How Shadow and Bone’s Jessie Mei Li Grounds the Grishaverse

We talked to Jessie Mei Li, the brilliant star at the heart of Shadow and Bone, about where she's come from and where she might be heading.

Jessie Mei Li on the set of Shadow and Bone
Photo: Netflix

If you’ve watched Shadow and Bone, then you’re probably curious about the literal sunshine at its center. Her name is Jessie Mei Li (she/they) and, though she’s a relative newcomer to the world of mainstream entertainment, that seems poised to quickly change. Between Shadow and Bone‘s current status as one of the biggest TV shows on the planet, and Li’s upcoming appearance in Edgar Wright’s psychological horror Last Night in Soho later this year, the 25-year-old British actor is surely at the start of an exciting storytelling career. We had the chance to sit down with Li prior to the release of Shadow and Bone to talk about where she’s come from and where she might be going.

“I really don’t think I’ve considered this show and the fact that people will actually watch it,” Li says, with a laugh, when I talk to her ahead of Shadow and Bone‘s April 23rd global release. “So much of what I’ve done hasn’t come out yet. So I guess the way I’ve been working is just having fun. Then I sort of just follow that, just get really immersed in it.”

Li has to be downplaying the skill and work that went into her warm and grounded performance as Alina Starkov, the orphan-cartographer at the center of Shadow and Bone’s excellent first season. It’s not easy to play a likable “Chosen One,” a character type that is often strapped with all of the angst and none of the fun of a fantasy epic, but Li makes it look like it is. She never makes the mistake of conflating fierceness with apathy, infusing Alina with an emotional intelligence and complexity that is apparent in every scene, whether it involves our protagonist light-heartedly teasing new Grisha friends or fighting for agency over her own body and power after a visceral betrayal

“[The actors] have to infuse the character with truth and the honesty, and they have to be brave,” says Mairzee Almas, who directed Li in episodes 5 and 6 of Shadow and Bone. “Jessie has a huge part in creating this character. Yeah, it’s in a book series and, yeah, here we are, it’s in the script—all of that’s true, but she has to bring her own humanity and her own fear and her own bravery and all of those things to the character.”

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When talking to Li and looking back at her career so far, it’s clear just how much the actor’s bravery and humanity, focused by a joy of acting and a love for people, has driven her path so far. It wasn’t so long ago that Li was studying languages (French and Spanish) at university, unsure of what she wanted to do with the rest of her life, but increasingly sure that it wasn’t uni life. “I always loved playing dress up and doing little scenes and puppet shows and things with my brother and friends growing up,” says Li, who grew up in Surrey to an English mother and a Chinese-born, Hong Kong-raised father, “but I never really thought of it as something that I could actually do as a job.” 

It’s easy to understand why Li grew up without considering acting as a viable career path. While we’re encouraged to think of acting as one of the more egalitarian professions, it exists in an unequal society that privileges certain groups of people above others—and some U.K. actors, like James McAvoy, who do not come from the kind of immense economic privilege as the Benedict Cumberbatches or Tom Hiddlestons of the world, have become increasingly vocal about the class ceiling, while British actors of color, like John Boyega, has spoken about the barriers that exist for BAME actors, even when they’ve been cast in one of the biggest film franchises in the world.

Li, who doesn’t come from an acting family nor from the elite Oxbridge world that churns out a disproportionate amount of the U.K.’s best-known actors, is also multiracial in a majority White industry. She might not have seen a clear path forward for her acting career, but she followed her passion nonetheless. After two years, Li left college before completing her degree and began working as a tutor, a waitress, and then as a teaching assistant. “During that time, I wanted to just do things that I liked doing,” says Li. “And one of those things was doing a bit of acting and then slowly over time, I was like, ‘Oh, this really makes me happy. I can really express myself doing this.’”

Li’s first foray into more formal acting training came in a summer course at the National Youth Theatre, a youth arts charity with a mission of “giving accessible opportunities both onstage and backstage to young people aged 14-25 from all corners of the U.K.” Li wasn’t intending on auditioning, but when the eldest son from a family she used to babysit for went to audition, the family encouraged Li to go along as well. While at the four-week program, Li learned about the Identity School of Acting, a part-time drama school in London “with a mission to disrupt the industry with a new, diverse generation of talent.” In addition to Li, its alums include Boyega, Letitia Wright, Sabrina’s Chance Perdomo, and Hanna’s Áine Rose Daly. For Li, the experience was as much about the relationships she made there as it was the skills honed.

“It was just so nice to meet people,” says Li. “I think that’s what really made me want to do these classes. It was to make friends who were like-minded. I’ve met some real lifelong friends through the National Youth Theater and Identity. So, yeah, it was definitely worthwhile for the relationships I made.”

