He tells me of preparing for his role as Wylan in Netflix’s Shadow and Bone. Before filming, he found himself crouching under the radiator in a sweet Stratford cottage to FaceTime his Shadow and Bone co-star, Kit Young [Jesper], and even though it was nothing like being under that piano, in hindsight there seemed to be a magical melody in how new and strange it felt. He didn’t know it then, but he was about to slip into a world of “found family” in the cast, a deep connection to his character, and long walks among a murder of crows in Budapest.
Photographed by Emilia Staugaard and styled by Nathan Henry, he resembles a fox with his pointed chin and amber eyes, floating among gnarled trees twisting into a hazy grey fog. Jack melts into the foliage as Emilia captures a child-like playfulness on film, mirrored in looks pulled together with polka dots, pointed ear knit caps and thick stripes. Like the layered knits he wears, Jack is woven intricately and as we talk, he unwinds with each question. While he thinks his words are like a tangled ball of yarn, I think everything he says is a thread worth hanging onto.
Shadow and Bone is an interpretation of Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse created in her Grisha book trilogy. In Wylan, Jack found the treasure his teenage self had been searching for. He is one of six Crows, a criminal gang in which he is the furthest out of his depth among the group, in spite of his naivety his arc is one to follow closely. We talk about treasures he has found in his life in the form of animals, community, self-realisations, and his work on stage and screen. Jack just moved apartments and sits on Zoom in front of a bare white wall as the Grisha books sit in boxes on the floor. He is ready for the new fantastical worlds that await him, both in fiction and reality.
Shadow and Bone Season 2 premieres globally on March 16, 2023, only on Netflix.
I’m so excited to be interviewing you about Shadow and Bone because I loved season one!
I’m so excited too because it’s one of those funny things where I only know what I’ve done, so I have no idea what the other half of the show looks like. I really can’t wait, I feel like I need to see it too!
How do you feel before something comes out – is it more nervous energy or excited energy?
It depends on the project, I'm so new to everything, so it’s still a mixture of both. With Shadow and Bone, it was such a joy to shoot and we get on so well as a cast, so I think I’m most excited to see the work my friends did. I watched season one when I got the role and I’d seen some of it before but now we’re such good pals I have to remember my friends are in this great show, and they’re so talented! I always get star-struck by them.
Since we just got into the new year, I wanted to start off with you being able to look back on the past a little bit. What are some moments from the past year that really sit with you when reflecting on the last year?
Oh, that’s such a good question. Looking back, there was a lot of change for me in lots of ways. Shadow and Bone is a huge part of that because even in my life it was a whole new set of circumstances for me. Getting to grips with working on something to that level and being a cog in a machine comes with its own challenges and excitement, but the change was there. Also, I was very lucky. I’ve gone from a theatre job to shooting Shadow and Bone, so those two things felt like a huge difference. As big as the theatre job was production-wise, it felt so intimate, friendly, and communal. Shadow & Bone felt like such an expansive project. Ironically, it turned out to be like another found family but on a very different playing field. Personally, [there was] just lots of change as well like moving house and being able to see my family more.
You mention theatre which I really want to get into a bit more later, but first I want to go back even further with you to your childhood. Is there a childhood memory you think describes who you are well?
My mum teaches piano and singing in the community, so I have very early memories where I used to sit underneath the piano while she was teaching lessons, so that’s something I think about – I can go straight back there. I remember being so proud that my mum was teaching someone something that they love, and she taught me as well. It was very special.
I was quite shy when I was a child, and joining a youth theatre on a Saturday morning in Wakefield, the nearest city where I grew up, is a huge part of my childhood. It was every Saturday morning for three hours and I did so much growing up there. It’s a funny thing actually, as you grow up, you have more context as to what that really was. At the time, I thought I was going there to learn about acting, and I thought I had found this passion for something. Actually looking back, it was someone pulling young people from the community together for three hours on a Saturday morning to create together. It was so fundamental to finding my voice even just talking to people and making friends, which I found really, really tricky. That’s what it was for, it wasn’t necessarily to become an actor, but it also had that impact on me.
