How Jessie Mei Li Went From Unknown to the West End to Netflix’s ‘Shadow and Bone’

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Photo Source: Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Netflix

In the Envelope: The Actor’s Podcast features in-depth conversations with today’s most noteworthy actors and creators. Join host and senior editor Vinnie Mancuso for this guide to living the creative life from those who are doing it every day. 

How did Jessie Mei Li go from working as a teaching assistant to starring on the West End (in “All About Eve”) to leading Netflix’s “Shadow and Bone” in just a few short years? Besides having a bundle of talent—which always helps!—the young actor is laser-focused on getting what they want. 

“When I feel like I’m on the right path, it’s almost like you’re not going to stop me from doing it,” Li tells us. “When I got the part in ‘Shadow and Bone,’ I was like, Well, yeah, that feels right to me. I don’t think it comes out of arrogance; I think I’m very good at feeling when something feels right. I’m not afraid, in that moment, to go for it.”

On the hit fantasy series, Li stars as Alina Starkov, a budding magic user who’s taken under the wing of the sinister General Kirigin (Ben Barnes). On this episode of In the Envelope: The Actor’s Podcast, Li takes us behind the scenes of Season 2 and explains how building chemistry with their co-stars has made grueling production days go more smoothly.  

Shadow and Bone“Shadow and Bone” Credit: Dávid Lukács/Netflix

Li’s attitude in auditions is a lesson for any actor who dreads the casting room. 

“I remember getting the part of Alina, doing the first audition and thinking, I get this. I know how I would want this character to be. I had such a clear idea in my mind of how she should carry herself and sound and feel inside. Obviously, it matched up with what they were looking for. That’s the thing with auditions—it’s not necessarily like: ‘Oh, am I good enough to be in your thing? Do you really think I’ve got the chops?’ Sometimes your idea is just what they’re looking for, and sometimes they’ve just got a different idea of it. I think getting rid of that ‘these people have so much power to give me what I want’ idea is important. No, I’ve got power to give you what you want, as well.”  

A lot changed for the actor between Seasons 1 and 2 of “Shadow and Bone,” both personally and professionally.  

“I didn’t know what ‘Shadow and Bone’ was going to be [before filming Season 1], in terms of its tone and its themes and who it was going to appeal to. Coming back, [I had] the knowledge of: OK, this is the show we’re making; these are the people that love this show; these are the things that the network would want to be highlighted. Because there’s less mystery around the whole thing, I guess it was less exciting in one sense, and just more lovely and familiar…. I certainly was different coming off the back of Season 1, going through lockdown; and I’d gone through some things in my personal life that meant I was different by the time we got back. And also, with Netflix, for example, we never really know if we’re going to get another season. We don’t know what’s going to happen, what they want to see. In a sense, you kind of just have to roll with it and make the most of what could possibly be our last season. It felt like the beginning, but [it] could almost be the end; so let’s just have fun—let our hair down but also work really hard.” 

For Li, productive sets are built on fostering relationships with co-stars. 

“I think I’m very good at just losing Jessie, losing myself and being in a scene. So I don’t think it would necessarily matter to me if I didn’t know [my scene partner] very well—because it’s about our characters. But there is a level to it; for example, with [Ben Barnes], who is a very good friend of mine—he sort of took me under his wing in Season 1. We have a very silly relationship, which is nice, because our characters don’t at all. So much of what we’re being asked to do is intense. For someone like me, some of these scenes are so serious, I’d almost want to laugh; but you don’t because you get the silly out [beforehand], when you’re having a coffee or whatever it may be. Working with Ben as Kerrigan, [the creative team] obviously wants there to be so much tension between these two characters. And it made it so much easier because Ben, being nothing like his character, we can just have a cup of tea and talk about the scenes and be really frank with each other about what we’re comfortable with. On the day, that definitely makes it a much more enjoyable experience. If I didn’t know Ben or we didn’t get on at all or there was some weird stuff going on, and then we had to do all that? The acting would probably be the same, but the experience inwardly, for me, would be more exhausting.” 

Listen and subscribe to In the Envelope to hear our full conversation with Li: