Ben Barnes has cornered the market when it comes to tragic villains.
He’s not even sure that’s a technical term for the characters he seems to gravitate towards, but if it is, he’s undoubtedly the picture you’d find next to its dictionary entry. Barnes likes the men who are a bit rough around the edges, who are flawed at best, homicidal maniacs at worst. They’re the arrogant playboys of Westworld, the morally gray soldiers of The Punisher. And now, they’re the supernaturally gifted generals in a long-awaited Netflix adaptation of a YA fantasy world known as the Grishaverse.
Barnes is playing the series villain or anti-hero, if he’s done his job right. In Shadow and Bone, General Kirigan is a darkly mysterious figure in Leigh Bardugo’s novels (off which the show is based), and in Shadow And Bone, where his plans to conquer a sea of darkness that splits the country of Ravka in two are made possible when a young woman with the gift of literally summoning the sun appears. The story is a mash-up of greatest hits when it comes to fantasy tropes, set in a steampunk world where the superpowered are called Grisha, where war has torn the land apart, and where Kirigan seems to be at the center of it all.
We chatted with Barnes about perfecting the “bad-guy-but-with-layers” persona on screen, becoming the Steve Jobs of the fantasy world, and if he’d ever want to play a superhero after The Punisher.
I’ve spoken to a lot of creatives who say, “I’ve done this once. If I’m going to do it again, it needs to be different.” What makes this series different for you?
I think I’m just a fan of the genre in general. I studied children’s literature at university and I was writing about Harry Potter in my thesis and just those journeys and the sort of didactic, challenging nature of what that literature can be. And I got really interested in it. So that’s the first part of the answer, but you’re right, I always want to do exactly what I haven’t just done. If I’ve done something dramatic and serious and scarring, then I want to do something sort of light and fluffy and, and joyful. But I’m interested, I think, in stories about hope and identity and where we feel like we belong. And I think that’s what’s particularly special about this series.
It does feel like a mashup of a lot of great genre tropes.
It’s got some nostalgic elements that feel like sort of the warm blanket of fantasy — the “Chosen One” narrative that feels a bit like Lord of the Rings or even Star Wars if Sci-Fi’s more your bag — then it has this sort of Anna Karenina setting. Tsarpunk is what they call it, this sort of steampunk, but with a tsar at the head of the hierarchy and in terms of its aesthetic. Then in the way they ordered the Grisha according to their skillset and how they get the colored keftas, that felt a bit like the sorting hat in Harry Potter to me. Then you have the Crows and those books and those feel like they have hints of Oceans 11, or Peaky Blinders even. So there are things that sort of remind you of fantasy, but as a whole, it feels like something completely fresh and new and not, I think, like anything else that I have watched. And so that was intriguing that it didn’t feel derivative of anything, but whilst maintaining an element of fantastical nostalgia.
It’s also, even though it’s got a period feel, you deal with a lot issues we’re having discussions about right now.
Yes, we chart through themes of racial identity and the politics of power and the idea of abuse of status and faith systems even consent little bit in this first season. But at the end of the day, all the characters, including mine, are wrestling with demons from their past. They’re all trying to sort of get through the fold as it were. They’re all trying to get through the fold, wrestle with their demons, put them at bay and figure out where it is they feel the happiest, the most at peace. With whom do they feel the most at peace and where do they feel like they belong? And I think just navigating the earth as a human being, that is a question that is on one’s mind, but also through the pandemic and everything, I think it’s just something that’s sort of been questioned, highlighted and is at the forefront for everybody.
So… it was the capes. The black capes is what sold you?
Right, your searing, journalistic eye is cutting through my bullshit and you can see that mainly, I want to wear black. I don’t want to have lots of different costumes because that’s a pain. I want to be the Steve Jobs of the fantasy universe.
You have really perfected playing the bad guy that people still root for. How do you do that? Why do you do that?
Why do I do it? I don’t know. A close friend of mine pointed out that I do have this sort of slight niche for myself of villains with psychological damage that are always abused — in the case of Westworld, abused by his father, abused in a boys’ home in The Punisher, and in this case, there’s a sort of a demon in the woods story, which leads to the tragedy he suffered. So these sorts of tragic villains — which, I’m not even sure that’s a category — that then have sort of murky relationships with heroines. I struggled to think of any other examples of this and I’ve done about five in a row.
It’s your calling card on screen.
The reason it comes across like that is because I’m not interested in the singular. I’m interested in the fact that everyone has the capacity to be everything. There are no evil babies. This is all learned. And so I really enjoy finding the opposite of moments.
Are you worried you’ve made this villain too likable or sympathetic? He’s got a following amongst book readers so you could end up being the hero of this thing. Or at least, like a really charismatic cult leader or something.
[Laughs] People on the internet sort of want to reclaim this “problematic man arena,” and they have their right to, as they’re reading, support whomever they want. I can’t pretend to understand it, but I think for me, the difference is we’re not presenting a hero. I’m not the one you’re rooting for, that’s Alina. I think that most people intrinsically are good and they root for the good. That isn’t to say though, that I don’t want people to want more of the character on screen. I want people to want to understand him better and I want people to want to understand why he behaves how he behaves. I think that life exists in the gray. The allegory of dark versus light in this story is very clear, but the most interesting parts of the story are the conflict. It’s interesting to me that these men represent potential paths for Alina’s future and what she could become. The darkness that could be in her, the ambition that might lie in her. The other people don’t understand what it’s like to have this power. Those areas that raise questions and spark debates make shows interesting to watch and then talk about.
Speaking of shows that spark debates: The Punisher. I’m still salty it’s over, though it wouldn’t have mattered so much for your character since he died…
Yeah, but do you think I would’ve if they didn’t know it was [ending]? I don’t know.
Do you wish things had gone differently for that series… that season?
We were halfway through season two filming, and Jon [Bernthal] and I barely had any scenes together and I know we were sitting around a set going, “What, if they manufactured a way to get them both in prison and then they would have to work together in order to get out and then start to kill each other again? What if we could give them three or four episodes of talking? Wouldn’t that be awesome?” I was like, “Yes, I would love that.” There are a few scenes between us where we’re just sitting and talking in flashback and they were so compelling to me. I love doing it. And I obviously, I think, as proven by the last five or six jobs I’ve done, I seem to work best when just in one-on-one talking scenes. I think those are kind of my area.
Well, you’ve technically played a Marvel villain. Would you want to play a superhero next?
What superhero are we talking about?
Which one are you thinking about?
So long as there was an opportunity to find the opposite of whatever he is in the cracks between, absolutely.
So… not Captain America then?
I think I’d be a terrible choice for Captain America. I’d be a better Winter Soldier, or… I liked the ones with a little bit of darkness or confusion. The Batmans, the Moon Knights. I think you can find those things in anyone though. Even in Captain America, he wasn’t just playing one thing. He had internal conflict, I think, which was interesting.
True, and his choice to go back in time and retire with Peggy was pretty crappy too.
Yeah, but I’m just such a full-on romantic. That’s what I’d do.
But look what he’s done to his friends, Ben.
But man, it’s true love.
Oh fine, whatever.
Netflix ‘Shadow and Bone’ premieres on April 23.