December 9, 2020
The star of Netflix’s Bridgerton is charting a more representative future for period dramas.
When Regé-Jean Page started filming Netflix’s Bridgerton during the summer of 2019, he knew full well that, in every period drama worth its salt, sooner or later, it all comes down to one extraordinary dance. That’s why he put in the grueling choreography rehearsals and stayed late to get the steps right, meeting up after hours with his costar, Phoebe Dynevor, to practice their elaborate dance routines, as their “unofficial soundtrack” of Beyoncé hits blared through the rehearsal room. With a global audience of millions expected to tune into Bridgerton, he couldn’t stand to get it wrong, this one incandescent scene that makes or breaks a period drama. Fans of the genre know the familiar beats by heart: in that single, remarkable dance, everything falls away—the glittering ballroom, the clamoring crowd, the peacocking revelers. What remains are two spellbound dancers, emotionally naked as they came, illuminated for the first time in the radiant truth of their feelings for one another. For performers like Page, scenes like this one unlock the true richness of the story.
“The dancing was a gift,” Page says, Zooming from his living room in late November. “Once you start dancing, you get to be honest. I think that’s why dances are so central to these stories. They’re not frivolous; they’re the real heart and soul of the story, because everything else is a two-level dialogue where you say one thing and mean another. Then suddenly, there’s this place where you can’t hide. I think we learn the most about the characters on the dance floor.”
Like so much else about the series, Bridgerton’s dance scenes are impeccably crafted, visually spectacular, as swoonworthy as they come—but with a saucy, modern twist. Bridgerton, as Page describes it, is “funnier, faster, wittier, and unashamedly sexier” than its predecessors in the genre, which might explain why its decadent dances are scored to string arrangements of needle drops by Billie Eilish and Ariana Grande. Based on a series of uber-popular historical romance novels by Julia Quinn, who has been described as “our contemporary Jane Austen,” Bridgerton is the flashy first outing in Shonda Rhimes’ eye-popping $150 million development deal with Netflix. It’s a welcome return to the Shonda Rhimes Cinematic Universe for Zimbabwe-born Page, 30, who came into the production juggernaut’s repertoire through his starring role in For the People, a 2018 ABC legal drama that ran for two seasons. Yet it’s also a bold step forward, marking a new level of visibility for a star on the rise who turns in an unforgettable, boundary-shattering performance. Page carries Bridgerton as a romantic hero at once timely and timeless, standing on the shoulders of all the Byronic dreamboats before him while pioneering a new, genre-disrupting mode of masculinity—one rooted in vulnerability, inclusivity, and joy.
Page plays Simon Basset, the recently-titled Duke of Hastings, who has returned to Regency-era London after a long absence abroad. Bridgerton’s London is a hotbed of social warfare, where marriage-minded maidens and their ambitious mothers jockey to outmaneuver one another in the competitive world of high-society matchmaking. Reigning over this marriage market is Lady Whistledown (voiced by Julie Andrews), an anonymous scribbler whose tell-all scandal sheet, considered gospel by lords and ladies alike, can sink or save a debutante’s fortunes. The Duke, who has forsworn marriage, is quickly besieged by scheming mothers seeking to elevate their daughters into duchesses. He finds a lifeline in Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor), the sheltered but spirited eldest daughter of a powerful family, with whom he masterminds a sham romance that blossoms unbidden into something real. To prepare for the role, Page started, as he always does, with a book, blazing through The Duke and I (the first novel in the eight-part series) on the plane ride home from signing onto Bridgerton. He then dove into the music, literature, and dance of Regency England, searching for answers about what men of the era thought and felt.
“We’re telling the story from a perspective that’s had four waves of feminism since this genre emerged,” Page says. “But even at that time, there was a revolution on the literary scene, with Mary Shelley stepping forward and Jane Austen taking up space. That feminist wave entered the imaginary world and shaped how we treat these archetypes.”
Simon shares some DNA with these beloved archetypes, but inflected with a twenty-first century twist. Certainly there are shades of Mr. Rochester in his austere secrecy, echoes of Mr. Darcy in his stubborn pride, and traces of Heathcliff in his stormy psychological weather. Yet Simon’s journey is bigger and more modern than simply surrendering to romantic love—first, he must believe in his own worthiness of it, and marshal the emotional resources required for the diligent, unglamorous work of partnership. As Quinn herself said, “Portraying a healthy relationship in literature is the most revolutionary thing you can do.” What Bridgerton understands is a quintessentially Austenian truth: that love doesn’t strike us down with an arrow to the heart, but rather, love flourishes over time for those with the self-love and self-knowledge to nurture its flame. In Simon, Page offers a romantic hero with more dimension than his predecessors, who jettison their fatal flaws to make grand overtures of love and marriage—as if transformation were so easy. Rather, Simon’s arc is one of realistic fits and starts—a slow, sublime stumble from masculine repression to emotional nakedness.
