Ben Barnes on playing ‘The Darkling’ in ‘Shadow and Bone’


Ben Barnes knows his way around whimsical worlds. 

The British actor has been to Narnia (the “Chronicles of Narnia” movies), the Marvel universe (Netflix’s “The Punisher”) and dystopian theme parks (HBO’s “Westworld”).

Now, he’s at the center of Netflix’s new epic, “Shadow and Bone,” the fantasy series based on a series of bestselling novels by Leigh Bardugo.

“I was such a big fan of fantasy. I find it quite irresistible,” Barnes, 39, told The Post. 

“I had studied children’s literature at university and had been writing about ‘His Dark Materials’ and ‘The Hobbit’ and all that kind of stuff, but I hadn’t heard of these [books] until I got sent the script.”

Premiering Friday (April 23), “Shadow and Bone” is set in the war-torn land of Ravka (think a fictional version of Imperial Russia with magic involved). It follows orphan girl Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li) as she discovers that she has powers that could save the world from a monster-filled shadowy, often fatal region known as The Fold. Soon, she draws the attention of the enigmatic General Kirigan (Barnes), who’s also known as Aleksander or The Darkling. 

Jessie Mei Li as Alina (left) and Ben Barnes as General Kirigan aka The Darkling (right) in "Shadow and Bone"
Jessie Mei Li as Alina (left) and Ben Barnes as General Kirigan aka The Darkling (right) in “Shadow and Bone.”

“There was some chatter even a few years before the show — Leigh Bardugo had supported the idea of me playing that character. I sort of felt a bit kismet that I was supposed to do it, in some way,” said Barnes. 

Kirigan, who’s a powerful army leader, brings Alina to Ravka’s palace to hone her skills while the two develop a close bond.

Ben Barnes as The Darkling (left) and Jessie Mei Li as Alina (left) in "Shadow and Bone"
Ben Barnes as The Darkling (left) and Jessie Mei Li as Alina (right) as she discovers her powers.

“Kirigan feels that he knows who he is and where he belongs and what he’s trying to achieve,” said Barnes. “But then Alina comes into his life and I feel, personally, like she sparks something in him that’s this kernel of hope and love. She certainly raises the question, ‘What kind of man do I want to be and what’s important to me?’ even though he feels he’s answered those questions a long time ago. So to me, that’s what makes him interesting.” 

Ben Barnes and Jessie Mei Li in "Shadow and Bone"
General Kirigan, aka The Darkling (Ben Barnes, right) brings Alina (Jessie Mei Li, left) to the palace in “Shadow and Bone.”

However, his dramatic aesthetic — with an all-black wardrobe — presented an unexpected performance challenge. 

 “There’s an awful lot of things that go into building a character like this; costuming was a huge part of it,” said Barnes. “I certainly had to change my gym routine just to be able to wear the cloak for 12 hours a day, because it was so heavy. It helps with the physicality, to ground you down onto the earth and make you feel powerful. So that was certainly a physical issue —  trying to do swooping arm movements in the world’s heaviest cloak!”

Ben Barnes as The Darkling in "Shadow and Bone"
Ben Barnes in his cloak in “Shadow and Bone.”

In the show, Kirigan is willing to get ruthless to accomplish his goals, which puts him in line with many of the morally grey characters that Barnes is known for, such as troubled jerk Logan Delos (“Westworld”), gangster Billy Russo (“The Punisher” series, 2017-2019) and Dorian Gray (the 2009 movie “The Picture of Dorian Gray”).

“I like stories about hope, and I think that finding the hope even in the antagonist of the story is an important part of it,” he said. “Characters that exist in the shadows of life — that’s not where I prefer to live, I like to live in the sunshine if I can —  but it does interest me to make the kind of TV that asks questions and lets people answer them for themselves. 

“I love the capacity of fantasy to be able to explore themes in this kind of allegorical way. You can talk about politics, racial identity, abuse of power and consent. Faith. And overarching for me [in ‘Shadow and Bone’] is that it’s a story of identity and where we feel like we belong — and where we feel at peace.”


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