For Jessie Mei Li, life has taken a course she never thought it would. “I didn’t think acting would ever be something I could make into a career. I went to university thinking I’d maybe become a teacher or work for the UN,” she says with a laugh over Zoom one afternoon, holed up in a flat in London where she has spent periods of lockdown throughout the past year. “After I left university, I started attending a couple of acting classes in the evening. It was just something I did for the sheer joy of it.”
Dressed in a smart blazer with her hair pulled back into a low bun, the thing that sticks out most about Li through the flattening sphere of a virtual call is the sheer force of her smile. She is free with her grins, eyes turning into pretty crescents each time either of us makes a joke. We bond immediately over a mutual interest in plant-based cuisine— she is a full-time vegan. When I ask her how she took the plunge, she gushes: “I’m not being hyperbolic—it was the best decision of my life. For me, veganism is not about health. It was initially for me about the environment, and then I learnt more about animal welfare and agriculture. Those became the key reasons why, despite for years saying that I could never give up my meat, I’ve been vegan for four years now.”
During those four years, a lot more than Li’s diet has changed. Freshly released in April, she plays the lead role of Alina Starkov in Netflix’s new fantasy-adventure series Shadow and Bone, based on the first book in the Grisha trilogy by author and executive producer Leigh Bardugo. What most surprises people about the 25-year-old is that prior to this career-making role, she has had a short (but meaningful) filmography, appearing in a handful of short films and on stage in All About Eve at the Noël Coward Theatre opposite Lily James and Gillian Anderson.
Now, stepping onto the silver screen for the first time in such a significant capacity, Li knows that her life is going to change. And it already has—particularly in the way she approaches social media. Her public Instagram account (marked with the tell-tale blue verification tick) has grown steadily in followers over the months since news of Shadow and Bone’s cast list first spread. She is not the most active user by any means—at the time of writing, she has a total of 14 posts up on her feed. They are a mix of self-portraits and snippets from the show, with a few notable exceptions. One particular video from her childhood shows a young Li spinning around in circles wearing a badger mask. The caption it accompanies is intimate and revealing. In honour of Neurodiversity Week, she writes: “I was diagnosed with ADHD at 24, which answered many lifelong questions, and I feel like I’m finally understanding myself… 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.”
The effect of a message like this on her nearly 60,000 followers is not lost on Li. “It’s strange to feel like you have an influence over other people. And I want people to make their own minds up and have their own opinions, but at the same time, if I’m going to have an influence over them, I’d like it to be positive. So using my platform to get my values across is important to me.”
Beyond the understanding that social media can be used as a positive tool, she is also having to contend with the fact that, now, her fans are going to want to look into her private life. In fact, the whole notion of what it means for her to have a private life has shifted. “I love all the wonderful messages I get—the Grishaverse fan base, in particular, is so lovely and supportive—and I want to respond to every single one. But sometimes you have to take a step back and find that balance for yourself. It took me a minute to get used to the fact that, suddenly, people were interested in old photos of me from years ago, at a friend’s birthday party. Or that they were following my friends and cousins on Instagram. It’s a bizarre feeling to have those two worlds collide.”
“One of the reasons Alina feels so authentic is because her experience with her heritage bleeds into everything she does on the show”
Her family life is one she clearly holds dear to her heart. It is easy to see why. Born in Brighton to a Chinese father and an English mother, she craves a deeper connection to her heritage. “I’m not as in touch with my Chinese heritage as I’d like to be. My dad came here when he was a teenager for school, and because of the bullying he experienced, he became the most English gentleman. Similarly for me, having grown up in the UK and having gone to school in a predominantly white area, I was always the Asian one, the Chinese one, but I don’t have ties to Hong Kong in the way that I would want to.”
Li’s backstory is strikingly similar to Starkov’s. The commonalities in their respective relationships with their heritage immediately stand out. “Alina is half Ravkan and half Shu. These countries are at war— meaning that for her entire life, she has been othered and racially abused. Obviously, lots of biracial people have different experiences of being mixed race, but to see my experience reflected in Alina’s character was really interesting to me. She’s grown up in this country where she is constantly reminded that she looks different—that she is different. But she doesn’t feel it. And that’s the kind of push and pull feeling you get when you are desperate to fit in, but everyone makes sure that you know you don’t.
“I was lucky in the way that Alina is written because the character feels so real to me. For example, if Alina were to meet someone from her mother’s home country, she wouldn’t know what to say, she wouldn’t be able to speak the language. Little things like those resonate with me, so it was super easy to step into her shoes.”
She enthusiastically credits the show’s writers for the diversity and well-rounded nature of the Shadow and Bone character list. “We have a great writing team. One of our writers, Christina Strain, is biracial like me—she’s half Korean and half American. That’s one of the reasons Alina feels so authentic because her experience with her heritage bleeds into everything she does on the show. It’s not the subject of every conversation that she has, but it’s the heart of her character.”
Her excitement about her character proves a point—diverse television teams produce diverse characters. Within Shadow and Bone, for example, Starkov’s character is not the only one that displays an intersectional identity made richer by the experience of someone behind the scenes. Executive producer Bardugo suffers from osteonecrosis, a degenerative condition that makes it painful for her to walk. Like the show’s criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker, she uses a cane. She notes: “It wasn’t until I stepped back from the first draft that I realised I had written this character, Kaz, who was going to give me so much strength and swagger as I had to take my cane out into the world for the first time. And I also didn’t understand that so many people who are using mobility aids, who are living with pain and who saw themselves in Kaz will maybe get to feel a little bit tougher and a little bit more dangerous, too.”
“I’d audition for an Asian role and they would say, ‘Oh, we’re looking for someone more Asian’”
With the global surge in anti-Asian racism and violence over the past year, the power of quality representation of this kind has never been more apparent. Li’s own experience with racism is one that she instinctually minimises, largely because it is composed of micro-aggressions. The impact that these can have, however, should never be underestimated.
“The racism I experienced growing up was sort of insidious and under the radar. A lot of times, I didn’t really acknowledge it. In the UK, racism towards Southeast Asians and East Asians was always seen as a joke. So you could do things like call me Jackie Chan and do awful accents and get away with it. And then, when I started acting, I’d audition for an Asian role and they would say, ‘Oh, we’re looking for someone more Asian’. Or I’d go for a white role and they would say, Oh, you look a bit exotic’. Then you just think, okay, then what? For a long time that really messed with my self-esteem because I thought that I just wasn’t going to get any of these roles,” Li reflects.
She adds: “Race is definitely something that’s been on my mind as the show makes its way into the world. I hope that, even if it’s just a little, we can change people’s minds and preconceived ideas about race. Even if it’s set in a fantasy world and they’re not real places, in a subtle way, the show highlights the absurdity of racism.”
Li and I grapple with the weight of what this show could possibly achieve and how important its values are in our current climate. Then I ask her whom she is most keen to show her new work to. She doesn’t have to think twice—her answer is on the tip of her tongue: “My ah ma lives really far away in Vancouver. I don’t speak Cantonese well and she doesn’t speak English well, so we mostly talk via my dad. I don’t know if she’ll understand all of what’s going on, but I think she will be really, really excited to see me on screen. I can’t wait for her to watch it.”
Photography Liam Jackson
Fashion Julia Brenard