There’s a reason they call him The Darkling. Ben Barnes‘ General Kirigan is on a downward spiral in Season 2 of Netflix‘s Shadow and Bone as he seeks to expand The Fold and reign over Ravka.
While in Season 1, the then-leader of Ravka’s Grisha army was a respected and charismatic Shadow Summoner, Kirigan has done away with the facade for Season 2. After surviving a Volcra attack that led everyone to believe he’d died, Kirigan has returned — very much alive and with a literal shadow army at his disposal that he’s using to stoke enough fear in the remainder of the Grisha army that they will help him defeat Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li), who has set out to find the supposedly mythical creatures that can amplify her powers enough to destroy The Fold.
“[Kirigan] was always on the wrong side. He’s always the villain. But in this season, it’s unleashed a little bit and he doesn’t have an army to rely on. He doesn’t have these masks of charm to rely on,” Barnes told Deadline, adding that the shift “felt quite freeing actually, just to be able to walk into the scene and say, ‘This is what I’m trying to do. And if you don’t help me, I’m going to kill you.’”
With the facade peeled back and Kirigan only getting stronger, Barnes added that he was adamant about making sure the character had a weakness. Not only are his shadow monsters poisoning him from the inside, but he’s losing supporters by the day — stoking a fear inside him that he may spend another 400 years alone.
“I think it’s much more interesting if there is mortality to this character and awareness of it because when time runs short, that’s when you make decisions that feel important,” Barnes said.
The actor spoke with Deadline more about diving into this deeply complicated character for Season 2 of Shadow and Bone in the interview below.
DEADLINE: For most of Season 1, General Kirigan is pretty well respected and well liked. In Season 2, he’s feared more than anything else. How was it to be able to tap into the much darker side of Kirigan for this season?
BEN BARNES: When I took on the role initially, I knew there would be this catalytic moment for playing him about halfway through the first season when we would see him turn from this man who leads with authority but also with charm — I like it as an audience member when you’re just like half a step ahead of what you’re being shown. I think my intention was to show just enough of the manipulation just before the moment of it being explained to you so you don’t feel patronized. That’s really fun for me to look at those curves and those arcs and to chart them through. I purposefully asked to put in some moments of vulnerability, potentially that almost felt romantic, right before the moment of the turn because as the characters feel betrayed, I think the viewer should feel a little bit betrayed by what you’ve done. When coming into the second season, this is a man who is no longer toying with masks of charm that he’s built up in his arsenal. He’s a more raw version of himself, but…he finds himself now in slightly unsteady territory. He’s always been alone, but now I think he feels lonely in a different way, and he really doesn’t have anyone to get advice from, to get solace from, comfort from. He also doesn’t have his position to anchor him. He doesn’t have the status anymore. Like you said, he’s not really revered. He’s just feared and he’s so much more powerful. I think even he’s a little scared of himself. The wonderful thing about fantasy is you can make analogies so very clear, and he literally has his demons, his own shadows, inside of him. He’s carrying it around with him, and it is weighing pretty heavily and it starts to even betray him a little bit. But at the same time, he has to take ownership of this sort of villainy and his toxicity at this point. I think he begins to wrestle with and understand that. Like a lot of those villains that you’re on the fence about, his agenda is to safeguard his people and to protect the people that he cares about, and his ‘family,’ which feels like a noble thing. But if you do it at the expense of other people, then you become this dictator, like these figureheads that we have in the world today that strongly believe that every move they make is the right one and to everybody else they feel like borderline fascist dictators. [Kirigan] was always on the wrong side. He’s always the villain. But in this season, it’s unleashed a little bit and he doesn’t have an army to rely on. He doesn’t have these masks of charm to rely on. He’s unleashed into this slightly more raw territory, and that felt quite freeing actually, just to be able to walk into the scene and say, ‘This is what I’m trying to do. And if you don’t help me, I’m going to kill you.’ I think that was an interesting counterbalance to the first season. But then what was important to me, and the thing that we worked on really hard was to add something that’s not really in the books, which was my issue when talking about the second season initially, was that there aren’t really stakes for him as a character because he’s all powerful and fears nothing. So we worked very closely with our showrunners on having something for him to be afraid of. Spending another eternity alone is very scary for him but also he’s being poisoned by his own demons. I think it’s much more interesting if there is mortality to this character and awareness of it because when time runs short, that’s when you make decisions that feel important.
DEADLINE: I’m glad you brought up the shadow monsters being a metaphor. I think that comes to a head when they attack Alina and he can’t stop them. You see that he’s just as scared of them as everyone else is.
