On her first day on the set of Netflix’s big budget new fantasy series Shadow and Bone, Dublin actress Danielle Galligan was overcome with déjà vu. In 2018, she had gone to Belfast for a small role in the final season of Game of Thrones (playing Sarra, part of the retinue at House Stark). Walking onto the hulking sound stage of another blockbuster fantasy saga brought the memories rushing back.
“There’s no substitute for the first time you step onto a set that size,” she says over Zoom from her base in London. “That is something I was totally blinded-sided by. And with Game of Thrones, I was only there for a week and on camera for 24 hours. With Shadow and Bone, it was something I found similar. You are turning around in Budapest and there are 30 people there.”
The sheer sweep of shows of this size was all new for Galligan. From Rathfarnham in south Dublin, and the scion of a family of beauty therapists, she studied drama and theatre at Trinity and acting at Lir Academy. Her first forays into professional acting had been in comparatively small-scale productions by Rough Magic and Druid. Game of Thrones and Netflix together represented a new frontier. Everything was so big and baroque. Exciting – but a little intimidating with it.
“I remember thinking ‘oh God everyone’s looking at you’. But I realised I was one small part of this massive chain. The last little cog to slip in, in a way. Understanding that takes the pressure off. It’s a massive collaboration between all these people.” Shadow and Bone is hugely anticipated by fans of the original novels by American fantasy writer Leigh Bardugo. However, Netflix subscribers expecting a lusty swords and sorcery orgy in the vein of Game of Thrones or The Witcher are advised to re-calibrate their expectations. This is fantasy but not as we know it.
“They are different,” nods Galligan. “Shadow and Bone is set in a world inspired by Tsarist Russia. That’s not something we’ve seen in fantasy before. That’s going to be really exciting.”
Galligan (28) was never a huge fantasy fan growing up. And when she was invited to audition for Shadow and Bone she wasn’t familiar with the novels – or her character, “heartrender” magic user, or “Grisha”, Nina Zenik. A deep dive was required. And she began to understood how important Nina, a survivor from the wrong side of the tracks, was to Bardugo’s millions of readers.
“I was terrible,” she laughs. “I still haven’t read Harry Potter. I loved the films. I wanted to read Harry Potter. But my mum bought me the third book instead of the first one. I was like, ‘I don’t know – this is too difficult’. I did love A Series of Unfortunate Events [by Lemony Snicket]. It’s kind of Tim Burton for kids, isn’t it? Reading Six of Crows has been my first foray into fantasy. And since then I am addicted.”
Six of Crows is one of seven novels set in Bardugo’s “Grishaverse”. Shadow and Bone the series adapts the first of those – also called Shadow and Bone – but incorporates elements from Six of Crows, including Galligan’s character of Nina.
As the actress says, this isn’t the fantasy of George RR Martin or Tolkien. Barudgo was determined to centre her work in a non-Anglocentric world. For instance, the city of Ketterdam, where we meet Nina, is inspired by Renaissance Amsterdam. And the kingdom of Ravka, where much of the tale unfolds, is a fantastical take on Tsarist Russia.
This isn’t as unprecedented as non-fantasy fans might think. The original Warhammer tabletop and roleplaying games were set in a version of the Holy Roman Empire, for example. And there has been a big trend recently towards fantasy inspired by Asia (RF Kuang’s The Poppy War and Fonda Lee’s Jade City). Gareth Hanrahan’s Black Iron Legacy trilogy for its part is partly inspired by his native Cork and partly by HP Lovecraft. We’re definitely not in King’s Landing any more.
In addition to that Bardugo is using fantasy as a prism to interrogate the modern world. Machiavellian anti-hero General Kirigan (known as The Darkling in the books, and portrayed on screen by the Narnia Chronicles’ Ben Barnes) is clearly a metaphor for toxic masculinity, though, speaking to the Irish Examiner, Bardugo stresses she is a storyteller rather than social commentator.
“I don’t really set out to tells a story with a specific message or to say I’m going to tackle toxic masculinity or racism or rape culture,” she says. “But if you want to tell a story and if you want it to feel real, then you have to be thoughtful about these things. To disregard them or ignore them I think feels false.
“Readers pick up on that pretty quickly. For instance, with Six of Crows, I set out wanting to write this Ocean’s Eleven-in-a-fantasy world style heist. But you can’t write a story about thugs and thieves without exploring the forces that created those thugs and thieves. For me,it’s about telling that story as truly and completely as possible.”
One surprise in the series is Nina’s changing accent. She starts out speaking in an Estuary English twang. But then Galligan slides into her own middle-class Dublin tones.
“Initially I thought I was keeping my own Irish accent for the whole way through,” she says. "I was really excited about that. But then they thought the fact she is from Ravka and is an orphan similar to Alina [the show’s heroine] might make it too confusing to have an Irish accent in the middle of all the British accents. We know Nina is a spy and that when she’s undercover she’s 'Kaelish' [the Grishaverse’s equivalent of Ireland].
“So they told me I could use my Irish accent when she is spying. I really relish those moments. I also love that I get to do an [British] accent. I love to transform. The British accent did in a weird way feel more like Nina’s voice. I am at peace with it and I like a challenge. But I hope I get to do more undercover moments as my Kaelish counterpart. There’s nothing like an Irish lilt.”
- Shadow and Bone comes to Netflix on Friday, April 23