Shadow and Bone is Jessie Mei Li’s first major role, but you wouldn’t know it from watching the show. The 25-year-old actress navigates her role as "The Chosen One" Alina Starkov with grace, humility, and really great hair throughout.
The show finished filming at the end of February 2020, right before the pandemic hit. Li recalls being on a plane returning to her home in the U.K. from Budapest and seeing everyone in masks. "It was a big reality check for sure," Li says. "I was in such a bubble at the time when we were filming, and I wasn't even really aware what was going on. It was also really strange coming back down from this immense high and suddenly just being alone and stuck indoors."
Well, the outdoors are opening up again across the pond, and that high is returning. When we chat, Li just reunited with her Shadow and Bone cast members after six months apart. "It’s nice to have a bit of normality again," she says. At the time we spoke, the Netflix series had yet to hit everyone’s queues. "I'm just trying to get used to the idea that people will actually be watching it, and it's not going to be this secret thing anymore," she tells me. "I'm quite nervous at the prospect, but I'm also really excited because I'm so proud of it, and we had such a good time filming it."
Ahead, Li talks about playing Alina, her favorite vegan junk food, and her self-care ritual.
What initially drew you to the role of Alina? Was there anything about her character that spoke to you in particular?
I remember the character brief they’d written for Alina was really in-depth. It talked about how she was a survivor, and she was going to have great observational skills because she's had to watch her back constantly, and she's an avid reader. It had so much information about this character, and I just thought she seemed like a really interesting person. On top of that, this well-rounded character they were describing was going to be in a fantasy story, so it just ticked loads of boxes for me. I want to play characters that are interesting, well-rounded, and well-written. But I also want them to feel really real and not just characters in a way.
Had you read the Shadow and Bone books ahead of time?
I hadn't. I knew that they were popular, but they were a bit after my time. When the first one came out, I was in college, and I had moved past reading the fantasy YA stuff. But before getting into acting, I worked as a teaching assistant in a secondary school, and I knew that the books were very popular with lots of my students. So I knew a bit about the story, but I did go into the audition having not read the books and just having to do a deep dive on like Wikipedia or whatever just to get an idea of this world. It wasn't until after the first audition that I went out and bought the first book and just binged it basically.
In the series, they made Alina half-Shu, and you mentioned in an interview once that you never get to play mixed-race characters. It's always one or the other. What was it like to play Alina? Was that aspect of her character important to you in taking on the role?
Yeah, definitely. It was nice because whenever race is specified in the casting brief, I like to think why. What is it about making this character mixed-race, Asian, or whatever? What's the reason behind it if it's not apparent? I never really want to do anything that's purely for diversity’s sake. I was hoping that there would be more to it than that, and there was immediately from the first audition. In the audition slides that they sent, Alina talked about her Shu heritage and her eyes, and I was thinking, "Okay, great. They’re not just casting a look and a face for diversity points. They’re actually weaving this into the story." And it's important for the character quite clearly because it's the first audition.
It was clear that they wanted a backstory to really affect how she is in the story. And I got that. I understood how, if this character has spent her whole life feeling othered, how that's going to affect her. She's not going to be as sassy and as feisty as she is in the book. She's going to be gentler. She can't get herself into too much trouble because she gets into trouble anyway, just from the way that she looks. So it was really interesting having that backstory and drawing on my own experiences to understand how she is going to be different because of this change and how it's important that we acknowledge it. It's important that we see how she's being ostracized for the character and the story as a whole. I just thought it was interesting to have that in this fantasy setting.
The series is particularly pertinent now, given the rise in hate crimes against the Asian community. How does it feel to be a part of a series like this at this moment in time?
Racism towards Asians has always been a problem. Obviously with the rise of it recently I'm glad to be in this job at this time. I think so much hate comes from ignorance and comes from not knowing about someone or something or a particular culture. And it may sound reductive, but sometimes even just watching a show where the characters are diverse, and you get to know them kind of humanizes that group. If someone doesn't have a good idea of what a particular group of people is like and doesn't know anyone in their real life, the only way to find out is through the media we consume. With a character like Alina, the audience is meant to sympathize with her, relate to her, see her struggling, see her become powerful, and see her laughing and smiling at the same time. She really does feel like a real person. I think the first step towards getting people to be more understanding of each other is to see that other groups are humans too.
I'm really proud that this cast is so diverse, and while the diversity is important for the characters and it's important for the world, it does raise some questions and hopefully get people talking about things. At the same time, it does just feel incidental. These characters just happened to be these things. That's what I really liked about it. It’s not a huge song and dance made out of these things.