I really love hearing about those memories. You mentioned being shy as a child and the youth theatre helping with that, but I personally feel like shyness is often something that stays with people. It can be so core to who a person is, and I don’t see it as a bad thing at all. Do you find you are still shy now?
Funnily enough, I was just talking about this with my friends recently. I feel like I’m getting shyer again, I’m going backwards a bit. It’s something I’m noting, and I wonder if it’s because there have been a lot of new experiences. I can get overwhelmed quite easily, and I think I was really good at masking it for quite a long time when I was at drama school or making friends elsewhere. I’m a lot more honest with it now, and I think maybe [being] in big social situations – which, wonderfully, are happening more often – is something that frightens me. I’m nervous about meeting people as Jack. I’ve always loved people and making friends, it’s just a bit of a journey getting there for me. That’s still with me, I think I just know a little bit more about how to deal with it.
It’s nice to hear you say that because for me, personally, I’ve always been a shy person but at the same time my career is to talk to people and even though I’m shy, I love getting to know and understand people. I’ve come to realise being shy doesn’t mean you are not very sociable or socially skilled. I think a lot of shy people are observers and actually do understand others really well, so when they are comfortable, they are very skilled in social interaction.
I love to hear that, and I think we find each other very easily. You can tell when you find someone who has empathy. I wonder if you’ve felt something I felt last night, actually. I was at a social event where I was thinking, “I know how you’re feeling and I can feel that energy, and I really want to get through, but I just don’t know how to and what words to pick.” [laughs] In my head, I’m thinking, “How do I begin this? How can I fast forward the first bit?” Because I know we’re going to be great friends, but I just have to get past that. It’s the confidence thing in learning how to take up space or learning how to make interactions properly. I think it’s something I can pretend to do quite well, but I think it’s ultimately something I find quite tricky sometimes.
I have definitely felt that before in knowing how others are feeling and just wanting to get through to them. On the same topic of your personality when you were younger versus how you see yourself now, is there any trait you think you had as a child that you have lost in adulthood?
Yeah, oh my gosh, that’s such a good question. It’s funny, I don’t think about my childhood a lot so it’s interesting. I think the reason I enjoy theatre so much is because it’s so much about play and being unapologetically creative. I can’t think of anything better to do with my day, and that’s something I think I had when I was younger too. I think I had less self-awareness maybe which follows on from the shyness thing. As I grow up, I become a bit too aware of myself and even talking to you about it, I think I’m able to symptomatically say, “Oh, this is what this is.” Whereas, as a kid, I might have felt like something was weird, but I didn’t care. Or, I could have a bad day and not really think about it. Now, everything is a lot more measured and you learn how to fix it, right? So, I think that’s something I miss – just not caring as much.
I think a lot of people can relate to missing that carefree nature as a child. I was scrolling through your Instagram a bit and noticed it’s filled with pictures of people and things you are surrounded by, like your friends and nature. So, if you can imagine yourself in the most ideal place you can dream up, what would it look like?
I’m trying to think of a really good way to describe it because I was telling this story to someone yesterday about foxes - I promise I’ve got an answer to this, I just have to get there. [laughs] Living in London, there are foxes everywhere to the point people find them to be a nuisance. I think it’s so brilliant we live in a city that has wild animals roaming around. I picked up a coffee the other day, I walked across the street and locked eyes with a fox, I can’t help but take a picture whenever I see a fox because I’ve seen this wild animal and we’ve crossed paths together going about our separate days. I think I’ve always been drawn to things with a wild nature. The fact we can pass it every day and not even think about it is really interesting. I even have a picture of a fox on the back of my phone [holds up phone]. I just think they’re brilliant. So, I think there’d be some sort of wildness to the place I was in.
I’ve always been quite curious about things, so I think I have an eye for picking up things I see. I’ve had to edit my Instagram down a bit, but it used to just be full of interesting windows or doors I saw, or if someone had an interesting bag. I used to just collect wild things. My perfect place would be surrounded by what I would term “wild” or “curious” things I can find, and then find out about.
