Expect to hear a lot of buzz about Ben Barnes in Shadow and Bone in the coming weeks. The English actor plays the seductive and powerful General Kirigan (aka, the Darkling), a mysterious lynchpin character in the new Netflix fantasy drama based on author Leigh Bardugo’s popular Grishaverse page-turners. For the uninitiated: Shadow and Bone follows a young orphan, Alina Starkov (Jessica Mei Li), in the Russia-inspired land of Ravka who discovers she has a secret power. Kirigan is the leader of an army of sorcerers who sees Alina as the key to saving their war-torn land. Barnes had his breakout role as the titular character in the 2008 fantasy film The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, then went on to roles in Dorian Gray, Netflix’s The Punisher and HBO’s Westworld.
Below he discusses why he originally rejected Shadow and Bone and his approach to playing a near-immortal character.
What was your original impression of the role of General Kirigan?
I was sent a single episode of the script. I thought, “This is a really interesting world, but I’ve done fantasy.” And I’ve also played some nefarious, manipulative untrustworthy characters and I didn’t think I wanted to do any more in case people start to see me in that light. And also, this character isn’t really [the show’s central focus in the first script]. I love when I can really sink my teeth into something, immerse myself in something and lose myself. And if I’m only working once every nine days [of filming per episode], it’s not going to work. So I said, “I don’t think it’s going to really work out for me.”
Then they sent two more episodes and I went and I met with Eric Heisserer, the brilliant showrunner. I was a huge fan of Arrival, and he talked me through his plan and his enthusiasm for the details of what he was going to do. He just had this passion, saying they’re going to develop three languages for these characters and how even the cards in the saloon, they’re creating new suits for them. Then he told me what the last shot of the first season would be. And I thought, “I’m totally sold.” And there are themes of race and identity and politics and the manipulation of power — these themes swirling around in an interesting way, which made it feel current. I think a lot of the fantasy stuff I’ve gotten sent since Prince Caspian just felt like escapism — which is valuable, but this had more.
Did you end up reading the books?
I read the trilogy in preparation and found myself doing the thing I do when I’m reading a script that I really love — I was already reading it aloud to myself because I could tell it’s going to be a juicy bit of dialogue. Then I started making a list of [my character’s] dialogue that was in the books that was sort of cinematic but also highlighted certain themes within the story. I carried this list with me for six months and actually utilized it [during filming] more than I thought I would. Eric is a brilliant writer and also very generous in terms of being collaborative, and sometimes when there was a scene that had a sticking point in rehearsal, very often my little list from the books would prove quite useful in terms of a bridge for a moment or replacing a line. On the very first day of shooting, we changed one line to a line from my list and I just thought, “Oh, that feels great to be able to contribute in that way.”
You to play somebody who is almost immortal – certainly very old and very powerful. How did that impact your performance?
That was one of the lures for me. I hadn’t really played any characters who were the most powerful person in the room. My friends mock me for the first 10 years of my career that I was sort of generic “boy with sword” trying to win the damsel and kill the monster but didn’t really have any identity of his own. That’s one of the reasons I’m so drawn to these stories about identity and who we are and where we belong and how we fit in. With this character, if he’s powerful then where is he vulnerable? And does that power then corrupt him and make him feel lonely? Does that loneliness draw him to other characters? Or does it push him away? I like thinking about that stuff and I question it on a scene-by-scene basis. I guess being raised by psychotherapists, this is what happens to you — you end up in a big, messy ball of yarn — that’s the stuff that I find interesting.
I don’t know if this was a conscious choice, but I saw your character as having a certain high-backed stillness and a slight tendency to look down his nose at others — which seems appropriate for him.
The stillness was partly a choice — along with his grace of movement. The straight-back thing was partly due to the fact that I had these metal buckles straight up my costume. It was like wearing one of those back supports that go around your shoulders and if you slump and it reminds you not to. So that was quite useful. In terms of looking down the nose, that’s a learned response, I think, to feeling like he’s tried every approach to peace over a long period of time and everyone else hasn’t. So it’s: “You won’t see this from my perspective. Your argument doesn’t really hold any weight because I’ve already tried it your way and it didn’t work.”
You also have to do a lot of “magic hands” movement, so I like to think there are moments when you were alone in a hotel room practicing magic hands in your free time.
Entirely! We had all these very complicated sequences of hand movements. But on the first day [I said], “[Kirigan’s] been doing this for such a long time that he would be able to do it more concisely.” So I tried in a lovely collaborative way to come up with an eclipse movement. The lore of the world is that your hands have to touch to perform “the Small Science.” So I think his hands can move in an eclipse kind of way, then he can do whatever he wants after that. It’s also described in a book that he claps very powerfully. So I use it ceremonially sometimes, but also he can sort of just (makes a quick hands movement) — done! There was obviously also moments on set where I would be doing something and I’d shout out to our visual effects supervisor, “You are going to make something happen? Because otherwise I’m going to look ridiculous.”
It was also a bit disheartening that the practical effects for other characters were, [for instance] they would make a movement and the wind turbine would pull a stuntman backward. Others would flick their wrist and fire would literally shoot out and set fire to something. Even Jessica Mei Li had a light in her costume so her hands would glow. But for me, I would do a movement and somebody would just sort of turn the lights down – just this sad use of the dimmer switch, and that’s all that would happen [before the visual effects were added]. It felt a bit underwhelming, comparatively, as this powerful creature in this universe.
Shadow and Bone debuts on Netflix on April 23.