Back when Netflix’s adaptation of Shadow and Bone was filming in Budapest last year, I was able to visit the set along with a few other reporters. Besides being able to observe a key scene from the finale and walk around some remarkable practical sets, we were able to speak with actors Ben Barnes (General Kirigan) and Archie Renaux (Malyen Oretsev) in a group setting. During the interview, they each talked about who they play and what’s going on in the world, the relationship between their characters and Jessie Mei Li (Alina Starkov), why the scripts surprised them, and more
If you’re not familiar with Shadow and Bone, it’s based on the worldwide bestselling book series by author Leigh Bardugo and the executive producer and showrunner is Eric Heisserer, the writer of the sci-fi film Arrival. Unlike the book it is based on, the series actually combines two of Bardugo’s book series – the fantasy-adventure trilogy Shadow and Bone and the duology Six of Crows, which chronologically takes place after the events of Shadow and Bone despite being set in the same world. Heisserer said to make this work they essentially invented prequel stories for the key Six of Crows characters this season — Kaz, Inej, and Jesper — to fit alongside what is happening in the Shadow and Bone storyline.
The series takes place in a war-torn world where a lowly soldier and orphan named Alina Starkov (Mei Li) accidentally unleashes an extraordinary power that’s been residing in her that could help save her land and set her country free. What you also need to know about Shadow and Bone is this world has magical soldiers known as Grisha that have different powers, and a massive black cloud (known as the Shadow Fold) that runs hundreds of miles north and south that is extremely dangerous to cross due to the creatures inside. While you can attempt to cross, it’s like playing roulette with your life. Shadow and Bone was produced by Shawn Levy’s 21 Laps Entertainment and also stars Sujaya Dasgupta (Zoya Nazyalensky), Freddy Carter (Kaz Brekker), Amita Suman (Inej Ghafa), Kit Young (Jesper Fahey), Julian Kostov (Fedyor Kaminsky) and Danielle Galligan (Nina Zenik).
Finally, before getting to the interview with Ben Barnes and Archie Renaux, if you haven’t seen the Shadow and Bone trailer, I’d watch that first. Will help you understand the world and what they’re talking about.
Shadow and Bone arrives on Netflix on April 23.
Question: Can you talk a little bit about the characters you play, and where you guys are at the beginning of the series?
BEN BARNES: Yes, I play General Kirigan who is the Commander of the Second Army which is the Grisha Army, the army with the small science and magical powers. At the beginning of the season, he is very frustrated with the situation, which is that there is a war being threatened from both the north and south, and there is this divide of The Fold, which is nigh on impossible to cross and Ravka is slowly being choked out.
So he has two priorities: one, which is to sort of be a patriot to his country, but even more important is the preservation of the Grisha, of his people. That’s who he feels the greatest allegiance to. His driving force at the beginning is to make sure that his Grisha are safe and respected and not under threat because some other parts of this world see them very much as enemies or less than, as a race, as it were. And we tie in the themes of the different races. Obviously Alina being part Shu Han, and Kit’s character Jesper being Zemini, so it ties in to [General Kirigan] that those are his people.
At the beginning he’s somewhat frustrated at these attempts to cross The Fold, which they need to do in order not to be just choked out in the prison of war in the north and south. They’re not able to get across the west for provisions or anything. He feels frustrated at that, [but is] still trying to be a good leader and a good example for his people.
But also, he always knows that something is coming. He feels things very acutely, and he’s keyed into this magical universe in a way that mostly others aren’t. So that plays into the way that everything happens for him. While the situation might seem disastrous to other people, to him, he always feels what’s coming.
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Image via Netflix
How far into the arc of Shadow and Bone do we get with your character?
BARNES: Yes. I would say a lot of the basics from the first book are moments that we hit. But I would say character wise, one of the efforts that we’ve gone to with the show is to really draw out the humanity of any given character. Obviously they’re very full rounded characters in the books, but as you go forward, some of the characters can become a bit representative of an ideal or something negative. In the books, we’ve got this brilliant first-person narrative in someone’s head, whereas in the show we need to be in everyone’s head. So, we need to feel the human being. I’m interested in playing something completely unexpected. The show is interested in dark versus light, and that’s what I’m interested in as well.
Archie, can you talk about your character?
ARCHIE RENAUX: Yeah, I play Malyen Oretsev, who is an orphan. He grew up in the same orphanage as Alina. They grew up together and always looked out for each other and are like best friends. Then they’re in the First Army together. They still look out for each other and got each other’s backs, more so now Mal’s older and stronger. He’s very protective of his best friend.
Can you talk about the developing relationships, one between Alina and General Kirigan as we go through the first season. And also, between her and Mal.
