Out of the Shadow, into the Spotlight
Shadow and Bone breakout star, Danielle Galligan, naturally bubbles over with the kind of effervescence rarely seen in real time. Her infectious combination of warmth, humor and self deprecating wit, makes you wish you could bottle her vibe and dispense it in every corner of the world. Quite refreshingly, Danielle’s vivacity isn’t limited to in-person interaction; her high spirited temperament is undergirded by a cultivated emotional intelligence—the kind that makes it as easy for her to connect with strangers in real time as it is to delve into and demonstrate the dynamism of the characters that she portrays. Partially owing to this ease and depth, perhaps, is her unwavering fascination with psychology and psychotherapy, both of which she once considered as career options.
While much of Danielle’s professional repertoire includes theatre work, the Dublin-bred beauty is rising to prominence for her involvement with big-budget on-screen period pieces. Her first television appearance came in 2018 on Game of Thrones, and she presently costars in Netflix’s newly released series, Shadow and Bone. On the show Danielle plays the role of Nina Zenik, an undaunted Gresha soldier whose loyalty to her homeland is only paralleled by her self-indulgent inclinations. Bold and brazen with pockets of vulnerability, Nina’s story lies within the coterie of modernized narratives highlighting the fearlessness and fidelity of female protagonists. So inspirational was the role, the actress sportively suggests publishing a book of “Nina-isms”.
Shadow and Bone has undoubtedly joined the ranks of fantasy fiction storylines that will leave an imprint in contemporary culture. As the hotly anticipated show soars in global popularity, Danielle chats with 1883 about Nina Zenik’s unbridled vitality, life before mobile phones, and the challenges of detaching oneself from a role.
You had a pretty big weekend— Shadow and Bone just premiered on Netflix last Friday. How has this time been for you?
You know the ‘Crunchy’ bar?
Yeah— we call it ‘Nestle Crunch’ in the U.S.
When you eat them you really savor them, so my friends and family said, “We’re going to treat the show like a ‘Crunchy’—you know, do like one episode, two episodes, three episodes.” And then I was getting screenshots of episode 6 on Saturday, when the show only came out on Friday. I was like, “Guys, come on!”. [Laughter]. But I think that’s a good sign.
It’s an excellent sign— the reviews have been terrific for the series. Without giving too much away, could you briefly explain the premise of the show to us.
Um, so it’s all about Nina Zenik — I’m joking!! [Laughter]. It’s all abut my character’s journey. [Laughter]. I’m joking! It’s an epic fantasy series, so if you’ve seen things like Harry Potter, or Game of Thrones, it’s very much of that world, or of that vibe. It’s different because it’s set in tsarist
Russia— we see a lot of fantasy series, and they’re always set in medieval Britain. So there’s something new and fresh about this, and I know that when I watched it I took for granted how different this world is, so I think it’s a great thing…At a very basic line level it’s about a girl stepping into her power, which is definitely the narrative that we need, whether you identify as male or female, you are going to have those moments in your life where you need to step up to the plate, and you level up. So I think there’s something quite timeless about the storyline. It’s also set in a war-torn, very segregated, very hostile country called ‘Ravka’, which kind of is survival of the fittest. Everyone’s out for themselves, and the country itself is being plagued by this cloud…a big scary cloud of dark magic that has monsters, and is terrorizing the country, kind of like the ‘White Walkers’ in Game of Thrones— this ominous threat. The country is kind of on its knees, and there’s this orphan girl who’s a soldier, and was told that she wouldn’t amount to anything in her life— her name’s ‘Alina’— and she discovers that she has this ancient power that is the antithesis to the dark magic, and she has the power to tear down this fold that’s been terrorizing her country. So we follow her journey mainly, and there are lots of interweaving storylines….And when you have a girl with a lot of power, there are a lot of people who want to capture her, control her, buy her, sell her. And we get to meet other characters within this. Was that short or long? [Laughter].
It was well said. And it’s ironic that you referenced Game of Thrones, because Shadow and Bone premiered almost ten years to the very date that Game of Thrones debuted.
Oh my gosh!
And you were in Game of Thrones, right?
Yes, I was…But I always feel weird, because I was there for such a short time.
You were still there, though.
I was. You’re right! [Laughter].
Doesn’t matter what time you got to the party, you were still at the party.
That’s so true. Normally, first to arrive, last to leave! [Laughter].
You’re hilarious. Tell me this, do you have an affinity to period pieces? The two network television shows that you’re associated with—both blockbuster caliber— are period fantasy pieces.
