Danielle Galligan discusses her role as Nina Zenik on Netflix’s number 1 show Shadow and Bone
Danielle Galligan shares her latest role as Nina Zenik in Shadow and Bone, the American fantasy series written by Leigh Bardugo and directed by the likes of Lee Toland Krieger (The Age of Adaline).
Shadow and Bone is set in The Grishaverse and follows primarily the members of the Second Army of Ravka, such as the sun-summoner Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li), Malyen Oretsev (Archie Renaux), and the Crows from Ketterdam which includes Kaz Brekker (Freddy Carter), Inej Ghafa (Amita Suman) and Jesper Fahey (Kit Young).
Also included in this stellar cast are General Kirigan (Ben Barnes) and his little band of powerful and loyal soldiers: Ivan (Simon Sears), Fedyor (Julian Kostov) and Alina’s rival Zoya (Sujaya Dasgupta).
Following an amazing reception, Netflix has announced that Shadow and Bone will be returning to our screens for season two. We caught up with Danielle at the Gazelli Art House to discuss all things Shadow and Bone, her preparation for the role of Nina, and how her life has changed following the show.
How did you prepare for the role of Nina?
I think that every process is quite different, it started with the books. The best place for everyone to start would be the books, Six of Crows (also written by Bardugo and set in the same world) is different to Shadow and Bone as it’s written from every character's point of view. I don’t think there’s any better way to get into a character than having their direct stream of consciousness in front of you.
I always try to look for my character's opinion of themselves absolutely, but I think it’s important to get other people’s opinions of my character as well. In that way Nina’s introduced via Kaz Brekker, he was saying she’d flirt with a pair of shoes, and he describes her appearance and everything. I think having other people's views of your character versus your character's views of themselves creates a good conflict sometimes.
After that, you have the scripts. I discovered Nina very organically through women around me, I’ve said it a few times about my Nana. I was talking with her a few days ago and we say, ‘she’s a shameless flirt,’ which is literally a line that’s taken out of the books and I remember reading that and thinking that’s Nana.
It said of Nina in the book that she missed her calling on the stage and I remember that we’ve literally said those same words about my Mum before. Nina is quite mutable, and her focus isn’t on herself but very much responding to people, and she values human connection. I think that’s quite common in Leigh Bardugo’s characters, in their own way they value human connection.
Your character Nina first appears in episode three, in a struggle with four burly men in which you put up great resistance. It looked very real, and the scene flowed naturally with a few punches thrown. Did you have to undertake specific physical training for this scene and others throughout the series?
I love talking about that fight scene, it was my first day on set, so I hadn’t met anyone yet. The first person I met in terms of production in the flesh was the costume designer, Wendy Partridge, then the stunt guys, Felix and Ruben; it’s weird I was just texting them on Instagram.
It was a nice introduction to Nina as she’s a soldier first and foremost, and I really wanted that to be apparent in her training. I think she has so many qualities that are in direct conflict with that, so to try and weave them together was something I was eager to do.
To meet those guys first, I was sure they weren’t going to do anything too intense. But they showed me the scene and I was like ‘oh, it’s a stunt,’ and they were like ‘no, you’re going to do it,’ and I was like ‘I’m not going to really flip him over,’ and they were like: ‘no, you are'. There was a whole day dedicated to trying to flip that poor guy over my shoulder.
I think to see that as the introduction of Nina and the Drüskelle, to see where she gets with Matthias (Calahan Skogman) in the end, I think was a really beautiful part to play.
How real was it and did you get hurt during the opening scene?
Yes, it is a stunt, but that flip felt very real. I love all of that, it’s like choreography. I felt that in terms of being able to introduce Nina that way, as someone who is a survivor who fights for her life. I feel it was important for her journey that she was landing every punch to kill, every punch was to end the fight.
I didn’t get injured, I have bad knees anyway, so we did a lot of boxing and my knees were sore. I mean when you do it in the studio it’s fine but then when you have to put like 50 skirts and a pair of heels on, then injuries can happen.
Have we seen all your powers so far or are there more to come?
I think at the start, in the first scene, in terms of Grisha activation, you get to see how strong she is relative to the other Grisha. In the books, you also get to see how her powers start to develop. When you’re a Heartrender you’re separated into two camps, you’re all trained together at the start but then you specialise.
Nina is a survivalist. In the mean streets of Ketterdam, I think she’s left to her own devices. She will have to heal, tailor and heartrender if she wants to survive within the gang. It’s not in the books and I’m unsure if it’s going to be in the show, but I can see that she will be tested and look back at her training and progress into the other branches of the Corporalki.
It is also in the books that one day she has to heal her friend, Inej. She tries to heal her, which isn’t really her speciality, and she has this moment where she feels like a lost little girl and out of her depth; and that’s another part of her that I connected with. That feeling of ‘am I good enough’ and then go and do it anyway. I get it before I act and it was nice to see that Nina is a soldier, a trained killer, has this sass and can still have that moment of ‘am I enough’.
