Jessie Mei Li Brings a New Take on Alina to Netflix’s ‘Shadow and Bone’
Netflix’s upcoming fantasy adaptation Shadow and Bone, based on bestselling author Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse novels, is filled with mind-bending magic, terrifying action, a massive world-spanning adventure — and one badass trio of criminals.
And if you’re into strong YA female heroes like The Hunger Games‘ Katniss Everdeen or Divergent‘s Tris Prior, then you’re going to love Shadow and Bone‘s Alina Starkov (played by Jessie Mei Li). It’s Alina, after all, who kickstarts the show’s wild journey when she discovers that she’s much more than the cartographer she’s believed to be, but instead, holds within her an extreme amount of power — enough to possibly vanquish the dark expanse, known as the Shadow Fold, that’s keeping her country from getting the supplies it needs to survive.
Alina’s newly-discovered powers as the “sun summoner” come with a lot of baggage though. She must train alongside the country’s other magical beings, known as “Grisha,” and find her way through a new, lavish world. She’s also grabbed ahold of the attention of the Grisha’s leader, General Kirigan (Ben Barnes), whose true intentions are beyond murky.
Below, Li explains what being the “sun summoner” means to Alina, and what Bardugo told her when she first got the life-changing role.
What was your relationship like with the books? How aware of them were you before the role?
Jessie Mei Li: I was aware of them, and I knew they were popular because I’d worked in a secondary school when I was 19 as a teaching assistant. Some of the students I had worked with had read the books, and a friend of mine had read Six of Crows [Shadow and Bone‘s follow-up duology] fairly recently. So, I went along to my audition, and I started reading [the books] the next day after my first audition and just immediately could see why so many people absolutely adore them. I had to sort of deep-dive read the books very quickly, especially the Shadow and Bone trilogy, and then Six of Crows. I wanted to just soak it all up during the audition process, and it definitely was helpful.
Did you get to speak with Leigh Bardugo at all about what her hopes were for Alina?
When I got the role, I got an email from Leigh. I think it was a really bizarre time for her to be awake, but she sent me an email saying that she was so glad I’d gotten the part and that she’d seen my first tape and she was just like, ‘I wanted you from the start,’ which obviously was just so encouraging from [the world’s] creator, as it were. To know that I had her blessing was great. We didn’t meet until she came out to set in Budapest, but she was always very communicative.
I’d said to her, you know, ‘What’s important to you going forward about Alina?’ I had my own ideas, but Leigh said was that Alina was funny, and she’s got a sense of humor. And I remember thinking, ‘Oh god, I really hope I get that right,’ cause that’s hard to do. You have to be able to make sure [viewers] believe the trauma that she goes through and the gravity of the situation that she finds herself in, without her seeming like she doesn’t care or that she’s just mocking everything. It’s a real fine line. Our director was really good at making sure we didn’t cross into petulance too quickly, so yeah. She was just so great and it was so nice having her on set when she came out.
How different or similar would you say that your take is from the Alina in the books?
So much of the Alina in the books, we hear what she’s thinking, and she’s sarcastic, and she’s kind of feisty in a different way, I think, to show Alina … The mere fact that they changed her backstory, just feeling like an outsider to actually being an outsider, had to change the way that she interacted with people. If you’ve spent your life being ostracized, you’re not going to be brash and in your face. That sassy, feisty-ness isn’t there as much, because she would just be getting into trouble left, right, and center if she didn’t keep her head down. So, it was definitely a change from making her sassy into more slightly softer-spoken, but powerful in her own way. She has a certain gravity to her that I think is important, that we see build as the show goes on.
What do you think that being the “sun summoner” means to Alina? When she first hears those words, what is she thinking?
The way I kind of imagine it is, Alina has always felt different. That’s in the text. She’s looked different and she’s been different. And more people, I think, experience this feeling than admit it, so I’m just going to say it. I think people often feel like, ‘I’m special and there’s something important about me, and I just don’t know what it is.’ Everyone has that feeling, and they know that there’s something that they have to offer. And Alina hasn’t found out what that is yet. So, when she finds out she’s the sun summoner, it’s kind of like she knew the whole time. It’s almost that feeling of vindication. But also terror, because it’s like so much more than she was expecting and she has to come to terms with the responsibilities involved.
Eagle-eyed book fans will notice that there are a few moments that were flipped for the show, and in doing so, these fresh moments give Alina a little bit more agency than she had in the books. Ideas that other characters had originally voiced first, or moves other characters made first, now are things that Alina goes and does herself. Can you speak to that extended agency we’ll see her have onscreen at all?
Yeah, totally. From Episode 1 we see that. It’s Alina’s choice to go onto the skiff, which I think is immediately a good choice to have changed that. So many of these decisions just gave me so much more to work with, and I’m thankful for that.
The relationship between Alina and Kirigan is also really interesting in the show. We leaned more into the fact that they are equals. Rather than it being like, ‘Oh, the Darkling! He’s so mysterious and handsome!’ and then, ‘Oh, Mal [Archie Renaux]! He’s also very handsome!’ It’s more like, Mal’s her childhood best friend and he’s good and strong. And then Kirigan is this person that she feels weirdly connected to, and they are equals. They are light and dark. That kind of balancing each other out — Ben [Barnes] always says in interviews like yin and yang. That was important to get right. And with that, Alina makes [her own] decisions. She doesn’t do what she’s told. She’s impulsive. And I like that.
And what can you tease about her relationship with her fellow orphan and longtime pal Mal?
I’m quite an earnest person, so I love a good wholesome relationship. And there’s something so earnest about their relationship and so true. I think everyone has a friend like Mal. That person that means so much to you, that you’ve known your whole life, whether it’s your sibling or friend from school or something. And it’s just really lovely. They really care about each other. There’s no kind of bickering in the way that we’d see some friendships onscreen. They have so much shared history and are each other’s home. When they are pulled apart, they’re so desperate to snap back together, like two magnets.
Shadow and Bone, Series Premiere, Friday, April 23, Netflix