Jessie Mei Li talks Shadow and Bone season two and becoming Alina Starkov

Jessie Mei Li returns to our screens as Alina Starkov for the second season of Netflix’s Shadow and Bone. In this exclusive photoshoot and interview for Something About Rocks, Li discusses all things season 2, her jewellery taste, ‘signature’ nose piercings and shimmering in Louis Vuitton’s LV Volt collection

Photography by Morgan Hill-Murphy, Styling by Brillant Nyansago, Story by Will Lavin

Jessie Mei Li might be one of acting’s hottest new talents but there are still times when she finds her newfound fame a little bewildering. “I feel ridiculous sometimes when I talk to my friends about what I’m doing,” she admits. “Like, ‘Oh, I’m just off to London today to do a photoshoot for Something About Rocks.’ It feels so strange, but at the same time I’m really enjoying it.”

The 27-year-old, who currently lives in Bristol, meets us at Lock Studios deep in the heart of Hoxton, North London, overlooking Regent’s Canal. Donning a new look, fans of Li’s shoulder-length brown hair will be surprised to see she’s chopped it all off in favour of a bleached blonde pixie cut. “It’s my Slim Shady phase,” she jokes referring to rapper Eminem’s signature hairstyle of the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. Regardless of the change, she stuns as she models Louis Vuitton’s ‘LV Volt’ fine jewellery collection for today’s shoot.

The brainchild of Francesca Amfitheatrof, Louis Vuitton’s Artistic Director for Watches and Jewellery, the unisex ‘LV Volt’ offering cleverly abstracts the LV capitals into bold, gold, angular talismans – the perfect accompaniment to Li’s energetic spirit on set today.

Jessie Mei Li wears Louis Vuitton yellow gold ‘LV Volt’ one earrings set with diamonds; yellow gold ‘LV Volt’ one cuff set with diamonds; Louis Vuitton jumper

A relative newcomer to the acting scene, it was only a few years ago that Li, who uses both she/her and they/ them pronouns, dropped out of university at Reigate College in Surrey and was working as a special education teaching assistant. After deciding to try her hand at acting classes, she soon started auditioning for roles but was met with a lot of rejection to begin with.

Jessie Mei Li
Jessie Mei Li wears Louis Vuitton pink gold ‘LV Volt’ upside down earrings; and yellow gold ‘LV Volt’ mesh necklace; Louis Vuitton blazer

However, one of these failed auditions landed her an agent and before she knew it, she was treading the boards in a West End stage adaptation of All About Eve, starring as Miss Casswell, a role initially made famous by Marilyn Monroe in the 1950 film.

She made her major motion picture debut with a small role in Edgar Wright’s critically acclaimed 2021 film, Last Night in Soho, and she’s soon set to star as one of the leads in the upcoming Gareth Evans crime thriller Havoc. But Li’s rapid notoriety is mostly due to her breakout role as Alina Starkov in the Netflix fantasy series Shadow and Bone.

Jessie Mei Li wears yellow gold ‘LV Volt’ upside down ring; white gold ‘LV Volt’ multi ring; yellow gold ‘LV Volt’ upside down play large bracelet; Louis Vuitton shirt

Based on Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse novels, the series follows a young military cartographer (Li) who uncovers a magic power that might unify her world, whilst sinister forces plot against her — think Willow meets Game of Thrones meets His Dark Materials. Quickly becoming a hit, the show’s first season, which arrived in April 2021, topped streaming charts across the globe, all while fans of the books fell in love with Li’s enchanting portrayal of the franchise’s key protagonist.

Ahead of the release of Shadow and Bone’s second season, Jessie Mei Li talks to Something About Rocks about the show’s astronomical impact, growing up in a multicultural home, her ‘signature’ nose piercings and the importance of John Woo films.

Did you enjoy today’s shoot?

It was really good. It was my first real shoot since getting back into [the press cycle]. It’s always fun meeting new people and trying on new clothes and jewellery, and it turns out I’d actually worked with a few people from the team before which was really nice.

Were there any pieces you took a particular liking to?

The Louis Vuitton gold choker was amazing. It’s such a statement piece and made me feel like a queen from a bygone era. But more than just the jewellery, I loved seeing all the looks that [stylist] Brill [Nyansago] put together. I liked the hair and makeup as well. I think they went for something a bit different, probably because I turned up with my hair half bleached and multicoloured eyebrows.

Jessie Mei Li for Something About Rocks
Jessie Mei Li wears Louis Vuitton yellow gold ‘LV Volt’ one earrings set with diamonds; yellow gold ‘LV Volt’ upside down ring; yellow gold ‘LV Volt’ one ring set with diamonds; Louis Vuitton dress

How would you best describe your jewellery tastes?

I like big statement pieces. I also like things that are ironic. A lot of the jewellery I wear day to day is quite garish and over the top. I like the contradiction of big bolshy shapes on my more feminine bone structure. I’ve got a lot of pretty funky jewellery and things that really don’t match any of my clothes. I love chokers and I’ve got my nose piercings, which are normally quite a big part of my look.

