Fantasy has long struggled with inclusive casting. Despite being stories constrained only by our imaginations, the genre has often gone back to the Hollywood default, a.k.a. centering whiteness and relegating actors of color to stereotypical roles. But Netflix’s new show Shadow and Bone upends those expectations. Its heroic leads, Alina (Jessie Mei Li) and Mal (Archie Renaux), are both played by actors of color, and their casting has changed the shape of the story. Even better is that they’re by no means alone. When Nerdist took part in a roundtable chat about the series, we spoke to the show’s creator, Eric Heisserer, the author of the Shadow and Bone series, Leigh Bardugo, and star Jessie Mei Li about casting their inclusive fantasy series.
A chance to rectify the past
Bardugo wrote the first Shadow and Bone book over a decade ago. The show gave her a chance to look back on her work. It also made her think about what she wished she could change. “I think I’ve become a very different author, a more confident author, and quite frankly a more skilled author,” Bardugo said. “So there are things I can look back on on the first trilogy, and say, ‘You know, I really wish that I had done this a little bit differently.’ And oh look, now I have an opportunity to do that.”
She continued. “I’ve been very candid about the fact that when I wrote that first book, I was really echoing a lot of the fantasy I had grown up on and it is consequently a very straight, very white story. I think you can see as my books progress, I really start to reflect what our world looks like in a more realistic way. So that was something I wanted to make sure that we not only carried over that but that the show could do better than I had done. And I hope that will get better yet.”
Striving for something better
The goal to strive for better was something Bardugo shared with showrunner Heisserer. He was also quick to give credit to his inclusive writing team who shaped the journey. “The show represents the Grishaverse world especially with the inclusion of Kerch and Ketterdam. So the DNA of it was already there, and it was a matter of doing our best to embrace that,” Heisserer stated. “Part of that came from the diversity of my writing team. They all showed up because they had a favorite character. They were excited about seeing some version of themselves on the screen. It became my job to get out of their way so that they can tell those stories in a way that felt authentic to their experience but then still holds true to the characters in the book. We didn’t want to violate any of that.”
It’s clear that Heisserer and the crew saw the show as a chance to make steps towards the kind of inclusive storytelling they all care so much about. “It’s really just trying to make as much headway as possible into that diversity because it represents the real world,” he said. “We don’t have a world that is just straight and white, thankfully. It’s a matter of doing whatever we can here and, honestly, there’s a lot more to do. But progress is made not in giant leaps sometimes, but in steps. So hopefully everybody likes the faces and the characters we see now, and we get to just add more to that.”
“It’s organic, it’s normal.”
Bardugo agreed with Heisserer, adding another thought about the inclusivity conversation. “I think there’s this weird way that we talk about diversity in media where people view it as something artificial when in fact it is actually a reversion to reality and the way the world does look around us,” Bardugo added. “And if your world is all straight and white, you should perhaps make more friends. But there is a weird idea that there’s something unnatural or contrived about it. But that is not the way that this world functions at all. It’s organic, it’s normal.”
As for the eternal Hollywood myth that it’s hard to cast inclusively, Bardugo had a decisive take. She said, “I don’t think casting is hard because there are so many actors of color who are hungry for roles to play something other than a sidekick. And there are so many authors of color who are waiting to see their work adapted. So we’re one tiny step, but I hope that we’ll see a lot more of that in the future.”
Bringing lived experiences to the screen
Jessie Mei Li brings the show’s heroine Alina to life. Just like this series’ version of Alina, the actress is mixed race. “I was able to bring quite a lot of my own experiences to Alina, given the fact that they decided to make her mixed race, which is something in my life that has definitely shaped who I am. Definitely something I think lots of mixed race people understand is that you never really feel like you belong anywhere. That can really affect you and how you interact with people. So I could take that and give that to Alina, in that she’s told every day of her life that she looks like the enemy and she’s never really accepted. That’s going to affect who you are as a person.”
That concept really stuck with the actress and was something she could relate to on a personal level. “I’m not the enemy. Look at me, I’m gentle. I’m soft-spoken,” she shared. “But you also have to have this thick skin and this ability to stand up for yourself. It was so easy to slip into that role given the fact that I had experienced that kind of thing before. I’m so thankful for our writers who just did an amazing job at really, really making Alina feel like a real person.”
Shadow and Bone hits Netflix on April 23.
Featured Image: Netflix