Like so many actors fortunate enough to work over the past year, there was a two-week stretch last fall when Ben Barnes found himself sequestered alone in a Canadian hotel room. He was there for “Shadow and Bone,” the new fantasy series Netflix hopes will become one of its signature genre franchises alongside “The Witcher” and “Stranger Things.” The show had largely wrapped production just before the pandemic lockdown, but Barnes still needed to film some final scenes as the powerful and mysterious General Kirigan, also known as the Darkling, who possesses the ability to control darkness and wield it as a deadly weapon.
Before he could dive back into all that, though, there was that pesky mandatory quarantine to endure. So to pass the time, Barnes started making his own music.
“I managed to buy this very small keyboard off of a Facebook marketplace thing,” he explained over Zoom in March from his Los Angeles bedroom, which he’d dressed with a large houseplant and his copies of the best-selling Leigh Bardugo YA novels from which “Shadow and Bone” was adapted. “It was a weirdly cathartic time: wrote some songs, worked on the scenes we were going to shoot and then tried to figure out who I am and where I fit in the world and what’s the point of anything?”
That is a familiar refrain for pretty well everyone through the pandemic; it’s also far from the first time Barnes has confronted it.
The British-born 39-year-old first launched his career at the center of another adaptation of a beloved fantasy book series, as the title hero in 2008’s “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian.” It was the kind of part (a rakishly handsome man of action) in the kind of movie (the second installment in a global blockbuster franchise backed by Disney) that was supposed to catapult Barnes into instant A-list stardom. Stories about Barnes from that period, in fact, couldn’t resist declaring him to be “the new prince of Hollywood.”
“Naively, it felt like a mark of things to come,” Barnes said of the sudden rush of fame he received from the film. “Princes become kings, you know? You get on the escalator and if you work hard and you commit to your characters and do it in good faith, DiCaprio and Brad Pitt are at the top and that’s where you end up.”
Instead, “Prince Caspian” underperformed so drastically — grossing $420 million globally in comparison to the $745 million global take of its predecessor, “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” — that Disney abandoned the franchise. “Narnia” rights holder Walden Media turned to 20th Century Fox for the follow-up, 2010’s “Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” but that film also foundered, with $416 million globally. While not a disaster, it was also apparently not enough to keep going: Despite several titles remaining within C.S. Lewis’ beloved book series, the Narnia film franchise was quietly put to bed.
Since then, Barnes has sustained a career largely oscillating between tiny indie films and supporting roles on sci-fi/fantasy TV series, most recently on HBO’s “Westworld” (as a louche and cruel billionaire’s son) and Netflix’s “The Punisher” (as a tortured and ruthless villain). But “Shadow and Bone” — with a sweeping story of good and evil developed by Oscar-nominated screenwriter Eric Heisserer (“Arrival”) — represents an opportunity the actor hasn’t experienced for more than a decade: A central, showcase character on a series with the potential to become the global sensation “Narnia” wasn’t.
A different actor might be preparing themselves to leap back onto that escalator hoping to arrive at the level of a Leo or a Brad — or perhaps an Emilia Clarke. Barnes, however, now sees things much differently.
“It’s not an escalator,” he said. “It’s not even stairs. There’s no up.”
In person — or, at least, over Zoom — Barnes is nothing like the calculating men of action he’s often been called upon to play. His natural speaking voice is pitched half an octave higher from the brooding baritone he deploys on “Shadow and Bone,” and his words often tumble out of him so rapidly, it’s like listening to his brain think in real time.
Take how Barnes talks about the hard-won perspective he’s come to have about the trajectory — or lack thereof — of his career. “It took me a little time to understand that these are waves,” he said. “I’ve found that this particular metaphor has — oh no, I’m going to say this water metaphor has held water, that’s bad! But you’re going to have to learn to surf.”
To torture this metaphor even further, it took hitting a few more rough waves before Barnes says he realized there was an ocean. Between the two “Narnia” films, he starred in “Dorian Gray,” an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s celebrated gothic novel with Colin Firth and Ben Chaplin that premiered in the U.K. to such a poor reception that it never received theatrical distribution in the U.S. Two years later, the same fate befell the ’80s rock comedy “Killing Bono,” starring Barnes as the high school classmate of the U2 frontman.
By 2011, Barnes’ star power was still potent enough to land him the lead role in “Seventh Son,” another massive fantasy adaptation starring Julianne Moore as an evil witch, Jeff Bridges as a wizard, and Barnes as Bridges’ apprentice. Backed by Legendary Pictures, the film shot in 2012 and then promptly found itself trapped in limbo during Legendary’s divorce from Warner Bros. A 2013 release was pushed to 2014, and then again to 2015. When it finally did open, “Seventh Son” grossed just $110 million globally, and a puny $17 million in the U.S. and Canada.
