Fresh faces lead the way in Netflix’s Shadow and Bone

MANILA, Philippines — Netflix is premiering on April 23 Shadow and Bone, a live-action series based on Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse fantasy-adventure novels.

Shadow and Bone adapts and combines storylines and characters from Bardugo’s best-selling book series — Shadow and Bone trilogy and the Six of Crows Duology. For those not familiar with these stories, they both happen in the same Grisha universe but on different timelines.

Bardugo said that for the TV series version, showrunner, writer and executive producer Eric Heisserer (Bird Box, Arrival) was able to build something entirely new that stays true to the characters and the heart of the stories.

“We’ve taken the stories of Shadow and Bone and the characters of Six of Crows, and we’ve brought them together in what I think will be a really unexpected way,” the author, who is also credited as an executive producer on the show, said in the production notes.

“And it wasn’t easy! Eric took two fantasy series — with powers and creatures and horror and heists — and molded them into this wonderfully cohesive thing.”

The plot of Netflix’s Shadow and Bone follows Alina Starkov, a young soldier and citizen of the Imperial Russia-inspired Kingdom of Ravka. The story is set in a war-torn world divided by an impenetrable darkness where human flesh-eating creatures abound. Alina unexpectedly unleashes an extraordinary power seen to save her homeland, as well as her childhood best friend Malyen.

However, enemy forces start uniting against her — and it seems only General Kirigan (Ben Barnes), the leader of Ravka’s elite and magical army called Grisha, is willing to help.

Shadow and Bone also introduces the “thieving crew” from Ketterdam (said to be inspired by Dutch Republic-era Amsterdam) — Jesper, Inej and their leader Kaz — in “prequel stories” for the key characters of the Six of Crows books.

Meanwhile, it was very important for the showrunners to find the right actors to embody the characters well-loved by fans of the books.

Shawn Levy, one of the executive producers, described the search process as similar to how he found the lead cast for his other megahit Netflix series Stranger Things. He explained that because they’re presenting this brand-new world, “a big part of that is introducing the audience to characters they’ve never met before.” So besides Ben Barnes — best-known for his Chronicles of Narnia and Dorian Gray films — a cast of young and emerging talents was assembled for Shadow and Bone.

Levy said in a statement: “This was a global search to unearth a cast of fresh faces. Unlike a lot of other fantasy series, we have a true eclecticism in the cultural and racial backgrounds of our characters and actors. We’re really presenting a world that shows us a mixture of backgrounds and cultural diversities in a way that feels both accurate to this world, but also unique in the fantasy genre. That element was really important from the get-go.”

The STAR had an opportunity to meet this cast of fresh faces in a recent virtual roundtable. Here are some of their thoughts about their Shadow and Bone characters.

Jessie Mei Li with Ben Barnes, who stars as General Kirigan, the leader of the magical elite army Grisha

English-Chinese actress Jessie Mei Li (as Alina Starkov, orphan and First Army soldier who has latent power):

“I think, you know, the reason they decided to make Alina half-Shu, half-Ravkan was to give her this real feeling of desperate loneliness and being an outsider because her whole story revolves around ‘Where do I belong?’ (Note: Shu people are from Shu Han, an Asia-inspired nation that Ravka, the country where Alina grew up in, is at war with).

“And as a mixed-race person growing up in the UK, in a predominantly white area, to all my friends at school who are non-Asian, I was always the Asian one and I would be there speaking in really bad Cantonese to impress everyone. And then, when I’d be with my family, my Asian family or friends, I felt very English and I couldn’t speak Cantonese, I couldn’t speak to my grandma.

“You know, that feeling of never truly belonging anywhere is something that has just been so prevalent in my life. And it changes who you are and it changes how you interact with people, and how you come into new situations. So, it was really nice to be able to use that part of me and bring it to this character because that is exactly what Alina is.

“She’s been told her whole life she looks like the enemy. And that’s why she is gentle, wary and suspicious but she’s also, ‘I’m passive, I’m not going to hurt you.’ So bringing that element of her being gentle to the role based on experiences, I really love doing that.”

Archie Renaux as Malyen Oretsev, Alina’s childhood friend and an army tracker

British actor Archie Renaux (as Malyen Oretsev, Alina’s protective best friend and gifted tracker in the First Army):

“I can relate to Mal’s sort of struggle and the odds kind of being against him on a fairly smaller scale. I was a builder and a laborer before I became an actor. So, I guess looking up at that challenge is kind of similar in the sense that the odds aren’t in our favor, because it’s such a hard thing to get into. Obviously, Mal has a much more daunting task ahead of him — going up against some pretty powerful people.”

Freddy Carter as Kaz Brekker, leader of the Crows gang, and Kit Young as Jesper Fahey, the gunslinging Crows member

British actor Freddy Carter (as Kaz Brekker, rising star in the criminal underworld and leader of the Crows gang “with a gift for unlikely schemes and a thirst for vengeance”):

“I don’t think I’m necessarily a natural leader, or a natural sort of bossy person… but we had loads of fun (on set). And because we’re also massive fans of the books, we were all really eager to, you know, do a deep dive on these characters. And we all had sort of, lots of thoughts and opinions about how the dynamics might work.

“Especially when we first got together, we played around with that a lot so that when we got to set, we sort of knew how those dynamics worked, and what we wanted to sort of achieve from each scene. I can’t speak for the others, but for me it sort of slotted in very nicely. We found that rhythm and that dynamic quite quickly.”

Scottish-Ugandan actor Kit Young (as Jesper Fahey, a gambler and gunslinger who “can’t walk away from a wager,” even the riskiest ones with Kaz):

“As much as I think the fandom might think that I am him and he is me, I’m not nearly as brave as Jesper is. I’m also not really a good gunslinger. I can flip them around, but actually hitting the target miles away? Not me.

“But the books were just the greatest resource. And there were lots of brilliant kinds of imagery in other pop culture that I’ve kind of drawn to, whether something that’s definitely swashbuckling but kind of Errol Flynn. We kind of even have these sleeves underneath, the coats that were kind of very swashbuckling-esque.

“And, you know, obviously, the Western influence was the main one. There’s also something about the kind of lovable rogue who’s cheeky and charming — whether that’s a Han Solo or kind of Billy the Kid, or even Woody or Buzz from Toy Story.

“These things come through your head and you go like, oh, there’s some joy and there’s some playfulness there that can be used in a lot of what is quite often dark and tricky scenarios that these characters are facing.”

Amita Suman as Crows member and dangerous spy Inej Ghafa

Nepali-born actress Amita Suman (as Inej Ghafa, a.k.a. the Wraith, a key member of Kaz’s gang and expert spy with a dark past and knife skills):

“I knew nothing (about her Inej’s skills). No one was capable of doing anything that she was capable of. But I said to myself, I love this character so much. I didn’t have strength, I didn’t have stamina, I’ve never really been to the gym before ever in my life, so I took it upon myself to put in as much training as possible, increase my flexibility, increase my strength, gain a bit of muscle, because even though we had the same outer shell, I didn’t have her capabilities at all.

“I didn’t have any specific knife training but I was given 14 knives, and I just kind of played around with them, held them, and did as much as I could in my spare time alongside Kit spinning his guns. And in terms of the preparation for, you know, coming on set and really encapsulating her, I looked at the (French) film Elisa, and how she moved and how she fought. And just everything she did for me was so relatable to Inej. And hopefully, I’ve managed to do that (laughs).”

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