Jessie Mei Li on her casting process for Shadow & Bone and the complexities of being multi-ethnic
Holly White/The Wall Group
“Thrilled” is how Jessie Mei Li comes across the Zoom screen. In the midst of a pandemic, she is absolutely excited about the direction her life is going, and it comes across so wholesomely through the computer monitor. This is because Jessie is doing things. Big things. BIG BUDGET NETFLIX THINGS!
Though Jessie Mei Li is relatively new to the entertainment industry, she has a really exciting project underneath her belt. Shadow and Bone, a fantasy trilogy loved by young adults for over a decade is being adapted by Netflix. This means elaborate sets, rich-detailed costumes, filming across foreign lands, and the right pacing to tell a beloved tale.
Jessie plays the lead as Alina Starkov, an orphan that is elevated to royalty when she discovers that she has the power to summon sunlight. The story is a rich one with many angles, and Jessie will be the first to tell readers that it was an opportunity for her to learn and make new friends. Shooting in Hungary provided a scenic backdrop and experiences that made her and her co-stars lifelong friends.
Jessie shares every moment and recollection she has from filming with wide-eyes and bright smiles, and along the way, she dives into her mixed heritage. Being half-Chinese and half-British meant a few hurdles in Jessie’s acting career, but she persevered. Jessie’s struggles are leading her spirit as she lends her voice and experience to help others.
A lot of British actors seem to have experience in theater. How did the stage kick things off for you?
When I got my agent, one of my first jobs was an audition for All About Eve. I hadn’t had much experience in terms of theater, I did classes here and there, but nothing really substantial. So I just kind of thought, okay, I’ll go along to the audition, and I’ll just have fun. Marilyn Monroe played a part in the film and, you know, look at me, I don’t look like Marilyn Monroe! So, I went along to the audition and just had a good time, played around a bit, and then they gave the role! I was very surprised, and it turns out the director hadn’t seen the film so therefore had no prior ideas of what the characters looked like. So yeah, my first experience with theater was doing All about Eve, and I had a role small enough that wasn’t overwhelming. Getting to see Lily James, Gillian Anderson and Monica Dolan everyday and seeing how hard they work was super inspiring. I love theater, and I wish I could do more, which at the moment is quite tricky, but hopefully, fingers crossed, the new year kicks things back into gear a bit.
After theater, it seems you jumped right into Shadow and Bone. Can you share a bit of what you went through when you learned you got the leading role of Alina Starkov?
I was here at home when I got the call, and I think it was one of those moments when I was very slightly confident that I got the job. In my last round of auditions, they said, “hey, we’ve got a few days to talk things through, but just hold tight.” So, I was just waiting for the call, and thinking, don’t get too excited because it might not happen… and then I got the call and just swore a lot and was very excited. I didn’t really know what to do with myself for the rest of the day.
I think I ended up going to IKEA because I think I just lost my brain a little bit that day. I just wandered around IKEA, not buying anything because I didn’t know what to do—I don’t even like IKEA! I was so excited, and obviously, there were a few months between getting cast and going out and filming, so it was the longest summer of my life, just waiting to go out to Budapest, slowly meeting the rest of the cast and falling in love with them all. It was a strange summer, 2019, of waiting around excitement.
The books have an immense following. Were you able to read a few of the books before filming?
Yeah! During my first audition, I was working in All About Eve at the time. When I turned up to the audition, I had been doing a bit of research in a way and was like, “oh okay, I’ve heard of these books.” I used to be a secondary school teaching assistant before becoming an actor, and some of my students, who were all secondary school age, had read them, so I knew they were a big deal. I remember thinking, “there is no mention of Alina being Asian, that’s cool,” but I really didn’t know much about it. Then, at the end of my first round audition, Suzzane Smith, the casting director, who is amazing by the way, said to me, “have you started reading the books?” I said no, and she said, “read the books,” and so I went and bought them. I’d read them on the train to work, and I could immediately see why they are so popular. I got through the Grisha Trilogy pretty quickly and started on Six of Crows and was just so excited. These characters are amazing, and I remember meeting the cast and being like, “wow, okay you’ve just completely walked off the page.” It was really exciting seeing all of that coming together.
