“I feel like I am in therapy,” Ben Barnes exclaims, mid-way through our interview from his LA home as we discuss mental strength, which underpins the storyline in Netflix’s new smash hit show, Shadow and Bone where he plays General Kirigan AKA the Darkling.
If you haven’t watched Shadow and Bone yet – where have you been? Based on the young adult Grishaverse novels by Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone follows Alina Starkov (Jessica Mei Li), an orphan in the land of Ravka who discovers she has a secret power. Ben’s Darkling, who leads an army of sorcerers (as you do) believes Alina could be the weapon he needs to save their war stricken lands and overcome mysterious force ‘the fold’ that divides their lands. In the process all the characters learn that mental strength is just as powerful as their superpowers.
You may recognise the 39 year-old Brit from his breakout role as Prince Caspian in The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, Netflix’s The Punisher and HBO’s Westworld but it’s playing the – let’s face it – very sexy caped wizard in Shadow and Bone that has really got the thirst levels going in Ravka and beyond. As one Twitter user put it, “god made men and sent us Ben Barnes as an apology.”
It is a bold tweet, but possibly very true as I found out when I spoke to Ben about mental health – hence the therapy statement – confidence and a certain audition to play a lifeguard that left him with a serious case of imposter syndrome…
What shook you the most about Shadow and Bone?
When I wasn’t even sure if I was going to do it or not, when I read the very first script I thought, ‘my character is not in this very much!’ Then I got to the end of the first episode – avoiding spoilers here – and somebody gets shot. I remember thinking, ‘I didn’t quite see that coming! No one is safe in this!’ There’s always a tension in it and it does have a gentle start like with this sort of YA literature but it has so many adult dynamics to it and if you scratch away at it, there are so many layers underneath.
Issues with ‘fitting in’ is something all the characters deal with in Shadow and Bone – have you ever personally struggled with fitting in?
Yes. Just before I moved to Los Angeles my first audition here was to play a lifeguard in a film when I was about 22. I weighed about half what I weigh now. I was in skinny black jeans and a black proper shirt because you dress up nicely for an audition! I went to this audition and there were 30 guys who in my head were ‘Schwarzenegger’ types who were in sandals, shorts and vest tops – dressed like lifeguards. One guy didn’t even have his shirt on. I was just sitting there thinking, ‘I don’t think I can be here.’ I was crawling inside of my skin, feeling so British. I was so overwhelmed so I called my mentor figure who was agenting me and said, ‘I don’t think I can go into this audition. I can hear people shouting their way through this scene through the curtain. They’re all flexing.’ He just said, ‘see it as a challenge and enjoy it.’ I went in and I was half crying, half not really breathing properly during the scene because I was so overwhelmed and they were like, ‘that was so vulnerable!’ and they gave me that part. It never made the film obviously!
General Kirigan is super layered, unlike the uber masculine leads we are used to seeing. Was that important to you to offer a greater depth to his masculinity?
I’ve always subscribed to the school that there are lots of different types of what it means to be masculine and ways to be a ‘man’, coming across as comfortable in your own skin and being able to be a support for other people – knowing what that means be it emotionally or physically. We all have everything within us, too. I do have in me somewhere that quiet testosterone led ‘fly off the handle’ brutish type of behaviour but we all have in us the capacity to be more sensitive, thoughtful, discerning and emotional, too. There are some tropes in this character in the way that he is isolated, keeps himself to himself and is mistrustful, that we associate with straightforward masculinity. But he’s also thoughtful, mysterious, graceful and it was important to bring his loneliness to the front for me and that tiny kernel of hope that he might still have in himself to be able to love.
I see everyone a bit like a Russian doll. We all have the capacity to be everything. The fun of acting is that you get to pull on these different strings with different jobs. I was listening to a podcast recently that said we all still have the toddler that we were within us when we get tired at night. We have that surly teenager within us when we get disappointed. We don’t shed those things, we put them in a backpack and take them with us.
In Westworld there was a bit where they were programming the robots and you can dial up the empathy, dial down the violence, dial up the charm or dial down whatever. It’s a bit like having that when you’re creating a character. I came off doing, The Punisher for Netflix which fed into much more obvious versions of villainous masculinity. But even then I tried to sort of subvert as much as I could. I am interested in working against those tropes.
Everyone in Shadow and Bone has to find a new level of mental strength. How has your relationship with your own mental health changed and developed?
Good question! This last year and a half it’s been fractured. You start to feel like that person in your mind that’s offering you suggestions of how to navigate situations in your life that is starting to work against you, sometimes. I’ve seen a lot of posts referring to that voice inside your head as ‘The Punisher’ as it will suggest things where you are like, ‘why are you making me think about this right now?’ That has been difficult without the structure of working.
I’m somebody who’s always worried a lot about things. But the moments of personal crisis or the most difficult times in my life, like when family members have got ill, those are the big shifts for me when you actually drop all of that and you’re able to kind of see everything for what it is. I have talked to people about wanting to give myself a perspective slap sometimes and just remember you are mortal, you’re here once and today happens once, so do you want to spend it feeling bad?
Ebbs and flows of confidence are really interesting especially in this job. Maybe even just a couple of years ago I thought, ‘is my career on the right path?’ It has been brilliant having the brilliant young cast in this as well because they can come and talk to me about that stuff. 15, 20 years ago I did exactly what they’re doing now, being the lead in these big fantasy things. It’s really nice to kind of do it again and feel like I know what I’m doing this time.
What do you wish you knew 15 years ago that you know now?
I always thought if you worked really hard and committed to each moment of each scene of each job that you do, then you would be convincing, it would be interesting to people and then you would get another job, a bigger job, that would lead on to the next and then you are Julia Roberts. I had this moment quite a few years ago now where I realised it doesn’t happen in steps, you don’t climb a staircase, it happens in waves. There is not a single actor, with the possible exception of Leonardo DiCaprio, who has only had success. Everyone has had things that are crap, haven’t worked as they wanted them to and they’ve had to navigate criticism – it’s waves! You have to learn to surf. I said to the guys, ‘don’t even worry about what job is next, enjoy this one.’ In this job it is very easy to get lured into looking ahead.
Shadow and Bone is available on Netflix now.
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