Many fantasy novels begin the same way: A person living in humble obscurity somehow becomes the Chosen One. Maybe they discover a hidden magical power they didn’t realize they had, or find a petrified dragon’s egg, or inherent an uncle’s ring. One way or another, though, fate thrusts the hero on an epic adventure — and we, the readers, get to join her for the journey.
Real life doesn’t usually work like that. Though there are exceptions; say, like when a very good casting director happens to take notice of an actor’s work and then sweeps them up into what might very well be the best high fantasy adaptation since Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.
I’m referring specifically to Netflix’s Shadow and Bone, all eight episodes of which drop on Friday. And while the show’s cast aren’t all total unknowns, there’s a similar thrill to seeing the gifted newcomers find their footing on screen — and blow us all away.
— Suzanne Smith (@SuzanneSmithCDG) April 22, 2021
In this case, casting director Suzanne Smith is our kingmaker. The two-time Emmy-award winner (who, no surprise, also worked on Outlander) didn’t just track down the best-fitting actors for the highly-anticipated Grishaverse adaptation, but potentially uncovered a new generation of acting talent while she was at it.
Based on author Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy and Six of Crows duology, Netflix’s Shadow and Bone would have been a particularly tricky show to cast in part because of its size; there are at least six identifiable main characters in the show. The story takes place in the Russia-inspired kingdom of Ravka, which is split in two by “the Fold,” a dark and deadly strip of cursed land that cuts eastern Ravka off from its western sea. As enemies close in on the weakened and divided nation, Alina, an orphan in the First Army, discovers by accident that she is the long-awaited “Sun Summoner,” the one-of-a-kind magical “Grisha” who can manipulate light and potentially save the world.
Enter Jessie Mei Li. Prior to Shadow and Bone, 25-year-old Li’s biggest credit was starring in a 2019 stage adaptation of All About Eve alongside Gillian Anderson and Lily James (she will also appear in the forthcoming Edgar Wright film Last Night in Soho, but was cast after Shadow and Bone picked her out). Despite what might seem like a lack of experience, there’s no visible learning curve with her stepping into the demanding lead role of Alina; Li brings an assuredness and confidence to her part that is a welcome growth from the much more passive character written in the books. She easily navigates between the poles of Alina’s bewilderment at her circumstances and her selfishness and stubbornness. In the first episode, for example, Alina intentionally burns maps in a ploy to get herself recruited as the cartographer to accompany her childhood friend, Mal, on a mission through the Fold — agency that she doesn’t have in the novels, where things more typically happen to her rather than due to her.
While in the books Alina is described as a brown-haired ethnic Ravkan, and often depicted in fan-art with Daenerys-like white-blonde hair, the showrunners re-imagined Alina’s character as biracial, “half-Shu” — that being the China-inspired nation in the books (Li is half English and half Chinese). The casting of Li isn’t a diversity box-tick, though; it adds much-needed complexity to the character. Netflix’s Alina faces open hostility and discrimination in Ravka, including disbelief that she, as half-Shu, could be the Sun Summoner.
Some of this is a simple question of rewriting — showrunner Eric Heisserer deserves a heap of credit all around too — but Li sells us on her character’s complexity and contradictions. Her Alina is no mere victim. Later in the series, Li’s determined step forward to initiate a kiss with General Kirigan (a reversal of how the pivotal moment happens in the books) ultimately says far more about her character than anything she, well, actually says.
You can’t write chemistry, though. And Li and Ben Barnes, who plays Kirigan, work well together (Li jokingly calls her co-star “Benny B”), making us root for them even when we know better. Further, Barnes — who is the most well-known of the show’s actors coming in, having played Logan on Westworld — is a pitch-perfect Kirigan, equal parts magnetic and thrillingly dangerous. Archie Renaux (Gold Digger), meanwhile, is his foil as the fiercely loyal and tender other part of Alina’s love triangle, her friend Mal.
No role, however small, goes overlooked. Daisy Head (Harlots) plays the palace beauty Genya, but she does more than just look pretty in the role — though she’s Alina’s friend and confidant, we get the sense that she’s holding something back. Kevin Eldon plays the creepy Rasputin-like Apparat; while Luke Pasqualino (who you might remember from Skins) is an awkward Materialki who shows comedy smarts even in his limited appearances. Alina’s friends at the Little Palace, Marie and Nadia, are so much bigger than their minor roles on the page thanks to the charm brought to them by Jasmine Blackborow and Gabrielle Brooks. Even the goat, somehow, gets well cast.
The best casting of all, though, belongs to the Crows, a trio of west Ravkan criminals whose story runs parallel to Alina’s. They’re so natural and well-suited to their parts that it’s difficult to imagine anyone other than actor Freddy Carter (Free Rein) as the gang’s calculating leader Kaz; or Kit Young as the infectiously suave gunslinger Jesper; or Amita Suman (The Outpost) as the acrobat, spy, and “believer” Inej. While the show (and book) are constructed shamelessly around the love triangle between Alina, Mal, and General Kirigan, there is somehow even more on-screen chemistry between the trio of friends, whose understanding, trust, and loyalty to each other seems to practically transcend the screen.
That the casting is so intuitive and flawless is part of why the show will be a hit. Fans can fall in love with Li and Barnes and Renaux, but also the minor characters, who deserve at least as much attention. It’ll be even more rewarding when the actors are deservedly scouted by other casting directors, and put in future roles where they can fall in love with them all over again.
“This is a story about young people who have been overlooked and who’ve never had the chance to show people what they can do, who have all this talent and all of this power,” the series’ author and show’s producer, Bardugo, told Den of Geek. “So it made a lot of sense in terms of the soul of the books for us to have all these incredibly gifted young people that arrived on our doorstep, like a magical gift in the show.”
If you’re a believer, you might even call it fate.