Rainbow Crew is an ongoing interview series that celebrates the best LGBTQ+ representation on screen. Each instalment showcases talent working on both sides of the camera, including queer creatives and allies to the community.
Next up, we’re speaking to Shadow and Bone star Jessie Mei Li.
Jessie Mei Li knew about Shadow and Bone long before she was cast as Alina Starkov, the lead in Netflix’s new adaptation. “Before being an actor, I used to work as an SEN (special educational needs) teaching assistant in a secondary school. So I knew of the books, and I knew they were popular.”
But even then, “I don’t think I was ready for how passionate the fans are,” says Jessie. Although the books are extremely popular, the gender-nonconforming actor (who uses she/they pronouns) is about to attract a passionate fanbase of her own thanks to a star-making turn in Shadow and Bone.
Digital Spy caught up with Jessie to talk fan pressure, her “disgusting” prosthetic, and whether there’s scope for Alina to be queer in future seasons. Along the way, we also discussed Star Wars comparisons and why Shadow and Bone “couldn’t be more different from Game of Thrones.”
Shadow and Bone already had a huge fanbase before the show was even announced. Did you feel much pressure coming into this role?
When it comes to adaptations, I’m always in the mindset of: it’s never going to be the same as the book, especially given that Shadow and Bone – which most of the story is based on – is a first-person perspective. It’s going to be very, very different when you’re not inside that character’s head with a voiceover, which could have got a bit samey.
So it is very different, but I’m glad. I didn’t really feel pressure. Some of my castmates, their characters are so beloved. They felt very much like they had to get these characters right.
Whereas I think with Alina, the fact that she’s essentially a self-insert character in lots of ways… She’s very different to lots of different people. So I felt quite free in that I could bring what I saw in Alina to the table.
With that in mind, can you tell us more about what kind of input you had shaping the character?
I watched the show back, and there are definitely bits that were my suggestions – moments where I thought, “Maybe this could happen.” And then we put it in the show.
One moment that specifically comes to mind is from the seventh episode when Alina is about to see Genya in the tent, and the director was saying, “What do you think Alina would be doing before Genya walks in?”
I said, “Well, she hasn’t seen her amplifier yet. If it was me, I would go straight to the mirror.”
So we put that in. Things like that happened a lot, and it was really nice as an actor to feel you could make suggestions, and you could talk about what you think. Because there were quite a few moments where I thought, “I don’t know if Alina would say this like that” or whatever. And they were just super open to it, which was so nice because it’s quite rare sometimes.
Speaking of the amplifier, what was it like wearing that grisly antler prosthetic?
So in the books, the amplifiers are kind of like jewellery, and Alina’s collar is more like a necklace made of antlers. When I went out to Budapest and was looking at the different concept art, they then told me, “OK, we’re thinking of embedding it in people’s skin.”
I think that seeing that for the first time in the show… It’s a really great moment because it shows how invasive, and how much of a betrayal it is, rather than just a piece of jewellery.
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But – ugh – that prosthetic. I am such a fidget! There were two different kinds as well. There was the one with the antlers that pointed out, and then for the end, even sometimes when we didn’t see it, I would have a different prosthetic which went underneath, after it’s gone into her skin. So I even had to have a prosthetic when you couldn’t see it [laughs].
It was so itchy! I was always accidentally picking it. I can’t be trusted with a prosthetic. But makeup gave me one as a gift, one of the last ones we didn’t use, so it’s mounted on the wall! It looks so disgusting.
This version of Shadow and Bone makes some big changes to the source material. Were you apprehensive about this or did you ever wonder, ‘How is this going to work?”
I was a little bit like, “Oh, how is that going to work?” Especially because when we first started filming, we didn’t have the last few scripts, but we knew that was going to happen. Myself, Amita, Freddy and Kit were saying: “Well, we’re all going to meet, clearly, at some point.” And I think it works.
It is funny, though. One journalist said to me: you can tell that we’re all really good friends, even from that first moment when we all meet. It was actually quite challenging to not just get out of the trunk and give them all a cuddle.
Cute! Was there anything else you found challenging when you look back now?
I think probably one of the most difficult things was getting the right balance with Alina, because, like I said from the books, she’s set up as one thing to many different people…
Leigh Bardugo said to me, “She’s funny. She’s a funny person.” But it was like, the line between her being snarky and maybe a bit flippant, maybe a bit churlish and petulant… Finding that line was quite difficult.
