Jessie Mei Li Talks Bringing Alina Starkov To Life In ‘Shadow And Bone’
Before she appeared in Netflix’s Shadow and Bone, the name Jessie Mei Li probably wouldn’t have rung any bells. But thanks to Netflix’s epic fantasy series, the British Chinese star is now an actress to keep an eye out for, with the internet falling in love not only with her character and performance but her overall bubbly “ball of sunshine” personality.
The series, based on the eponymous book by Leigh Bardugo, spent its first 12 days on Netflix’s top 10 chart—the first show to achieve that in 2021. And with the popularity of the series, its cast turned into big stars overnight, particularly Jessie Mei Li who plays the lead character, Alina Starkov, one of the few Asian female lead characters in a fantasy series.
Hot on the heels of the show’s success and positive reviews and a confirmation of season two, Tatler Hong Kong chats with the breakout star about bringing Alina Starkov to life, why representation matters, growing up biracial and her favourite moment while filming.
You started in theatre with Beat and All About Eve, what made you decide to switch to acting on screen or was it something you’ve always wanted to do?
Starting out in the acting world, I think most people are keen to do whatever job comes their way, as often the hardest part is actually just getting seen for a role. I wanted to just have fun and do whatever jobs I could. I loved working in All About Eve, it wasn’t a huge role so it was like dipping my toe into the industry and having a look around at how it all works, without too much pressure. In a lot of ways theatre and acting on screen are quite different and it’s a privilege to have experienced what it’s like working on the West End, on TV and film sets, and be able to learn so much from both.
You seem like a bit of a polyglot, did you always have an interest in language?
I’m definitely far too rusty to call myself a polyglot but I really do love language. I think my interest was piqued as a child growing up in a dual heritage household—my dad is from Hong Kong and mum is English—but all my extended family on my dad’s side live in Vancouver. My dad’s first language is Cantonese and my mum had a little from her time working in Hong Kong, so I think the idea was to raise us bilingual but not everything works out as planned.
When we did see my dad growing up, it was just easier for him to speak English to us as there was limited time to learn Cantonese. The summer holiday visits to my Ah Ma’s were the only times I had that much exposure to spoken Cantonese and while I always tried my best to learn for those two weeks, I would normally just spend my time listening and trying to work things out.
Languages to me were like mysterious windows into worlds that I hadn’t been able to understand before and it was thrilling when I started to learn more and finally feel a part of my culture. I went to university to study languages but again, not everything goes as planned but I’m certainly happy to have ended up where I am.
What drew you to say yes to Shadow and Bone, particularly Alina Starkov’s character?
It was definitely more of a case of [the production team] saying yes to me. I loved the way Alina was described in the character brief for the audition—she was strong but kept her head down, powerful yet quiet, someone who’d been through a lot in her life and I thought it would be really fun to be able to show those things in everything she does.
She wasn’t just a Mary Sue who quips and has all the answers, she is a frightened girl thrust into the spotlight in order to save the country that has only ever shown her animosity and hatred. I thought that was a really interesting idea. She felt like a real person to me, with flaws and weaknesses, like her lack of self-belief and reliance on her best friend Mal. I think we all go through things like that in our lives.
Shadow and Bone is your first major role, how different is the experience doing theatre and then acting on screen?
I think it’s different for everyone, that’s what’s fascinating to me about actors because everyone has such different ideas and processes and there’s definitely no one way to “act”. But for me, I guess that the main difference I’ve experienced is that on-screen so much can be said just by thinking what your character is thinking, whereas on stage you have to show it a little more for the people at the back. I’ve been lucky to have worked with actors who can give a huge stage performance that still feels like they’re just talking to you naturally, it’s amazing, and that takes skill.
With Shadow and Bone, the way I saw it was that my performance was just a cog in the machine of the show. It can be tempting to overact and chew the scenery a bit in order to give a mind-blowing performance but knowing that there would be a swelling music score, with the edit cutting away to what your character is thinking about, I felt free to often just let Alina feel things in her quiet way and trust the audience would understand what she’s going through, which definitely felt true to the character.
