The Grishaverse makes its way to Netflix.
Netflix’s new fantasy series Shadow and Bone is an adaptation of the much-beloved Grishaverse books by Leigh Bardugo, so it’s easy to see how the show has managed to drum up so much hype with its first trailer alone. Instead of simply adapting the Grisha trilogy, this adaptation also pulls characters from Bardugo’s Six of Crows duology of books - making Shadow and Bone a densely-packed series filled with tons of little nods and references for fans to appreciate.
Even newcomers will find something to appreciate in this big-budget fantasy, especially if they enjoyed Geralt’s monster-slaying adventures in The Witcher. Shadow and Bone takes place in a war-torn magical world, where a mysterious barrier filled with monsters called the Shadow Fold has split the country of Ravka in two. When lowly soldier and orphan Alina Starkov demonstrates an extraordinary ability however, enemies and allies alike realise that she could be the key to destroying the Fold.
We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Shadow and Bone’s impressive cast, including Jessie Mei Li (Alina Starkov), Ben Barnes (General Kirigan), Freddy Carter (Kaz Brekker), Amita Suman (Inej Ghafa), Kit Young (Jesper Fahey) and Archie Renaux (Malyen Oretsev). The cast talked about filming in Budapest, learning how to throw knives and, among other things, working with a goat.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity
General Kirigan is an interesting character, and his early appearances make it clear that there’s a lot more going on with him than just being this powerful general. How did you approach playing up that mystery early on?
Ben Barnes (General Kirigan): Yeah, it was interesting. I wanted to set up the power dynamics very quickly and very early, so that we don't have to spend too much time thinking about how important he is. So that we can really start to see him as a person. There's only a certain amount of cards you can keep close to your chest before you have to start peeling away the layers of the onion to really see the man underneath, and what drives him and what might encourage change in him, but also when he might let you see the nasty or darker sides of his character.
But I think we also used some of his past as well, to maybe toy with your sympathies for him. Hopefully he does become one of those characters who maintains the mystery no matter what he's doing, so people will never quite be able to pin him down. He’ll be somewhat unpredictable eventhough you know his motives and that he’s falling for this special young woman that he's managed to find, and thought he wanted to find, but maybe he didn't.
This world feels so rich and fully-formed from the very first episode. What was it about this story that drew you to it?
Archie Renaux (Malyen Oretsev): It was the vastness of it, and just how big this world was. There’s so much in this setting, with how different countries are run, and the cultures of other worlds - like Ketterdam is a very different place. And Kerch is a very different place to Ravka. And then, of course, the added bonus of mythical creatures and powers made it a really special and interesting world I couldn't wait to sink my teeth into.
The cast and crew spent a lot of time in Budapest filming the series. Between the costumes and elaborate sets, what was it like to physically inhabit such a fantastical place?
Jessie Mei Li (Alina Starkov): It made it so easy for us, because all of the sets and locations just felt real. The art department did an amazing job - every single army tent was filled with stuff - you could just go in there and feel like you’re in a real one. Places like Alina’s bedroom were just so perfectly put together, that jumping in and just existing in these places that Alina finds herself in was so easy. And that comes down to the hard work that everyone put into making the show look as beautiful, and real, and rough, and lived-in as it did.
A lot of the emotional impact of this story depends on the audience buying Alina and Mal’s chemistry as best friends, but I feel like you two nailed it. How did you prepare for that?
Archie Renaux: Jessie and I became friends straight away, even before I had the part. We did a chemistry test. She invited me out to lunch, and we went and had some lunch together, and we spoke about the series and Jesse was getting me very excited. I had to remind her that I hadn’t actually gotten the part yet. But yeah, Jesse is brilliant and a great co-star. So great to work with. It wasn't hard to try and play that up for the screen. Hopefully everyone sees that.
I’d describe Jesper as a swashbuckling gunslinger with bravado to spare. How’d you find inhabiting that personality for this role? Was it as easy as flipping a switch?
Kit Young (Jesper Fahey): Did you audition for the role? Because that's exactly what I thought of when I took it. It wasn't quite flipping a switch. As much as the fandom might think that I am him and he is me, I'm not nearly as brave as Jasper is. I'm also really not a good gunslinger. I can flip them around, but actually hitting the target miles away - not me! But I think that the books were just the greatest resource.
And there were lots of brilliant imagery in other kinds of pop culture that I could draw from, whether that's something swashbuckling, like Errol Flynn. We even had these sleeves underneath the coats that were… swashbuckling-esque. Obviously, the Western influence was the main one. And then there's also something about the lovable rogue who's cheeky and charming, whether that's a Han Solo, or kind of Billy the Kid or even Woody or Buzz from Toy Story. These things come through your head and you go, “Oh, there's some joy and playfulness there that can be used in a lot of what is, quite often, dark and tricky scenarios that these characters are facing."
What was it like, working with the most important member of Shadow and Bone’s cast: the goat?