Our director was great for that because sometimes I might say something like, “Actually, let’s turn down the petulance a little bit.” So by the time we were a few episodes in, I knew how she was, and I knew that she wasn’t going to behave like that, but we still hopefully get those little comic beats in with her as well. We can see that Alina’s laughing at the world. Maybe not being a stand-up comedian, but she’s got a twinkle.
That’s what I was hoping we’d get. So, yeah, that was probably the thing that I was most worried about. I hope it’s worked out!
People inevitably compare new fantasy shows to established hits like Game of Thrones and The Witcher. How do you feel about those comparisons, and what sets Shadow and Bone apart from other shows like that?
It’s interesting because that has been thrown around a little bit. I love Game of Thrones, but I feel it couldn’t be more different from Game of Thrones in terms of tone and what it’s saying. It isn’t set remotely in the same kind of time either. This is way more sort of 1800s steampunk industrial revolution stuff than it is swords and dragons.
But the comparison being made is also very cool if it means that people like it.
When asked what I would compare it to, you kind of have to draw from lots of different places. If anything, the thing that comes to mind for me is Star Wars, because of the fact that it’s a genre film. It has fun adventure and romance and a bit of softer violence, but nothing that’s too… families can watch it as well. That’s more of the comparison that I would make.
Fantasy shows have thankfully become far more diverse recently. How does it feel to play a key role in something as progressive as Shadow and Bone?
Yeah, really cool. I love the way that race is depicted on this show. One of the things, when I was auditioning, was that slight concern of: is this just a diversity tick? Why have you done this?
But immediately, I understood it wasn’t just that they wanted a person of colour in the lead; they actually wrote Alina’s story to be a reflection of my experiences, and the experiences of Christina [Strain] – she’s Korean-American, she’s one of our writers.
And so I appreciate the fact that there’s diversity, but also that it’s for a reason. But at the same time, it feels incidental. It’s realistic. And also, in terms of LGBTQ+ stuff – I’m a queer person, and I think having… You see queer relationships happen on the screen, but it’s not a big deal. They’re just characters who clearly are in relationships or whatever. No one talks about it like it’s weird or anything, or even that it’s a big deal. It’s just that, in this world, that’s totally fine.
I really love that as well. You might not see it, but at one point you see two of the soldiers, Ivan and Fedyor, who are quite clearly together, and that’s just there. It just adds to their characters and their relationship in such a lovely way that wasn’t in the book.
So all that stuff is really exciting to me, and I hope that people will be able to watch Shadow and Bone if they’re mixed-race or first-generation immigrants or they’re queer. Whatever it is, I hope they can watch it, and find someone they can really relate to.
Do you think there’s scope, perhaps, for Alina to be queer in the future?
I mean, I would hope so. Currently, she’s got Mal, and she loves Mal. But who knows? Who knows where they’re going to go? I would love that. I think it’d be really great for her because it seems right for her as well. She just seems like she could be queer, and she has so much love for many people in the show.
I see some of those scenes – me and Daisy laugh about it a lot, about how much chemistry me and Daisy have [laughs]. It’s just like: when are Alina and Genya going to run away together? Because I love her so much [laughs].
What else do you think might be in store for Alina in season two?
I like where we’ve left her. Alina goes from being a scared, little pup who can’t look at anyone in the eye, to suddenly having this sense of sort of gravity to her. We feel that she’s grown a lot, and she’s really strong. But she’s still got a long way to go, which is a really nice place to leave her. We know where she’s going now, and where she’s got to go.
As well, what’s nice is that there’s a little bit of sprinkling throughout the series of Alina having a slightly darker side. It’s hinted at in terms of her relationship with Kirigan and being seduced by all the luxury around her, and the power.
So for me, I would really like to see that side of her explored, and maybe how suddenly all that power and being this saint and everything, how that affects her, and whether or not it’s tempting. I think that’s always interesting when we have a protagonist who is drawn to that sort of — again, it’s very Star Wars – but drawn to the dark side, and whether or not they go there, how that affects their relationships and things.
I think it’d be really interesting, and obviously really fun for me to play as well. So I’d like to see that side of her explored and have that weakness shown a little bit. I hope it’ll be spicy [laughs].
Shadow and Bone is now available to watch on Netflix.
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