“My character was 13 [in the books], and it was more of a coming of age story,” Barnes said with a sigh. “I wonder whether that’s what it should have been, really.”
While “Seventh Son” stumbled through corporate purgatory, all that breathless enthusiasm for Barnes’ star potential began to evaporate.
“It’s impossible not to get caught up in the game of your name is worth this after having done ‘Narnia,’” he said. “And then you do it a little indie film that you think has an interesting ending, and nobody sees it. And then your name is worth this, and therefore, this job that you’ve auditioned hard for and met with the director of and felt like you’ve got on famously with is going to go to this other person who didn’t audition. I think there are only two options at that point. One is to play the game better or to change what the prize is — and that’s what I ended up doing.”
Already armed with a profuse emotional vocabulary as the child of a psychotherapist and a professor of psychiatry, Barnes began reading intensely about the psychology of happiness, and how we set ourselves up for failure with impossible expectations — or just the wrong ones.
“I made myself a promise, from now on, let’s simplify how we choose what we’re going to do,” he said. “Let’s do projects that you would want to watch.”
For Barnes, that meant recalibrating his standards. “Despite me not having utter faith in the script of [‘Seventh Son’], there is nothing that would have stopped me working with that cast — on that scale, nothing,” he said. “So it didn’t matter to me that I didn’t fully understand the tone of it. But that’s why it was so important for me when we came to ‘Shadow and Bone’ to feel like I really understood the tone and I had a seat in the table.”
While the rest of the cast of “Shadow and Bone” is made up of unknowns, Heisserer understood that the Darkling needed to be played by an actor who could bring a sense of history and foreboding authority to the role, while also being a viable romantic interest for the film’s lead, Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li). He quickly zeroed in on Barnes as the kind of actor who could thread that particularly tricky needle — but more importantly, because his wife, Christine Boylan, was a writer on “The Punisher.”
“I’d gotten to meet Ben socially and knew what an amazing, lovely human being he is,” Heisserer said. “I have also been on so many sets where you have a toxic actor that really corrupts the whole process for everybody. If you get someone that carries themselves with respect and has that kind of respect for everybody else in the process, then you build a completely different atmosphere on set. Ben was absolutely my choice not only for the performance side of things, but [also] because of who he is as a human being.”
Barnes, at first, wasn’t so sure. He’d made so many period fantasy projects that his friends had started calling him “boy with sword,” and he didn’t want to find himself stuck in another YA adaptation that didn’t make sense to him. So he did something he’d never done before: He asked to meet with Heisserer to nail down exactly what would be asked of him for the role.
“He had a very good point from the onset, which is that YA means something different to different people, and that category, even used by network execs or studio execs or producers, carries different baggage with it,” said Heisserer. “Some see it as this is a product only for people of a certain age and you can’t really try to aim for anybody outside of that age group.” Heisserer assured Barnes that “Shadow and Bone” would aim for something grander and more adult.
“Just being able to say, ‘I would love to do this job, but there is this one thing I think is really important,’ or ‘I’m not sure about the ending,’ or ‘I would like to make sure the tone feels purposeful…’” Barnes said, trailing off. “I think that you have this golden moment after they choose you but before you’ve said yes, and it’s very short. And I learned to use that to have a little bit more agency.”
Once Barnes committed to “Shadow and Bone,” he poured himself into the process, devouring all of Bardugo’s novels and developing his own list of moments and lines for his character he wanted to preserve on the show. Once he was on the set, he became captivated by how thoroughly the production brought Bardugo’s self-styled Greisha-verse to vivid life, evoking everything from “Anna Karenina” to “Peaky Blinders” and even “Ocean’s 11.” Most critically, he was delighted to realize everyone else was bringing the same level of commitment he was.
“It struck me really hard in this lovely way that every single person who turned up on set had read at least one of the books to understand the world,” he said. “Part of the appeal of a lot of these kinds of jobs for me is that it feels like a team sport — you feel part of something.”
The buzz around the show has left Barnes with a feeling of “anticipation” that he says he hasn’t felt for a very long time. But he hasn’t forgotten the lessons of his past.
“That’s what I’ve been saying to the to the young cast of ‘Shadow and Bone,’” he said. “Like, don’t worry about what the next job is. Enjoy this. Be here. This is incredible, trust me. Let’s make the absolute most of this, because you never know when a pandemic is coming to piss on your bonfire.”