Your nose piercings have been referred to as your ‘signature’ by a few fans and critics. How do you feel about that?

I’m not sure exactly how I feel about that. They’re not actually in my face right now; so I feel naked. I’m really attached to them. I got my nose pierced when I was 15 and what really bothered me was the asymmetry of it so I needed to get the other side done. The studs and septum piercing say something that I can’t quite put it into words. It telegraphs something but I don’t quite know what it is, I think it’s up to the beholder to decide.

Jessie Mei Li
Jessie Mei Li wears Louis Vuitton white gold ‘LV Volt’ one stud earrings set with diamonds; white gold ‘LV Volt’ upside down ring set with diamonds; white gold ‘LV Volt’ upside down chain bracelet set with diamonds; Louis Vuitton dress

The asymmetry thing kind of makes sense because you’ve been diagnosed with ADHD. How does this impact the jewellery you wear?

I’m quite tactile as a person. I feel everything and I’m very sensitive. One of the things that I do a lot with my nose piercings, I do this [scrunches top lip to touch the bottom of her nose], and it’s quite comforting for me because I can feel it. I haven’t got it in right now and so it’s really odd. I keep going [gestures aforementioned action] and it’s not there and I don’t like it. When we were shooting Shadow and Bone and I was in costume at work as Alina, I didn’t have my nose piercings in. The second I got out of work, I would put them in immediately. You know in Inception when Leonardo DiCaprio spins the [totem] to see if he’s in a dream? I’m not joking, sometimes I’ll feel like that with my nose piercings and I’m like, “Yeah, I’m me.”

What is your earliest jewellery memory?

My brother and I were both gifted Chinese Zodiac necklaces as babies — mine has a pig on it. My mum took such good care of them. She had them all hidden away and it would only come out on special occasions, like if we went to visit my Chinese family. That was always really special.

Do you still wear it today?

I do. Everyone in my family has got a gold chain. My uncles, my brother, my dad always has a gold chain on, and I’ve got one. It’s nice when we’re all together and we’ve got this thing we all share. It’s really lovely but subtle at the same time.

Jessie Mei Li
Jessie Mei Li wears Louis Vuitton white gold ‘LV Volt’ one stud earrings set with diamonds; white gold ‘LV Volt’ upside down ring set with diamonds; white gold ‘LV Volt’ upside down chain bracelet set with diamonds; Louis Vuitton dress

Besides the obvious entertainment factor, the first season of Shadow and Bone was celebrated for not conforming to traditional gender norms. It’s implied that your character is bisexual but is never actually confirmed. Does this part of Alina’s story arc evolve any further in season 2?

We definitely see a more fleshed out version of Alina. It’s obviously very difficult playing a first-person perspective character from a book because so much of what goes on with Alina and her characterisation from the books goes on in her head. So it was a challenge trying to telegraph things without showing too much.

There are forums online where fans have been discussing Alina’s sexuality. What do you think about this?

I love that there’s forums about Alina being bi. It’s hilarious because it’s actually never specified in the show.

Jessie Mei Li
Jessie Mei Li wears Louis Vuitton yellow gold ‘LV Volt’ one earrings set with diamonds; yellow gold ‘LV Volt’ upside down ring; yellow gold ‘LV Volt’ one ring set with diamonds; Louis Vuitton dress

You yourself are pansexual and some fans have been trying to figure out if Alina’s sexuality is somehow connected to your own. Is there any truth to this theory?

Well, this is the thing. Daisy [Head], who plays Genya, who I’m assuming is who everyone is talking about, she’s the love of my life; I would marry her if she was gay but she’s not. She’s one of my best friends in the world. And it’s funny because we sort of laughed about how Alina and Genya just have so much chemistry because we love each other so much. So it’s almost like we accidentally gave the characters a bit of spice. We just can’t help it. So there’s definitely more Alina and Genya just being in love with each other, but not specifically intimately.

More than your character’s sexuality, a lot was made of the fact that Alina is mixed race because she’s not in the books. It’s also rare to see an Asian female lead, especially in the fantasy genre. Have you received any messages from fans thanking you for your portrayal?

I’ve met a lot of fans who have come to meet us at conventions and things like that who are mixed race, not even necessarily the same mix as me, and they’ve really, really attached themselves to the character and really felt seen. I don’t think I realised before doing this show how important it is for some people to feel represented, and that makes it so much more exciting when the show comes out, knowing that there’ll be like a 13 year old who’s just over the moon to feel seen. So that’s really great. Plus I think it makes sense for there just to be more diversity generally.

Read the full interview in the spring 2023 issue of Something About Rocks, available here.

Hair by Emma Small at Stella Creative Artists, using Dr. Pawpaw, Make up by Andriani Vasiliou at Stella Creative Artists, using Charlotte Tilbury, Nails by Nichole Williams at Stella Creative Artists, using OPI

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