We’re just a week away from the launch of Netflix’s Shadow and Bone, which is based on Leigh Bardugo’s best-selling Shadow and Bone and Six of Crows books. If you haven’t read them, I highly recommend them, whether you read them before or after you watch the show. In conjunction with this exciting event, I’ve had the opportunity to interview the main cast members as well as Leigh Bardugo (author) and Eric Heisserer (showrunner), alongside other SEA journalists. Here’s what they have to say about the show!
Based on Leigh Bardugo’s worldwide bestselling Grishaverse novels, Shadow and Bone finds us in a war-torn world where lowly soldier and orphan Alina Starkov has just unleashed an extraordinary power that could be the key to setting her country free. With the monstrous threat of the Shadow Fold looming, Alina is torn from everything she knows to train as part of an elite army of magical soldiers known as Grisha. But as she struggles to hone her power, she finds that allies and enemies can be one and the same and that nothing in this lavish world is what it seems. There are dangerous forces at play, including a crew of charismatic criminals, and it will take more than magic to survive.
Showrunner / Executive Producer / Writer: Eric Heisserer
Author and Executive Producer: Leigh Bardugo
Cast: Jessie Mei Li (Alina Starkov), Archie Renaux (Malyen Oretsev), Freddy Carter (Kaz Brekker), Amita Suman (Inej), Kit Young (Jesper Fahey), Ben Barnes (General Kirigan)
Interviews were conducted in pairs (Jessie and Archie; Leigh and Eric), as a trio (Freddy, Amita and Kit), and solo (Ben Barnes).
Q for Freddy, Amita & Kit: I was wondering what you like the most about your roles; can you share with us more about your relationship between these three characters?
Kit: Well… I think you nailed it on the head! I think, at least, my favourite thing about them is their relationships. The relationships between them all is something, the thing that is at the heart of both the books and what was best; the most useful thing for us in the acting of the scene was our dynamics with each other, whether that’s different pairings or all three of us. Um, how Kaz and Inej kind of relate to each other versus how Inej and Jesper do, or Kaz and Jesper… that’s where the drama kind of comes, I think. That’s where it’s really, really interesting, and also fun!
Amita: Mmhmm. And I think theirs is a really wonderful chosen theme of family between the three of them as well, because they’re not blood-related, but they confide in one another, they trust one another, and they’ve built loyalties to one another as well.
Freddy: Yeah. Kit and Amita are both right. That sort of lovely stuff, but we also get to go on fun missions, and blow stuff up, and do fun stuff like that.
*laughs and noises of agreement*
Q for Ben Barnes: What is something that you love about playing your character as General Kirigan? Was it challenging playing him?
Ben: It was actually challenging in some ways, I think. He’s a very dark and brooding, mysterious, powerful character on the surface, but for me, navigating that line to keep him mysterious and to keep him human; to find the humanity in him, to find where is it if he is powerful that he can be vulnerable; where is it if he seems cold and elusive, he could be warm; where could he be confused, where can he be all of these human things that all of us feel rather than just keep him as a sort of, something, that exists only in Alina’s mind as kind of alluring and threatening. And so, yeah, there was a difficult sort of grey area to navigate, and some interesting themes which kind of cropped up in the context of navigating that grey zone. But it pleases me to play complex characters who have ambiguity to them because I think people are—we’re all a bit messy.
Q for Archie: I wonder if any part of your character, Mal, is similar to who you are in real life?
Archie: Yeah, I think we’ve both got a good heart, you know. I think Mal’s determination… I kind of have to an extent, because him having to go up against the odds; these powerful people in the Grishaverse, similarly to myself starting out as a builder—it was one of my first jobs—then transitioning from building and construction into acting; it’s similar because the odds weren’t really in our favour, and I guess it seemed quite far away. I guess there were similarities; I think he’s probably a lot braver than I am. I don’t think I’m above the Shadow Fold; I’d run away and hide. I don’t like the monsters in there, no Volcra, please.
Q for Ben Barnes: Did you do any special preparation to play your role as General Kirigan?
Ben: I mean, the books were my Bible while we were filming. I had a list of lines the Darkling says in the stories that I wanted to try and get in the show because I thought they were such great lines of dialogue to say, and sometimes when we’re doing the scenes especially with Jessie, there would be moments where I didn’t really feel like we were exploring all the themes necessarily of the world, and we would find one of these lines which perfectly fit in to those little moments where we could go back to the books and remember the stories we’re telling.