I mean, I do love period pieces, like personally in my life…But I never had it as a goal in my career. I would never have said to my agents, “I want to focus on period pieces”. I guess I just have one of those faces— I know that sounds so simplistic, but I seem to slot into it, in terms of the mannerisms and things like that…I was on something [a show] recently, where I was asked, “How are you getting on with the corsets?”. And at this stage it’s like wearing a bra, I’m so used to it…I don’t know what it is about period pieces that I love. I’m a real “histro-file”— is that a word?
It is now! [Laughter]
[Laughter]. It is now— take notes everybody! Take notes!…But yes, I think history, and anything where there’s a historical backdrop— I really love diving into that world. So I’ll often go and research the real characters that it’s been on. So yeah, I guess I’m lucky.
How did you prepare for the role of Nina? I know you’re a ‘histro-file’, and you delve into the research, so how did you do that for this role?
I think it all kind of came quite naturally…For some reason, I didn’t have a plan with Nina. I kind of did what felt natural. So obviously the books were the first place to start because having an ‘in’ to someone’s inner stream of consciousness like that is kind of the best research that you can do— the research has already been done for you. So thank you, Leigh Bardugo [author of Shadow and Bone]. It definitely started with the books where I used them as a bible…When I got the first tape, I didn’t have time to do any other research, and I just remember using Wikipedia because there’s always fan notes, or something about the character where you can just get quick information for a tape, or an audition. So it was kind of an accidental form of research that I came upon, which was a lovely and vibrant way of getting into character. The postures, colors and shapes [and understandings] of Nina were really helpful…the fan art… So thank you, to the fans! They kind of helped me get the role.
Nina is a strong personality. Were there any aspects of your own nature that you drew from to bring her to life?
We did a 24-hour mull over when I was training. It’s when you keep the character in your head, and you carry them with you for a day, and you just walk around with them in the city and see what they think about…and I kept seeing bits of Nina in the women around me; so my nana is like a really shameless flirt— she’ll flirt with anything, like this light bulb is enough to get her going. [Laughter]. So there was kind of bits of my nana in Nina. And then my mum as well is quite performative and funny, and we always say, “You missed your calling on the stage”, and that’s where I got my acting from. And that’s a line literally from Nina in the book. And then my Auntie Carina can be quite fiery with a temper, and I know that Nina can really fly off the handle, so I was like, “Ah, I’m going to take that.”…My cousin Andie is a sass pot, and I remember thinking, “I’ll take that too!” [to include within the portrayal]. So it was kind of just an amalgamation of all of that, and obviously, the scripts were just really well written. So they [the writers] did a lot of the work for you…
What’s your favorite thing about Nina?
She was trained as a soldier. And she’s an orphan, and then she was found to have her Heartrender powers at the age of eight. And then she was whisked away to the palace, and trained to be a killer. So there’s something about that being her baseline for me that was really interesting. All of Nina’s qualities that I named before kind of seem in direct conflict with a deadly killer. So there’s a great juxtaposition within her.
Nina has an intriguing dynamism. How did you get involved with this project?
I’m still asking, “How did I get here?!”. [Laughter]. There’s an online database called Spotlight for actors And every actor has a profile, so some jobs will come via agents, and it slid into my DM’s one day. And I remember reading a character description for Nina, and I just felt an affinity with the character description— which is only ever a couple of lines. And then I just did the tape— I couldn’t do the call back, so I had to do a Skype interview, and then I got the part…I never auditioned for a Netflix series…I just have overwhelming gratitude. I still don’t know how I ended up in the series.
I read somewhere that early on in life you wanted to be a psychotherapist or psychologist. How do you apply the interest, or intrigue, that you have in that line of work to acting?
Really good question. It’s only now through me talking about it in retrospect that I think there is a link. When I was in school, I just didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was just like young and dumb, and full of rum. And I didn’t know what I wanted to do. [Laughter]…I think there were just things that I was toying with. And I like the idea of being a therapist of some sort. And my mom went back to school and trained as a psychotherapist when I was in first year, so I was learning about it via her and her clients as she was counseling them…But then, I didn’t think any more of it until now, when I’m in interviews like this…But there’s something about portraying a character…where each character [villain or otherwise] thinks that they’re doing the right thing, but they’re just stuck in old patterns of behavior. And you, as the objective— as the actor— can see their patterns, their weaknesses, and can almost predict what way they’re going to behave. And you have to accept that, and be compassionate and empathetic towards this person on the page in order to get them from start to finish. Because ultimately, you want them to be changed in a positive way by the end of the arc…or maybe you don’t, in a really negative way, if it’s not a hero story…There’s something in that journey— in a patient’s journey— where the therapist needs to be completely non-judgmental, impartial and completely compassionate in understanding the patient’s past and weaknesses and patterns. And hopefully get them to a place where they can grow, for the better. I think that’s where I see parallels. But then again, I’m not a psychologist…
Are there any Nina-ism’s that you’ve taken on from portraying the role? I imagine with the level of depth and dimension that you use to explore your portrayals, there may be challenges in detaching yourself— or oneself— from the role.
