Evening Standard

Jonathan Bailey: ‘Bridgerton has raised the bar for representation’

There are worse places to conduct an interview than a park, and at least it’s only drizzling.

The only problem is that people won’t leave Jonathan Bailey alone. Which is to be expected, of course: he’s in Bridgerton, the most-watched original Netflix series in its history, viewed on 82 million accounts in a month since it dropped on Christmas Day. Wait. Did I say people? I meant dogs. They snaffle at his heels and rub against his legs while the humans remain impervious. This is because, devoid of his mutton chops and tailcoat, the 32-year-old actor looks a world away from Viscount Anthony Bridgerton, brother of Daphne; lover of Sienna; friend and foe of Simon, Duke of Hastings.

Today he’s dressed in a nylon jacket and sporting very different hair. ‘Bit of a spoiler for season two — I’ve had a light perm,’ he smiles.

And even if Bailey had spent the past two months in full regency costume, fame would have eluded him until lockdown eased and the usual signifiers — being hassled in restaurants, endless selfie requests — were back on the table. Until then it lies in wait, preserved in aspic.

Having spent lockdown thus far on the East Sussex coast staying home like the rest of us, Bailey admits the disconnect is confusing. ‘I feel like I’m being gaslit on a global scale,’ he laughs. ‘Even today, just meeting and talking to actual people who have seen the show feels weird. To me and all the British cast, it feels like Nasa. Netflix launched this spaceship, and you get launched into space. It’s a brilliantly traumatic thing to experience. The launch only happens once, and then it’s about tethering yourself and working it out. I think that might take a while.

‘The isolation of lockdown has been incredibly hard for everyone, but the isolation of feeling like you can’t inhabit the experience that other people are experiencing around you, while being locked down and not being able to see your friends…’ he tails off. ‘Presumably all it will take to shake it off is a big dinner, or even just having a few pints and going out.’

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With a slew of TV parts under his belt (Broadchurch, Crashing, Chewing Gum, W1A) and an Olivier award for his role as Jamie in Company (2018), Bailey isn’t exactly an ingénue. But Bridgerton is one of those rare TV programmes that has bestowed fame on a global scale.

Produced by Shonda Rhimes and adapted from the historical novels of Julia Quinn, Netflix’s genre-busting costume drama reached the top 10 in 189 countries, thanks to a sharp script, lavish costumes and racially diverse cast that saw actors of colour inhabit the highest echelons of 19th-century society in a way that had never been seen on screen before. That this high society is presided over by a black woman, Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel), might be diversity divorced from any historical context, but the alternative — another costume drama inhabited by white people — has never felt more wrong.

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Bailey auditioned for the part in 2018 while appearing in Company, sending off a tape to Rhimes’s production company, Shondaland. ‘I got offered the job on my 31st birthday, 25 April 2019,’ he recalls. Filming started in July 2019 and ended in March 2020, narrowly avoiding any impact from the pandemic.

‘For me it feels like a lockdown anyway when I’m working, so it’s a long time since I can remember normal life.’ Has he been he a banana bread-baking stereotype over lockdowns? ‘I made more than banana bread,’ he laughs. ‘I started with banana bread but went on to cinnamon rolls, although they looked like turds — terrible. But I made amazing hot cross buns.’

The million dollar cliché: what did he learn about himself? ‘I feel more complicated than I thought I was,’ he says. ‘And then I’ve been affirmed by certain things. I did a lot of cycling between lockdowns, in Cornwall and around Italy last summer — pure recharge, pure perspective. Nature is so important. I know everyone’s saying that, and that some people can just keep going flat out, but I know I need to recharge. And I love a bath. I’ve had weeks where I’ve had a minimum of two a day.’ He suddenly looks horrified. ‘Actually, that’s awful. Don’t put that, ’cause it’s wasting water.’

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Barely has ‘what did you miss the most?’ escaped from my lips and he exclaims, ‘Theatre! Not just theatre, but the possibility of theatre. But then, I’ve been watching really brilliant theatre creatives smashing it on TV instead.’ He points out that Bridgerton cast members Rosheuvel, Ruth Gemmell, Adjoa Andoh and Luke Thompson are all regulars on the stage. ‘We should be proud in Britain that there’s a massive crossover between theatre and TV. It’s not a semi-permeable membrane: it’s all one talent pool.’

Could the Government be doing more to support theatre? ‘Absolutely. It’s just the people who are making the decisions; if it had been someone who loves theatre, and understood the importance of it, this would never have happened. There are certain things in life where you go, “That’s a marker”, and the [2019] government campaign about Fatima having to retrain in cyber was one. That was a wound that will take a long time to heal. And the other marker of a moment is Ruth Sheen’s performance in It’s A Sin [the veteran actress had a cameo as a hospital visitor who took Keeley Hawes’ character to task in the final episode]. The last year hasn’t been about Christmas and Easter. It’s been about markers like those.’

