Who Is Jessie Mei Li? What to Know About the "Shadow and Bone" Breakout Star

Jessie Mei Li is a name that's back on everyone's lips again, and it's for good reason. She's the star of Netflix's book-to-TV adaptation of "Shadow and Bone," which premieres its highly anticipated second season on March 16. The fantasy show is based on a series of Grishaverse novels written by author Leigh Bardugo, which cover themes like friendship, sexuality, and race. Li plays the role of Alina Starkov, a "sun summoner" who is one of the most powerful beings that ever lived.

In a 2021 roundtable interview with POPSUGAR, the actor shared that her lived experience helped to inform the way she portrays her character. "[Alina] wants to save the world to validate herself as a member of this nation. It really felt true to my life. As a mixed-race person, it's part of who I am," she said. "It shaped who I am. It shapes my personality, but it's not everything that I am. I think that's what they've done in this show, and I really, really like that."

In a new interview with Evening Standard, Li admitted that she was originally concerned that her casting, which differs from the fact that her character is white in Bardugo's book series, was just a diversity quota. However, now she respects the show's decision to challenge stereotypes of Asian characters through Alina, as well as others like Tamar (Anna Leong Brophy) and Tolya (Lewis Tan). "Anna is playing this super-cool, badass character and then you've got Lewis who is macho. It's nice to have Asian stereotypes challenged," she told the outlet.

Since "Shadow and Bone"'s first season, Li has transformed into a breakout star. And thanks to her newfound success, we've learned even more about her. Read on to discover all there is to know about the rising actor.


She Was Born in Brighton

Li is an English actor and she was born in Brighton in 1995. She grew up in Redhill in Surrey and went on to attend Reigate College before going off to university. Since dropping out, Li has gone on to pursue a career in acting that's led her to join the cast of "Shadow and Bone," playing Alina Starkov.


She Worked as a Teaching Assistant Before Becoming an Actor

After leaving university, Li spent her days teaching special needs children. In a roundtable interview, the actor told POPSUGAR that she'd been well aware of the "Shadow and Bone" book franchise before joining the show's cast, thanks to her students. "Before becoming an actor, I dropped out of university, and I was working as a teaching assistant in a secondary school. This was the age group that 'Shadow and Bone' is very popular with, and I remember lots of my students reading the books."

She Joined the National Youth Theatre in 2015
Getty | Suzan Moore - PA Images

She Joined the National Youth Theatre in 2015

During her acting (and teaching) career, Li joined the National Youth Theatre in 2015, before she trained part-time with the Identity School of Acting in 2016 for a year. She initially began studying languages at university, but dropped out to pursue her love of acting.

Fun fact: Helen Mirren, Rosamund Pike, and Daniel Craig also attended NYT in the past!

Her Stage Debut Involved Working With Gillian Anderson and Lily James
Getty | David M. Benett

Her Stage Debut Involved Working With Gillian Anderson and Lily James

"Shadow and Bone" isn't Li's first acting role. In fact, it's not even her second. Back in 2019, the actor played Claudia Casswell in a production of "All About Eve" at the Noël Coward Theatre in London. She starred alongside "Sex Education"'s Gillian Anderson and "Mamma Mia"'s Lily James, which is not bad for a first gig if you ask us!


She Starred in Edgar Wright's "Last Night in Soho"

Li starred as the character of Lara Chung in Edgar Wright's 2021 psychological thriller, "Last Night in Soho," alongside "The Menu"'s Anya Taylor-Joy, Matt Smith, and Diana Rigg (who died in September 2020, shortly after filming). The film was initially set to air early on in 2021, but as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the release date was pushed back to October of that year.


She's Open About Her ADHD Diagnosis

In March 2021, Mei Li shared a post on her Instagram page reflecting on Neurodiversity day. The actor explained that she was diagnosed with ADHD at age 24, and that the diagnosis "answered many life long questions, and I feel like I'm finally understanding myself."

She also spoke about her experience in an interview with The Guardian the following month, explaining that "[the diagnosis] 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,'" she recalled. "I felt like no one believed me ever. People, especially people who've just been diagnosed, go through a grieving period for who they were before. I'd love to be someone they can look at and say, 'OK, that person has been through that as well.'"


She's a Fan of Vegan Junk Food and Beauty Products

In a 2021 Byrdie interview, Li touched on her love for vegan junk food, revealing that "English fish and chip shop chips are like my absolute favorite thing," as well as vegan donuts. She also shared how her vegan eating habits influence the kind of beauty products she shops for.

"I go for the natural, vegan options when I can. I'm also very passionate about sustainability, and I found some really great places that have sustainable skincare and things that don't come in plastic bottles," she said. "I feel like a few years ago when I first started out being vegan, I found it difficult to find things, whereas now it's just everywhere. People are changing the way they package makeup and beauty products as well, which is really exciting."


She Identifies as Queer

In March 2023, Evening Standard confirmed that Li identifies as queer and is one of many LGBTQ+ actors who have proudly and publicly embraced their sexuality. "It's a really big moment. Nowadays you mention someone being non-binary or gender fluid and people have a better understanding," she told the outlet. "I've noticed with friends and family, too, because they're seeing more representation, people are much better at just accepting things. Representation matters a lot because TV is how a lot of people see the world if they don't get around much."