“Shadow and Bone” Star Jessie Mei Li on How Alina Taught Them More Than Expected
Throughout our entire conversation, Jessie Mei Li takes sips from their mug making it feel like we’re two friends catching up after many months of not seeing each other. There’s a reason for that. While for many being the main lead of the show would make them feel like they’re in a certain position of power, Jessie has the unique ability to make everyone feel like they’re equals. At one point, the Shadow and Bone star didn’t even realize that they were the main protagonist of the series.
“When we were filming it did very much feel like there was the main six of us: Archie [Renaux], Ben [Barnes], Kit [Young], Freddy [Carter], Amita [Suman], and me. We were all very much equal in that and the leads in my head,” Jessie told Seventeen. “I’m coming to terms with that now. I loved the atmosphere on the set and just had so much fun. I didn’t really have time to be worried about being the lead.”
Jessie, who uses both she/they pronouns (“I’m pretty flexible she, they, whichever your preference is. I’m both.”), considers herself lucky that they had a chance to work with everyone in the cast as Alina Starkov, the newly discovered Sun Summoner who has to come to terms with her powers and new status as the proclaimed uniter of Ravka. They thanked the casting team for seeing “how well they’re going to fit together as a group” when it came to figuring out the show’s many players.
“From all the extended supporting cast like Zoë Wanamaker and Kevin Eldon to everyone else, it was really lovely to get to film with everyone. Apart from Ben (who joined later on), I met the rest of the main cast before we went out to Budapest and immediately just fell in love with all of them. Everyone is just kind and respectful. I couldn’t be more thankful that they’re such a great group,” she said.
Throughout their time in Budapest, Jessie took it upon themself to create a welcoming environment on set. “I made sure to take everyone new for dinner, so they’d know me at least when they’re on set and they can have someone to talk to.” While the characters had long awaited someone to lead them out of the darkness in the series, Jessie basically became a real life Sun Summoner in her own regard as new actors joined during filming. This makes them the ideal person to lead a series that is so beloved by existing fans and will no doubt grow its audience with this new adaptation.
While they made a point to have everyone there feel comfortable, Alina’s experience in the world of Ravka was anything but welcoming. Already put on a pedestal due to her powers, there’s also the new layer added after Jessie’s casting: Alina is now part-Shu. As they are enemies of Ravka in the ongoing war, it adds another dimension to the character as she also has to deal with being viewed as an outsider, while also having little connection to that side of her due to being an orphan and growing up in Ravka her entire life.
“Alina has this very strong sort of patriotism that she wants to save Ravka. But when you add in the layer of her being mixed race and that feeling lots of people — whether you’re biracial or you’re a first generation immigrant or you’re the only person of color in a white area — experience of never really fitting in, it adds so much and it gave me so much to play with in terms of how she was going to interact with other characters,” she noted. “It forces Alina to get to know them and find their trust.”
Jessie said that while it would be easier to just make Alina a person of color without any regards to the implications of how that changes her journey from the books, the TV series takes it one step further by allowing it to give viewers more of a look into what is happening around the world of the Grishaverse and not just Alina’s journey in taking down the Fold which is splitting Ravka.
“The books come from Alina’s perspective, so we don’t hear as much about the war that’s going on. We now have more of an understanding that East Ravka is literally imprisoned and Shu Han is imprisoning it in one side. Having those little moments where Ravkin characters are interacting with Alina and being racist adds to the world building as well,” they said. “If you’re going to add more diverse actors and have more diverse faces, you’ve got to have where it’s not just about what they look like. It’s also about the person and the history. I think it’s good that they don’t shy away from it. If you’re going to have countries at war, you’re going to have racism. It allowed me to really relate to it all and I hope that people watching the show can too.”
Book series writer Leigh Bardugo revealed earlier that she didn’t look at any other audition tapes after seeing Jessie’s. “I got the phone call from my agent and received an email from Leigh that very same day. She said she saw my first tape and that was it. Just knowing that was so encouraging and I’m so thankful that she took the time to reach out to me,” Jessie added. Getting that blessing helped them feel more comfortable when it came to bringing Alina to life.
“I’d already sort of, in my head, made decisions about how Alina was going to be. I just knew that Leigh was going to be cool with it and she was always there for advice. She had a cameo and was only ever supportive and excited. Props to her, because when someone is taking your baby and changing it, it can be nerve wracking. But she was so cool about the whole thing,” she noted.
However, Jessie revealed that they had a hard challenge in making sure that Alina was still funny, something that was important to Leigh, especially with everything that was happening around her. “You need to get that balance right. So that’s probably the only thing I was nervous about,” Jessie said.
In the final moments of our conversation, I ask Jessie a simple question: “What will you take away from this experience so far?”
“Filming the show taught me a lot about myself and I really did gain a lot of understanding in who I am. It’s rare that you sort of spend so much time with other people and I think other people are a reflection of who we are. The more diverse the people are around you, the more you see in yourself,” they point out. “We’ve all taught each other a lot and it was a pretty good experience.”
But, after a brief pause, I also ended up with another answer. Jessie revealed they were able to tell signs of ADHD after working with young people who were diagnosed with it in the past.
“Throughout filming, I started to think ‘I cannot sit still.’ I tried standing in for myself for lighting. I was like, ‘I can do it. Don’t worry,'” she recalled. “I couldn’t do it. They actually banned me from standing in because I would just get distracted and walk off.”
Jessie noted that the hair and makeup teams had little puzzles for them to work on while sitting in the chair and that certain moments in the script “where Alina does things that are very impulsive” made them look a little harder within their own self.
“I knew how to see ADHD symptoms in people and I started to think that maybe I had them. And then, lo and behold, I came back from filming and got formally diagnosed ADHD. My whole life, I’ve been like, ‘What is going on?’ Being in that environment and then having the lockdown to sort of stew and think about these things was really great.” Jessie continued. “And I don’t think I would have got to that conclusion without this series.”
Just how Alina Starkov helped Jessie Mei Li find out something new about themself, hopefully the series does the same with the countless viewers who will be diving deep into the Grishaverse.
This interview has been condensed for length and clarity.
Written by admin on April 25 2021