Square Mile (2020)
December 8, 2020
Regé-Jean Page spent his childhood in Harare, his adolescence in London, and much of his twenties in LA. Now he’s set to conquer the world. We investigate the workings of a unique mind
Regé-Jean Page doesn’t find himself very interesting.
He finds acting interesting; he loves acting. In fact I suspect he might even need acting – need it on a level more elemental than the simple requirement of paying the bills, or a yearning for fame and fortune. No, listening to Page talk about his trade brings to mind that Lawrence Olivier quote: “Without acting, I cannot breathe.”
And there’s a hospital pass of a comparison to open the profile, although it says plenty about its subject that I’m confident in his ability to carry it.
But while Page can talk acting for hours, he’s less keen on “sitting around and basking in the interestingness and worthiness of me.” An admirable quality in any human, even ones you’re putting on the front cover.
Especially ones you’re putting on the front cover, a place where basking in the subject’s interestingness and worthiness isn’t just encouraged, it’s arguably the point of the whole shebang. Incidentally, is Page’s lack of self-interest a reason he does acting? Donning the skin of others, etc…
“Yeah,” he says. “Basically. I like putting myself to good use. I don’t like sitting around and waiting for people to appreciate the me-ness of me because I don’t think there’s any intrinsic value to that. But I think what you do can have value. I think whatever anyone does with themselves in the world can have value.
“Maybe that’s why I get on with the Americans. That’s kinda the American dream, a little bit: no matter who you are, you can rise to the top by the value of your work. There’s something universal in that as a value that people are quite inspired by.”
Personally, I disagree with Page; not on the value of American dream, that’s dope, if somewhat fragile, but regarding his own perceived shortcomings in matters of interest and worthiness. Frankly, I think Regé-Jean Page is among the most interesting people I’ve ever encountered. And once you’ve spent some time with him, so will you.
Rhimes and reasons
“He doesn’t really do small talk,” says Malachi Kirby of his friend and former colleague. The two actors worked together on Roots, the 2016 miniseries based on Alex Haley’s seminal novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family. Kirby played Kunta Kinte; Page the fast-talking Chicken George. They struck up a close friendship on the press tour – one that endures to this day.
“He’s one of those old-school actors,” says Kirby. “He can sing, he can dance, he can act, he can do it all. He writes. He’s just an artist. It’s not so common to come across real artists, especially in our generation.”
Regé-Jean Page. The son of a Zimbabwean nurse and an English preacher. Spent his childhood in Harare, his adolescence in North London, and much of his twenties in LA. Used to have purple hair and play in a punk band. Now has dark hair and plays charismatic chicken trainers, swaggering lawyers, and romantic-if-brooding Regency Dukes. Thirty years old. A successful actor on the cusp of becoming a very successful actor thanks to his lead role in Bridgerton (that would be the Duke).
We meet in a pub garden in North London on a sunny September afternoon in between lockdowns. Page is ebullient, loquacious, fiercely intelligent – every other sentence some kind of theory or observation seemingly conjured out of nowhere and teased into verbal life. Kirby is right: he doesn’t do small talk. Within moments of sitting down, he’s expounding on his life philosophy. It’s essentially: ‘My right to swing my arm ends where your face begins.’
“I kinda expand that to everything,” says Page. “I think there’s compassion in there, there’s libertarianism in there, there’s conservatism in there, there’s liberalism in there. Everything in my little post-modern Buddhist bubble.”
Swing arm, but not in the face. Got it.
“Yeah … as it doesn’t hit anyone’s face. At which point, stop and have a conversation.” The moment has probably passed by that point…
Two additional notes on Page, applicable at least in the context of our conversation. He laughs a lot, often not at a specific joke so much as a broader appreciation for the absurdities of humans and existence in general. And most of his speech could be appended with the adverb ‘cheerfully’, regardless of whether what he’s speaking about is a particularly cheerful subject or not. So if you read most of his dialogue here with a cheerful inner voice and add a laugh at the end of it, you won’t be going far wrong.
Page has plenty of reasons to be cheerful. First up is his lead role in Bridgerton, the banner Netflix release of December, a period drama with a pedigree that screams, ‘I’M GOING TO BE A SMASH HIT!’ For one thing, it’s among the earliest shows to be produced by the legendary Shonda Rhimes as part of her multi-million dollar deal with the service. For another, it’s based on a series of bestselling novels by Julia Quinn, and when I say ‘bestselling’ I mean New York Times, translated into 29 languages bestselling – with the type of fanbase who’ll scour social media to decipher which dance is being filmed at which country house.