The costuming is always a huge part of character building for me. With Wendy Partridge who designed the costumes brilliantly, she put me in this leather sort of smock underneath with these metal buttons which all had my symbol all the way up through the front, and it would make you stand very tall and very straight, and then these very heavy clothes would kind of weight you down into the world and give you that kind of gravitas, and so I think that you’re straight up and noble but also weighted into the earth and you suddenly have more of the character; you feel more like the character as you go. So I think there were lots of little things like that. And then I watched some movies and stuff with some very sort of still, manipulative characters that I thought were interesting, to kind of draw from, but mainly I just went with my instincts from the books.
Q for Amita: The character of Inej Ghafa: how do you handle that character? What were the complexities of that character? What were the preparations did you do for the role, and were there any challenges to it?
Amita: That’s such a great question! When I read the books, I instantly fell in love with who she is, and what she’s capable of. And for me, what I admired the most about her aside from her set of skills and her uniqueness of having fourteen knives is her commitment to her Crows, and how she demands respect, honesty, and equality. She kind of walks away when she doesn’t get those.
In terms of preparation, I knew that she’s such a beloved character, and me being a fan of Inej, I really empathise with the big fans and the readers in how they felt and all the things they loved about her as well. But when I got the part, I knew, physically, I wasn’t capable of what she was capable of. You know, I didn’t have stamina—I just wasn’t fit. I got out of breath taking the shopping bags home. So I said to myself, I cannot do this if I cannot, you know, do a pull-up, and run for a certain amount of time, and do at least one cartwheel. *laughs* So I went to the gym a lot, I trained a lot, and I got special training in acrobatic and circus training, because she does silks in the show. In my first session, I couldn’t even hold myself on the silks. I couldn’t do any of the stuff, and luckily by the time we came to filming it, I could do a short routine.
In terms for the character, I always like to start off with the smell of a character because smell just reminds me of so many memories, and evokes a lot of feelings. So I spoke to Leigh Bardugo, and I said I know Inej doesn’t have a scent because she’s so undetectable and stealthy, but what was a smell that reminds Inej of her past? Because her past ultimately—you know, her traumas and her family—makes her who she is. So I found something and before going on set or the beginning of every day, I sprayed it, and I just kind of put my mind into what that smell did to me internally, and that helped me get in character.
In terms of the personality of the character, I didn’t really find anyone else, not that I was looking for an influence anyway, because the books are so rich with information on exactly who she is, and Leigh Bardugo wrote—for me, anyway—my favourite character ever. So, for me, it was just about doing the research and discovering why she makes those choices, and what it does to her, and how she overcomes the challenges that she has faced. There were a couple of things I related to within Inej, because she was forced into an entirely different world in a predominantly white city, and I’ve gotten through an experience like that. I was born in Nepal, and came to the UK at a very young age. I didn’t know anything apart from organic living and growing your own food, and using candlelight as a light source, and using fire to cook your food. And coming to such an advanced, futuristic city where everyone is white, and I’m so different. So I understood what she was going through in terms of that.
Q for Ben Barnes: What was your first impression of General Kirigan, and were there any quirks or mannerisms that you added in to make the character come alive without being explicitly described or instructed?
Ben: Mm, interesting. There were lots of things, little things, that presented themselves along the way. I think that the character is a little more vampiric in the books, he’s sort of pale and indoorsy, you know; he kind of lives in a cave like a bat. And I think, we wanted to make him a little bit of a real-life general of an army that is at war, for real, in the field. So somewhere between a vampire and Maximus from Gladiator, you know. And so I insisted we have spurs; he wears spurs on his leather boots in every scene, no matter where he is. Even if he’s standing in front of the king, he’s still ready to go at all times, and he’s not particularly pale. He’s sort of blanched by the sun, because he’s a bit more rugged, I think, than the character in the books is, who’s quite a little bit more graceful. But he still has poise and experience, and he still has that sort of power and magnitude in the world, so there’s lots of little details like that which I was keen to express.
The way he moves his hands was obviously going to be very important particularly with the Grisha having to touch hands to use the Small Science, so it’s very important he be very deliberate with his hands. So little things like that, and the ring that we chose, that has this blade and black gemstone, which obviously makes you keep your hands a certain way because it was quite sharp. But I think all of those little things, they add to the life to the character as you just sort of discover him.