The series has multiple storylines to keep up with, and the cast is very large. Are there any cast members that you have developed a strong friendship with?
This is what I say all the time, and it sounds like it’s not genuine, but honestly, this cast was so amazing. There were the main six of us that went out to Budapest first and had a month of prep, and they couldn’t have gotten together a better group of people who were all completely different yet fit together so well. Genuinely, it sounds trite, but we really became family. We were all super close, and I talk to people from the cast every day. It was a really, really strong bond, and every time someone new joined the cast, especially given the fact that few of the actors were actually Hungary-based and most were coming from different countries, we would go out for dinner and make sure everyone felt really welcomed. I think, you know, if we want to make a good show with all these lovely relationships, we need to make sure everyone felt super comfortable and wanted to be there. So, we were all very welcoming. We have several group chats, and everyone’s really close and supportive. I couldn’t have been happier with the cast. They are my best friends. It’s really embarrassing, but it’s true!
Most of the series was filmed in Hungary, and the set is spectacularly designed. Did you enjoy wearing the period costumes, and living in a fantasy world?
One of the best things about this show was how passionate everyone was. In every department, the amount of excitement and attention to detail was amazing. Wendy, our costume designer, needs so much recognition because this woman made so many costumes, and they are all so detailed, down to the print of the fabric, which you can barely even see in any of the shots. She thought everything through, and I was lucky enough to wear a lot of different costumes. They were all so well made, and each one had so much thought put into it. In the first few weeks, we went to film the army camp scenes, and when you turned up on set, there were always tents, hundreds of extras walking around, animals, and if you go into any of the tents, they were just populated with people, bunk beds, and postcards. You didn’t even really need to act because you were just there. You can just turn up and get into the characters. It was amazing. It really was. When watching the show, I think you can see the world just looks really rich and it looks lived in, and that’s just because everyone working on this show wanted to make something special, and they were able to show off their skills. It was almost a bit overwhelming at times because you turned up on set and were like, “oh wow we are in a different world” but it was very cool.
Shadow and Bone has a load of action. Were there any days that were particularly grueling?
One of my strengths, I’d say, is that I have boundless energy, and I thrive in the kind of environment where there is a lot going on and where there are always people and things to do. I loved the scenes where there were stunts going on and things like that. I think the first thing was a fight sequence. We were in this beautiful woodland in the middle of nowhere and on the first day, Ben and I saw a stag at like five in the morning. It was really cool. There was so much going on, and having to do a couple of little stunt bits was really fun. I loved doing that. That was one of my favorite things: doing stunts and fight scenes—and I wished there were more. I am one of those people where my least favorite thing to do when I am not working is going off into my trailer. So quite often, I would just hang around—probably being really annoying—and just watching everyone else.
Having lived in Hungary for filming, are there any native dishes that you can’t wait to eat again?
Well, actually, my experience of food in Budapest wasn’t great because… I’m vegan, and a lot of the dishes everyone was talking about were very meat-heavy. On set, the word for vegan is vegán, and the word for vegetarian is vega, so there was a lot of confusion all the time. I ended up finding a lot of Vietnamese food—which I loved. It was a shame that I didn’t get to try some of the famous Hungarian dishes, but I heard from my castmates that they were delicious.
Halley Brisker/The Wall Group
Naoko Scintu/The Wall Group
Julia Layton, Kaya Oatley
You have a role in Last Night in Soho, directed by Edgar Wright, of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Baby Driver, and Shaun of the Dead. He is known for creating fantastic worlds. Was there anything that he did in the film to create the mood?
Edgar does such a great job at doing that, because reading the script, I had never seen anything like it, just in terms of the themes and its tone. I haven’t got a huge part in the film. I’ve got a relatively small part playing one of the classmates of the lead character. The way that set works, everything is like clockwork, everyone is so efficient, no time was wasted, and, doing that in the summer right before starting Shadow and Bone was a really great spring broad. I saw what worked on Edgar’s set, and I was like: I am going to take that and bring it to Shadow and Bone. Keep that efficiency, everyone’s attitude on set, the passion, and everything. So, yeah, it was so much fun. Edgar Wright is one of my favorite directors, and I have seen Hot Fuzz… probably more than any film ever, so getting that job was exciting for me. I can’t wait for it to come out!
