Shadow and Bone’s Jessie Mei Li Has Already Found Her Inner Power

by Gabe Bergado

jessie mei li self portrait
Courtesy of Jessie Mei Li.

In the new Netflix series Shadow and Bone, Jessie Mei Li brings to life Alina Starkov, a young woman with the ability to summon light at her fingertips. But in real life, the 25-year-old connects to another type of mystical being: whimsical junkyard trash goblin.

“I have this real connection to childhood, but in an old forgotten junkyard kind of way. In my room at home growing up I had stuff everywhere and signs I'd taken off the side of the street and all that kind of thing,” Li explains of the classification, which can be found at the bottom of her Instagram bio, over a Zoom call from a sun-dappled room in Bristol. “I love that aesthetic of just playful silliness and remembering the past. It's just a group of words that felt like they described me quite well.”

There are no goblins in the Grishaverse, the world in which Shadow and Bone takes place, but there are humans called Grisha who have a range of abilities that include summoning storms and controlling heartbeats. Alina, one of the Grisha, quickly discovers her powers and soon she is no longer just an orphan training as a cartographer, as she is shipped away to refine her abilities. Suddenly, the weight of the world is on her shoulders.

Based on the books by author Leigh Bardugo, Netflix’s adaptation of the the eagerly-anticipated fantasy YA series brings together a collection of characters from the various installments and makes a number of updates. One of the more notable alterations is changing the character of Alina to reflect Li’s multiracial identity. Throughout the series, the heroine faces a variety of micro and macroaggressions, including comments about her “going back to where she’s from” (even though she grew up in a region called Ravka, where the series takes place) and insults about her eye shape.

“At the moment so much more focus has been put on racism with Asians, which has obviously always existed,” Li says when asked about these themes during which violence against Asian people is at the forefront of discourse more than it has been in the recent past. “Yes, racism is being portrayed on the screen, yes, this character is being attacked, but the audience doesn't feel attacked in the same way that they might if it was set in our world. It's almost like you can step away from our world, and see the ridiculousness of insulting someone or attacking someone based on their race, and having the point of view be from Alina in those moments, she becomes the character that hopefully people will sympathize with [in the series].”

Shadow and Bone begins with Alina’s discovery of her magical powers, but the protagonist also grows into her own autonomy and capabilities beyond controlling light. Li touts how the show’s main themes revolve around identity and belonging, hoping that viewers might gain more understanding about themselves. Like Alina, Li had her own set of revelations while filming, including being diagnosed with ADHD. She looked into the condition because everyone would point out how much energy she had, such as bouts of restlessness in hair and makeup when she’d constantly be arranging the various products or memorize their names to keep busy. Earlier this year during Neurodiversity Week, she shared on Instagram a bit about her journey.

“ADHD isn't a disability, autism isn't a disability in the way that I think lots of people see it as. Things are harder because the world isn't set up with you in mind necessarily, but it doesn't mean that you can't still have the successes you want and the relationships you want,” Li says. “You just may need to make some adjustments, and the people around you need to as well and be cool and understanding, which I have experienced from every single person that I've spoken to about it.”

It is moving to see how Li portrays Alina, a character idolized both within the fictional Grishaverse and by readers of the Shadow and Bone series. There’s also excitement within the fandom for having the Netflix series led by a performer who uses both she/her and they/them pronouns, which is noted in Li’s Instagram bio. She shares on the video call that she had a complex relationship with gender while growing up and it wasn’t until she opened up about these feelings with a friend who was having similar thoughts that she found some clarity.

“I was thinking, ‘Well, am I completely non-binary? What am I?’ And I realized, actually I am who I am. I'm first and foremost, just a human being who likes what I like. I am also a woman, and that's how the world has viewed me the majority of my life. I'm proud of that as well, and I can identify with both those things,” Li says. “I think that's the thing with your pronouns and gender identity, you can just be who you are. That was so freeing to me to understand that I could have multiple pronouns and some friends will refer to me as they, and some will refer to me as she, and that's okay … I'm proud to be gender nonconforming. I'm proud of all my friends who are the same. Hopefully as time goes on, it becomes something that more and more people feel they can talk about.”

Fans of Li will get to see more of her alongside the likes of Anya Taylor-Joy, Matt Smith, and Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie in Edgar Wright’s 1960s psychological thriller Last Night in Soho, which is slated for an October 2021 release, and has Li playing a mysterious character named Lara Chung. Shadow and Bone premieres on Netflix on April 23 and is poised to make waves, too, considering the 2.7 million views on the official trailer and the legions of Grishaverse fans. Will Alina be able to hone her ability to control the light? Only time will tell. As for Li, she’s already harnessed her inner power.

“Being enthusiastic and caring about things is infectious, and that's what I love in other people,” Li says. “So that's the energy that I want to bring to things and that's the way I see life; might as well try and enjoy it, and have a little giggle.”