Q for Ben Barnes: So for a lot of us, we first knew you from The Chronicles of Narnia as Prince Caspian, showing the age here…
Ben: That’s showing my age too, so stop it!
Interviewer: *chokes on laughter* sorry! So in that series, we’re seeing somebody who is still trying to figure out where he belongs, while General Kirigan’s character on the other hand is very passionate, and is very sure of his agenda in the series. So in some ways, they both are sort of representations of viewers’ characters, like how we grew into that position as well. How did you tap into the human or relatable side of the characters you played especially for General Kirigan?
Ben: You know I think what’s interesting is when I worked with Archie before, on a different show in the BBC, he asked me to go and help teach a class at his acting school. And the thing that I wanted to express there is no matter what is said about the character, you should always think about what the exact opposite is, because we’ve all got everything in all of us. Even if you’re powerful, sometimes you’re weak. Even if you’re smart, sometimes you’re stupid. And even if you’re loving, sometimes you’re unkind. All of us are all of these things, sometimes. You can’t understand the light without the dark. So for me, when I get a character description like Kirigan, who is sort of cold and powerful and essential manipulative and feared and all of these things, I ask myself how is he vulnerable and how is he confused and how is he susceptible, and where is there room for him to be different?
And I think, again, little things in the costume—it says he dresses all in black, but Wendy and I discussed putting a little bit of colour just on the inside of his collar; on the inside of the throat where it’s sort of this dark red blood colour in this very intimate place to show that there is a kernel of humanity still in this man, and I think the tension comes from watching someone survive, and from watching someone once struggle, and even if you’re a man like him who knows what he wants and how to get there, and he’s experienced and he thinks he’s better than everyone else, or knows better than everyone else, I should say; can he be wrong? Can he be all of those other things? So when I’m painting the character, I want to use all the colours in the paint tray, not just the black, and the grey.
Q for Jessie & Archie: Can we talk about Mal and Alina’s relationship dynamics? I’m not sure if you guys know, but the fans always have a big discourse about shipping Alina with Mal, or the Darkling. So what’s your take on that; can we talk about your relationship, and maybe a bit about Alina’s relationship with The Darkling, especially when she was in the Little Palace?
Jessie: Yeah, I love Alina and Mal as a relationship, generally. It’s such an interesting one, and it was such a joy playing it with Archie. In order for the audience to believe in them, you really needed to see how close they are, which, like I said, doing this with Archie was just amazing.
Archie: Aw, thanks!
Jessie: I think we were able to show so much. Archie was able to show so much vulnerability, and that kind of closeness you have with someone—with your best friend, or your sibling—you can sit with in silence and be simply comfortable, and I think me and Archie were able to have that dynamic really easily. And I think it’s also a really healthy relationship: it’s two people who really look out for each other, and really, really care about each other, and would do anything for each other. Archie, you continue.
Archie: Yeah, I think you covered our bit really well, and then we talked about The Darkling’s relationship with Alina: it’s just one of those things that overall creates an interesting dynamic to the story, but also it’s understandable because we’re talking about a young character here, that is still finding out about herself, discovering this super rare power, and then being thrown in the deep end right in front of the most powerful Grisha that’s ever lived. It’s only natural to be inquisitive and curious, so… both of the relationships worked and made sense to why it’s even happening.
Jessie: Yeah, I think Alina, for her, where Mal is, all that is good and strong; determination and loyalty—there’s half of Alina that is that, the part of her that Mal appeals to, but there’s a darkness to Alina; a bit more of a weakness to Alina, actually, that craves attention and power and wants to be loved and needs to belong somewhere, which she sees in the Darkling. It’s really nice to be able to explore both these sides of this character through these relationships. I think ultimately, for me, I want Alina to be happy, I want her to feel held and looked after, and Mal definitely does that for Alina.
Q for Leigh: Leigh, since you created the story itself, is there a specific character you’re attached to the most, and why is that?
Leigh: *laughs* The real magic for me was watching these characters interact, and it was something that I just never anticipated, like getting to see Jesper and Kaz and Inej all conspiring together, and getting to see the tension between Mal and Alina and Kirigan. Those were things that were so unexpected, so I can’t pull apart which character in the show would be my favourite.
Can’t get enough? Another interview article awaits you here, where they talk about the show and working on the project itself!