I love that answer. I had no idea that was a thing there, I’ve never heard of that in my life!
I know someone who got their wallet stolen by a fox in London!
Oh my gosh! I can’t even think of an equivalent here!
Aren’t there a lot of raccoons there? I think I’ve seen a lot of raccoons in New York City in movies that go through the rubbish. I think that might be equivalent. The thing we think is, “Oh, the fox is going to get to it.” The next day rubbish is all over the street and you see a fox running past with jam all over its face.
That’s kind of cute though! I’m happy I learned that today.
Thank you, I agree. I’ve never found it not amazing. I think it’s the best thing ever! I’m really glad I got to tell you that.
Okay, I’m getting us back on track because we could talk about this for the rest of the time. [laughs] I want to talk about theatre briefly before moving on to Shadow and Bone. I know much of your career has been in theatre, with the most recent being the lead in The Magician’s Elephant at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Since theatre is so much about the present moment, many actors say it is the most special to them. Do you feel the same?
Yeah theatre, for me, was what I did first and the world which excited me. I never saw myself doing screen. I didn’t know it was a road that would be open to me. It was completely far away and never on the map but it’s been so wonderful it has happened. Theatre is just the one I know a bit better, and am more acquainted with. Although, there are still so many things I want to do in that world I have not even touched. All of those points I agree with, there’s something about spontaneity that is really wonderful, there’s something about being able to spend each night getting closer to something in your head and if it doesn’t work you can try again. You can be playful on stage and knowing the script so well, you can play with your cast mates. Going back to the youth theatre, the reason I did it in the first place is because it’s about people, first and foremost. It’s about collaboration. Even if it’s a one-person show, it’s not about the person leading it. There’s no ego, or there shouldn’t be – it’s an egoless thing. No one person’s job is more important than anyone else’s in that room. The job is to have a nice day and enjoy the work. Then you can go to the pub afterwards and talk about it. It’s a community, so when you finish a job it’s such a death in a way. You lose a family you created if it’s gone really well. Even if it’s not gone really well, you’re there every night working through it even if it hasn’t been what you wanted it to be.
It’s not only theatre because I also think, from my limited experience, I do my best work when it feels like that on a set. It’s something I think I’ve taken with me, but I think it is important to know how to create an ensemble. That’s really at the heart of theatre. You could go and not do that on screen, but it’s genuinely about the people, the shared experience with your cast mates and the audience. It’s about people and stories in a very raw way which is just great.
Do you remember your first time being on stage?
I don’t remember the first time, it probably would have been in school. In primary school here, we did nativity plays every year which is a traditional thing. I remember, year after year, I went from playing Joseph to one of the wise men to then playing the donkey [laughs], which maybe isn’t a great career trajectory, but I remember that very well. But I didn’t think any less of it. It’s only as an adult, that I think "Oh, I wonder what that meant.” At the time, I was just excited to try something else so I was excited to try the other two!
It always feels like the first time. I’ve been very lucky everything I’ve done has always felt very different from one another, there’s always something that makes it a huge challenge in a really exciting way. As actors starting out, we have such little control over what work we get to do, and it’s just great doing the work. But if I can ever have the choice, I’ll always be drawn to things that frighten me or things I haven’t done because it feels like the first time every time. I think that’s something really cool. Even doing The Magician’s Elephant felt like the first time because there were so many things which were huge bucket list moments for me. I got to sing a song on an empty stage at the RST (Royal Shakespeare Theatre) and my mum and dad came. That felt, in a way, like the first time because it was the first time I got to do that. You sort of feel like a kid again with these big, huge feelings.
I wanted to mention music as well, specifically relating it to Shadow and Bone. I read you were able to write flute music for the show, if you can, would you be able to talk a bit more about this?
Yeah, I can talk about this because Leigh Bardugo said I wrote music for the show which is so sweet - there’s music in Shadow and Bone, but there’s also music in Wylan’s story. Joseph Trapanese, who writes the soundtrack is so amazing! He wrote the vast majority of what Wylan does, but he was very kind in letting me write some things for Wylan. I won’t say whether it’s flute or not, but I did get the chance to write for Wylan a bit and it meant the world to me.
