Author and Shadow and Bone executive producer Leigh Bardugo wanted to "shed a different kind of light" with the TV adaptation.

By Nick Romano
April 15, 2021 at 02:30 PM EDT
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Shadow and Bone (TV Show)

Of all the changes from the Grishaverse books that comes with Shadow and Bone, including all the weaved-in elements from the Six of Crows novel, the one with the most weight has to do with the main character, Alina Starkov.

Season 1 of the fantasy series, based on Leigh Bardugo's books, introduces her as a low-ranking mapmaker in the king's First Army of Ravka, a fictional Imperial Russia-esque country filled with magic-wielding Grisha. This seemingly ordinary girl discovers an untapped power as a Sun Summoner, a prophesied Grisha with the ability to conjure light and, as legend has it, finally banish The Fold, a massive expanse of impenetrable darkness filled with vicious creatures that has marred the land for hundreds of years.

In the original Shadow and Bone trilogy, Alina was imagined as a fair-skinned woman. As a kid, she's insulted by one of the characters as being "pale and sour, like a glass of milk that's turned." In the show, the character was updated to be half Shu — Shu Han being this world's interpretation of an Asian country — and actress Jessie Mei Li was cast in the role.

SHADOW AND BONE
Jessie Mei Li as Alina in Netflix's 'Shadow and Bone.'
| Credit: Netflix

Shedding new light

This change was one of the first things Bardugo, who executive produces the series, addressed with showrunner Eric Heisserer before a deal was even signed for the Netflix adaptation.

"I'm very proud of Shadow and Bone, but I'm also conscious of its shortcomings," Bardugo tells EW. "I wrote this very white, very straight 'chosen one' story that was rooted in echoes of what I had grown up reading in terms of fantasy, but certainly didn't reflect the world around me or the world that I live in. We knew we wanted to make some changes there, and it made a lot of sense for us to write Alina as half Shu."

Bardugo points to the character's background in the novels, which depict her as an orphan born on the border between Ravka and Shu Han, two warring nations. "It is a myth to think that borders are walls. Borders are porous," she continues. "People fall in love across them. They do business across them."

Heisserer, who previously worked on screenplays for films like Arrival and Bird Box, approached Alina from a different angle but ultimately arrived at the same conclusion.

Christina Strain, a writer friend of Heisserer's, spoke with him about growing up as half Korean and the constant questions she had about identity. "The question at the heart of Alina is, Where do I belong?" Heisserer says. "For me to be able to represent that on the screen more easily, it felt like the right choice."

He hired Strain to work in the writers room because he knew he wasn't the one to "dive into the cultural aspects and a lot of the inner thoughts of Alina." Li also credits Strain for being the "go-to person when talking about Alina." "She was able to have her say and have her experiences be a part of this role," she said.

Li, too, came with her own interpretation of the character. "In the books, she's an outsider. She doesn't really believe that she's important, and she has this drive to prove herself. And she's quite patriotic," the 25-year-old explains. "I feel like what happened with translating that to the screen and then adding this layer of her history and background, it gave new meaning to all of these things that were already there."

Bardugo agrees this character shift would "shed a different kind of light on the story."

"When you have a character who is visibly an outsider, who has been treated shabbily, who has been told repeatedly that she looks like the enemy, to then be thrust into the role of saving a nation that has rejected her on many terms, I think that makes the story much richer and more powerful," the author remarks.

Finding their Sun Summoner

Like the hours before a big test, Li crammed for the Shadow and Bone audition. She listened to the audio versions of the books and tore through the vast Wiki entries on the Grishaverse online to make sure she understood the world she was acting within.

Li secured multiple auditions that week for various projects, but Shadow and Bone jumped out. "I love fantasy," she says. "I grew up being Gandalf [from The Lord of the Rings] with my brother. We'd be doing sword fights in the park with sticks. I'm very much of that generation. I was always Gandalf. I could do the voice and everything. My brother was always Legolas, and I wasn't allowed to be Legolas." She playfully scoffs at the thought. "We all had our characters, me and my cousins and my friends. It was hilarious. But I really was just thinking I haven't done anything like this yet in my sort of short career."

