka drawing inspiration from Russia.
When talking to Bardugo, she admitted that at the time when she was writing Shadow and Bone, her influences were different from today. “I’ve been very candid about the fact that when I wrote Shadow and Bone, it was my first book. And I think I was unconsciously echoing a lot of the straight white fantasy that grown up on,” Bardugo said. “And when Eric [Heisserer] and I first sat down together, one of the first things we decided was that we wanted Alina to be half Shu. It made a lot of sense, and it felt very organic to the story.”
“Alina comes from a border town. She comes from a disputed border between two conflicting nations. And though some people would probably have it otherwise, borders working rarely as walls, they are porous. People do business across them, they form partnerships and romances across them. Borders are the places where ordinary people try to live their lives while governments leave them caught in the crossfire. So for us, it was a very poignant and powerful way to highlight somebody who felt that she didn’t belong. Somebody who, ‘looked like the enemy,’ but was still being forced to fight for her country, and who could, in fact, prove to be the salvation of the country.”
For the showrunner, Eric Heisserer, it was more about the story. “I would say from my end, the choice has stemmed from the fact that the thematic question for so many of our heroes, including Alina, is, where do I belong? So it made sense to play into the theme of our story by having her mixed race. Then that really deepened when my first hire for the show was Christina Strain, a mixed-Asian writer herself. She carried a lot of personal experiences that she had, to talk about that, speak to it, and embrace the idea that she could finally see somebody that represented her in some way or form in the show. And then it became my job to get out of her way.” Also, shout out to Strain, who wrote one of my favorite episodes of the season, Episode 7 “The Unsea”.
For Li, playing Alina also meant being able to tap into her own personal experiences. Li, herself, is mixed-raced. “Growing up, as a mixed-race person, I rarely saw anyone who looked like me, let alone Asian people, generally. And if they were on screen they were always a fairly two-dimensional role, a lot of times, especially in western TV shows and films,” Li said.
“So I was so thrilled that they made this decision, and yeah, I was able to bring my own experiences. I think, for lots of people [who are] mixed-race or first-generation immigrants, you spend so much of your life not feeling like you belong anywhere. I certainly grew up in a predominantly white area, and I was always ‘the Chinese one’ to my white friends, but to my Asian friends and family, I was very English and you never really feel like you belong anywhere. And that is essentially Alina’s problem where we meet her. She doesn’t know where she belongs. She doesn’t know how important she is. It really shapes who she is, [in] the same way it does for me. My race is a big part of my life, but it’s not everything that I am, and they’ve done such a good job of making Alina’s background important to her as a character and important to shaping who she is, but it’s not everything that she is.”
Li continued, “I think it’s really important that we have more representation on screen but also I think one thing that the show does is it highlights how ridiculous racism can be. We see Alina do these amazing things and then, in the next episode, she’s getting racially abused in the street. And, I think it really highlights to people how stupid that is to insult someone or verbally attack someone based on how they look. So, I think it’s a really important time for us all to see these things and I’m just super proud to represent our community on screen.”
In a world like the world of the Grishaverse, prejudice and othering run rampant. Being a Grisha often means ostracization outside of Ravka (and even within Ravka), and in many ways, Alina’s identity as an outsider among Ravkans who view her as an ‘other’ allows her to understand the plight of Grisha without having been raised as one. It’s certainly an area rich for exploration and analysis, and it’s exciting to see such a talented actress brought to the spotlight as a result of this change.
Jessie Mei Li quite easily has the best chemistry with the widest range of characters. It’s an absolute joy to see her on-screen as Alina. And, as a Chinese-American reporter, it’s exciting to see the show bring in more Asian actors into the Grishaverse! On that note, keep an eye on The Beat for more interviews as we’ll be dropping more articles this week and next week leading up to the release of Shadow and Bone!