“Simon is tall, dark, handsome, mysterious, brooding, and broken in many ways—a thoroughly problematic anti-hero,” Page says. “How do we deconstruct and subvert that? What’s worth saving in this man? He’s hugely intelligent and generous, but can’t release those qualities. He doesn’t know how to love other people, or to let go of the restrictive pride and projection of strength that actually make him weaker.”
Bridgerton debuts amid an ongoing crisis of masculinity, making Page’s subversion of the institution’s strictures all the more powerful. Much of Simon’s psychological turmoil is rooted in his tormented relationship to his deplorable father, which culminates in a vengeful vow that provides much of the plot’s scaffolding. For Page, the prospect of unraveling Simon’s knotted psyche to craft a more modern leading man was integral to the role’s appeal.
“One of the most exciting things about this project was to deconstruct what’s perceived as masculine strength, because that’s a conversation we’re having right now,” Page says. “We’re asking what masculinity is, and a lot of it is letting go of this constant projection of dominance. Simon holds an utterly self-destructive grudge, and the only way to defeat that is to release vulnerability. We’re still trying to figure out how to let men be vulnerable, to realize there’s strength in vulnerability, and that it’s how you fill out the circle of masculinity.”
Unlike its often prudish peers in the period drama space, Bridgerton is unafraid to take its leads to the final frontier of vulnerability: the bedroom. Owing to its romance novel roots, the series is unabashedly sexual, lingering indulgently in steamy love scenes with characters at every level of the social ladder. In one memorable scene, Simon educates a clueless Daphne about the concept of self-pleasure, whispering instructions that she later puts to use during a torrid night of experimentation in her bedchamber. The intimate scenes are sensual, languid, explicit—each one a responsibly-made labor of love, with intimacy director Lizzy Talbot leading up the show’s very own intimacy team. Other actors may have been hesitant to put themselves in such a vulnerable position, but as Page describes it, love scenes are just another kind of dancing.
“Intimate scenes are like dance rehearsals—it’s all choreography,” Page says matter-of-factly. “When you know the steps, it frees you up to inhabit the steps. It felt entirely natural to perform these scenes; they felt like all the other scenes, because we had a plan for what we were doing.”
With the mission of adapting an entertainment property always comes the risk of alienating those who love it best. Managing the expectations of a global fandom as robust as Quinn’s is no small undertaking; over ten million copies of her books exist in the United States alone, and 178,000 of her most devoted readers have formed a tight-knit community in a lively Facebook fan group. The pressure is enough to crush an actor, but Page sees it as a duty both solemn and invigorating.
“There’s already a huge fan base that feel very passionately about this material and are very emotionally attached to it,” Page says. “They’re rooting for you to do wonderful things with it. It’s like playing for a big football team. The stadium is full, the fans are all there, and they want their favorite players to play a certain way. You want to surprise them and give them something they had no idea was coming. That support can egg you on, but there’s also a responsibility.”
When Shondaland executive Betsy Beers and Bridgerton creator Chris Van Dusen began developing the series, Beers knew she wanted Page on her team. It was Page’s American television debut as Chicken George in The History Channel’s acclaimed 2016 remake of Roots that brought Page to the attention of Beers, the Chief Content Officer at Shondaland and longtime producing partner to Rhimes, who most recently served as the executive producer of Bridgerton. After For the People wrapped, Beers remained so taken with Page that, when she and her team began searching for Bridgerton’s Simon, she remembers that the oft-heard casting room refrain was, “It would be so great to get somebody like Regé. I wish there was somebody like Regé.” Much to her delight, she managed to cast Page himself. As she commuted between other Shondaland projects in Los Angeles and the rainy Bridgerton set in England, she always looked forward to seeing Page, whom she described as an on-set leader, ever eager to pull up less experienced cast and crew members.
“Every time I came back to the Bridgerton set, I looked at Regé’s face, and I felt like I was coming home,” Beers said. “When he speaks to you, he makes you feel like the only person in the world. Even on our busiest days, he always found moments to be unerringly delightful and solicitous and kind.”
Van Dusen, the creator and showrunner of Bridgerton, as well as a fellow Shondaland veteran whose credits include Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy, couldn’t picture anyone but Page leading the series, saying that he brought “beautiful, painful complexity” to Simon. Yet for Van Dusen, just like for Page, it all came down to a single dance—namely, Simon and Daphne’s sensational first dance as a faux couple, when all eyes turn to their shocking debut, set at a dreamy garden ball lit by twinkling lanterns and showers of golden fireworks. Van Dusen spoke effusively about Page’s effortlessness, whirling through ornate choreography in a velvet tailcoat as fireworks erupted overhead, calling it “a sight to behold.”
“Watching Regé out there on that dance floor, dancing this dance… it was really something magical,” Van Dusen said.
Like any Shondaland project, even one set 200 years ago, Bridgerton looks like the multiracial world we live in. With the help of an on-set historian, it envisions a British aristocracy where Queen Charlotte (whom some historians believe was the first biracial English royal) has elevated people of color to dukedoms and positions of nobility, creating a world where possibility, opportunity, and romance abound for every character. Page argues that challenging the tired narrative of who can be an aristocrat is far from the show’s boldest imaginative leap; rather, he jokes with a knowing laugh, what truly defies belief are the characters’ lightning-fast travel times from inner-city London to the English countryside. Inclusivity, he insists, must be the future of period dramas, which for too long have excluded millions of viewers through racist failures of imagination.
“I think it’s immensely important for people to be able to see themselves at their highest elevation,” Page says. “To see that you are worthy of love, romance, glamour, and status. Everyone is worthy of all of those things, and it’s our job in the creative industries to create an environment that reflects it. Everyone is worthy of finding love and enjoying escapist fantasies of a life of dancing, romance, and ambition.”
To see a Black actor like Page as the romantic lead in a mainstream period drama is shamefully rare; to see an interracial couple at the heart of such a project is even rarer indeed. Bridgerton flips the genre’s tired, unrepresentative script, arguing not only that people of color can be queens and dukes, but that they can and do live full, rich, romantic lives. The highest stakes, Page says, are not “in the streets,” but rather, “in their hearts.” For him, the show’s racial outlook and romantic narrative are intertwined, in that Bridgerton opts out of gratuitous Black trauma in favor of Black joy.
“It’s perfectly possible to spotlight Black joy over Black suffering,” Page says. “Setting the story in the past doesn’t mean that Black folks do nothing but suffer. We’ve always lived and laughed and loved and married and danced and lived the truest expressions of our lives through societal restrictions, just the same as everyone else.”
The hugeness of leading a streaming juggernaut like Bridgerton is not lost on Page, a onetime “sing, dance, and tell you a story kid” who still harbors a sense of grateful disbelief that he now works as a professional “make-believer.” Yet the enormity of the project won’t lull him into resting on his laurels. In fact, Page is committed to demanding better from the entertainment industry writ large, arguing that it’s incumbent on series of all shapes and sizes to envision a world where everyone can feel represented—not exploited, typecast, or doomed to constant suffering.
“It’s about making sure you can invite everyone to the party, because we’re all here,” Page says. “We’re broadcasting to 192 territories in every hue, shape, and creed. I think it’s a very small ask for creators to be creative enough to include everyone in that story.”
Here at the much longed-for end of an interminable year, Bridgerton enters into a world that sorely needs the shot in the arm it provides. Landing on Netflix on Christmas Day, Page enthusiastically describes the series as “a warm Christmas hug”—a sumptuous gift of escapism, glamour, romance, and, of course, some truly spectacular, spirit-lifting dances, with fireworks both literal and figurative. No doubt it’s far from the last we’ll see of Page, a breakout leading man with a long career ahead of him, poised to reshape Hollywood into a place of greater freedom, joy, and inclusivity. For anyone streaming Bridgerton alone on a sad and strange Christmas Day, take it from Page—no one is getting left behind.
“Finding a way to be human and joyous and glamorous is something we’ve found a way to do in period dramas for everybody else,” Page says. “Now we’re simply including more people, which is so incredibly nourishing. In a year like this, to participate and be represented in a Cinderella fantasy about ambition, joy, romance, and glamour is hugely important, because it reinforces the social bonds we’re missing. It reinforces what we want from ourselves, from our lovers, and from our lives. It allows us to participate fully in that conversation, which is all that anyone’s ever really asking.”