What is Nina’s relationship with The Darkling and will we get to see the backstory of how this relationship evolved?
Ben Barnes is just mad to work with, so in his world, he’d love a spin-off series – I’m just joking. He is mad to work with me though. In terms of Nina and The Darkling, I didn’t quite understand how she fit into things at the start when he was talking about the General. I was slightly confused, it’s quite interesting as I don’t know where her story is going to go.
In terms of Nina and The Darkling, he has his favourites, he also has the strongest Grisha. Ivan is his strongest and I think he’s seen a lot of potential in Nina, the same as Genya (Daisy Head), the only known tailor, who was taken at a young age.
Nina was eight when she was moved to the Little Palace, so I think she sees herself as a very loyal soldier at the start of season 1. She believes in The Darkling, that he is doing the best for the world. She has no inkling that he is the Black Heretic. As she has been away and removed from the storyline for so long, I’m kind of wondering what she’ll do when she hears what has happened, when she’s heard about the destruction of Novokribirsk.
She is so intensely patriotic about Ravka and so dedicated to the Second Army, she goes out trying to recruit Grisha back to Ravka, which she does for The Darkling. When she finds out her heart will be a little bit broken, not in a romantic way, but you put your faith in a political system or system of beliefs, and she’s working and wants the best for her country. Then she's going to find out she’s living a lie, that will be interesting. I can’t wait to find out and see what her reaction will be.
I also think that she’s on her own in the end of season 1, she’s forsaken her country and the only person she ever connected with, in a real way she has betrayed. She is completely isolated, so when the news drops that General Kirigan, who she has been working under for 20 years, is a sham and a lie, it might be rock bottom.
Sometimes fantasy can feel so far from reality, but I think it works when it’s grounded, and you have a real sense of reality. I mean the reality of the characters and emotion. There’s something about Alina’s story, in particular, that feels very current as I look at Greta Thunberg taking down Trump; she is a threat to the American political situation. There’s a young girl and she’s trying to save the world. I think it’s not realistic, but then Greta Thunberg is doing it!
The show immerses you in a fantasy world of countries, cultures and political landscapes. Can you tell us about the political relationship between Kerch and Ravka?
The Grishaverse in general is quite a hostile world. Everyone is out for themselves. Even going to the shop to get milk, you walk down the wrong alley and you might not come back.
Ravka itself is based on Russia, the imperial parts of Russia in the 1800s, whereas the island of Kerch and the city of Ketterdam (its capital) are based on Amsterdam. Ravka is a monarchy, it has a King, quite an ineffectual King who is stuck in old ways while the country wants to progress. The island of Kerch is more of an oligarchy; it's run by merchants, it has a merchant council like Florence, I think.
In terms of the relationship between the two, Ravka, the old country, is quite separated from the world because of this dark cloud of doom that is separating it. Also, the relationship with Kerch is restricted, as to trade you have to get through the fold, which almost certainly means sudden death.
As Nina can speak six different languages, do you think that has given her an advantage in terms of dealing with the different regions?
Completely. I feel like with Nina, specifically with Fjerda where the Drüskelle come from and the witch hunters. This is also another theme in the show; all about monsters and being someone’s monster and making someone your villain. She’s been brainwashed from a young age to think that Fjerdans are all witch hunters there to kill her and in my mind, I have the feeling that she had a best friend that was killed by a witch hunter. To make life even more difficult for her in terms of falling in love with Matthias, she has to really let that go.
Her friends, family, and country people are being killed and hunted. When she found that out, she studied absolutely everything she could about Fjerda. Knowledge is power, so the more she knows, the safer she can be and the better she can do her job.
In Shu-Han, which is the country in the south, they treat Grisha as experiments. If you get caught by the Shu, you’re going get cut up like a Joseph Magellan-type of thing.
Nina’s power comes in as a Heartrender and she’s an accurate killer. Sometimes we do animal studies, and we give the character an animal. We study the traits of that animal and work it with the character. I was trying to find an animal for Nina as I enjoy that process. Nina, I thought was a chameleon, as she can blend into any situation. She’s kind of cute, sexy, dangerous, but also mainly funny.
For people who aren't into fantasy and prefer other genres, what would you say to encourage them to watch the show?
I would say, going back to that earlier point, that fantasy is great, and it gives escapism, wonder and joy; but it only works when it’s grounded into a certain element of reality. I think with the political situation in the world there’s something of that in the show. With Game of Thrones; yes, there were dragons but really it was about political intrigue and who you could trust.
There’s something in Shadow and Bone for everyone as the stories are so complex and intertwined, it’s interesting and keeps you on your toes.
