This Friday we will see the release of the much-anticipated fantasy TV series adaptation, SHADOW AND BONE on Netflix. Based on Leigh Bardugo‘s worldwide bestselling Grishaverse novels, this eight-episode series finds us in a war-torn world where the lowly soldier and orphan Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li) has just unleashed an extraordinary power that could be the key to setting her country free. With the monstrous threat of the Shadow Fold looming, Alina is torn from everything she knows to train as part of an elite army of magical soldiers known as Grisha. But as she struggles to hone her power, she finds that allies and enemies can be one and the same and that nothing in this lavish world is what it seems. There are dangerous forces at play, including a crew of charismatic criminals, and it will take more than magic to survive.
When I first saw images from the upcoming SHADOW AND BONE, I knew absolutely nothing about it. I did not know that the series was an adaptation of a much-beloved literary universe nor did I know any of the characters (and, more importantly, their ships that went on in said universe.) I wasn’t yet familiar with Leigh Bardugo’s writing though, ironically, I had recently acquired Ninth House per a friend’s recommendation before realizing that the two series were created by the same author. But, based on the first look images, teasers, and more, I found myself immediately needing to know more about this series because inside of it stood something special. Whether due to the characters, the writing, or the worldbuilding, I couldn’t deny that SHADOW AND BONE was going to make fans out of newcomers and make the hearts of pre-established fans explode with joy. Needless to say, expectations were set.
Nightmarish Conjurings recently attended the press roundtables for the much-anticipated fantasy TV series adaptation of Leigh Bardugo’s SHADOW AND BONE. While attending the roundtable featuring Ben Barnes (General Kirigan), Jessie Mei Li (Alina Starkov), and Archie Renaux (Malyen Oretsev), we were able to acquire more insight into how they developed their characters. For the character of Alina Starkov, in particular, there was an unspoken pressure placed due to Starkov being the main protagonist of the series as well as dealing with fans’ expectations of the character.
One of the early changes made to the character of Alina for the TV series was the worldwide casting call in 2019 for a “biracial Asian actress”, a casting decision that was discussed in great detail between showrunner Eric Heisserer and author Leigh Bardugo. But, given the emphasis on Alina’s mixed-race heritage throughout the course of the TV series, the casting call makes sense and, for Jessie Mei Li, she was able to bring her own experiences and meld them into the character of Alina in how she approached the world living in Rafka
“I think I was able to bring quite a lot of my own experiences to Alina, given the fact that she was, you know, they decided to make her mixed-race, which is something in my life that has definitely shaped who I am. It’s definitely something I think lots of mixed-race people understand, is that you never really feel like you belong anywhere, and that can really affect you and how you interact with people. So, I could take that and give that to Alina,” Li explained.
Given how so much of Alina’s experience growing up focuses on her visibly looking Shu, one of the nation of the Shu Han and a known rival to the Ravka, this comes with many challenges for the orphaned girl. It informs every aspect of her life and her approach to situations with those around her. SHADOW AND BONE‘s writers’ team proved to be immensely helpful, providing Li with a safe footing as the writers adapted the character thoroughly before she stepped into the role. Between her own experiences and the help of the writers’ team, taking on Alina became an easier process.
“She’s told every day of her life that she looks like the enemy and she’s never really accepted and that’s going to affect who you are as a person. You’re going to want to be, “I’m not the enemy. Look at me. I’m gentle. I’m softly spoken,” but also have this thick skin and this ability to stand up for yourself,” Li further explained as we discussed her approach to Alina Starkov. “So, I mean, it was so easy to just slip into that role given the fact that I had experienced that kind of thing before.”
While her own life experiences helped inform her how she would approach becoming Alina, the role was not without its challenges for the actor. Bringing up a particular moment in Episode 2, Jessie Mei Li shared how the script required a huge emotional level to hit for the character Alina. She, at one point, was left questioning whether or not she was going to be able to do what the script called for. However, due to where they were in the production schedule at the time, the task itself was a lot easier than expected, crediting everyone involved in the series for helping to make the process so seamless for the actors: “Because everyone was so invested and because of so much passion and [what] went into the production, it just felt so easy to really believe the plight of these characters and their relationships.”
Wrapping up our discussion during the roundtable, the conversation turned to what about Alina and her journey Li would take with her after spending time in the character’s shoes in SHADOW AND BONE. With no hesitation, the actor pointed out Alina’s strength as well as other attributes. “She’s so strong whereas I can be a bit silly,” Li shared with us in the Zoom. “There’s a certain, especially towards the end of the series, a certain sort of strength, but it’s almost like a serenity, like she’s steady and she knows herself or she’s on the way to knowing herself. And I think that calm strength I really like and, as a person, I’m a little bit more ridiculous. So, I think I’d love to be able to bring more of Alina’s strength and ability just to say what she wants and what she needs by the end of it.”
For fans of the original novels, seeing Alina Starkov and the rich, vibrant characters of the Grishaverse come to life is a dream come true. And, for many young women, seeing Jessie Mei Li embody the role of Alina will mean so much, especially in seeing more representation in YA entertainment. Bringing her own experiences into the character and provided with an amply developed character on paper, it will be hard for anyone to not fall in love with Jessie Mei Li’s Alina Starkov and the series itself.
SHADOW AND BONE, the eight-episode series, will debut exclusively on Netflix on April 23, 2021. Stay tuned later this week for our official review of the series!