Shadow and Bone’s Jessie Mei Li Is the Fantasy Hero You’ve Been Waiting For
Jessie Mei Li never thought they’d be sitting here. Sure, they hadn’t imagined they’d be discussing their breakout role in fantasy juggernaut Shadow and Bone from the quiet of their Bristol flat, wrapped in a comforter against the late winter chill. But, more broadly, they never thought they’d be discussing their breakout role period.
“I always loved acting, but it was something I never really considered [as a career],” the 25-year-old explains, their shy grin illuminating the window of our Zoom call (Li uses both she and they pronouns). “You can think, ‘Oh, I love drawing, but I’m never going to be a designer.’” But after dropping out of a languages degree at university—because “mental health is a thing,” they say with a laugh—Li realized they were much more skilled than they thought. “I remember thinking, loads of my friends and family don’t know how I’m feeling. I must be better at acting than I give myself credit for.” They signed up for a few acting classes, and the hobby served as a pleasant distraction until they landed a role in All About Eve on the West End opposite Gillian Anderson and Lily James. And now, the lead in a highly anticipated adaptation of a global YA phenomenon.
So, yeah—much better than she gives herself credit for.
Audiences will see for themselves when Li hits their Netflix queues on Friday as Alina Starkov, the heroine of Leigh Bardugo’s bestselling Grishaverse novels (think five million copies sold in the English language alone, plus more than 50 translations). Inspired by Russia’s imperialist era, the novels take place in Ravka, a nation plagued by interminable war and home to the Grisha, a population whose magical abilities have been co-opted by the monarchy. When we meet Alina, she’s resigned herself to a humble life as an army mapmaker. But a harrowing life-or-death encounter reveals a long-dormant talent, quickly ushering Alina into the highest stratum of Ravkan society and providing hope for an end to the centuries-long strife of her people.
The series is impressively faithful to the original Shadow and Bone novel while also incorporating a storyline from a separate Grishaverse novel, the heist thriller Six of Crows. But for Li’s character, there’s another crucial difference: In the series, Alina is biracial. While her father is Ravkan, her mother is from Shu Han (a neighboring country inspired by China and Mongolia), and Alina encounters racism and xenophobia at nearly every turn—a thread painfully resonant during an outbreak of anti-Asian violence in the U.S.
“Not only is Alina’s ethnicity really important to the world-building—we understand who’s at war with whom—[but] it’s important for her as a character,” Li says. “Her journey is, essentially, where do I belong? And as a person of mixed heritage [Li’s mother is British, her father Chinese], you grow up thinking, Well, I’m not X enough, I’m not Y enough. They wove that into the story.”
Li’s entry point for the character came from a note from Bardugo, who executive produces the series. “I said to Leigh, ‘What’s important to you?’ And she said, ‘Well, Alina is funny,’” Li recalls. “That really struck something in me. That’s a defense mechanism so many people have, and it shows strength.” Thus, Li brings a wry bemusement to nearly every scene, her lips curling in a private joke as she encounters the excess of life for a privileged class.
For Bardugo, Li was Alina the moment she saw her audition tape. “In many ways, Jessie is the person Alina grows into—confident, joyful, brave,” the author says. “I saw all of that, and also this tremendous vulnerability that felt so true to who Alina is.” Li brought this energy and a leader’s spirit to set in Budapest, where she studied Hungarian on her own in order to bond with the crew (“They called me sult krumpli, which in Hungarian means french fries, because I ate them every day,” she says with a giggle). She also treated each new addition to the cast to a welcome dinner before they stepped foot on set. Her efforts seep into the series, with the cast’s chemistry propelling the story forward and giving it a certain buoyancy in rare moments when the action falters or exposition gets cloudy.
Of course, Shadow and Bone hits all your requisite fantasy beats: the wary hero’s journey, explosive elemental effects, a yearning love triangle. But what sets Bardugo’s books and their adaptation apart, especially in an oversaturated market, is a commitment to community: the power that resides in one’s relationships and the strength that forms through cooperation and care. Sure, Alina is gifted, but she can’t change the world by herself—and she knows that. It’s a moving metaphor for the fandom that sprung up around the books and quickly expanded to welcome the series. Li already has several fan pages and accounts devoted to their career, and Grishaverse devotees hold court in their Instagram comments, spamming the actor with all-caps compliments and hundreds of “sun summoner” and “Sankta Alina” messages (that’s Ravkan for “saint”). Li admits to mostly avoiding the fervor (“I’m a sensitive person, and it can be overwhelming”) but is awed by the impact of a few released photos and clips. “I have had messages from people who are already fans of the books, and lots of them look like me, teenagers saying, ‘It’s so amazing. I’ve always felt like I don’t fit in.’ That’s brilliant,” they say. “All I really care about is telling a positive story. [The show is] very diverse. There’s talk about consent in there. And everyone looks real. This is a story about a country at war. Are they going to wake up with mascara on? No.”
From the quiet of lockdown, much of which she’s spent with her mother, a nurse, Li reminisces about life on set, laughing into the night with her co-stars, and her failed attempts to turn them all vegan. Production on Shadow and Bone wrapped just weeks before quarantine, and Li has spent much of the pandemic looking inward. “I hadn’t been alone for six months, and it was very important that we all had time to process what we’d gone through, get used to the idea of a show coming out, and get back into the rhythm of life outside the show,” she says. That likely won’t last too long; if past Netflix successes are any indication, a season 2 announcement is imminent, but Li’s not saying much. An appearance in Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho is also on the horizon (another role she never thought she’d get: “We had to do a little improvised bit at the end of the audition, and I said something that was so unfunny”) and yes, she’s giving a little thought to what follows that. “I would love to play a villain,” she says, that wry smile she shares with Alina again lighting up my laptop. “I don’t really have a malicious bone in my body, but I would have fun with that.”
Written by admin on April 24 2021