While season one of “Shadow and Bone” was Jessie Mei Li’s first major screen project, the show’s second season is offering its own round of firsts.
Li stars as Alina Starkov in the series adaptation of the popular YA fantasy book trilogy by Leigh Bardugo. Netflix released the first season mid-pandemic in 2021, which means Li is experiencing many pre-release promo activities — including a red carpet premiere — for the first time.
“It’s exciting to be going and actually doing things in person,” says Li, who’s based in London.
The actress, who portrays the show’s main character, describes season two as bigger and bolder (and a little bit longer). “For Alina in season one, it’s her origin story, of this weak, vulnerable young woman who grows in power. But then season two, her arc is more about, OK, she’s here now and she’s found herself and she knows what she has to do, but it’s dealing with the repercussions of what happened in the last season.”
“So a lot of the themes in season two are to do with trauma,” she adds. “We really get to see how power affects her, and the changes that all these external factors have on her actions.”
Li has similarly grown since season one, artistically and professionally, and notes that she approached this new season with more confidence thanks to the on-set experience she gained in between.
“[‘Shadow and Bone’] was my first real big thing, and I was just there for the ride, having fun, and trying to work things out,” she says. “Season two, what’s been really good is I’ve been able to work out how to set boundaries, how to look after myself a bit better. Because I am notoriously bad at being able to manage my time and take good care of my mental and physical well-being.”
Part of that means staying away from internet chatter about the show; she plans to spend the post-release period laying low and hanging out with friends.
“Shadow and Bone” marked a major breakout for the 27-year-old actress, who also had a supporting role in director Edgar Wright’s 2021 film “Last Night in Soho,” her first movie, and recently wrapped “Havoc,” directed by Gareth Evans.
“What I really love about those two directors particularly, and looking at people I’d like to work with, it’s people who have a vision and a strong voice,” Li says. “When someone has a certain style or strict parameters, that’s an added challenge that I really like. I love watching action and comedy and fantasy and genre things for sure, but I think my taste is for things where someone’s got a really good story and a great way of telling that visually.”
Although she’s always loved acting, Li didn’t initially set out to pursue it professionally. “I went to university and had a really quite rubbish time. And then I dropped out and I thought, well, what do I like doing? What makes me happy?” The answer led her to join an acting class at the National Youth Theater, while working at a secondary school.
“Slowly over time I just started finding myself turning up to things and being in the right place and meeting the right person,” she says.
A director she met during an audition ended up introducing Li to her current agent. “The director had told them, ‘you should give Jessie a go,’” she says. “I had no credit, I had nothing really to my name. If it wasn’t for this one man who decided to help me out, none of this would’ve happened to me.”
Li donned Valentino for the season’s red carpet premiere, and has recently been sporting a distinctive buzzcut. When it comes to her personal style, the actress notes that she’s drawn to signature pieces that she loves, and tries to buy everything secondhand.
“I guess you could say my style is kind of like a rail in a vintage shop,” she says. “I like it when clothes have a bit of a story, and I also like it when people have iconic items of clothing that you just know they always wear,” Li says. “I love the fact that someone can pick me out on a dance floor in a nightclub because I’m wearing a top that I’m so famous for wearing all the time, or whatever it may be.”
It might be a recognizable top — or it might be her rising profile as an actress. Either way, Li is standing out from the crowd.