The star of Netflix’s epic fantasy series Shadow and Bone on what die-hard Grishaverse fans can expect, and the inspiring messages he hopes young people will take from the show.
In the early summer of 2019, a gaping hole was left in our lives after a series – one that had left our nights dark and full of terrors for eight years – exited our screens forever. RIP Game of Thrones. And since then, no fantasy universe has been quite epic enough to step up to the plate to fill the void – until now. Enter Netflix’s most highly-anticipated series of the year, Shadow and Bone, based on author Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse, the dark sprawling world brought to life in her hugely popular series of YA novels.
Magical mapmakers. Wizard generals. Violent criminals and con artists. All operating in a war-torn world split by a large expanse of impenetrable darkness named the Shadow Fold, where car-sized winged monstrosities ravage any one who dares cross. At its centre, soldier and orphan Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li) has just unleashed an extraordinary light-bending power which could be the key to setting her country free – and Malyen Oretsev (Archie Renaux), her best friend and a tracker goes to dangerous lengths to be reunited with her.
It’s as every bit as monumental and cinematic as it sounds; expect action-packed and twist-filled episodes designed to have every synapse firing in your brain; prepare for your social life (and sofa time) to be utterly consumed once its eight episodes hit our screens on 23 April.
We caught up with actor Archie Renaux – also gearing up to star in Lord of the Flies-esque sci-fi film Voyagers alongside Lily-Rose Depp – to talk about what die-hard Grishaverse fans can expect, shooting in the stark elements in Budapest, and the inspiring message he hopes young people will take from the show…
Hi Archie, how have you been this last year?
If someone would have said to me at the beginning of 2019 that you’d star in a film and then a Netflix series, and then straight afterwards there’s going to be a global pandemic, and you’re going to be a dad, I would’ve told them where to go, basically.
It’s been a busy one! Congratulations on Shadow and Bone, it’s truly epic. What drew you to the character of Mal?
It’s that heart, and that courage. When I was younger my Dad used to show me old videos, and there’s a famous one of a player for England called Stuart Pearce where he goes and scores this penalty – because he missed one in the competition before – and he has the guts to go up and take another one and make it right. I think that is the type of sort of character that Mal is, just brimming with heart and courage, and ever since I was a kid I’ve looked up to those type of characters.
Obviously the role is super physical and there’s a lot of fight scenes, how did you prepare?
It was a lot of work. When we first got there in September I spent a lot of time in the gym. We had a trainer called Gary who got me into the best shape that I’ve ever been in. I was eating like four of these boxes of meals that they would send me, a day. The food was quite boring – tabasco became like my best friend! But I got the results, I’m very proud of the results that I got. On top of that there was a lot of stunt training, and there was horse riding. It was a great experience, I got to learn so much new stuff.
Obviously with the books there are a lot of diehard fans – what would you say are the biggest differences between your character Mal in the books and in the show?
One of the biggest differences is that because the books are all in the first person and very much from Alina’s point of view, the book focuses a lot on her story. Whereas this time we really get to see what Mal goes through, and Mal’s journey, and the lengths he will go to to get back to Alina and to make sure she’s safe.
At the heart of the story is this connection between Mal and Alina and how close they are – and you’re part of the reason how she unleashes these extraordinary powers. How was it working with Jessie [Mei Li]?
I flew to Budapest while I was shooting [Voyagers] to do a chemistry test, and that was the first time I met Jessie. We had a little chat afterwards then but not much and then after the second chemistry test Jessie invited me out for lunch and she was talking to me about how fun the experience was going to be, and I was like ‘yeah, but let’s just wait because I’ve not been cast yet so I don’t want to get ahead of myself!’ But even before I got cast we became good friends and we were the first two out of the cast to go out to Budapest, so we spent the first few days with each other. It all happened pretty organically – Jessie’s a wonderful human being. It’s hard not to get along with her.
What was filming in Budapest like and how was the dynamic with the cast?
It was really fun! I’ve been so lucky on all the films and TV that I’ve done where I’ve loved everyone that I’ve worked with – especially on Shadow and Bone. We were spending so much time with each other. You sort of do become a little family when you’re thrown into a foreign country and you work together and then socially, you go out together after work – go out for meals, go out for drinks. We got these lovely apartments that we got to stay in, everyone would host a night every now and then. I loved it.
What was the most intense day of filming for you?
I always found the cold days quite challenging. Sometimes there would have been a really long week and then you’d just be outside in the elements. But even then, I don’t think it’s too bad; I loved every minute of it.
A lot of people have been saying that this is kind of the answer to the gap left by Game of Thrones, which obviously became a huge household name – have you felt any pressure especially seeing how the first trailer has exploded?
I remember first going away to shoot, the expectations were at the back of my mind and it was solely about the script and doing the work, that’s all I thought about. Its only now when you’ve got something that’s about to come out you get a bit nervous and you start thinking, ‘are people going to like this? Are people going to think we’ve done it justice?’ But I’m quietly confident that we did a good job and I’m very proud of everyone’s work on it as well. I think everyone’s superb.
And the show, it’s fantasy, a lot of action, but at its heart it’s a real coming-of-age story – about people becoming who they were always meant to be. What do you hope young people will take away after watching a series like this?
Be brave and stand up and speak out. And try and do the right thing. These sorts of things always make you feel a bit righteous and inspired to do better.
And the show is incredibly cinematic with the Shadow Fold, the magic, and the volcra, but obviously when you’re filming, you don’t get to see everything put together with the CGI until right at the end. What was your first reaction to seeing it for the first time after?
There was a mixture of just being in awe but also relief because when you see these scenes being written down on the page you’re thinking ‘oh god, right, there’s these monsters here, if the CGI isn’t great this is gonna look really naff.’ So once I saw it, it was a big relief, I was thinking ‘phew we’ve got a good show, we’ve got a good show.’
I feel like this will be quite a similar thing to Game of Thrones where people who aren’t even necessarily into fantasy just love the show as a mean for escape. What do you hope the show will bring to people at this weird time, with the last year we’ve had?
I think it will definitely be a chance to escape, and the world that Leigh Bardugo has created and Eric Heisserer and his team of writers have put onto the small screen is really something that you can get lost in – it’s so vast, and there’s characters for everyone – that’s what I’ve been telling my friends. Even if fantasy isn’t your thing, there is the human element of it that everyone can buy into, and there’s at least one character that you’ll fall in love with.
Can you describe the show in five words?
Epic, tense, gripping, passionate and adventurous.