How did you prepare for your role?
The rest of the main cast and I got to Budapest where we were filming and had about a month of preparation before we actually got started [filming]. And while I did learn to ride a horse and do some basic stunts, the thing I felt helped me prepare the most was getting to know my castmates in that time.
We all got really close really early on and think that’s why people watching the show can really root for the characters’ relationships. In order to give a good performance, I think you need to feel comfortable and relaxed enough to lose yourself in the story and trusting your scene partners mean you can feel safe to try things out and bounce off of each other in a scene. The cast of Shadow and Bone are all so talented but also just such good people and so it’s been a joy being together on this.
Did you feel pressured to bring Alina Starkov to life since the Grishaverse has such a loyal following?
Not at all. Reading the Shadow and Bone book trilogy, I realised that Alina, as a self-insert character who narrates her own story, would be different depending on who’s reading it. Everyone’s Alina would be different, so it didn’t matter if mine was different too. I had to just trust in the people in charge who gave me the job that I was the right choice for the Alina they wanted in the show and just go from there.
Alina in the show is written to have a very different backstory and personality than the one in the books. I think I would have run the risk of creating an inconsistent character if I worried too much about indulging expectations from fans instead of what was written in the script.
The idea that there are young kids out there smiling as they watch Inej, Zoya and Alina saving the day whilst just being themselves makes me so proud to be part of this show— Jessie Mei Li
Are there any behind-the-scenes moments from the filming that’s memorable for you?
The whole experience was like a mad, fever dream of memorable moments so it’s very hard to single one out. I think one of the coolest things was when Ben Barnes (who plays General Kirigan) and I were on our way to our first-day filming (a scene in episode two where Alina and General Kirigan are talking on a hillside).
It was very early in the morning and still dark, as is often the case on a filming set and a stag walked out in front of our van. I only just saw it briefly but we decided it was a good luck charm. We could also hear a stag bellowing in the distance during the shoot that day. I think maybe they were Shadow and Bone fans …
How was it like filming in Hungary for such a long time?
Honestly, it felt a bit like being on an extended holiday with a bunch of good friends. I think because we were all away from home and loved ones, we saw each other all the time and that was so lovely. I’m not the type to ever get homesick but it would have been hard to be anyway as I wanted to treat my close friends and family to a nice holiday to come to visit, so I actually had guests from home staying quite a lot.
What’s it like working with such a diverse cast whom you have so much chemistry with and with screenwriter Eric Heisserer?
Eric is magnificent. He’s so wonderfully kind and was so passionate about this show and that is infectious. Showrunning a show as large and complicated as Shadow and Bone is an enormous undertaking and I can’t begin to imagine how stressful it can be but Eric still always had time for us, no matter how many battles he was off fighting behind the scenes. His grace and humility were so refreshing and he was never afraid to be wrong or hear a different opinion, which I think is a trait not many people have.
I think when you have good people at the top, they hire good people, who hire good people … everyone I worked with in the cast was hardworking and so much fun to be around, so I’m grateful we were all brought together by a team looking to cast the right people for the roles whilst considering how well we’d all work together.
Did your skills in Taekwondo and Wing Chun come in handy for your role?
Having done martial arts growing up, I’m not afraid to jump into things. I know my limitations and how best to try and avoid injury and I really don’t mind getting thrown about a bit—years of playfighting with my brother (who’s actually somehow impossible to take down) has made me immune to bumps and bruises. I loved doing some of Alina’s stunts, though there weren’t that many. I would have loved more fight scenes for her, but she was only just learning to fight in this season so it makes sense that there were only a few.
I grew up reading a lot of YA novels myself but didn't read much about characters that look like me. To you, how important is it to finally have Asian female heroine representation in fantasy?