Kit Young: He’s stopped replying to my calls. He doesn't read my emails. I think he's probably somewhere on a beach, just chilling there. It was really interesting working with a goat. I remember reading it in the script and going, “Hang on. how's that gonna work? Is it an actual goat? Is it like... a CG goat? What's it going to be?” We have two goats that we worked with, that were kind of in circulation. They would often be very easy to work with when they've been fed. They'd be sleeping and you could just do what you needed to do.
But when they hadn’t been fed, they'd just be screaming, pooping. It was tricky at times. The goat would often upstage us. We'd be delivering important lines and then suddenly, the goat goes, “Baa!” And we're like, “Okay, let's go back and read it.” Oh, but you know, it was something to really remember. And I look back on it very fondly. Even though there were certain times I was like, “I just can't work like this.” Just joking.
The show has received such a tremendous reaction from fans of the books, who are already poring over all the little details in this adaptation. How did you react to the way fans have received the series?
Freddy Carter (Kaz): I've seen some - I haven't done a deep dive, because I'm too scared. But it's amazing. It's a rare thing, from my experience anyway, to have for something not even out yet. People are so excited. Normally there's a little bit of like, “Oh, yeah, I might watch that.” But people are already booking days off work and writing their sick notes for school so that they don't have to go. People are really, really excited, which is a really lovely feeling. And I'm just really excited for people to see it.
Kit Young: I second that completely, I’m just really excited for them to finally get a chance to see it. Because the fans have been on this journey with us, kind of all the way through. I wasn't really aware of quite how big the fandom was until they announced the cast. There's that photo of the six of us on these steps in Budapest, and immediately, all of our phones started blowing up. And it was like, “Oh, my gosh, this is a big deal now, okay.” And I didn't quite realize how global the fandom was either. I knew that it was quite big in the States. And I'd heard of it in the UK where we're all based, but I didn't realize quite how global it was. They’ve been with us every step of the way throughout filming, and then even during lockdown and throughout all of this global madness. So it will be a really amazing thing when they finally get to see it.
Amita Suman (Inej): My first experience with the fans was interesting. You know, my casting hadn't officially been announced yet. And I went on Twitter, just looking at the news. And then suddenly I just saw: “Amita Suman has been cast as Inej!” and I'm like, “Oh my God, have I done something wrong? Like, did I tell somebody? Am I gonna get fired?” And then I realized that the fans are just some of the best detectives ever. They somehow figured it out. It was then I knew that this was going to be a big deal, because the fans are so dedicated. They absolutely love the books, and I completely share that love with them. And it's just really beautiful to have them at the very beginning of our journey, and hopefully, all the way to wherever it leads us.
What is it about General Kirigan, that gets so many people trapped in his web?
Ben Barnes: He's a man who definitely knows himself and knows what he wants. He’s still a human though, and the human race - we're good, we're decent people, and we are empathetic, and we see that even if people behave badly, we can see they're broken. And I think this is clearly a man who's isolated and lonely and something got broken somewhere along the way. There's potentially an element of that in why people are seduced by him.
But I think his authority is interesting, and it brings up themes of consent. Is he abusing this power that he has for his own ends? And I think the answer is probably yes, and therefore is he completely irredeemable? I wanted to sort of dial that up by adding in a few moments between myself and Alina, where you're kind of wondering, is he? Is his behavior more acceptable if we believe he's falling for her, or not? If his goals of protecting the Grisha are noble, does that make his behaviour okay? What would make it okay? I think it’s interesting to explore those topics, even if I don't have all the answers.
Inej gets into a lot of trouble. When you entered the show, how much training did you have to do to get those fighting skills down?
Amita Suman: I knew nothing. nor was I capable of doing anything that she was capable of. But I love this character so much, so I took it upon myself to put in as much training as possible - increased my flexibility, increased my strength, gained a bit of muscle, because even though we had the same outer shell, I didn't have her capabilities at all. And in terms of the fights, I didn't have any specific knife training. But I was given 14 knives, and I just kind of played around with them as much as I could, in my spare time alongside Kit spinning his guns.
Shadow and Bone combines two book series for this season’s story. Were there any changes made to these characters and their storylines, in the process of adapting them for TV?
Freddy Carter: The first season will follow the first book of the main trilogy. And then what's really exciting for fans of the books, is that everything for the Six of Crows’ characters will be prequel material. So this is before we meet them at the beginning of Six of Crows, and that was really exciting for me. I think it was exciting for all of us, because we put little easter eggs on who these people are going to be in the books.
Kit Young: Yeah, what's really cool about what we're doing is that no one's ever seen it or read it. It's completely brand new. And I think that's really, really exciting, because you think you know the story, but we're kind of giving you something extra. We are definitely laying the groundwork for who these characters will become, later in the story. And they will be recognizable. Of course, I think these characters are all essentially who they are right from the first time you meet them onscreen or on the page. But there are certain things that we get to do for the first time, that are taken as read in the book.
Shadow and Bone will premiere on Netflix on 23 April, 2021.