Let’s talk about the preparation side of things. I also read you make playlists for roles so I was wondering if you had made a Wylan playlist.
I did! I loved preparing for Wylan, I think it was my favourite to date. There’s such a wealth of information which I think some actors might choose not to read the book or jump in because the script is its own thing and it's additional to the books. The books will always be the books but, I can’t do that. I just wanted to know everything, I needed to jump into Wylan’s universe totally. I did everything – I made Pinterest boards, I had playlists…I said [in an interview] before, that I don’t think preparation ends up being helpful, but in hindsight, there are some things I can’t find the words to explain, but I can point to a visual and think about if Wylan feels like that in terms of tone. I would play the playlist in my trailer when I was putting my costume on, especially for specific scenes when I felt like I had to get into the zone. But, I loved it! There are a lot of similarities between what I like and what I imagine Wylan to like.
Do you remember anything specific on the playlist?
Yeah, it varied while we were shooting. You can only prepare so much because I only had the first two scripts before we started. I had that and the books so it started with classical music with composers like Grieg. There was lots of singer/songwriter stuff and indie music. Lots of music recorded in bedrooms where the lyrics were the most important thing. It adapted and became far more textured as we went on. I have specific songs for specific characters and character interactions, which I won’t say because I think they might be spoilers!
Having said all of that, I could have also led myself into a trap because Wylan means a lot to a lot of people, which is wonderful. I never felt pressured, I felt the same – I get it. I wish I could have read Six of Crows when I was a teenager, it would have meant a lot to me. However, Wylan in the books is sometimes a different entity from what Wylan can become outside of the books. I could have got in with this idea of Wylan being extremely naive and very, very young in the way he talks to people, but actually, he’s so clever and so brave. In the books, he can be quite catty and there are all of these really fun details that have to come from the source material. I hope this doesn’t sound too waffly but I think regardless of playlists and Pinterest boards, I had two incredible books to lift something from. Then going into production on a script that was separate, I wanted to go in and serve all of those parts of Wylan, who he is to me and the showrunners. I hope I managed to do it.
I think you have most likely done a fantastic job. Even when it was announced you would be playing Wylan, so many people said how amazing they think you will be in the role.
Thank you! I’ve tried to be wise enough to know that I know what it is to have a character you dreamed of seeing come to life, and there’s no way I can be that way for everyone’s depiction of Wylan in their heads. So, it’s a hard thing to take on because all I can do is know how much Wylan means to people and take that with me. I gave all I can give and there are things I don't have control over or power to decide. I hope that people get something that they really want out of it because I put a lot of work into it. The kindness of the fans of the show to let all of us in has been amazing because what it showed me is just how powerful the books are. The Six of Crows, all characters, are so detailed and challenging and yet I aligned straight away with Wylan. I know I was biased because I knew I was playing him, so I got to read the books with that in mind, but I would have anyway. There’s definitely a specific group of people who understand what “found family” means and the importance of belonging beyond blood. Most people can align with at least one of the characters for some reason. If I would have been able to read Six of Crows when I was 16, it would have been amazing. I can absolutely understand the passion the fans have because it means something and it’s so lovely to be a part of that.
Do you have the book with you? I was wondering if you took any notes in the margins or could share any thoughts you had while reading, or parts of the book you were really looking forward to exploring more.
I do actually, but I just moved so they’re packed away in a box at the moment! That’s a really good question, yes there were. Most of them were plot-based so I can’t really go into them but I love this thing, especially in Crooked Kingdom of Wylan repeating, “What am I doing here? What am I doing here? What am I doing here?” For all intents and purposes, he does not want to get into trouble and doesn’t want to be a criminal, but it’s almost the price he has to pay to belong in a family that means something to him. There are some really satisfying parts of Wylan in the books, especially with his arc. There’s a quote beginning with, “They were his first friends, his only friends and Wylan knew that even if he’d had his pick of a thousand companions, these would have been the people he chose.” That’s my favourite quote.
