Netflix's buzzy new series Shadow and Bone transports viewers to a sweeping, intricate fantasy land bursting with magical terms and epic destinations. But while fans immerse themselves in the show's Grishaverse, Shadow and Bone star Jessie Mei Li is occupying a different world. If you've ever gone down the vast rabbit hole of niche YouTube essays and commentary videos, you'll understand why they live rent-free in Li's head.
Li became obsessed with this subset of YouTube during the coronavirus lockdown in 2020, when they decided to pass the time by putting on Vox explainer videos — which dissect everything from reality TV casting to online voter suppression — while cooking. Soon, they were transfixed by the enormous array of topics YouTubers are able to break down. "I just thought, 'Oh, I had no idea all this stuff was here,'" the 25-year-old actor tells Elite Daily. "Honestly, I felt ancient."
From there, Li became engrossed in YouTube essays that unpack all things film and TV, from videos exploring the implications of color-blind vs. identity-conscious casting to those that recount the strange history of 2019's Cats. "So many people are so interesting and have so much to say," Li says. "These videos are so well-researched. I love that people can just do that in their bedroom."
The Shadow and Bone star often finds themselves mentally planning out potential YouTube essays of their own. Although they insist any video attempt would end up as footage of Li "just rambling on," they have a solid topic in mind: Li, who has shared about their experiences as a person with ADHD, is passionate about neurodivergence awareness and acceptance. "I think talking about depictions of neurodivergence in film and TV, and also the way that so many [of these] stories are that kind of underdog story, and how that affects society. Because that obviously isn't the reality for everyone," Li says.
Li is enthralled by YouTube's ability to educate people about, well, anything in an engaging, accessible way. "I really love learning, but I did not like learning at school. I was a bit naughty, because I just didn't feel engaged enough," Li says. "I think if I'd had stuff like that when I was that age, I would have just gotten obsessed with a particular topic. I feel like I'm a kid and I'm going through the encyclopedia."
Warning: Spoilers for Shadow and Bone Season 1 follow. Given that Shadow and Bone is one of Netflix's biggest new shows, Li is prepared to hear commentary about their show, whatever it may be. "I was [talking about this] like, 'Oh my gosh. What if some of my favorite YouTubers say my name?' I would be fangirling," Li says. "It'd be interesting to hear [people's] thoughts on world-building, or thoughts on the depiction of race and LGBTQ+ characters. I heartily encourage criticism. I think it's good to have those discussions."
For longtime fans of author Leigh Bardugo's Shadow and Bone books (which inspired the show), the differences between the source material and the new series certainly offer plenty for viewers to discuss. In a change from the novels, Alina is now a biracial girl with ancestors from Shu Han (a country that roughly corresponds to this world's East Asia). Shadow and Bone's central Kingdom of Ravka is at odds with the Shu people, thus making Alina's journey as an outsider even more nuanced and placing an Asian protagonist at the center of a huge fantasy series.
"It's so important, I think, to see accurate depictions of not just Asian people, but also mixed race people specifically. That constant othering is one of those really weird, slow, insidious things that affects you so much as a person," Li says. "It's like you go into different modes, almost. And it was just really nice for me to be able to put those feelings and those thoughts into this character."
In another welcome change from the books that's sparked plenty of commentary, Alina is given agency that she wasn't originally afforded in the original story — particularly in her relationships. Alina's ties to her childhood best friend Mal (Archie Renaux) and the powerful yet dangerous Grisha leader General Kirigan (Ben Barnes) are hugely important in both the novels and the show, but they're not reduced to just another YA love triangle. "[Mal and Alina's relationship is] platonic, and there's this almost familial love between them, which I think is really important. It's a very different relationship to that of Kirigan, which is more exciting and lusty," Li says. "So it's less [about] who she's going to pick, and more 'this person appeals to this side of her and this person appeals to this side of her.'"
Ever since the original Shadow and Bone book trilogy was first released, there have been critical discussions surrounding Alina's problematic relationship with Kirigan, who is literally hundreds of years older than her and wields significant power over her and the other Grisha. While Kirigan basically seduces the younger, much more innocent Alina in the books, Li appreciates how the show gave their character much more say in the pair's fraught relationship. "In the books, Kirigan [comes] on to Alina, and he's the one who makes the first move. And while that's quite an exciting scene, there's more of a power dynamic there than we wanted," Li says. "We wanted at that point for us to feel like equals. You want to be able to almost root for them, so when that betrayal happens, it's fraught. For me as an actor, [Kirigan's] betrayal is so much worse because it's her decision."
Season 1 ended with Alina finally harnessing her powers to their full extent, breaking free of Kirigan's influence and running away with Mal with the intention to someday destroy the Fold. It's a perfect setup for what seems like an inevitable Season 2, and Li has some thoughts about what comes next: "Throughout this season, Alina is trying her best and wants to be a good person. But I think there's room for her to be tempted to this darker side, to the side of her that's within Kirigan almost, and I'd love for that to be explored."
Shadow and Bone Season 1 will certainly be a star-making turn for Li, as well as the likely inspiration for plenty of the YouTube commentary videos they love to watch. And if they decide to make some videos of their own someday, they can count on a loyal fanbase to tune in.
In Elite Daily’s series Rent-Free, celebrities unpack the one thought, memory, or unforgettable pop culture moment that'll always live in their head. Read more here.