That’s actually a really good question. And really insightful…I’m very lucky that got to train at the Lir Academy, which is such an amazing college and the training is so in depth. They teach you to protect yourself from that. So I do kind of feel quite good at being able to separate. But it’s funny, little things do slip in— there’s one chapter in the book where Nina talks about feeling like a lost little girl, who’s training was too short, and she doesn’t feel able for the job that she has to do. This was something that I really latched on to in terms of a cornerstone for her personality because she is a lost little girl— she’s an orphan, and she doesn’t know her parents, or her heritage, or where she came from. And that spoke to me in a little way, in terms where my inner child was at in that time…Sometimes we all feel it in our lives when we’re in a situation where we’re out of out depth…and sometimes acting feels that way for me. So I very much found that connection in Nina, where the job she has to do requires her to be incredibly ruthless and confident, and logistical…Yet underneath that is this lost little girl who sometimes feels like she is incapable…And every time an actor steps onto the stage, sometimes your like, “I don’t know if I’m going to be good”…yet still, I’ve chosen this as my job. So there was something in those parallels that I was getting lost in that….In terms of other Nina-ism’s that I took on, they’re all pretty positive…I think that the way she lives is very inspiring and she’s so unabashedly herself…when she wants something, she goes and she gets it, and she doesn’t apologize for it…And not in an arrogant way— in an authentic way. She just doesn’t apologize for being who she is, or what she needs. And her acceptance of herself. We all need an Nina-ism book to flip through!
We all need some Nina in our lives.
I am biased, but I do think do. There’s loads of great stuff about her…And there’s something about the way she engages with the world…We spend so much time on phones and on screens. Especially over lockdown, so much of our lives are spent on phones, or in front of screens. Nina lives connected to herself, and the world…That’s aspirational.
Do you spend a lot of time on your phone, or are you more like Nina?
I don’t have a phone. [Laughter]. Joking. I try not to [spend so much time on my phone]. I had to delete certain accounts and take a break from my Instagram. My screen time was down by 40% this week…But I think I’m the last generation to remember the time before there was mobile phones— I remember we had a phone that you could actually hang up, as in to hang up on someone…
You just made me miss those days of when you could actually hang up on someone. You literally could slam the receiver onto the phone, and whoever was talking to you could feel your wrath.
[Laughter]. I love that that’s where you went! Absolutely.
Bring back those phones! [Laughter].
I heard, anecdotally, that a Generation Z person asked, “Why do they call it hanging up the phone?”. And I said, “Because there literally used to be a thing that you could hang [on a wall], and hang the telephone receiver on the phone”. And they were like mind blown.
Wow. Hanging up the phone is now a cultural relic. [Laughter]. Every expression actually does comes from somewhere, or something in history. Speaking of history, what is the imprint that you’d like Shadow and Bone to have?
What a lovely question. I meant to be honest, on a very basic level, I think that there’s something about fantasy— for me— that brings everyone back, no matter how old you are…Because there’s magic, and people with magical powers; there’s kind of a “Wow” factor. And I think that’s a very childlike state of being…When you’re a kid, and you experience the world for the first time, everything’s kind of “Wow!”…
And just a bit of joy and escapism after this hard time for everyone…And the writing is kind of clever. The characters may seem disconnected…but if you boil it down to the most basic points of their stories, they’re all people who haven’t really come from much and who have struggled with something from their past, and are also struggling with something in their present. And they’re trying to claim their place in a world that tells them that they are not important, and they’re kind of a bunch of misfits and outcasts, but they are also the heroes of their stories. And this is quite timeless, and always relevant. No matter where you’re born, or what your background is, you’re always going to have that struggle where you feel like you’re not enough, or you feel like you need to claim your place in the world. And I think that that’s a nice message.
‘Shadow and Bone’ is now available to stream on Netflix.
Interview Constance Victory
Photography Joseph Sinclair
Hair & Make-up Charlotte Yeomans
Styling Danielle’s Own