I’ve already said this, so I’m so sorry for the repeated answer, but it’s just this found family thing. I don’t know how Leigh [Bardugo] got into my head as a teenager the idea of people-pleasing, hero-worship, a sense of imposter syndrome and wanting to prove your worth, but you can’t do that until you know it yourself is amazing. It sounds really cheesy and really gross, but it’s satisfying to do the work of Wylan because I like describing him as brave and underestimated. I was a person who would have aligned with Wylan as a teenager, so it means I sort of got to say that to myself growing up. That’s really satisfying, and you don’t always get to do that. It’s tied to a lot of me in the biggest way, more than any other job I’ve done.
I’m happy you mentioned bravery because I really wanted to talk about that. You had said in a panel interview a while ago that you think Wylan can teach what bravery means in a different way to people. Can you expand on that, and what does bravery mean to you personally?
Wylan’s existence within The Crows is inherently brave because it’s so against what he sees as “appropriate,” but also what he sees himself as capable of. Don’t get me wrong, they’re all criminals, so not the best thing to aspire to be [laughs], but in the books, he went through a lot to get to where we meet him. In the Grishaverse, there are a lot of brave characters, even physically. There are huge, otherworldly things that people are fighting and I think what Wylan is fighting is so human and real that it maybe can be forgotten among the monsters, but Wylan’s battle is something inside which is hard to describe. He holds his own with five incredibly talented criminals, and he’s the least cut out for it.
When reading the books, Wylan is often described as blushing. What do you think his mannerisms and physical reactions say about him? When you were acting, were there particular mannerisms you were most aware of?
Yeah, there were! It’s a tricky thing because we aren’t playing The Crows as teenagers, but I feel like I know Wylan because I knew myself as a teenager, but then to take him to a more mature place, those things change. It’s a responsibility to lift a character from a page and decide how they walk and how they breathe and what their accent is. Interactions with other characters whom they may not speak to in the book and how that feels can be challenging. Ultimately, I feel like the job is to do everything as naturally as possible and not think about those things whilst in the scene. There was work that went into not just playing 16-year-old Wylan, but the opportunity to create an older version. It’s also the first time the audience is meeting him, so I want to give them an authentic version that makes sense from the book.
Wow, yes that definitely sounds like a challenge. I really have loved all your answers so far.
I’m just having the best time, all your questions are so brilliant!
Wylan’s blush is what gives him away in a sense, is there any mannerism of your own that you think gives you away?
It’s funny because this is a very present thing I’ve been thinking about, but I’m now more honest about how I’m feeling, like saying, “Oh my gosh, I feel a bit overwhelmed,” or like “Hi, it’s nice to meet you, I’m very nervous!” They are literal tells, but in a way, it takes the pressure off having to hide them. I can ramble a lot as well when I’m nervous, excited, or just happy to meet someone new. I will just talk and talk and not really know what I’m saying. Then at the end, I’m exhausted and just think, “What have I said? What have I done?” Every voice note I ever send, I have to send another one to say, “Does that make sense? Do I have to do this again?”
For the record, everything you’re saying has made sense to me! [laughs] Yeah, I think people, in general, are getting more used to feeling like they don’t have to hide feelings which are often deemed as “unacceptable” in social situations.
Yeah, every social instinct tells you not to say anything because we’re raised that way. We’ve been taught that it’s cool to be aloof and mysterious and not shy. I just don’t think everyone can do that. I’ve never been cool, or aloof, or mysterious, but I’ve tried sometimes [laughs]. I just can’t pull it off and there’s nothing more satisfying than saying you’re nervous and someone else just drops out of their masking and tells you that they are too. Then you feel like you’re starting from zero and not negative five. It’s like what I was saying earlier - I sometimes wish I could fast-forward a minute and a half into meeting someone to get to the actual bit especially if I know we will get on.
I definitely know what you mean. We also can’t not talk about Wesper before I let you go! I know that even before your family knew about you getting the role, you FaceTimed Kit Young. What were those initial conversations like?