I think also they’ve given the Six of Crows a backstory, there’s brand new information, and brand new story beats and narratives for the characters. They don’t really live in the fantasy world. Yes, they live in The Grishaverse and our fantasy, but they are criminals. It’s been likened to Ocean's Eleven meets Harry Potter. If you enjoy a heist, dark characters, survivors, then there is definitely something in there for you.
All the stunts, action, violence, fighting and war; I love all of that. I love watching violence on screen, not in a gratuitous way, but how they executed the stunts was really stunning and really wonderful. I think that is another great thing about the show.
I think there’s something relatable in all these characters. They are all misfits, people that don’t come from anything and who are told they won’t amount to anything. They’re taking their place in the world. It's the same for all of them, it’s a common link between all characters. I think that’s a universal theme, everyone is a flawed anti-hero of their own story.
We’ve all had that moment in our lives where we don’t know if we can do it and then we have to show up and do it. Each of the characters, even The Darkling, the baddie, is one of those as well.
How was it to work on the set of Shadow and Bone? The cast seems to have amazing on-screen chemistry, tell us more about the process and the creative connection between you and your castmates?
The performances and the people across the board were amazing. We really lucked out with the team, I feel so privileged to have met and worked with these people. I think that comes from the top-down, big thanks to Eric Heisserer (the writer) and Leigh Bardugo. They created a really nice environment, that was really conducive for us all to do our best work, it was very personal and connected. It was such a nice experience.
What have your personal highlights been?
There is one scene which I love between Inej and Jesper, and it’s after she’s been wounded and Kaz has kind of given up, and she’s sewing her wound back together. It’s a gorgeous relationship between Jesper and Inej at that moment. They become more than just a gang and you can see that there is real emotion and love almost between them as friends.
I think it’s so important to foster these relationships in such a hostile world. It feels like everyone’s out for themselves and I remember reading this and thinking it was lovely and it encapsulates the whole series for me.
There seem to be sparks of chemistry between Nina and Matthias, the witch hunter, as they battle some pretty tough elements together. What does Nina think of Matthias and how does she change his view of witches during their journey together.
I think initially when she sees him, I don’t know if I necessarily believe in love at first sight, but I do think I wanted to make it as confusing as possible for Nina from the start.
The first time she locked eyes with him, I wanted her to feel a very strong romantic chemistry with him and I wanted her to fight that from the start. She’s been taught her whole life that these people are evil and that these are the people that possibly killed her parents and her best friend. At the start I wanted her to feel a lot of ferocity and animosity. I wanted her to want him to die but also to have those feelings and be very confused from the start.
Nina can’t help but see the good in people, it’s to her detriment at times. In the book, there’s a description where she calls him a boy, the first time she meets him. Against her better judgement, her trying to seek that little boy and pull him out of himself a little more, that was the mission for me with Matthias. She had him laughing and I didn’t think too much about her trying to convince him she wasn’t a witch or to change his mind.
I focused more on the other side, an easier way in and I just let the rest happen. It’s so heart-breaking then as she lets down a wall, she’s vulnerable with him and begins to love him. She makes the best decision she can in the moment, which she thinks is going to save his life, but completely messes it up. I think that’s awful when you make yourself so vulnerable for someone and they discard you, it’s very tragic.
Since starring in Shadow and Bone, how has your life changed and what’s next in the pipeline for you?
I think that since lockdown we had a wrap party on the 29th of February and then in Ireland, we were in lockdown 2 weeks later due to coronavirus. Having an experience like Shadow and Bone, where I felt so supported and connected and part of a family was creatively so satisfying.
Also being financially stable and for all of that to be taken away due to the pandemic and none of us being able to work with the series not out. I think with that being taken away it gave me such an appreciation of the show itself. It felt like a very singular experience itself.
It felt that all of my goals had aligned and loads of what I wanted to get out of my work had aligned and that was a special experience. It reframed how I look into acting, my career and what I want to get out of everything. I don’t know if my life has changed that much; yes, I have got a lot of Instagram followers and I’m terrified I won’t give them enough attention.
Things like that do change, I think there are more fundamental changes to me that happened, such as confidence in growing as a performer, Nina definitely helped me love myself more and develop my self-growth. I moved to London in November and Nina has taught me about living and doing the most with what you have.
Shadow and Bone is availble on Netflix
Writer Connor Mantle
Photography Joupin Ghamsari
Ph Assistance Joshua Chikelu
Fashion Dylan Weller
Fashion Assistant Aine Sweeney Byrne
Hair by Jon Chapman at Nylon Artists using Leonar Greyl
MUA Margo Holder at Nylon Artists using Chanel beauty
Editor Jheanelle Feanny
Subeditor Jonny Baldwin
Location and special thanks to The Gazelli Art House
All artwork © of artist and sculptor Aidan Salakhova The Dust Became the Breath at Gazelli Art House