She noticed the production was calling for a "mixed-raced actor," which she found both very cool and somewhat suspect. "I'm intrigued, but I want to know why because sometimes it can be for reasons that I wouldn't have been as happy with." Li, who is half Chinese, later left the audition with a newfound need to land the part. Then, as fate would have it, everything came together rather quickly. She had her second audition a week later, and a few rounds later she was named the show's Alina Starkov.

"I didn't really think of it as different from any other audition until I found out later that they had been doing this worldwide search," Li recalls. "I had no idea about that at first, which is a good thing because I think it would've changed my perception of everything."

The producers searched far and wide for an actress to play Alina through an open casting call. Heisserer recalls watching her audition tape: "I think what was so impressive was she showcased, first and foremost, Alina. She took to that audition scene with wit and sass and vulnerability and fear — all of these elements that were part of Alina at that stage and in that scene."

As is typical of tapes, Li finished by reading out her contact information. Heisserer was struck by how "bubbly and smiling nonstop and a little bouncy and just effervescent" she was in that final moment. "We thought, 'Well, there's the Sun Summoner!' A person who really felt she was made of light."

The producers didn't want to influence Bardugo, even though, he says, they were "already really emotionally committed to Jessie." Fortunately, she was of the same mind.

"I got a call from one of the producers and they said, 'We're going to send you our top five. We have a pick, but we don't want to bias you. So, we're not going to tell you who it is,'" Bardugo remembers. "I open up my laptop and I start watching. I get to the third reading and it's Jessie. I shut my laptop and I picked up the phone. I said, 'If it's not Jessie, I'm not interested. So, it'd better be her.' Luckily, it was because that would have been an incredibly awkward conversation after that."

Shadow and Bone
Ben Barnes and Jessie Mei Li in 'Shadow and Bone.'
| Credit: NETFLIX

A harsh reality

Shadow and Bone premieres on Netflix this April 23 at a time when conversations about racism remain at the forefront of culture. Violent hate crimes towards Asian people in America and around the world have been linked to harmful rhetoric around the COVID-19 pandemic. Former President Donald Trump routinely referred to it as "the China virus" or "Wuhan flu." In the face of brewing hatred, entertainment industries have been forced to reckon with how creators have depicted Asian people across pop culture.

The themes addressed in Shadow and Bone now feel even more resonant to Li.

"Racism towards Asian people has always been very prevalent, and it's something that I've experienced a lot of in my life," Li says. "Not even in a way that's been truly detrimental, but it's been a reality that has followed me."

The actress grew up in a predominantly white area in the U.K., where she says the racism towards South Asians and East Asians was "overt" and done "with this mocking 'I'm only joking' kind of air." "My own father, as a Chinese man, makes jokes about being Chinese before anyone else can," she notes. It would be the "horrible eye-pulling and racist accents" she would hear, even from some of her best friends.

"It definitely affected me in lots of ways. It made me feel more detached from my heritage because I almost didn't feel like I could be offended because I'm half white," she explains. "Then to my non Asian friends, I would be so Asian. And then to my Asian friends, I was the everyone has to translate for."

"I really wish we didn't have this question. I really wish we didn't have this spike in anti-Asian sentiment and violence," Heisserer reflects. "It's heartbreaking and gut-wrenching. I don't ever know what to think about timing in the moment. Arrival came out four days after the election in 2016. That felt both precipitous and ominous at the same time. People tend to consume with their trauma and their hurt front and center. My hope is that we can alleviate some of that by showing a character that I think Jessie portrayed quite eloquently and lovely, and was voiced by a team of people including mixed-Asian creative members."

"If watching these actors in these adventures can be some small part of a better approach to storytelling and to the way that we treat each other, I would be grateful," Bardugo says. "But I certainly think that there's just much more fundamental change that has to happen in what we know and understand about each other."

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