“This is how you end up with book adaptations. It’s rare that you get a book that no one likes, and someone goes, ‘you know what? I’m going to stake a million pounds on that.’”
Bridgerton is set amid the high society of Regency London. “It’s indulgent, it’s lavish,” says Page. “People read these books to feel good and feel happy and fantasise about what the highest stakes, most glamorous version of romance could be. As a Christmas present, it’s a big warm Regency-flavoured hug. With tumult and heartbreak and impassioned meetings in rainstorms. All the golden oldies. The hits. Remixed and reimagined.”
Those last three words are crucial. This is a Shondaland show, and therefore will be a much sexier, snappier, more unbuttoned (in every sense) proposition than your average Merchant Ivory. ‘Jane Austin via Gossip Girl’ has been the party line – “with a tiny bit of 50 Shades of Grey” adds Page, chuckling.
He’s Simon Bassett, Duke of Hastings and very much the societal heartthrob. “Darcy as a 21st century fuck-boy” is Page’s immortal description.
The boss is certainly impressed. “I thought there was something very three-dimensional, painful, and vivid about Regé as Simon,” Rimes tells me over email during London’s second lockdown. Despite Page starring in a previous Shondaland show, For The People, Rimes says “Regé is such a versatile actor that I never even knew he was British until we met to talk about this role, which is hilarious.”
Despite the diverse cast, Bridgerton is not a colourblind production. Indeed this was one of the earliest conversations Page had with Rhimes and showrunner Chris Van Dusen. “I don’t think it helps when folks say that they don’t see colour,” he explains. “It was very popular in LA for a while – ‘hey, we don’t see colour, my kids don’t see colour.’ Please do. Because if you don’t you don’t see me. And you don’t see how I walk through the world, or have any way of understanding any of the conversations that we’re having about colour, because to you it doesn’t exist.
“So what you’re saying isn’t that you don’t see colour; it’s that you’ve chosen to ignore it. And that means you’ve chosen to ignore me and how I walk through the world. So please don’t do that. Just as a matter of courtesy.”
So yes, “the show has people of colour in it because people of colour existed in the 19th century.” The fact their presence – and the acknowledgement of their presence – is being treated as a novelty says less about Bridgerton than it does its forebears. “Once you watch the show it’s the most irrelevant thing in the world. It just slots into place. You go, ‘holy shit, how were we never doing this before?’”
He compares the concept to “trying to explain the internet before we had the internet.” People won’t get it, and then they suddenly will. And that’s it, done. Move forward.
I’m not sure I could explain the internet now… Page laughs. “Yeah, it just works.”
Knowing his Roots
The Zimbabwe that raised Page was itself a young country, having only gained independence from Britain in April 1980. “It’s kind of like the mother ship,” Page says of Britain’s relationship to Zimbabwe. “But also you’re unpicking the fact that it’s not actually your real mum. It’s like your weird stepmum, and you don’t know how you feel about that.”
What was Zimbabwe like? “Hot. Beautiful. Dry. Very wet when it’s wet.”
His love of the country is palpable. “It’s the most beautiful place in the world. Everyone says this about their own country, but it’s objectively beautiful. And because it was so young I think there’s a genuine generosity in people from Zimbabwe, which is slowly being chipped away at, as we hit our terrible teens and realise the world is a harsh, cold, difficult place that one must be strong enough to survive.”
Growing up in a small country gave Page a crucial tool: perspective.“There’s something valuable to growing up outside of the centre of the world. Because you see places like LA, London, New York, see all these folks who think they’re in the middle of the universe, and don’t really think about the rest of you out there. And to a certain degree you are in the centre of the universe in London. The rest of the UK feels this about Londoners: they think they’re the centre of the universe. And to a degree you kinda are. Which is why we’re such difficult people about it.”
He speaks of “riding the ripples” of decisions taken in London and America, “feeling how that affects you all the way out here that no-one’s really thought about. And then coming into the centre, seeing what that same effect looks like from here, but looking outwards, which people don’t necessarily do. And then that means you fill in all of this picture in the middle, and that’s a super useful thing for an artist.”
Again, it’s a question of perspective. Take portraiture. “How you paint portraits is very much about what your perspective is,” says Page. “There’s something about shifting perspective constantly that allows you to observe people, which allows you to build people, and put them on-screen, put them onstage, put them in a book, whatever it is that you do to reflect society back at yourself and make that window wider.”