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Bailey has been described online as ‘openly gay’. I point out that no actors are ever described as ‘openly straight’, and he laughs. ‘I’d say I’m not openly gay. I’m just gay.’ Although he is wary of discussing his sexuality for the sake of it. ‘Then it becomes a commodity and a currency. I knew that I wanted to be visible about my sexuality, because in all the territories that Netflix goes out in, there might be a boy somewhere that goes, “Wait, what?” Which is what I didn’t have when I was young. All I know is that I’m happy to keep working really hard and if there are opportunities for representation, and to make that point, then that’s something I’ll always strive to do.’

Like just about everyone else, he loved It’s A Sin. ‘It was an incredible way to talk about an awful pandemic, and an absolute tragedy that so many people will be triggered by it. In Ruth Sheen’s character, you have a heterosexual woman who is mother to a gay son, challenging another mother. I found that rage incredible. The gay fantasy isn’t just hanging out in bars and meeting men. The gay fantasy is to have guardian angels of allyship.’

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He’s hesitant to say whether he agrees with director Russell T Davies’ assertion that gay people should play gay roles. ‘It’s a big old conversation and one I’ve spoken to Russell about, and many other actors. But it’s really hard to give a sound bite to sum up.’

I tell him I don’t want a sound bite. ‘It’s about redressing the balance of access to roles. There just aren’t that many gay roles, so when straight actors go to take that space up, it’s eliminating the chance for other [gay actors].

‘We know there has been a history of needing to be closeted to succeed and be famous, especially in acting. And the idea of not being able to believe heterosexual relations and narrative, if you know one of the actors is gay… everyone should be able to play absolutely everything. But let’s blow away all the cobwebs, and one of the hang-ups and shadows of the past is that we need to be a lot more open to the idea of sexes playing different sides. There have been amazing performances by straight people playing gay and by gay people playing straight. It’s a moment to think about that, and I think Russell’s point was that there’s a vitality and a joy to It’s A Sin because he cast gay people in gay roles. That’s completely true. It’s not a bad thing to own your narrative.”

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He is glad not to have received any flack for playing a straight role such as Viscount Anthony. ‘Bearing in mind the internet is a place where anyone can say anything, there hasn’t been anyone who’s had any animosity, or challenged it, so that’s good. Yes, I’m looking forward to gay actors playing gay parts, but for me it’s so important that everyone at home can see a bit of themselves on screen, to allow them to feel heard and seen, and also allow them to have aspirations.

‘Good actors can do anything, and there’ll be amazing writers who are willing to write for everyone. If there are people who don’t have access to creating their own TV shows or telling the stories they want to tell, then absolutely, everyone has to make space for them. That’s not just to do with gender or sexuality. It’s to do with race, religion and everything else.’ He pauses. ‘The idea that someone could read that and go, “God, that’s just a woke viewpoint,” I find really funny. It’s just basic sense, isn’t it?’

There have been amazing performances by straight people playing gay and by gay people playing straight

Another dog — this time a cockapoo — launches itself on Bailey mid-flow. ‘We have a family cockapoo. I looked after him in Lockdown 1,’ he says. ‘That was a real baptism of fire. He ate a sock. A full sock. It was a Muji sock. Stripy. And then it came up again three days later.’ What’s he called? ‘Benson, after the village I grew up in.’

His sounds an idyllic childhood. Brought up in Oxfordshire, he eschewed drama school for an Open University degree. Neither his parents nor three older sisters have anything to do with acting, but his interest was sparked as a child after watching a production of Oliver in the village hall. He joined the local drama club and also pootled around at the back of the class while one sister did ballet. ‘I wasn’t really invited, but I remember having Velcro trainers and just squeaking in the back and trying to do some pliés. I stopped dancing aged 12 because of the inevitable narrative — peer pressure. Ballet became a euphemism for something else.’

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Was he the sort of kid who always got the lead in the school play? ‘I did play Jolly Roger in Jolly Roger,’ he smiles. ‘But then I was taken down a peg or two when I played a raindrop in Noah’s Ark. You win some, you lose some.’

With Bridgerton likely to run for many more seasons, and Viscount Anthony’s storyline taking centre stage in season two (now that sister Daphne is married off, the plot will focus on his own romantic life), Bailey’s newfound fame isn’t going to dissipate any time soon. He has mixed feelings. ‘You work and strive to be an actor and you can get better at it and enjoy it. But you can’t be good at fame or enjoy it. Some people do, some people don’t. It’s a different cocktail for everyone. There are suddenly opportunities available, which is brilliant, and I’m incredibly lucky. But then I realise this is when people say it’s about saying no, because what you say no to keeps you on the path.’

What also keeps him on the right path is the role itself. ‘Bridgerton is actually delivering on changing the bar, and the standard, of representation. Because of that, I’ve had amazing messages from people who have been able to talk about their sexuality, or people who have seen themselves or their children in the Duke of Hastings [storyline]. For me that’s the thing that’s always going to ground [the experience]. It’s a candyfloss juggernaut theme park ride — like multiple sensory overload.

‘So thank God for family. Thank God for friends.’

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