Ben Barnes Thought He'd 'Had Enough' Playing 'Manipulative' Characters — Until Shadow and Bone

Breanne L. Heldman
·3 min read


In Netflix's new Shadow and Bone adaptation, Ben Barnes dazzles in the dark role of General Kirigan, a villain who uses his powers to manipulate those around him.

But Barnes, 39, tells PEOPLE that his time playing other villains on TV (Westworld and The Punisher) previously left him thinking that he no longer wanted to portray "problematic" characters, such as Kirigan.

That was, until he read the Shadow and Bone book trilogy.

"I sort of thought I'd had enough of playing sort of manipulative, problematic, antagonist characters over the last four or five years," he says. "But I just found this world so appealing when I was reading the book and I haven't played a character that was sort of so high in status in terms of the hierarchy of the world."

"I thought that was a sort of different angle for me to approach fantasy from, having sort of played 'boy with sword' for a few years," he explains. "The rescuing the damsel and fighting the monster was played out a bit for me."

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Shadow and Bone, streaming now on Netflix, stars Jessie Mei Li as Alina Starkov, a teenage orphan who grows up in the fictional land of Ravka and has just unleashed an extraordinary power that could be the key to setting her country free. The eight-episode series is based on the bestselling fantasy book series by author Leigh Bardugo.

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A fan of fantasy and children's literature, Barnes says he was drawn to the complexity of Bardugo's characters.

"I'm still very interested in these stories about hope and about identity and where we make a sense of belonging," he says. "And I think in reading these books, it was very clear to me that that's what these stories were about."

Barnes continues, "All of those characters have things, demons they're wrestling with in terms of their past, or their newfound power, or their broken heart, or their violent childhood, or their faith systems, or their sexuality, whatever it might be. They're all wrestling with these ideas having come from all over the map of our world, and they're all such sort of dense, interesting characters."

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Barnes adds that even Kirigan — as "manipulative" and "problematic" as he may be — isn't irredeemable.

"We're not pretending this man is the hero; we're not pretending that his abuses of power are forgivable or condonable," the actor says. "But you're presenting a character that hopefully you want to see more of on the screen and want to see his conflicts, and also want to give room for there to be a kernel of hope for redemption."

"I think we have to believe there's a kernel of hope for redemption for everybody," Barnes says. "Even if we can't forgive them their particular actions, because they're different things."

Shadow and Bone is streaming now on Netflix.