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The Transformation Of Jessie Mei Li From Childhood To Shadow And Bone

The fantasy drama series "Shadow and Bone" is dominating the Netflix charts. Based on Leigh Bardugo's popular Grishaverse novels, "Shadow and Bone" takes place in a fictionalized version of Russia called Ravka. It's a land torn apart by terrifying forces of darkness and monsters, and only the legendary Sun Summoner can save it. Enter Alina Starkov, an orphan-turned-soldier who discovers she holds immense powers herself. The show follows her journey of self-discovery along with her mission to save her people — not to mention an entire subplot that involves a gang of thieves looking to capture her for a hefty price.

The relative newcomer playing Starkov is none other than Jessie Mei Li, an English actress (who uses she/they pronouns). While "Shadow and Bone" undoubtedly thrust them into the international spotlight, Li has a few impressive projects to their name already, including music videos and a professional stage debut. Let's take a look at Li's life from childhood up until now.

Li always had an interest in acting

In a discussion with Elle, Jessie Mei Li explained that they'd had an interest in acting since childhood but never quite thought it would be their future career. After realizing college wasn't for them and subsequently dropping out, Li figured they'd try their hand at acting: "I remember thinking, loads of my friends and family don't know how I'm feeling. I must be better at acting than I give myself credit for." According to Li's acting profile, they enrolled in classes at the National Youth Theatre and completed training at the Identity School of Acting. Soon after, they were cast in their professional stage debut: Ivo van Hove's adaptation of "All About Eve," opposite Lily James and Gillian Anderson.

Li spoke to You Magazine about their first big role: "In 2019, I was cast in the West End production of All About Eve with Gillian Anderson and Lily James," she explained. "I was Claudia Casswell, who Marilyn Monroe played in the film version. There were two blonde girls auditioning, who really looked the part, so I thought I was wasting my time, but the director hadn't seen the film, and wanted to put his spin on it." Soon after their success onstage, Li was cast in "Shadow and Bone" — and the rest is history.

Li has been in music videos

Before "Shadow and Bone," Jessie Mei Li was in London-based musician Uri Sade's music video for his song "A Thousand Ringing Bells." Li played one half of a couple who'd broken up and were reminiscing on their time together. More recently, Li was in James Humphrys' music video for "Three Weeks," which they also helped edit and co-direct.

Humphrys told With Guitars about his experience working with Li, whom he'd first met back in school. "She has always said she likes my music and so one night out at the pub I asked her if she would like to feature in the video for my latest single. She said yes and as things turned out she did a lot more than just feature in it. She basically thought up the concept and directed the whole thing. Performing alongside such a talented actor certainly took me out of my comfort zone but I learnt a lot and I'm really proud of what we managed to achieve together." 

While Li hasn't done any other behind-the-scenes projects since then, we're excited to see if they continue down that creative route in the future.

Li struggled with their biracial identity growing up

Jessie Mei Li has spoken extensively about their experience growing up biracial in a predominantly white city. They told Vogue about the racism they experienced: "Growing up, especially during school and college, I put up with a lot of microaggressions and also just outright racist comments." Not seeing much Asian representation in mainstream media didn't help — but now, Li sees their role in "Shadow and Bone" as an opportunity to change the narrative about Asian people in pop culture. "... I think it is important that we have accurate and well written representation [of characters] who are real people, who aren't just stereotypes, who have wants and needs and fears and flaws. Because then they're human."

Though Bardugo originally wrote Starkov as a white woman, the role was changed to better fit Li's cultural background. Li was born in England to a white mother and a Chinese-born, Hong Kong-raised father. And now, in "Shadow and Bone," Starkov is also biracial, with one Ravkian parent and one parent from Su Han, a fictionalized version of China. While Li confessed they were initially wary about that casting decision, they described the importance of representation to Elle. "Not only is Alina's ethnicity really important to the world-building — we understand who's at war with whom — [but] it's important for her as a character," they explained. "Her journey is, essentially, where do I belong? And as a person of mixed heritage, you grow up thinking, 'Well, I'm not X enough, I'm not Y enough.' They wove that into the story."

Li learned about themself with the help of Shadow and Bone

While filming "Shadow and Bone," Jessie Mei Li often found themself unable to sit still for long periods of time. Once filming wrapped, they sought a professional opinion and was diagnosed with ADHD. Li took to Instagram to share their diagnosis alongside a video of them dancing around in a badger mask as a child. "I was diagnosed with ADHD at 24, which answered many life long questions, and I feel like I'm finally understanding myself," they wrote. "[T]o all you wonderful neurodivergent people out there, keep being you." They continued the heartfelt post with encouraging messages to those who are neurodivergent, neurotypical, and everyone in between.

Li told The Guardian that their ADHD diagnosis was a defining moment for them. "It completely changed how I viewed loads of things in my life, and made me really reconsider the way I think about things. In the past I was constantly late for things and forgetting things and losing things, and I remember as a teenager, my mum being like, 'Oh, you just need to be more careful.' And I'm like, 'I am really careful.' I felt like no one believed me ever." Li further expressed that they hope to be a positive representation for others who are struggling with their own diagnoses, saying, "I'd love to be someone they [people who've just been diagnosed] can look at and say, 'OK, that person has been through that as well.'"