Oh, it’s super cool. I think it’s exciting and empowering for people to see someone who maybe looks like you or has similar experiences to your own in a work of fiction that you love. It can really help bolster your identity, especially when you’re young. The idea that there are young kids out there smiling as they watch Inej, Zoya and Alina saving the day whilst just being themselves makes me so proud to be part of this show. There’s certainly still a long way to go with representation and I’d love to see more new diverse faces on our screens. I hope other productions see the success of the show and take a chance on an unknown and diverse cast of their own.
Being biracial, did you have an identity crisis growing up? Was it hard to fit in?
I was lucky that I was raised by my mum who made it clear to my brother and I that being kind and respectful was far more important than just following the crowd. She actively encouraged us to speak up against things we didn’t agree with and stand up for others so I was never really concerned with fitting in and was lucky to have lots of amazing friends anyway. But that being said, no one really likes being shunned or made to feel different. Little kids say outrageous things at the best of times and I certainly got lots of outrageous things said to me as a child, more often than not just other children spewing out racist things they probably heard from their parents or TV with very little malice intended.
I think this slight othering I experienced lead me to be one of those teenagers who “didn’t care what anyone thinks” and spent my time just being bonkers and behaving erratically because I think it helped me through that time to convince myself that the othering was my choice—that I didn’t want to fit in. It’s taken me until now in my life to finally drop all the nonsense and finally get to know myself and I’m 25. Now, I know who I am, I can fit in wherever I need to be. It makes life much easier.
Give yourself a break and be kind to yourself. Remember to celebrate yourself and the things you love— Jessie Mei Li
Were your own experiences as a biracial person something you shared with the production team to reflect Alina’s own biracial roots?
Even before I joined the show, Alina’s experience had already been carefully brought to life in the script with the help of the magical Christina Strain, one of our writers. She’s Korean-American and I could immediately see reading the scripts that Alina’s experiences were based on real-life things that Christina had gone through, and more often than not, I just happened to have experienced the same thing.
It was quite overwhelming for me when I first read the scene where Alina implores Genya not to “change her eyes”. There was so much raw honesty there in her panic and that complicated feeling of desperately hanging on to your culture and being proud of your heritage, despite the difficulties you may have faced because of it. The incessant negative comments about Alina’s appearance and questions about her race are also something I have and continue to experience even now, especially on social media … some of the things I’ve read people saying about me are genuinely shocking.
You’re very open about your ADHD especially after you’ve been diagnosed as a young adult, what advice would you give to young adults who are also neurodivergent (ND)?
When I was growing up, I was lead to believe that having a neurodivergent condition was a bad thing because of the way things like ADHD and autism were spoken about in the media—that people who had these conditions had something “wrong with them”. But that's just not the case, at all. We are constantly learning and progressing as a society and it’s wonderful now to see the changes being made as people understand more about what it means to be ND. There is nothing “wrong” with you at all.
Human beings are all different, we all behave and think differently, ND or not. And while the world is set up in a way that benefits neurotypical behaviour, it doesn’t mean you can’t find your place in it. Navigating the world in the way our society expects you to can be a challenge, it can be exhausting masking and stifling your true self all the time in order to sit still and conform. So give yourself a break and be kind to yourself. Remember to celebrate yourself and the things you love. Honestly, most of the interesting, clever and creative people I know are ND, so just be you, you are perfect as you are.
Besides feeling entertained, what’s one thing you wish people would get out of the show?
There are some gorgeous, healthy friendships depicted in the show, specifically the Crows as they learn to trust each other and work together. It’s lovely how different they all are, from a range of backgrounds and cultures but they all accept each other.
Genya and Alina’s friendship felt so real to me and I loved that these two lonely people were able to find solace in each other. Mal and Alina would do anything for each other. I think good friendships are so important in life and often outshone by romance in these things so I hope people can watch the show with their mates and then give them a big hug.
What else can we look forward to from Jessie Mei Li?
I’m not sure at the moment as a few things are up in the air. I’ve really been enjoying just hiding away from the world but I’m hoping to get my teeth into something new and different soon! Just going to see where the wind takes me...
‘Shadow and Bone’ is available to stream on Netflix
(This article was originally published on May 28, 2021 and was updated on August 11, 2021.)