Shadow and Bone’s Amita Suman: ‘At drama school I was told to work on my Indian accent’
The 23-year-old actor has burst onto screens in Netflix’s new fantasy series – but in our latest Big RT Interview, she says it’s the kind of role people of colour usually don’t have access to.
In making Netflix’s new fantasy series Shadow and Bone, it’s fair to say that Amita Suman took her lumps.
“I did get a scar,” the 23-year-old actor tells me. “I had my first Inej scar that I’m very proud of. And I had a bit of a swollen foot for about three weeks.”
In a role that requires her to battle heart-twisting warriors, dodge knives, scale tall buildings and spin from swirling silks, it’s no wonder that Suman ended up in the wars – but for her, playing the part of master thief Inej in the series was worth a few cuts and bruises.
“It was a challenge, but it was a challenge that I enjoyed so, so much, because I just wasn’t fit before I started,” she says over Zoom, with a new injury to her eye keeping her studiously off-camera. “And by the time I finished, the things I could do with my body, it was just absolutely incredible.”
Despite injuries it’s clear that Suman still can’t believe her luck landing her latest role, a crucial figure in Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse novels now transplanted to the screen for streaming adaptation Shadow and Bone. And while some of that excitement is easy to understand – who wouldn’t want to play an ass-kicking ninja with thousands of adoring fans worldwide? – other aspects of her casting were more personally meaningful to Suman.
“You don’t see people of my colour – and all other colours – in a leading role, doing such a unique part,” she says simply. It’s a lesson she learned early.
Born in Nepal before moving to the UK aged seven, Suman later attended the Academy of Live and Recorded Arts, where she received some slightly cynical advice that made her determined to find her own path through the industry.
“When I was at drama school, when I was growing up as an actress, people always said, ‘You need to get your Indian accent down. You’re going to be getting the stereotypical roles.’” she says.
“So much of what actors do, and the parts that we’re given, is out of our control. It’s really down to the writers and the producers, and people having this vision of expanding their closed circle.”
However, in the worlds of Sci-Fi and Fantasy Suman found the freedom to play more varied roles. After small parts in Casualty and Ackley Bridge, her first major acting job after leaving drama school was in Jodie Whittaker’s first series of Doctor Who, playing the character Umbreen (a younger version of lead character Yaz’s grandmother) in the critically-acclaimed episode Demons of the Punjab.
“Even though it was in Doctor Who and it was in sci-fi, I think it was a really beautiful episode,” she says now.
“And it was my first experience of die-hard fans. It was great. It was definitely nerve-wracking and a new experience, but it was just really wonderful to see that the story spoke to a lot of people.”
More parts followed, including a recurring part in US fantasy drama The Outpost. But soon, an even bigger opportunity loomed when Suman learned of a part going in a new Netflix series based on a beloved series of books. And despite Doctor Who’s high profile nothing could prepare her for the level of interest that came with Shadow and Bone, and specifically the part she was reading for.
“I just couldn’t believe what a beloved character Inej was,” she tells me. “I hadn’t really read the books, but when I got the audition through, I finished a book in one sitting. I just couldn’t believe the richness and uniqueness of all the characters.
"She is an assassin with a conscience. She tries to make choices out of the good of kindness and strength, but she’s very dangerous. And at the same time, she gives people the change to make the right decision."
While the Netflix series is ostensibly led by the story of powerful ‘Grisha’ Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li) a lot of fans are far more interested in Inej’s side of the storyline, which involves a gang of thieves pulling off a series of elaborate heists. In fact, when a first look trailer for the series debuted, the vast majority of comments were discussing Inej and her partners in crime Kaz and Jesper (Freddy Carter and Kit Young in the series), despite those characters barely appearing in the footage.
Given this popularity, nailing the casting of Inej was a particular challenge for the producers – until she walked into the audition room fully formed.
“When I saw Amita, I was sort of taken aback because she looks like Kevin Wada’s illustration of Inej come to life,” series author Leigh Bardugo tells me later. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, please be good.’ Because some actors look exactly as you would imagine the character, but then they start talking, and everything goes out the window.
“We were very fortunate because Amita is also an incredible actress. It’s embarrassing to admit this, but I burst out crying when I saw her read this scene. She read with such power and vulnerability.
“It was truly a moment where I suddenly thought, ‘I’m actually watching Inej. How is that possible? Because I’m fairly sure that I wrote the character.’”
From Suman’s perspective, it was a match made in heaven.
“I’m very lucky to say that at such a young age, the dream role I wanted, I’ve gotten without being a sex icon, or selling all the wrong things,” she says now. “It’s really about the character, and telling the story from an emotional point of view.”
But of course, satisfying the author is only half the battle – and Suman says she feels the pressure to live up to fan expectations, in particular her complicated semi-romantic relationship with her boss Kaz Brekker (Freddy Carter).
“It’s definitely scary at times, but, at the same time it gives me so much motivation to kind of really put my heart and soul into it, because I know that it means a lot to other people,” she says.
“When I finished reading Six of Crows, I loved their relationship – just the connection they have. They have one of those relationships where their actions speak louder than their words, and they’re two kindred spirits.”
And here, Suman and Carter had the chance to seed the early signs of that closeness. You see, slightly confusingly Shadow and Bone combines two separate book series penned by Bardugo – the Grisha trilogy and the Six of Crows duology – which on the page are separated by thousands of miles and years of time, though they are both in the same “universe”.
“Everything that happens in Shadow and Bone is a prequel to Six of Crows, the actual book where Inej first appears” Suman explains.
“And because it was a prequel, I wanted to find Inej at a starting point. I didn’t want her to be the exact Inej that you see in the books. What I wanted to show was the journey of her turning into that, and having the end goal of that.”
If there’s a season two (currently, more episodes have yet to be confirmed) Suman hopes to explore “more of [Inej’s] backstory” and “her dynamic with Kaz and Jesper” – and of course she’s keen to get back on the horse with any and all stunts and fight scenes they can give her, no matter the physical toll.
“I would love to get more fight scenes in there as well, because she is an assassin,” she says. “She is a ninja. She is a spy.”
But for now, she’s just happy that the world is going to meet Inej – her Inej – and finally see exactly what she can do.
“My lockdown has been such a bloody rollercoaster,” she says. “And I’m so glad it has. I’ve been really, really lucky. I’m healthy and I’m able to do stuff. Right now, I’m in such a grateful position to be promoting a fantastic show that’s coming out.
“Inej is my dream role,” she concludes. “And I never grew up thinking I would get the opportunity to be her, or play someone like her.”
Altogether, that’s probably worth a scar or two.
Main image taken by Joseph Sinclair. Hair and Make-up by Amanda Grossman and styling from Molly Haylor. Blue dress - Nanushka SS21.