• Sat. Oct 29th, 2022

Shadow and Bone: Ben Barnes on being a mega-fan, and the role he looks back on and doesn’t ‘feel proud of’

May 5, 2021

English actor Ben Barnes has some experience being part of an epic fantasy movie based on beloved books. Hes felt the weight of those fan expectations before.After his break-out role as Prince Caspian in the second Chronicles of Narnia film, Barnes has taken more than a decade to return to a high-fantasy project, this time in Shadow and Bone, a Netflix series adapted from Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse books.
Set in a fantasy world called Ravka, derived from imperial Russia, Shadow and Bone is the story of a young woman named Alina (Jessie Mei Li), who discovers she is part of a group of powered beings called Grisha. Her particular skill is exceedingly rare – she can summon light.
It’s hoped that Alina’s powers will be enough to destroy The Fold, a parcel of land that splits Ravka in two, which is plunged in darkness and home to people-eating monsters called Volcra.
Alina is soon taken under the tutelage of General Kirigan (Barnes), the leader of the Grisha and whose own power to conjure darkness earnt him the nickname The Darkling. Alina and Kirigan’s opposing forces stir up a strange sexual chemistry.
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Bardugo’s young adult novels and short stories are hugely popular and already have tons of built-in fans who will likely have strong opinions on how the on-screen incarnations should look.
“I want people to feel like these characters have walked off the pages of the book,” Barnes told news.com.au. “But all I can do is try and make it feel like that to me, the way that I have imagined it and the way that I’ve talked about it with everyone.”
Barnes is a self-confessed, enthusiastic fan of Bardugo’s books, though he only discovered them when he was sent the script for the TV project. He and other cast members have WhatsApp groups in which they find themselves geeking out over the novels, then the scripts and, eventually, the finished episodes.
So, in many ways, whether the show and his performance as Kirigan is good has to pass Barnes’ own test as a fan.
“I think there are certain projects that I’ve done that I’m really proud of how they came across and there are other projects I’ve done where actually l’m like, ‘I don’t feel I captured this person’s essence, or I didn’t capture the humanity of this person’ so next time you task yourself with really trying to find that.
“I watch back something like Dorian Gray, for example, and in reading that book and watching this film, I don’t quite recognise what I had in my head and see on the screen. And that’s my responsibility.
“That’s why I don’t feel as proud of that performance necessarily because I didn’t have the skillset to translate it, and I feel like these years later, I found a lot of that and I feel like I do know how to do that.”
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Barnes played the titular role in Dorian Gray, based on Oscar Wilde’s book and also starring Colin Firth, in 2009, between the two Narnia movies he was in, before going on to book roles in The Punisher, Westworld, Sons of Liberty and the recent BBC series Gold Digger, opposite Julia Ormond.
Given that Barnes, 39, was the most established actor (alongside Zoe Wanamaker) in a cast of mostly young up-and-comers, he enjoyed his role as someone who had forged that path before and could be there for his younger colleagues.
“I felt like I had answers to questions if people had them, which was really rewarding for me. My parents work in mental health, so just to be someone who could be reassuring at the right time or help explain something or give someone a boost or kick if they needed one.”
For Li, 25, Shadow and Bone is her first major role to be released – she will also be in Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho which was filmed first but won’t be released until later this year because of pandemic-related delays.
Being number one on the call sheet usually comes with extra, unofficial responsibilities, and Li credited Barnes with some advice he gave her before filming.
“Ben said to me, ‘right, you’re number one, what you do will be a drip down and you set the bar for how people are going to be’. It was important to me that everyone was happy and every time we had new cast members, I would insist on taking out them to dinner.
“Being a mother hen came quite naturally.”
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The advice Li asked of Barnes was less about what was going on set and more to do with the process she’s going through now, the (mostly virtual) promotional tour. But she added that even though he’d been in the industry for much longer, he also asked her for advice.
“We would end up just constantly having these long discussions about all sorts of things. He would actually listen to me, which I really appreciated. And that’s why we became such good friends.”
She said she was “absolutely terrified” about the show’s release and that like Alina and her newfound notoriety as the “sun summoner”, paraded out for everyone to gawk at, Li wasn’t comfortable with the recognition that a lead role in a Netflix series would bring.
“The parallels between myself and Alina are bizarre,” Li explained. “Her whole story is about someone who doesn’t necessarily want all of this and suddenly everyone knows who she is. And I was thinking, ‘Oh, that’s kind of how I feel’.
“I love acting but I’m not someone who’s ever thought, ‘I’d love to be a famous person’.”
Li need not have worried about Shadow and Bone’s reception. In the week and change since Shadow and Bone was released, the series is still in Netflix’s top 10 charts and it’s been well received critically and by fans.
If the stars align, maybe the cast will get to reunite for another series.
Shadow and Bone filmed its first season in Budapest, a city that wasn’t home to the principal cast, which created a bond among the actors who were thrust together into an unknown city for months.
Barnes said there was a very “family feel” on the production, conjured through their shared experiences and “passion for sharing these stories”.
“I know every actor says that on every job – ‘it was our found family’ – and I hate it when I hear it but actually, we were in this together making this thing and we did bond over it. I really hope we get to do more of it.”
Shadow and Bone is streaming now on Netflix
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