Shadow and Bone star Jessie Mei Li: ‘Fans will protect the books with their lives’

The actor is about to hit TV stardom as a girl with special powers in Netflix’s new fantasy

Shadow and Bone: Jessie Mei Li in the Netflix fantasy

Shadow and Bone: Jessie Mei Li in the Netflix fantasy

 

Jessie Mei Li inhabits a weird stratum of celebrity. At 25 years old, her biggest screen credit was a single episode of the Channel 5 docudrama Banged Up Abroad. She hasn’t worked for a year. And yet, at the same time, a growing portion of the internet has become borderline hysterical about her.

Search for her name and you’ll get the idea. There are tweets declaring things such as “Jessie Mei Li you have my whole heart” and “I believe in Jessie Mei Li supremacy”. There are more than a dozen Jessie Mei Li stan accounts – fan-based accounts dedicated to a particular celebrity – on Instagram, many of them shrieking their obsession in frenzied all-caps captions several times a day. Tumblr, as you might expect, is an almighty mess.

This fanaticism isn’t down to a heretofore unknown passion for Banged Up Abroad. Instead it comes as Li plays the lead in the newly released Netflix adaptation of Leigh Bardugo’s million-selling young-adult fantasy Shadow and Bone, a character who, in terms of inspiring all-out devotion in readers, exists just below Harry Potter.

Going from being me, a bit shy, to suddenly all these people just, like, ‘Oh my God, Jessie, you’re this, you’re that.’ I just think, You don’t know me; I could be horrible for all you know. It is really weird

Speaking over Zoom from Bristol, Li still seems slightly bewildered by this turbocharged acceleration into fame. “These fans are like the best detectives,” she says with a laugh. “They find out everything.” And early, too. According to Li, the internet had figured out that she had won the role long before they were supposed to.

“I had been cast in maybe May 2019,” she says. “At the time I had Twitter and I was following Leigh Bardugo and [showrunner] Eric Heisserer. Suddenly we were getting all these messages on Instagram, where people were saying ‘Are you playing Alina? We’ve seen that you’ve been following this person and your dad’s following this person, what’s going on?’ I was just, like, ‘Oh my Lord, how did they find us?’ We already had stan accounts a good few months before the casting was announced, even though nothing had been confirmed. It was pretty much zero to 60.”

That sounds terrifying. “It’s interesting to be in the middle of that,” she says, nodding. “Just going from being me, a bit shy, to suddenly all these people just, like, ‘Oh my God, Jessie, you’re this, you’re that.’ I just think, You don’t know me; I could be horrible for all you know. But it is really weird. I have to keep remembering that it’s not me they’re interested in, is it?”

Jessie Mei Li: ‘I remember looking at the fan art and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s interesting. She doesn’t seem to be Asian’. Obviously alarm bells do go off a little bit.’ Photograph: David Appleby/Netflix
Jessie Mei Li in Shadow and Bone. Photograph: David Appleby/Netflix

This is something that Li will probably have to get used to. Netflix clearly has high hopes for Shadow and Bone. It’s a big, expensive fantasy epic with an ambitious story and a sprawling cast, like Game of Thrones pitched down a few years. It’s a tricky balance to get right. On one side you have existing fans who, as Li puts it, “will protect the books with their lives”. On the other, you have newcomers who might struggle to find a foothold in its whirlwind of new terminology.

To give an example, Li plays Alina, a half-Shu orphan from Keramzin in the kingdom of Ravka, which is cut off from the rest of the world by the Unsea (sometimes known as the Fold), which is haunted by creatures called Volcra. During one Volcra attack, Alina learns that she is Grisha. I have to confess watching some of the previews with Wikipedia open, just to try to find some context.

We see this whole world through Alina’s eyes, so the series lives or dies by Li’s performance. A lesser actor might have been crushed by the pressure of it all. But Li is able to drag you through the bumps and dips of the show’s soupy mythology with self-assured clarity. She is the perfect woman for the job even though, if you’ve ever seen any Shadow and Bone fan art, she might not be what you had in mind.

I remember looking at the fan art and I was, like, ‘Oh, that’s interesting. She doesn’t seem to be Asian’. Obviously alarm bells do go off a little bit

In the artwork, Alina tends to be a willowy blonde, tall and thin like a Disney princess. Li has an English mother and a Chinese father and was raised in Surrey, just outside London. Before she even auditioned, this disparity between actor and role put her on the back foot. “I remember looking at the fan art and I was, like, ‘Oh, that’s interesting. She doesn’t seem to be Asian,’” she says. “Obviously alarm bells do go off a little bit. Why have you done this? Is this just to tick a box? Is this just for the diversity checklist?”