Last Night in Soho was delayed due to COVID. How did you spend COVID lockdown, and are you able to share some advice?
I spent a lot of time by myself actually, and I think for many, it was a really lonely time. I definitely felt that, but at the same time, I think it was super important to take a step back from everything, you know? We wrapped shooting at the end of February 2020, and then the UK went into lockdown, and it was just from being up here to just, whoosh, suddenly everything was different, and I wasn’t with all my friends in the cast and couldn’t even see my friends from home. My family members work in the NHS, so they were working and being really stressed, so I think it was a really important time to just take it easy, and get to know ourselves and what’s important. I definitely went through a couple of good revelations and epiphanies. But, also, I spent a lot of time talking to friends with the group Zooms and FaceTime calls with family. My poor castmates in Shadow and Bone probably got voice notes from me every day! Just of me rambling on about things I’d seen on my walk. It was a time, and continues to be in lots of ways… a time of reflection, despite all the horrible stuff that has been going on. I think, in my opinion, if we are stuck in lockdown and if there are always atrocious things happening in the world, just give yourself a break and do something nice. Read a book, learn something new because it’s a brilliant time to do that, and talk to your friends about it. I think, make the most of the quiet before everything gets crazy again.
As an actor of Asian descent, there have been multiple instances of Asian hate across the world. Is that something you faced in your acting career in the UK, or has it been a more recent phenomenon limited to the US?
Growing up, I always thought that I wouldn’t be able to be an actor. A friend from school once jokingly said to me that I would never be able to play Elizabeth Bennet, so why would you want to be an actor. And I thought, that’s true… yeah. And then, when I first started going to auditions and open castings, I’d quite often go along for roles with “no ethnicity.” Inevitably, especially some of the lower budget, maybe student films or ones where people are just starting out and starting to learn how to navigate this world, I once had this short film director tell me I was too exotic for their film, which was hilarious and awful. I quite often turn up to things and not be enough of something or be too Asian. Especially being mixed race, you spend so much of your time, not really fitting in anywhere and everyone’s sort of “othering” you, no matter what. You are either the Asian friend or the white family member, so it was weird to get into it. I always thought my ethnicity would hold me back because no one can see a person with the experiences I have. It was tricky starting out, but then, a couple of things came through for mixed-race characters, half Chinese, half English, and I was like, that’s me! But, they sometimes go to full Asian actors, which is great in some ways as well, but it was hard, and I think being mixed is a really confusing thing because you don’t ever see your story being portrayed in a way that feels accurate. There are lots of mixed Asian characters, but it’s never really talked about, you know, what it’s like. After seeing Alina, reading the scripts, and seeing how they actually talk about feelings that I have had as a mixed-race person, I felt emotional when I first read the script. I thought, “wow, this is accurate and this is important,” especially right now as you mentioned, there’s so much Asian hate, and it goes under the radar. I think, especially growing up in the UK, there’s always this sort of weird racism towards Asians. It’s kind of a joke, so you can’t really get annoyed about it… especially growing up in a school in the UK, all the awful accents and jokes about my parents and things, but they are a joke… so it’s fine? So… they are not being racist? That’s what I found a lot with racism towards Asian people in the UK. It’s always a joke, it’s not a big deal, and it’s just harmless. So, I think it’s important to not only see that we have more representation of Asian people on screen, but also to see that this does happen and it’s not a joke. I’m really proud to be a part of something that has representation of all different kinds of people, especially Asian people. That’s really important to me because I’ve had people in my life claim that racism towards Asians isn’t a problem, and… it clearly is, now more than ever.
A cure has been found. It is safe to gather. Better news, the whole world is open for travel. Where is your first stop?
Oooo… I don’t know! There are so many places I’d love to visit…. For a while, I’ve been planning to go to Iceland. I just think it looks so other-worldly and weird. I want to go somewhere and… be away from people! Go for some amazing walks and take some pictures. Yeah, I think I’m going to go to Reykjavík.
Shadow & Bone Now streaming on Netflix
Watch the trailer below: