Charming and down-to-earth, English actor Ben Barnes is perhaps best known for his role as Prince Caspian in The Chronicles of Narnia series. However he’s had numerous other roles throughout the years in a variety of projects, such as in Punisher, West World, and Dorian Gray. His most recent project is Netflix’s adaptation of Shadow and Bone, a young-adult fantasy series. Barnes masterfully plays a key role as General Kirigan in the expansive and meaningfully crafted series. DiscussingFilm had the pleasure of speaking with Barnes to not only delve into his work on Shadow and Bone, but reflect on his previous projects, particularly in fantasy and what the genre means to him.
Ben Barnes has done quite a bit of work within the genre of fantasy and he has an obvious admiration for it. “I love allegory and I love storytelling,” he said, defining a good story as one about what it means to be a human being, “because [fantasy] is so far removed, because you’re looking at worlds away from yourself and powers that you won’t ever have and situations you’ll never find yourself in, you’ll look that little bit harder to see yourself in these characters and recognize yourselves in these situations.”
During his time at Kingston University, Barnes studied Literature, finding an appreciation for symbolism and deeper analyses of texts. After describing one of his final exams about such storytelling in middle grade novels, he recollected Narnia as having a “particular Christian kind of allegory” — “an antithesis to [His Dark Materials]” and its explorations of “the language of curiosity”.
When Barnes considered his next possible project, the Shadow and Bone adaptation from showrunner Eric Heisserer, he applied the same inspection of the source material. The series of novels by Leigh Bardugo follows Alina, the only sun summoner (someone with the ability to control light) as she works to destroy “the shadow fold”, a huge magical swath of darkness that tore her country, Ravka, in half hundreds of years ago.
Barnes describes the novels as “[an] allegory of literal dark versus light”, referring to Alina’s dramatic foil the Darkling, a shadow summoner who acts as her mentor and is revealed to be the very same summoner who created the shadow fold. The apparent dichotomy is not as rigid as it may initially seem, though. “Even if that is their power, nobody is just one thing,” Barnes remarked while reflecting on the novel. “We all have the capacity to be all things and therefore find what our identity is and where it is that we really belong.”
This nuance, in fact, is what attracted Barnes to the project. “I’ve actually spent the last few years playing characters who are a little bit less heroic and more manipulative, or psychotic, or untrustworthy, or even villainous,” he lists off, probably in reference to his roles as Billy Russo/Jigsaw in Punisher, Logan Delos in Westworld, Nick Tortano in By the Gun, or perhaps an even more infamous credit from over a decade ago, the titular character in Dorian Gray.
With a filmography riddled with nefarious characters, no one can fault him for wanting to “be someone that people are rooting for” and to have the ability to “like any fan… invest in [himself]”. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the role offered to him in Shadow and Bone, but he cites its thematic potency and the humanity with which he could flesh out the character as the reason he signed on and even became excited about the project.
While in the Shadow and Bones novels, Barnes’ character is referred to as the Darkling; he’s referred to as General Kirigan in its Netflix adaptation. Kirigan also reveals his first name much earlier in the show than he does in the books. This is all a larger part of further humanizing the Darkling and utilizing his potential as a conflicted character. “Even if you feel a character is irredeemable, or lost, or taking a course of action that is un-condonable, you find ways as an actor to justify that,” Barnes said. “The interesting thing about playing these characters in this morally gray area is that you find the duality in them.” For Barnes, the chance to play the villain in Shadow and Bone was an “opportunity to look past the black cloak and sinister knife-ring and manipulative behavior and seek out those parts of Kirigan that are still potentially hopeful and motivated and indicative of the human being that he is… or at least used to be.”
In Shadow and Bone, Kirigan is inspired by Alina as he hopes that she can usher in a better future. Barnes found a lot of satisfaction as an actor in bringing these interactions to life, saying he “[enjoyed] finding the humanity and the vulnerability and the warmth in the Darkling” but also “the more muscular tension of threat in the scenes with Mal” (Alina’s longtime friend and eventual adversary of General Kirigan).
Kirigan is incredibly powerful and sure of himself, with absolute conviction in his decisions, and while those decisions may be motivated in what he believes would ultimately be best, his methods are certainly questionable. Namely, he sees hurting people as a means to an end. While Barnes does see the depth in General Kirigan as a character, he also thought it would be interesting to modernize some of the issues raised by the character’s behavior, especially around the concepts of consent and his manipulation.
Barnes acknowledges that, of course, “there [needs] to be heroes, you need to have antagonists, and you need to have anti-heroes and you need to have villains in order for them to have things to teach lessons and… explore the themes that you want to explore.” He recognizes that at the end of the day, Kirigan is a villain and his story in the novel ends as such. The anti-heroes he mentions are actually the characters from the Six of Crows duology, another series by Leigh Bardugo that takes place in the same universe as Shadow and Bone.
When adapting Shadow and Bone, they decided to fold in the characters and some plotlines from the Six of Crows series. This actually strengthens the thematic elements of Shadow and Bone; as Barnes observes, “everyone has everything inside of them, and the capacity to be everything”. The Six of Crows characters occupy the same morally gray space that Barnes finds so compelling. Barnes has fond feelings towards the duology, particularly Leigh Bardugo’s writing and the fun of the heist, but admitted it’s easier to ease into the book when his character isn’t in it and doesn’t have to contemplate how he would have to translate the page to life. This is no surprise, as his dedication to bringing page-accurate depictions to life often involves meticulous attention to detail, often re-reading chapters right before shooting a scene.
Barnes commented on Shadow and Bone’s wide variety of influences, from tropes such as Alina being a traditional fantasy “chosen one”, Ravka being a Slavic-inspired nation, and the inclusion of a Oceans Eleven-esque Six of Crows heist. He also remarked how the different colored keftas worn by those with abilities remind him of Harry Potter Hogwarts houses. It’s no small feat to meld those together into one show and one cohesive world, but not only does Shadow and Bone accomplish it, the set was immersive.
When describing his experience on the set of Shadow and Bone, he reserved a certain degree of awe for what the filmmakers accomplished in staying true to the novel and retaining a sense of realism. Among the most impressive examples, the castle seen in the show is real, but all the furniture and the layout was shifted around to match the books, creating genuinity. “Even though I’ve been involved in quite a few literary adaptations,” Barnes stated, “there was something in the set building and the casting and the tone we found that made it feel like we’d all walked out of Ravka directly onto the set.” That is quite high praise, considering the other projects that Barnes has been a part of and his experiences filming.
The first time he learned a lesson in immersive storytelling was during one of his first major films, Stardust from director Matthew Vaughn. His role was brief, but in it he had to walk through a magical marketplace. He recalls his experience right before shooting the scene and the kind of wonderful sights and smells he was interacting with, saying “[Vaughn] caught me walking onto set and having a little look around, and he sort of spun me around and said, ‘No, turn around, go back outside, you’re not looking at any of this until we’re rolling the cameras.’… You can tell on my face as I’m looking around at all this stuff that I’m really looking at it for the first time. I think that taught me the importance of tricking yourself, buying into, and committing to the world.”
His second lesson in immersive storytelling was during the Narnia films. He mentions the “incredible castle sets” that people had been working on for months and explains how those sets serve two purposes. “One is to present to the world that this is a realistic and extraordinary vision, but also, as an actor, it’s very useful because you feel like you are a part of it, and you’re able to suspend your disbelief for a little bit.” For that project, he traveled to multiple countries and learned a lot of skills from those around him who were passionate and committed.
Barnes’s relationship with Narnia director Andrew Adamson was hugely influential to his career moving forward. He described their professional friendship and relationship with the cast as one “where we became very close to each other and he wanted us to have the experience of making it as well.” That was something Barnes tried to give to the younger actors on Shadow and Bone, for many of whom this is their first major project. Barnes reminded them to “enjoy the day and enjoy the process of it because it will manifest in the way that you perform. If you can, have a good mindset and really appreciate what you’re doing.” Narnia taught him to “enjoy the adventure” and that’s something he wants to pass down to those at the beginning of their careers.
Unlike Stardust and Narnia, though, Shadow and Bone is a television show. Barnes remarks on the closing quality gap between the two mediums, as he recalls his experience on Westworld and particularly how watching the pilot episode “felt like [he] was watching a movie”. “There are two types of television,” Barnes explains, “The television that we always had, which is the stuff you can kind of commit to in a different way, which I also massively enjoy… a comedy series or a reality show or something you can have on in the background…. I’m obsessed with the Great British Bake Off and lots of those kinds of shows. But then there are this sort of dramatic set of shows, which is on par with what films are. I think you can really commit to even more so because you look forward to coming back and watching an episode.” He goes on to detail a scenario many of us are familiar with. You’re out with friends or at a party and end up thinking “if I go home now, I can fit in an extra episode before I go to bed”. Barnes hypotheses that particular excitement stems from “feeling connected to the characters and a connection to the story and really wanting to go on those journeys with them.” The positives, as an actor and a viewer of television, he notes as the ability to get invested in the journey as “it gives you the opportunity to fully realize characters in a way that you’d never be able to in two hours.”
As a viewer, Barnes reflects the television experience on recent events, saying “this last year has proved to us that not having something to look forward to is really unsettling for the mind. Or it certainly is for me. I think that’s quite a universal thing. On television, you can have the next episode to look forward to or… you can binge it. You’re in control.” Barnes, himself, tore through Shadow and Bone, noting humorously that “halfway through bingeing the final episodes of this show I absolutely wanted to switch allegiances!”
Hopefully, he’ll be able to find his next role in something more lighthearted and as a character audiences are wishing to succeed. Either way, we hope to see him on-screen again soon, whether that be in the newly announced season 2 of Shadow and Bone or another project for him soon on the horizon.