Jessie Mei Li’s mixed race identity has key role in biggest break yet

MANILA, Philippines — British-Chinese actress Jessie Mei Li is currently figuring in “faces to watch out for” lists.

No surprise there, given her breakout lead role in one of the biggest TV shows today, Shadow and Bone, now streaming on Netflix.

Based on Leigh Bardugo’s worldwide bestselling Grishaverse novels, Shadow and Bone finds us in a war-torn world where a lowly soldier and orphan Alina Starkov (Jessie) has just unleashed her extraordinary power of summoning the sun. Her gift is seen as the key to freeing her country Ravka from the Shadow Fold, a region of darkness with flying monsters that feast on human flesh, which led to a divided nation. The series follows Alina being trained with the elite army of magical soldiers and struggling to hone her power to its full potential while dark and dangerous forces are at play.

Like Alina, Jessie is thrust with a huge responsibility — playing the lead character.

Bardugo, who’s also one of the show’s executive producers, recalled the story of casting the newcomer.

“Jessie is pure sunshine, so it is perfect that she’s playing a character who can summon the sun. When we were casting Alina, they sent me five audition tapes, and I got to the third one and it was Jessie. I stopped watching and I called one of our producers and I said, ‘It better be Jessie because I’m not going to watch anybody else.’ I think for a long time culture was showing us that fantasy and magic and power and transformation and adventure belong to one kind of person, and that was a straight, able-bodied, white man. And I think we’ve seen a change in that. And I hope that Shadow and Bone can be a part of that change. I hope that we can build a fantasy world that welcomes everyone to this story.”

During a recent virtual presscon with select press, including The STAR, it was inevitable that Jessie got asked how much pressure she was feeling being the heart and sunshine of the story.

Jessie with fellow British actor Archie Renaux, who plays the former soldier and gifted tracker Malyen Oretsev who is also Alina’s protective childhood bestfriend.

“I think I was mainly just very excited. And because of the nature of the show, you know it’s an adaptation and it’s different from the books in lots of ways, I think it takes all the wonderful things that Leigh created and just adds to it. So, I felt that I had a lot of leeway in terms of who Alina was going to end up being. I felt very much like I was encouraged to bring part of who I am and bring it to that character.”

Jessie noted how in the adaptation, the showrunners made the decision to make Alina half-Ravkan and half-Shu, the latter referring to people from Shu Han, an Asian-inspired nation that Ravka, the Tsarist Russia-inspired country where Alina grew up in, is at war with.

As someone of mixed race, Jessie said she can so relate to Alina and her issues about identity and belonging.

“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?’ 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,” she recalled.

“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,” she added.

The actress behind the scenes with Ben Barnes, who plays General Kirigan (a.k.a. The Darkling) who takes an interest in Alina.
Photos courtesy of Netflix

The biggest challenge though for her was being able to feel immersed in the fact that while Alina spends most of her life in peril, she hasn’t lost her lightness and humor.

“She is in danger and she’s frightened but (that I) also still give her, you know, a sense of humor, even if she’s not always being hilarious. That was probably one of the things that was really important. I wanted to make sure we could see that she’s laughing at the world, even though she’s having such a difficult time.”

Meanwhile, Jessie loves that Shadow and Bone boasts of strong female characters.

“I just love all the female characters in this show. You know, they’re not strong. They are strong, like they are actually the kind of people, the kind of women that I know in my life who have flaws and have fears, wants and needs. They’re just well-rounded and I think it’s so important that we see more well-rounded, independent, funny, female characters because it’s representative. That’s what women are and so often, in lots of shows, they end up being objectified or just two-dimensional. I think, why I really do love this show is for the fact that not everyone looks beautiful. They do but they’re not made, you know, people have mud on their face and no makeup on. I think that’s all really important in terms of just for women generally and for everyone to see what a real woman is like.”



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