BARNES: We have a taste of it with his mother as well, which is a relationship that’s obviously built up much more in this season. You realize that even though he’s kept this person hostage, and resents her very much — like that [Philip Larkin] poem ‘They f*ck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do.’ She takes responsibility for it as well. She says to Alina, ‘I’m not your salvation. I was not a good person.’ I liked that about the villains in our story. The shadow has an awareness of itself, which I think makes the characters a bit more three dimensional and thoughtful. So we have a little taste of it when the monsters attack his mother, and it sort of takes him by surprise. When he’s responsible for his mother’s death, he blames Alina and then he goes pretty dark on her in the sixth episode. But then the results of how that conflict play out and the more he sees what she’s capable of, and what she really is when she’s in the fold and how powerful she really is — that actually maybe there’s a way that she could do this. She could play out his agenda without even needing him, and maybe he was wrong about it. There’s questioning in these moments where he realizes how mortal he is. The boy in him, the hopeful person in him is reignited, and you see these little cracks of vulnerability but it’s just too late.
DEADLINE: It’s interesting to hear you talk about his motivations, because he is so self aware that it makes it harder to empathize with him at times. He says to Alina that Ravka doesn’t need another saint, it needs a monster. How do you at all rationalize what he’s doing when he knows what he’s doing is terrible?
BARNES: Absolutely. I think there’s one thing he has going for him, which is consistency, because in the first season he talks to her about how he’s lived all these lifetimes and he’s tried it other ways. We even see in the flashbacks. And in the seventh episode, we’ve seen him trying to protect a different way without employing fear. And I think we see world leaders even now we flip flop between trying to lead by example and then trying to utilize threat. My agenda in the first season, even in talking about it in the press, was you have to align yourself with a character’s ideology in order to be able to have conviction in playing it. If I don’t understand them, then there’s absolutely no chance they come across as authentic. But that doesn’t mean I have to make them explicit. It can be for other people to define as they watch. I think what I like about this show and this character is that there is a little bit of mystery left and a little bit of confusion in him. I think he’s confused a lot of the time. He feels overwhelmed by this power because it does feel so dark, even for him. He’s left very much alone. He doesn’t have the mother that always supported him. Then he started to clearly have these feelings for Alina, who’s then moved past them. He doesn’t have his army anymore, doesn’t have his palace anymore, doesn’t have any of these things, and it brews into this storm. At least I don’t have to defend him anymore. I think in the first season talking about it, I felt the compulsion to be like, ‘Well, there’s a world in which this works.’ Because that’s what he believes. I think now it’s very much obvious that he’s gone off.
DEADLINE: You and Jessie have some very intense scenes together this season. How did the two of you work together to be able to carry those scenes, where you clearly feel these deep rooted, confusing feelings toward each other?
BARNES: Well, in the books there’s more clues [about their conflict]. She’s got all this attention. She doesn’t want it and it doesn’t seem to be getting her anywhere. There’s sort of a political infighting. And she’s like, ‘Well, if I could just use my power and just make everything how I wanted it…’ Then she realizes that’s what he’s been preaching this whole time. So we don’t really get into a lot of that in this season, because it’s thick, and we’ve got stuff to get on with. I think that we try as best we can to kind of sow that in still, but she has less conflict about him in the show. I think it’s a good thing, because it’s not an example we need to be putting out into the world. But yeah, we kind of fit our roles a bit better in the first season where I’m coming at this with 20 years of experience and Jessie’s fresher to this kind of experience. That naivety comes across beautifully in her performance in the first season. She has this wide-eyed wonder, and she has just a general joy about her which is so clear. It busts through the screen. By now, she is a little bit more experienced and has a power to her. She doesn’t suffer fools. I think she begins to realize she can manipulate [people] herself. She almost actually takes on a little bit of what his role was. At some point, she talks about ‘Well I can put on a mask too.’ But Kirigan is not an easy person to manipulate. So it doesn’t really work. He’s forced into this position of just confronting her and literally putting his hand over her mouth and shoving her up against the wall and silencing her and saying,’It will be this way.’ I think because we built up through the first season, this lovely friendship that we have, and we played these other elements of the characters, it was nice to explore the ones that we hadn’t. The gloves come off toward the end and then it’s interesting to navigate together what the history was between them and what the depth of feeling was. It’s not underlined. It’s left for people to decide who had feelings for who, and if so, what were they? We make those decisions very clearly ourselves, but not to spoon feed it. You have to build up trust to play romantic scenes, where you throw someone on a table and kiss them, but you also have to build up trust if you’re going to sneak up behind someone and grab them and be threatening and have your hand around their neck. You have to keep checking in with somebody and looking after them. It’s just as important in a fight scene as it is in a love scene. We’ve always had really good communication.