Whether or not you’re a fan of Netflix’s addictive fantasy series Shadow and Bone, you’ve almost certainly seen Ben Barnes’s face before. The English actor has appeared in a number of high-profile shows and movies over the years, before taking on the complex and polarizing character of The Darkling in Shadow and Bone. Born in south-west London, Barnes has been working primarily Stateside ever since his breakout role in a much-anticipated fantasy adaptation. If you’re trying to figure out where you know him from, here’s a quick primer on Barnes’s career to date.
He got his breakout role in a huge franchise.
Back in the relatively early days of modern movie franchises (post-Lord of the Rings, pre-Marvel), the big-screen adaptation of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series was huge news. The series got off to a strong start with the release of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in 2005, and Prince Caspian (the fourth book in Lewis’s series) was slated as the sequel. Barnes, then 25 and still relatively new to screen acting, was cast in the eponymous role of Prince Caspian. He’d made his feature film debut the previous year with a small role in the beloved romantic fantasy Stardust, but Narnia was his breakout.
Prince Caspian ended up dramatically underperforming at the box office, and Disney abandoned the franchise shortly afterward (20th Century Fox took over to make a third movie, 2010’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, before shelving Narnia altogether.)
Barnes has since reflected on the rollercoaster experience that was being cast as Prince Caspian, being heralded as “the new prince of Hollywood”, and then witnessing the film’s failure. “Naively, it felt like a mark of things to come,” Barnes told Variety of the initial buzz around his casting. “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.”
He’s good at playing bad.
Perhaps in part because of his Narnia experience, Barnes has largely avoided playing straightforwardly heroic characters in recent years, opting instead for a series of characters who can be called morally grey at best, and just plain villainous at worst. In Westworld, he plays Logan Delos, a hedonistic bro with a sadistic streak that emerges during his frequent visits to the morally questionable robot theme park run by his family. But without getting too far into spoiler territory, Logan ultimately gets quite the comeuppance, and ends up “broken by the park,” to quote Barnes in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter.
“It’s almost as if you’re seeing the parenthesis of the man, before and after the events of season one,” says Barnes. “You see him when he’s working for Delos, for his father. You realize that he’s the one whose interest has been piqued by this technology. He’s the one who decided that this is the most extraordinary thing for the future, and the way to move forward. And then you also see that bracketed with him after the fact, when he’s been broken by the park. He’s the first person to realize this is our doomsday. ‘These fools… they know not what they do.’” In The Punisher, Barnes plays the even more tormented figure of Billy Russo, a former best friend to Jon Bernthal’s Frank Castle who becomes his nemesis.
Barnes was initially wary about signing on to Shadow and Bone.
In an interview with Variety, the actor admitted that by the time the script for the Netflix series came his way, he’d become somewhat jaded about period fantasy as a genre, having starred in a number of them after Prince Caspian including 2009’s Dorian Grey and 2014’s The Seventh Son. “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,” he said.
The character of The Darkling is another villainous yet roguishly compelling character in the Barnes canon, who is both a romantic foil and an antagonist toAlina (Jessie Mei Li) in season one. Season two is scheduled to premiere in March, and while Netflix is yet to announce a third season of the show, showrunner Eric Heisserer has a three-season plan, so here’s hoping.
Emma Dibdin is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles who writes about culture, mental health, and true crime. She loves owls, hates cilantro, and can find the queer subtext in literally anything.