BARNES: From my perspective they offer very different things. Mal is the person who understands her intuitively because they have all this shared experience. He’s her best mate, but he’s also a complete badass. Which Archie was like drawn out extraordinarily just proved to me in the last five hours. And then the General, has authority, power, and knowledge, and is more of a mentor-y person. I don’t think we really framed it like a love triangle or anything. It’s just that these people offer what they offer and start feeling what they’re feeling, and I think that’s very human. That leads to confused intentions between those characters, and I think like all good relationships, it gets a bit messy, in a good way.
Image via Netflix
So Jessie Mei Li (who plays Alina Starkov) mentioned consent, and how you want it to bring that into the relationship between Alina and The Darkling. Can you talk about why that was important to you?
BARNES: It was just one of those things that…I think it’s really cool to know why you’re making a show now. And these books were written sort of pre- a lot of the media portrayal of, you know, relationships that are perhaps get off on a footing that isn’t of equal status. And it was obvious in reading these books, to me [it was like], “Okay so we have an example here of a relationship where somebody is literally ruling and running a country, has armies at his disposal, and has magical powers up the wazoo. And then you have this orphan girl who has no idea what’s going on and is basically taken and rescued.” But, I still thought it was on some level worth commenting on, and that was something that before I even took the part, I was like, “There’s a theme here which I think is worth drawing out and just maybe highlighting a little bit” and that’s all I had to say. And then, Eric Heisserer is a brilliant man, just literally sort of tweaks out these little moments that aren’t too obvious, just these little moments that just speak to that part, that potential part of their relationship. Because I just think it’s important to touch on things that are relevant. Otherwise, why are you making it?
Speaking of Eric, if you could both talk about maybe what surprised you about the scripts? You know what drew you to them?
RENAUX: Not so much surprised but a big thing that stood out for me was how much he delved into each character’s story. Especially as the book is coming from being in a first person [perspective] in the series, we as people have quite short attention spans these days and we need lots of things going on, which Eric and his team of writers have achieved really well.
BARNES: That’s one of the bonuses of meshing the duology and trilogy together is that you get lots of different perspectives. But I think also your character [Mal] it was really great to see how gritty he’s become in the scripts, compared to some…his actions that he takes obviously through Alina’s perspective in the books, his being very cool customer in the books but in this he’s got some real guts to him.
RENAUX: Yeah, heart. That’s what I loved about it is there’s real heart to Mal. And he will go through for his best mate which is something that resonated with me a lot with my friends and family and stuff so it’s nice to play a character that’s got that much heart and bravery.
BARNES: Yeah and I think that the biggest thing for me was really drawing on, this might sound a little bit pretentious but I’m not eighteen I don’t need to pretend…[Eric’s] drawn the poetry, the available poetry out of the story. We were lucky enough to see about a half hour of footage, and it’s moving. And I didn’t expect that necessarily from some of the stuff that I’d seen. It’s got a real lyricism to it and in the way it’s told. And obviously that’s author Leigh Bardugo, obviously, the way she’s written the books, but a huge amount of that is also down to Eric and the way he likes to tell stories. It’s got that element to it as well which is, for me it was important to find the things that were a bit more adult in the story, because I think it’s a really fun story for young people but then it’s like how do I also get it to appeal to me and people my age, you know.
Image via Netflix
How much of your backstory do we see because you normally just see them from Alina’s eyes. How much do you have your story separate from her?
BARNES: We delve into elements of where Kirigan has come from, but they’re not necessarily anything like what you find out in the books. And in terms of what happens with us and those powers, we have no idea if we’re going to go anywhere near it… the first one [book] we’re going to stick to it. After that, we’re not sure because we have to blend the other series in with ours, and in the way that all the Crow stuff in this series is engineered to fit into our story. It might be that a lot of our stuff is integrated into this going forward. So we don’t know, only Eric knows that. But I’d say, you know, the first book is a really good solid place to start, and I’m sure we’ll come back to the book narrative at some point because it gets really good. But yeah. There are definitely new elements as well in terms of where the characters come from, especially for us two.
RENAUX: That’s what’s cool as well, because as a fan, you’re going to be watching and when you watch that Marvel films and stuff, and you’re familiar with the comics like the same similar to this, if you’re familiar with the book and you
BARNES: Like if you’ve read Spider Man comics and Superman comics.
RENAUX: And then you’re gonna see extra, extra bits.
BARNES: You know, so hopefully there will be, you know, a little bit of a little bit of that for the people who do know the books and for the people who don’t, it’ll just be kind of the way that it has always been.
Shadow and Bone arrives on Netflix on April 23.
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