Ben Barnes untangles the complexity of General Kirigan on Shadow and Bone
Ben Barnes is no stranger to fantasy. As Prince Caspian in The Chronicles of Narnia, Tom Ward in Seventh Son, and a young Dunstan Thorn in the Neil Gaiman-inspired Stardust, he's comfortable in vast imagined worlds with deep mythologies. And still Shadow and Bone with its land of Ravka felt unique.
"You have something like Game of Thrones, which is about the politics of power and leadership. That's what the show is about above all else," the actor, 39, tells EW. "Then this show, above all else, is about a sense of identity. No matter where we come from, where is it that we belong? That to me is a really wonderful thing for a story."
More than that, every character in Shadow and Bone, he adds, feels dense with "all these themes running through." That includes General Kirigan.
Based on Leigh Bardugo's series of Grishaverse novels, Netflix's new eight-episode series, premiering this Friday, takes viewers to the country of Ravka, which is more Imperial Russia than Medieval England. It's a land marred by the Fold, a massive plot of land plunged into impenetrable darkness and that contains vicious monsters called volcra who attack anything entering their domain. Ravka is also a land of Grisha, this world's version of magic wielders who can manipulate matter at its most fundamental level.
As Kirigan, Barnes plays a Shadow Summoner, the same kind of Grisha with the power to harness darkness that created the Fold hundreds of years ago. Despite a stigma that comes with that, he now holds a high rank in court as leader of the Ravkan king's Grisha army.
"You feel like he understands his place in the world at the top," Barnes muses on how Bardugo, an executive producer on the show, conceived the character with showrunner Eric Heisserer, the screenwriter of Arrival and Bird Box. "You understand that, whilst he has this enigmatic, mysterious quality, he has this grace about him and a coldness. People revere him and some people fear him and all of the things that is on the outside."
While Bardugo and Heisserer updated the material for the screen, sometimes in plainly noticeable ways, the main gist of the core trilogy carries over. Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li), a seemingly ordinary mapmaker in the king's First Army of non-magic users, boards a skiff with her troupe to cross the Fold when they are attacked by volcra. The moment triggers her latent Grisha powers and she's revealed to be a Sun Summoner, a foretold saint with the power to conjure sunlight who is prophesied to banish the Fold forever. The revelation puts her on Kirigan's radar, who takes immediate action and has her transported to the king's palace to begin her training as a Grisha.
In his discussions with Heisserer, Barnes crafted a Kirigan who's "a little less vampiric and a bit more of Maximus from Gladiator" than he is in the books "in that he's always got spurs on his boots and he's ready to get out in the field and lead.
This doesn't mean Kirigan is now the hero of this story. Barnes is adamant that he's 100-percent not. (Those with knowledge of the books have a deeper understanding of this aspect of his nature.) But he doesn't see him as a villain.
"I think an antagonist has an agenda that they believe in wholeheartedly. If you really sit down and listen, you can understand it in some way," he explains. "Like Killmonger [from 2018's Black Panther]. You can understand what they're trying to achieve. A villain knows they're evil. A villain knows that they are behaving in this nefarious way with malicious intent."
Other influences Barnes pulled from range from Hannibal Lector in Silence of the Lambs ("that stillness and intrigue and mystery of him") to Rochester in Jane Eyre ("a coldness to him but there's a romantic in him").
With Kirigan, "I think he knows that he used to be better than this," Barnes continues. "I think he knows he's being manipulative on some level, but I also think he's confused about it because he is starting to feel something for this special person that's in front of him igniting this love." Alina's arrival into Kirigan's story, he notes, creates this sense of "fragility in him again" and "a little bit of vulnerability."
Bardugo has difficulty imagining anyone else in the role of Kirigan. "I think that in the hands of a lesser actor, General Kerigan could have devolved into cartoon," she says. "Ben brings this tremendous humanity to a character."
Bardugo and Barnes remained close throughout the production. He would send texts updating her throughout filming on what they were shooting and ways to shape the character. It was a similar relationship between actor and author Barnes had when working on the 2010 stage play Birdsong in London's West End, and on the 2011 film Killing Bono.
He would sometimes "mention a particular line of dialogue that he really wanted to bring into a scene," Bardugo recalls. Barnes, in fact, had curated a list of quotes Kirigan utters in the novels that he hoped to incorporate into the show, some of which weren't necessarily in the script but he managed to "sandwich" into scenes. "Leigh was just wonderful at writing dialogue and there were these great, juicy lines which I thought would be great to find a place for," he says.
Barnes felt the cast and crew were a "supportive group in general" when it came to aspects like that. The enthusiasm, especially from the younger cast, reminded him of his younger self joining the Narnia films years ago. "I know what it feels like to feel like your first big thing is coming out, and I really want it to just be something that people love," he says. "They work so hard and so passionately on it, and they care about it so much that I just want to really punch it up."
When it comes to Kirigan, that sometimes includes actual punches.
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