Jessie Mei Li Is Netflix’s Latest Breakout Star—and She’s All Kinds of Cool

If you were about to star as the lead in a new show dubbed the next Game of Thrones, you’d probably freak out, right? But then again, if you’re Jessie Mei Li, you’ll probably just carry on as normal. The up-and-coming 25-year-old British actress stars in Netflix’s latest mega-production, the adaptation of author Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone young-adult (YA) series. The show follows Li’s character, the protagonist, Alina Starkov, as she navigates discovering and ultimately revealing her hidden powers. It’s a classic underdog-to-superhero tale.

I’m talking to Li over Zoom only a week after the release of the show—the peak of Shadow and Bone’s hype. Since landing on our screens, it’s stayed at number one on Netflix UK’s most-watched shows and is currently number two in the U.S. I can’t help but immediately ask the obvious: Has life changed overnight? “I’ve never been drawn to the idea of celebrity and that kind of thing. I’m not cool enough to be in the public eye,” she laughs. When we chatted, Li, clad in an oversized T-shirt, shorts, and her signature nose ring, told me that she was actually at her mom’s house in Surrey, where she grew up—surely the ultimate signifier that she’s not been drawn into the celebrity world just yet. “It is weird because I’m the same, but people’s perception of [me] is different. And that’s what I think is important to remember because I am just exactly the same person and will, hopefully, continue to be the same person,” she says. “It is bizarre [that] as soon as your face is on TV, everyone thinks, ‘Oh, I want to talk to you now.’” 

The thing is, like GOT, Shadow and Bone already comes with a dedicated, highly enthusiastic fan base, so it’s easy to see how someone more susceptible might get their head turned and go full “Don’t you know who I am?” in no time. After chatting with Li, I can’t ever imagine her behaving that way. She mostly enjoys hanging out with her friends in Bristol, where she lives, and loves spending time rummaging around big vintage shopspretty normal, really. I ask Li about her interactions with fans of the book series, expecting a couple of stories, and she doesn’t disappoint. “Some of the fans of the books found out we were cast before we were even announced,” she tells me. “They did some Twitter digging and went through [who] the author was following. From even before we started shooting, this was the summer of 2019, I’d had people already screenshotting all of my photos [on Instagram].” 

After watching the show, which I binged in one weekend, I simply can’t see how the GOT comparison holds up, and Li agrees: “I’ve always been like, ‘Don’t compare it to GOT,’ because it’s actually nothing like it. It is so unlike it. The only thing they share is the genre. And even then, it’s so different, set in such a different time period. When I have been asked, the thing that I always found I could compare it to is Star Wars.” I tell her that I found it more like The Hunger Games thanks to the powerful female lead and the fact that it’s a YA adaptation, but then that would put her as the next Jennifer Lawrence, which I realize is no less daunting than the GOT comparisons. 

If Li feels the pressure of these parallels, you can’t tell, and there’s absolutely no hint of ego. Li is understandably keen to talk about the role, but I also want to know a bit more about her relationship with fashion. The day before we chatted, the Who What Wear team captured Li in a range of vibrant designer looks on the streets of Chelsea, with The Cadogan Hotel on Sloane Street as our base. During the shoot, in which Li is wearing a variety of bold outfits that celebrate a more optimistic mood for our wardrobes and social lives, she says that she fell in love with the puff-sleeve Loewe dress the most but that she was so happy to have such fun pieces to try on. Dressing during a pandemic hasn’t been particularly inspiring for many of us, but it turns out Li’s innate personal style is already perfectly aligned with ushering in a joyful new era. “My wardrobe kind of looks a bit like a dressing-up box a child might have [laughs],” she says. “I absolutely love clothes, and I love putting together outfits. They don’t always look right, they don’t always look well put together, but part of our identity is how we dress. Sometimes, I might be with a friend and they’ll say, ‘What are you wearing?’ And I go, ‘Do you know what? I’m wearing what I wanna wear, and I think I look cool, so I don’t really care what you think.’”

Clothes are important to Li in real life, but they’re also vital for her character’s transition, and the show’s costume designer, Wendy Partridge (Pompeii, Resident Evil) worked alongside Li to illustrate Alina’s journey. “The whole point of Alina is she starts off as someone who’s hidden away and she’s not important and she doesn’t want to be in the limelight and she’s in this scrappy, ill-fitting army uniform,” says Li. “And I think that added very much to those scenes.” As the story progresses, Alina then reveals her abilities and starts to wear the heavily embroidered kefta dresses that move in a more powerful direction.

The world Alina inhabits isn’t one you know, but it will feel familiar. Alina and her best friend, Mal, grew up as orphans in Keramzin in the Kingdom of Ravka. The story starts with the duo as adults, now part of the army, marching through The Fold, which is a terrifying darkness that cuts off Ravka from the sea and is filled with monsters called Volcra. The Grisha, who possess powers, help the army to cross The Fold safely. However, on this particular crossing, Alina and Mal’s ship is attacked, and when Mal is nearly killed by the Volcra, Alina’s powers appear, proving that she’s part of the Grisha. While the plot is completely fantastical, Alina’s character is still relatable thanks to her compulsion to help out her friend. “I loved playing her,” says Li. “I’m brash and loud and ridiculous. And it was great to play someone more overtly sensitive.”

Another important and timely element of the story is the theme of racism that’s threaded throughout the narrative. In the show, Alina is mixed-race and faces discrimination for it, while in reality, Li, whose father is Chinese, has been outspoken about racist attacks against Asians. She sees the significance of being on a show that addresses this, especially this year, even if it’s set in a fictional place and with a fictional race. “Racism towards Asians has always been there. In my lifetime, [when I was] growing up, people literally to my face denied people are racist to Asian people,” she recalls. “While these are fantasy races [in Shadow and Bone] and Alina is not an ‘Asian character,’ this ridiculous kind of discrimination actually does happen in our world all the time, and I don’t think it’s good to shy away from it. I’m so proud of the show and to be a part of it. And people are already talking about it, and that’s important.”

Photography by Phill Taylor 

Styling by Holly White at The Wall Group

Hair by Halley Brisker at The Wall Group

Makeup by Naoko Scintu at The Wall Group using Omorovicza

Fashion assistance by Imy Moore

With thanks to The Cadogan, A Belmond Hotel, London

This post originally appeared on Who What Wear UK.

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