I'm going to pivot a little to a bit of a lighter topic. I notice that you don't post on Instagram often, but you mentioned you're a fan of vegan junk food in one post. What are some of your favorite snacks?
Oh, I'm a sucker for anything. My friends and family laugh because I have such an addiction to potatoes. English fish and chip shop chips are like my absolute favorite thing, and they’re on any high street in the U.K. But I’ve recently discovered that there are many places, especially in London, that do vegan donuts. I'm a huge, huge fan.
Do your vegan eating habits translate into your beauty products also? Is using "clean" or vegan products something important to you?
Definitely. I go for the natural, vegan options when I can. I’m also very passionate about sustainability, and I found some really great places that have sustainable skincare and things that don't come in plastic bottles. I feel like a few years ago when I first started out being vegan, I found it difficult to find things, whereas now it’s just everywhere. People are changing the way they package makeup and beauty products as well, which is really exciting.
Do you love any particular brands right now?
I received some Lush makeup as a gift from a friend, and I'm getting on very well with it, and it was all plastic-free, which we love.
What’s your usual skincare routine?
I use Pai’s Cleansing Oil ($49)—especially at the end of the day and especially wearing makeup—and then I just do a regular cleanse with Lush’s Angels on Bare Skin ($17). I'm currently using a CBD oil from Bybi, which is great. It's been helping when my skin's a bit sensitive. It’s nice for that. I usually put on the CBD oil at night wake up feeling very glowy. And then I always wearPai’s British Summer Time Sunscreen ($49) if I’m going anywhere.
What about makeup? Do you have an everyday look at all?
I’m quite minimal. I don't actually wear makeup that often because I think it's nice to be able to have a special occasion where I can put makeup on and feel like I'm going out. But I often will just go for a bit of eyelashes and a bit of Eminence Citrus Lip Balm ($24). I love makeup so much. It's so much fun, but I do think everyone looks so beautiful without it as well. So I try to give my skin a rest. I think she appreciates that.
Are there any self-care rituals that you've picked up in the past year?
A nice long walk by yourself if there are beautiful green spaces around, that's brilliant. You can listen to a podcast or just listen to the sounds going on. I think it's really grounding. I love being around people, I love chatting to friends, but I think having that time to be with yourself and be with your thoughts and get a bit of exercise is just brilliant. I try and go for a long walk every day if I've got time, and it always makes me feel ready for the day. Or in the evening, it makes me feel ready for bed. Just work out all of your pent-up energy.
I know that there is some fighting in Shadow and Bone. You don’t do a lot of it, but did you have to train or work out for the role?
It’s quite funny because lots of the cast had quite intense gym routines. I like going to the gym, and I asked if I could go a few times with them to meet the personal trainers working with everyone, but actually, I didn't have a huge amount of training. The stunt sequences that I had as Alina were fairly pared-back, and they didn't call for a lot of difficult moves. I have a background in martial arts. I did it growing up and through my teenage years, so I had a vague understanding of how to throw a punch. I did a bit of training, but not as much as some of my castmates who had these insane stunt routines.
Oh, interesting. Do you still keep up with your martial arts training, or are you too busy?
Well, since the pandemic, it's been hard, but I do try and keep up with my stretches and with my routines. It's always a thing when my brother comes home and whenever we see each other. We often just have a bit of a play fight. He's much better than me and can always take me down.
I’d really like to do more stunt work which is obviously different from actual self-defense martial arts. I just have so much admiration for the stunt performers that we had. They were amazing and really inspiring.
Some people have experimented with their beauty looks during the pandemic. Have you made any major changes?
I did decide to sort of chop my hair off midway through the pandemic. I didn't go too short because I felt like I probably would get in trouble with someone, considering the line of work I'm in. I am quite experimental with beauty anyway. I love using lots of color and things, and when I do put on makeup, I will often go for something a little bit out there.
What’s inspiring you lately? How are you keeping your creativity flowing?
I've been getting into more music that I wouldn't necessarily have listened to before. You find yourself sometimes on a Spotify deep dive where you end up listening to a genre you'd never listened to, and that's been really interesting for me. I’ve been thinking as well that I'd love to pick up an instrument. As a child, I started learning the cello but then gave up because it was quite expensive. So maybe now is the prime time to pick up the cello and learn it. Although I'm sure my neighbors wouldn't be very happy [laughs].
What’s next for you?
Wow, who knows? At the moment, I can't even really see past the show coming out. It feels like this enormous wave that's about to come crashing down. But I've got a couple of auditions at the moment and things I'm interested in, so watch this space. Fingers crossed.