But she was won around during the audition process. Before Shadow and Bone, Heisserer was probably best known for writing the screenplay for Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival. “That was my favourite film of 2016,” says Li. “And he seemed like a nice guy, so I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. Then my audition was a made-up scene between Alina and her friend Genya where they’re talking about her race. I thought, Okay, they’re doing this right. They’re casting diversely, but they’re not shying away from actually talking about race, which I think sometimes happens where there’s blind casting but nobody changes the character to fit the performer.”

Daisy Head plays Genya Safin, a friend of Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li) in Shadow and Bone. Photograph: David Appleby/Netflix
Shadow and Bone: Daisy Head as Genya Safin and Jessie Mei Li as her friend Alina Starkov. Photograph: David Appleby/Netflix

So the show will differ from the books, but Li doesn’t seem to mind. “I’m pretty confident that people will watch it and they’ll see something probably very different from what they’re expecting,” she says. “But it’s fun. If you want a play-by-play, just read the book again.”

Li hadn’t read the Shadow and Bone books before she auditioned. Nevertheless, she had worked with their exact target market before she became an actor, as a special-educational-needs teaching assistant at a local secondary school.

Initially, Li had chosen to study French and Spanish at Sussex University, but she found herself struggling. “I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I chose it because it was close to home, which is never a good choice,” she says. “I didn’t have a good time at uni. It was very detrimental to my wellbeing. I managed to stay for a year and a half until I decided, you know what, I’m unhappy. So I left.”

Finding herself at a crossroads, Li decided to give education a shot. “I love working with kids, especially neurodivergent children. I know about that stuff,” she says. “I was a teaching assistant for nearly two years, and I absolutely loved it. It was in my home town. I was 19 at the time, and some of my students were 16. I loved it. It was my favourite job ever.”

She pauses, perhaps because she has noticed my eyes narrowing with doubt. “Apart from this job!” she says, laughing. “But it was a close second.”

From there Li auditioned for a National Youth Theatre course, and in 2019 she found herself playing alongside Gillian Anderson and Lily James in All About Eve during its run at the Noël Coward theatre, in the West End of London. Shadow and Bone happened quickly after that, and, in between, she scored a role in Edgar Wright’s upcoming Nicolas Roeg-inspired thriller Last Night in Soho. Is that going to be as scary as everyone says, I ask.

Jessie Mei Li stars as Alina Starkov and Ben Barnes as The Darkling/General Kirigan in Shadow and Bone. Photograph: David Appleby/Netflix
Shadow and Bone: Jessie Mei Li with Ben Barnes as the Darkling/General Kirigan. Photograph: David Appleby/Netflix

“It’s so interesting in tone,” she says. “Reading the script was one thing, but then seeing the trailer that was cut together when I last saw Edgar, I was, like, ‘Whoa, this looks actually quite scary.’ It didn’t necessarily seem so when we were reading the script. It seemed really cool and really exciting, like a thriller. But I’m pretty interested to see how it turns out.”

But when Shadow and Bone comes out, you sense that there will be no looking back. Perhaps realising that the size and scale of her parts will dramatically increase once people have seen what she’s able to do, Li basically took the last year off work to concentrate on herself. After finding it almost impossible to sit still for hair and make-up on the Shadow and Bone set in Budapest, Li used lockdown to seek out an ADHD diagnosis.

People who’ve just been diagnosed go through a grieving period for who they were before. I’d love to be someone they can look at and say that person has been through that

“It completely changed how I viewed loads of things in my life and made me really reconsider the way I think about things,” she says of the diagnosis. “In the past I was constantly late for things and forgetting things and losing things, and I remember as a teenager, my mum being, like, ‘Oh, you just need to be more careful.’ And I’m, like, ‘I am really careful.’ I felt like no one believed me ever.”

Learning that this was a symptom rather than behaviour caused a long period of self-reflection. “People, especially people who’ve just been diagnosed, go through a grieving period for who they were before,” she says. “I’d love to be someone they can look at and say, ‘Okay, that person has been through that as well.’”

But with Shadow and Bone, Li stands on the precipice of stardom. If the show does as well as I think it will, she has the potential to be a household name in barely any time at all. But for now she’s concentrating on the job at hand. “Everyone worked so hard on this, especially Eric,” she says of the show. “I’m just superproud of him, and everyone, they’re all so good. Everything’s so good in it.” She pauses, suddenly aware of her own gushing, and becomes self-conscious for the first time in our chat. “Just look at me. I’m like the biggest fan,” she says, grinning. “I’m the stan account.” – Guardian

Shadow and Bone is available on Netflix

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