Oh my gosh, that’s such a lovely memory to go back to. Finding out I got the role was just amazing, I did not think it was possible, and it was such a whirlwind. I did a tape and then we had a chemistry read together, and I didn’t realise everyone attached to the show was going to be on it too. I had Kit there but also Leigh Bardugo and the director. Honestly, during that chemistry read, Kit was my rock. We got on so well and had a quick shorthand of things, and I could tell he was someone I’d get on with. He was a calming influence, he just knows what’s going on. He’s so aware and so good at being in control and understanding a situation to know how to help someone through it. I was always a deer in the headlights for this project and he was the first person who I would ask for help.
The reason I didn’t tell my family for ages was because I didn’t know I was allowed to! [laughs] I’d never done a project for a company like Netflix and there are loads of rules and red tape which I took really seriously. I thought I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone! I was even doing a play at the time and it was a huge secret for ages. I had a FaceTime with Kit where I just needed to be excited with someone who knew I was playing the role, and also who knew the Grishaverse. I not only wanted to know practical things, but I wanted to talk about how excited I was. I wanted to be with another fan of the books to geek out with and talk about how cool it all was.
I’d be like, “I wonder what Wylan is gonna wear!” or “I wonder what he’ll look like!” He was just as excited as me and it was great. I remember them really well because I was working at the Shakespeare Company in Stratford and they give you these little cottages around the theatre to stay in. The one I stayed in had such awful internet access, the only way I could get enough reach to FaceTime was to sit underneath the radiator upside down! [laughs] So I had to be like, “Hi Kit, I’m sitting underneath the radiator because it’s the only place that I can get internet, can we please talk about Ketterdam and how do you pronounce Kruge?”
That’s so funny! How long did you keep it from your parents?
Well, I was lucky because of the distance. I was in Stratford and doing the play every night whilst in the daytime getting through the books and I thought I could teach myself the flute [laughs] which is not really something that’s easily done! I can’t actually remember how long it took, but we had a big, lovely conversation and they were really excited for me too.
What was it like being in Budapest with everyone, do you have any favourite moments?
Oh my gosh, the city is so beautiful to look at! The night before the newer cast was announced was quite scary because I knew the next morning was going to be a lot and you don’t know how it’s going to happen. I was really nervous so I took myself for a really, really long walk, I listened to my Wylan playlist and walked down the Danube which we did all the time together. Amita [Suman] and I would walk down there and have long chats, and we’d also all have brunch together. I went on this huge walk and tried to let it all sink in as much as possible because I knew the next day would be a completely different experience for me. Social media is a thing that scares me anyway, and I’m not tech-savvy so I was preparing as much as possible.
This is a bit embarrassing [laughs], but I was walking down the river and, I’m not kidding, I noticed hundreds of birds and I realised they were swarms of hooded crows around the bridges. I got videos and I think I posted some that night. I’m not particularly spiritual, but in my pre-announcement emotion I was like, “Maybe it’s a sign, this is wild!” Then, the next day, Freddy [Carter] invited the six of us to his flat for brunch. He cooked for us and I was like, “Freddy, this wild thing happened to me last night. I went on this massive walk and I saw thousands of crows, is that a thing that happens?” He was like, “Oh yeah, every night!” [laughs].
I would have thought it was a sign too, that’s so bizarre!
See, thank you!
I have one more question before I let you go. In 2023, if you could do anything knowing 100% you would succeed, what would you do next?
Oh wow, as an actor, I would love to do some Shakespeare. I did an episode of The Witcher and an actor I worked with said to me, “Find something that’s the most far away from yourself and get really good at it. Then, feel the feeling when somebody sees that you’re good at it.” It’s hard to explain, but it’s so satisfying to do something that people don’t think you’d be good at. So, maybe boxing or something like that. Or, if I could do a really good DIY and fix things in my house. [laughs]
That’s great advice! Thank you so much, it has been so nice talking with you.
Thank you! It’s been my favourite interview to date. I just feel like I’ve spoken to a friend for an hour, I could go on for ages. Your questions are so, so good. Hopefully, I’ll see you soon sometime!