Jessie Mei Li Finds Her Peace in Shadow and Bone

The actress discusses the hit Netflix series’ second season and how an ADHD diagnosis changed her life for the better.

A portrait of Jessie Mei Li
Photograph by Jack Lazarus Ward

When the opportunity to play Alina Starkov, the powerful hero of the wildly popular Netflix series Shadow and Bone, came across the actress Jessie Mei Li’s desk, she was floored by the prescience of its arrival. It was 2019, and Li had just started out—the U.K. native participated in a few stage plays and was going on auditions regularly. But the Shadow and Bone script, which was adapted from the YA fantasy novel of the same name by Leigh Bardugo, stood out from the rest.

“I’d grown up loving fantasy—I watched Lord the Rings constantly—and I was like, hang on a minute,” Li tells me from the couch in her London flat, which she shares with roommates and a few cats. “They specifically want someone who looks like me. That’s cool. I never thought that would be a thing.” But her role as Starkov—and the show Shadow and Bone itself—has grown into far more than just a thing. When season one released in 2021, the show received massive attention from fans of the books who fell in love with Li and her costars’ magnetic energy and twisty, fantastical storyline. Season two dropped on March 16—and is currently number one on Netflix’s top 10 list, (dethroning You). And a central point of appeal behind season two’s storyline is Alina’s expanded narrative arc: General Kirigan (Ben Barnes), aka The Darkling, has sent his army of indestructible shadow monsters after her, and Alina must wrangle her own power to save her loved ones—and herself.

To say that being cast in the series changed her life feels like an understatement. “I remember other friends who wanted to be actors saying, ‘You’re probably gonna find it difficult. You’re never gonna be in a period drama’—I just thought that was reality, because I’m not full white,” Li, who is of Hong Kong Chinese and English descent, recalls. “A friend of mine who is white said, ‘You could never play Elizabeth Bennett.’ And it broke my heart because I was like, ‘Ah, yeah, you’re right. They wouldn't cast me. It would be confusing. I was so stuck in that mindset. So I was shocked about how oddly specific Shadow and Bone was in terms of the kind of thing I wanted to do at the time.”

Li, who also stars in the upcoming British-American action-thriller Havoc alongside Tom Hardy, filmed season two of Shadow and Bone during a pivotal time in her life. Season one came just as the actress had dropped out of college (“I had been denying myself fun because I had the feeling I had to plod on, go to uni, get a sensible job, all of that”) and enlisted in acting classes at the National Youth Theater before nabbing an agent. However, “2022 was one of the most intense years of my life,” Li recalls. “But it’s been a big year of growth and self-awareness, and that’s fucking cool.” For the first half of last year, the actress jetted off to Budapest to film, plunging herself back into the world of Alina, the Sun Summoner and one of the most powerful Grisha to ever live. “I had such a clear idea of how Alina would be,” Li says. “She’s a character whose power is about bringing light, but she is trying to hide. And that was the main concept: she has so much inner strength, power, and warmth but had hidden it away. I’ve always been told I’m quite a friendly sort of person. I thought that would be quite a nice quality to lend to Alina as well. If you’re talking about wanting her to be a benevolent leader and have people follow her, she needed to have that inner sunlight.

Photograph by Jack Lazarus Ward

“I was really excited about the idea of having a protagonist that lots of people, not just East Asian young women, could relate to,” Li continues. “It was important to have this character who felt like a real person, who didn’t look perfect all the time and was weak. She was, to be honest, a bit pathetic at the start.”

The idea of getting back into work with “the Shadow and Bone gang” as Li calls them, brought her a burst of energy that carried throughout filming. But the actress stresses this is a part of her personality she’s still learning to manage. “I just think I can do everything and I go into hyper mode, where I might be completely sleep deprived, but I will push and push and push. And on top of that, I absolutely love my job so much and I really give it my all,” she says. “I suffer from chronic insomnia, so I wasn’t sleeping, I lost weight, and I wasn’t able to articulate what I needed. I have historically been one of those people who just thinks, yeah, I can do that. I’ll get on with it. But filming this season taught me to take it easy, say no sometimes, and draw boundaries. That made it an amazing experience, on top of everything we’ve done.”

Another crucial moment that took place within the past three years was Li’s ADHD diagnosis. Suddenly, Li’s mind’s tendency to wander and her difficulties making plans for the future came into focus and made sense.

“If you’re neurodivergent and undiagnosed, you spend most of your time thinking, what on earth is going on?” she says. “I just feel like I’ve got about a hundred different personalities and I can barely keep track of what’s going on, half the time; I am pretty chaotic as a human being. But actually, I’ve grown to love myself a lot more since the ADHD diagnosis. There are lots of things that are brilliant about ADHD, and I think it makes me a better actress.

“Still, I’m kind of an odd fish!” she says, laughing hard.