If you're anything like us, you've been bingeing Netflix's new fantasy series Shadow and Bone and diving deep into the magical world of Ravka. Based off the Grishaverse novels by Leigh Bardugo, the show follows Alina Starkov, played by Jessie Mei Li, a mapmaker who finds out she is a Grisha, a person with magical abilities, with the power to summon sunlight. Soon after, she's swept away by Ravka's military general to train to destroy the Shadow Fold, a region of tangible darkness filled with monsters that has terrorized the country.
Shadow and Bone is Li's first major role, but they steer the show like a seasoned pro. The 25-year-old actress, who uses she/they pronouns, has received critical praise for their compelling and vulnerable performance, and may become the biggest of the show's many breakout stars. Here's everything you need to now about the young star.
They grew up in Surrey, England and trained with the Identity School of Acting.
Li was born in Brighton, East Essex, and grew up in Redhill, Surrey. They were briefly enrolled at Reigate College in Surrey, England before dropping out due to mental health concerns. According to Vanity Fair, they joined the National Youth Theatre in 2015, and later trained at the Identity School of Acting, a part-time program whose alumni includes Letitia Wright, John Boyega and Chance Perdomo. They worked as a teaching assistant for children with special needs during the day and took the train to London to study acting twice a week at night. Their teaching job was also their first exposure to Bardugo's books; their students were big fans.
Their breakthrough was a 2019 production of All About Eve, co-starring Gillian Anderson and Lily James.
Li played Claudia Casswell in the National Theatre Live production of All About Eve, a role popularized by Marilyn Monroe in the 1950 film version. "It was a nice dipping-my-toe-in experience because I had a smaller role, which meant less responsibility, less pressure," they told the Hollywood Reporter. They auditioned for Shadow and Bone in between performances of All About Eve.
They studied Hungarian during the production of Shadow and Bone.
In an interview with ELLE, Li spoke about their efforts to build a rapport with the cast and crew of Shadow and Bone, including treating each new cast member to a welcome dinner before they began filming. They also studied Hungarian so they could bond with the show's crew members. "They called me sult krumpli, which in Hungarian means French fries, because I ate them every day," they said.
They've tried to convince their fellow cast members to go vegan.
Though Li hasn't said much about their veganism publicly, they have "vgang" in their Instagram bio, and their oldest Instagram post mentions their interest in vegan junk food and thrifting. They also told ELLE that they attempted to turn some of their Shadow and Bone cast mates vegan. (Apparently, those were failed attempts.)
Their portrayal of Alina is shaped by their own experience being biracial.
While Alina Starkov is a white woman in the Shadow and Bone book trilogy, the show's Alina is biracial, half-Ravkan and half-Shu. Shu Han is the Grishaverse's equivalent to China and Mongolia, and in the show Alina faces prejudice from her fellow Ravkans for having a similar appearance to the Shu. While promoting Shadow and Bone, Li, who has an English mother and a Chinese father, has spoken on anti-Asian racism that they've experienced and how it paralleled the prejudice Alina experiences for being half-Shu. They told Vanity Fair, "I grew up with that, which is why I felt so connected to Alina. I grew up in a predominantly white area in the South of England. Racism towards Asian people in the U.K. generally, I think more so than the States, is so weird and not taken seriously."
Li told Vogue that they were initially cautious about Alina's identity shift, but was convinced when they were asked to perform an audition scene where Alina discussed race and her experience as a biracial woman. "I was like, OK, cool. You’re actually making the race important. You can’t cast someone who looks like me and not have my experiences embedded into the story as well. Otherwise, just have Alina be white, you know?" they said.
Li has already received encouraging messages from Grishaverse fans. "I have had messages from people who are already fans of the books, and lots of them look like me, teenagers saying, ‘It’s so amazing. I’ve always felt like I don’t fit in.’ That's brilliant," they told Elle.
They have also seen Asian fans dress up as their character, including meeting a young East Asian woman wearing an Alina costume. The costume meant a lot to Li, since they recalled dressing up as Cho Chang from Harry Potter as a child. "That was the one character I could dress up as. [Now] there’ll be people able to dress up as these characters and feel really connected to them," they told Vogue Australia.
They've spoken about their ADHD diagnosis on their Instagram.
In March, Li posted a home video of themselves on their Instagram during Neurodiversity Week, with a caption that said they were diagnosed with ADHD at age 24. They said that their diagnosis answered "many life long questions." They also spoke to other neurodivergent people, saying "You are not damaged, broken, sick, pitiable or weird (although being weird is definitely a good thing in my opinion) You’re you, and that’s very cool of you."
They've spoken about the importance of accurate representation of Asian characters.
Li has spoken out against the recent rise in anti-Asian hate, and the importance of nuanced portrayals of Asians in media. They told Vogue Australia, “The hate targeted towards Asians... For some of those people doing that, they don’t see Asians as being the same as them, or being people, being human, and that’s because they may not know anyone from that race. So I think it is important that we have accurate and well written representation [of characters] who are real people, who aren’t just stereotypes, who have wants and needs and fears and flaws. Because then they’re human.”