With millions of views as the lead in Netflix's wildly popular series Shadow and Bone, a stint on the West End in Ivo van Hove's adaptation of All About Eve alongside Lily James and Gillian Anderson, and a debut feature credit in Edgar Wright's Last Night in Soho, Jessie Mei Li has had an impressive start over the last few years. But for the 27-year-old English actor, who is mixed race (her father is Cantonese and her mother is Caucasian), her career almost didn't happen. "For a long time, I didn't get into acting because I felt like a bit of a mongrel," says Li. "I wasn't Asian enough to play an Asian role—I didn't speak Cantonese or Mandarin. I remember one of my friends at school who also wanted to be an actor once said to me that I would never be able to play Elizabeth Bennet [from Pride and Prejudice], and I was like, 'Oh, fuck, you're right. They're never going to cast someone that looks like me in a period drama.'"
Thankfully, the landscape of theater and cinema has changed since Li first developed a fondness for the performing arts. Describing herself as always "a bit of a performer," Li grew up in Surrey, England, and had an affinity for school plays and putting on puppet shows with her brother. But when it came time to go to university, she tried to keep to a more linear path and opted to study languages until a turbulent stretch that she now attributes to her then-undiagnosed ADHD forced her to consider other plans. "Like many undiagnosed neurodivergent people, I've been plagued with bad mental health issues over the years," says Li. "There's been lots of self-pressure and lots of issues. I dropped out of uni because I was pretty unwell and I just thought, 'What can I do that I find just fun, just for now, just to make me happy, and to maybe meet some people and start a fresh part of my life?'"
Her search began with a four-week course at the National Youth Theatre, which led to filmmaking courses and auditions and ignited a sense of adventure Li says she had been yearning for, even as she was met with challenges. "When I started off going to auditions, it was just like, 'We want an Asian girl—no, you're not Asian enough.' Or, 'We want a pretty, white girl. Wait, maybe you're a bit too exotic, or we need to explain it. It might be confusing if you're mixed race,'" recalls Li. "Sometimes when you're working at a level when you're starting and you don't really know what's going on, people can say shit like that to you and you just think it's normal."
In the case of Shadow and Bone, the casting call was specifically looking for someone with Li's mix of Caucasian and Asian heritage. As the bestselling fantasy novel series by Leigh Bardugo was being adapted into a live-action television show for Netflix, there was initial apprehension from the fanbase about the racial difference of the main character, Alina Starkov. Portrayed by Li, Alina was written in the novels with characteristics coded as Caucasian as a citizen of Ravka, but the show's creators felt that altering her backstory to be half-Ravkan and half-Shu, an Asian-inspired race, created a more compelling character that felt truer to the story. Li was hesitant at first about the change being made just for the sake of diversity but quickly became excited about the fantasy world when she read the screenplay. "It was really important to me that they didn't just cast me for a diversity box tick," she says.
In the first season of Shadow and Bone, Alina experiences overt racism as a half-Shu, half-Ravkan character, two races at war with each other, when she discovers she's a member of the Grisha, a set of human beings with magical powers. Realizing she possesses the rare prophesied power to control light as the Sun Summoner, Alina is tasked with taking down dark forces that control her homeland with the help of a diverse group of friends she makes along the way. In the recently released second season, Alina is still confronted with the same challenges, but her heritage isn't explored as much, which led Li to find other ways to ensure that it remains a part of her character. "Even though it's not necessarily in the writing in season two that we talk about Alina's heritage or anything, I still feel like in my performance and in the headspace I created for her, her feeling outside of everything and feeling rejected and all of that is so ingrained in her character," says Li. "Even if it's not necessarily spoken about, I feel like the people at home watching who have the same experience maybe can recognize some of themselves in those interactions."
Filming Shadow and Bone has also given Li the opportunity to reflect on how her own family history plays into her life. A sentiment shared by many people of mixed heritage, Li often had a complicated relationship with identifying with either camp and didn't realize how much she had internalized those emotions. "It took until doing Shadow and Bone to really sit with those feelings and think it through because I hadn't ever had to actually talk about that kind of thing," she says. "Then suddenly I'm doing interviews like this where people are asking me like, 'How do you feel about your heritage,' and I actually have never really sat down and thought about it. In the last few years, lots of things are coming to the surface and I'm trying to work through them. But what better time to do it than in your late twenties! Best time yet."
By portraying such a beloved character on a platform as far-reaching as Netflix, Li's role is a reminder of the importance of representation—besides being mixed race, Li also identifies as gender nonconforming and uses she/her and they/them pronouns. "So many people come up to me, especially women and non-binary people, who are mixed or even fully Asian, and say how important the character is and how inspiring it is and how much it means to them to see someone who looks like them on screen," says Li. Now, after putting so much pressure on herself and what it means to hold space on the screen, the actor is finally giving herself a break from the burden of self-pressure. "I think I hold it at very high standards like, 'Oh, okay, you're going to cast me? Well, we need to involve the heritage in the story,'" reflects Li. "But actually, I've made my peace with the fact that just in the nature of the way that I look and the experiences that I've had, sometimes that is enough, and that's really nice."
Shadow and Bone is now streaming on Netflix.
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