Li might say the same about her experience working on Shadow and Bone, which filmed in Budapest from October 2019 to February 2020. Suzanne Smith, who did the casting for the Netflix adaptation and whose previous work includes Outlander and Good Omens, brought together a cast that is much more representative of the world than the average TV ensemble. Though the production includes veteran actors like Ben Barnes and Zoe Wanamaker, the vast majority of the series’ stars are younger newcomers, and they are delightful.

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“This is a story about young people who have been overlooked and who’ve never had the chance to show people what they can do, who have all this talent and all of this power,” Shadow and Bone author Leigh Bardugo tells Den of Geek. “So it made a lot of sense in terms of the soul of the books for us to have all these incredibly gifted young people that arrived on our doorstep, like a magical gift in the show.”

It’s also a cast that seems to genuinely love and respect one another, as the many, many seratonin-inducing clips from the Shadow and Bone virtual press junket have made apparent. When speaking about what she is most looking forward to about the show’s release, Li immediately and enthusiastically shines the spotlight on her co-stars, saying: “I think everyone is amazing in this show. I can’t wait for people to fall in love with whichever character is their favorite.” (If you were wondering her favorite characters are Mal and Inej: “I think both of those characters just made me cry.”) This cast are each other’s original #1 fans, and, in an time when Hollywood is getting slightly better at discussing abuses of power on set and in executive offices, it is important to celebrate the shows that prioritize supportive and collaborative work environments as vital to the artistic process.

When I ask showrunner Eric Heisserer if it was a priority to cast good people, he says: “Absolutely. I mean, you can’t always be sure of something like that, but there are certainly flags or behavior patterns that let you know a little bit more about that. And it was vital to me in a show where you’re building long-term relationships to begin with.” Heisserer says it is especially important to cast kind people when working on a (hopefully) long-running TV series versus a feature, which is usually a one-and-done production.

“Here, this is a pretty long-term group monogamous relationship,” says Heisserer. “And I’ve seen on the sets of shows I’ve shadowed on before that one bad apple can really turn the whole place toxic. So it was a careful set of choices here and a not insignificant amount of luck. I count my stars that we found the people that we did because the alchemy here… they’re so good to each other and they’re so good in their hearts.”

This sense of gratitude for the opportunity and experience is reflected in how Li speaks about the project: “I’m so lucky to have had the opportunities I’ve had,” she says, when asked if there has been a point at which she feels like she “made it.” “I know so many actors who are far more talented than I am, who haven’t quite had that break yet. So I do feel really, really blessed to be where I am.”

While it’s not necessary to see this kind of behavior modeled in order to embody it yourself, when Li talks about what she learned from her first “big break” project—a West End production of All About Eve starring Gillian Anderson and Lily James in which she played a small role (as Marilyn Monroe)—she doesn’t speak about the lead actors’ performances but rather their professionalism.

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“They really set the bar for how much hard work goes in,” reflects Li. “Those two and the other cast members worked so hard and must’ve been exhausted and were just really great leaders in terms of bringing everyone together and getting us all cakes and doughnuts once a week and things like that. It was lovely to see these two women at the helm of this cast and how strong they were.”

After early 2019’s All About Eve, Li’s career continued to take off. She got confirmation she had won the lead role in Shadow and Bone just before production began on Last Night in Soho. Li will play the minor role of Lara in Wright’s 1960s London-set period story about (via Deadline) “a young girl [played by Jojo Rabbit‘s Thomasin McKenzie] who is passionate about fashion design, who mysteriously enters the 1960s where she encounters her idol, a dazzling wannabe singer.”

“Reading the script, I was like, ‘I’ve never read anything like this,’” says Li. “And it was such a great experience because I love Edgar Wright. I think I’ve watched Hot Fuzz more than any other film ever. So it was really great to meet him and work with him and see the way his films work. Everyone works so hard and it’s really set the bar. I keep saying that, but then going to do Shadow and Bone, I was like, ‘That’s the level of professionalism I want to bring to our set on Shadow and Bone.'”

While Shadow and Bone Season 2 has yet to be officially announced, the Netflix fantasy series debuted in the streamer’s Top Ten and was met with critical and fan acclaim. We’ll likely be seeing much more of Li’s Alina in the next few years. That’s good news for us and good news for the actor, who genuinely seems to love her character and can’t wait to see what happens next: “I think I’m really excited for us to see how Alina deals with everything,” she says. “It’s kind of how I feel at the moment in terms of: we’ve got this show coming out and now people might know who I am. And I feel like that happens to Alina too.” 

Shadow and Bone is now available to watch on Netflix.