Home has always been a moveable concept for Page. “I don’t know where home is now. I’m going home to the US, I’ve been home here for lockdown. I’ve moved from home and Zim. Home is wherever your people are, home is wherever…” He blows out his lips. “I don’t know. I’m trying to work out a test for that one. The closest I’ve come to is home is where you wanna be if you get really ill.”
Returning to London for secondary school required some adapting. “People wondered if we had electricity and telephones. ‘Yeah, we had electricity. You had to turn it off at night otherwise it attracted the lions…’”
Really? asked his classmates. “No!”
Then there was the matter of his accent. “I either sounded like the weird African kid, or I was too posh for my classmates.”
During our conversation, Page speaks like a typical North Londoner, albeit a particularly well enunciated one. He learnt how to speak London, just as he learnt to speak American, and Zimbabwean, and even now his voice will change from country to country. He talks me through the process, switching between accents as he does so, a juggler moving through the balls.
“My father spoke with something [and here Orage goes upper class, clipped] very similar to a 1920s newscaster type of English, [back to him] and I learnt that accent of power in post-colonial Zimbabwe. So I learnt that, and I learnt how to copy it, and I learnt how to shift in and out of it, but also [goes strong Zimbabwean] talk like my mother’s relatives in the village because if you talk like this Englishman over here then you are not accepted or trusted by your people over here, [back to London] and so depending how you speak you embrace different parts of yourself.”
For Page, “Accents aren’t accents, they’re language. They’re full body languages. They’re points of view. I think you can reverse engineer someone’s entire politics, social economic status, history, geological, from how they speak, from how they express themselves. I think it’s all in there. It’s almost like a code. Because that’s the key to who you are: it’s how you express who you are. And how you express who you are is how you speak.”
Or scream – Page spent his teenage years in a punk band, purple hair and all. “What else are you going to do as a teenager? You’re going to scream at people one way or another. You might as well do it in a productive way. Was my logic.”
Music gave him an outlet for his frustration and energy. The teenage Page would look on the world’s injustices and rage. “This is clearly fucked up, why are none of you doing anything about it? And then you grow up, and you’re like, ‘oh, this is why no one’s doing anything about it – because we have to pay a mortgage.’”
What was the name of the band out of interest? “I wouldn’t tell you on threat of my life!” He laughs. “Absolutely not! There’s only so far that one pulls back the dark and very well placed covers of their teenage indiscretions.” But it was good fun. It was a healthy place to have opinions, and have them very, very loudly.”
He loves and still creates music; he passed time in lockdown remotely creating tracks with his brother. “We bounce these pieces of musical lego back and forth.” But acting was the thing. Saturday drama school led to a smattering of agency work, enough to fund a Gameboy. Then onto Drama Centre London, whose alumni include Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Tom Hardy.
Annie Tyson taught Page at Drama Centre. She recalls a mercurial actor with a strong work ethic and a willingness to take risks. “My memory is of someone elegant, charming and ferociously intelligent. As he started to work it became evident that he was determined not to rest on the qualities he had for free but was set on really finding out what he was capable of as an actor. He worked incredibly hard.
“In his final year the acting class was very much about risk-taking emotionally, putting that at the service of a play – Regé absolutely put himself on the line and worked with huge courage. The class was both spellbound and a bit nervous about what he’d unleashed!”
Years later, Page was filming Roots in Louisiana. His character, the charismatic, smooth-talking Chicken George, has just been sold into slavery. Take after take of being dragged away, yelling and struggling. And then halfway through one take, Page stopped struggling. He just dropped.
The actor had lost control. “It’s almost like a feedback loop,” he says of repeatedly filming such an emotional scene. “It just gets bigger and bigger and bigger until something kinda popped, and I wasn’t steering the ship anymore. I went down in tears, and I couldn’t really breathe. I remember feeling the camera follow me down. The guys who were carrying me didn’t quite know what to do.”
He recalls the cast and crew standing over him for a few seconds. “This is interesting, what’s he doing? Is this some kind of avant garde thing?” Page kept lying there. They broke for lunch.
Here’s another story, this one from the theatre. Page is doing The Merchant of Venice at Shakespeare’s Globe. It’s a small part, but it includes the delivery of a pivotal letter to Jonathan Pryce’s Shylock. One night, Page strode on stage, put his hand into his pouch and realised the letter wasn’t there.
The young actor turned grey. “Stopping a show in front of a thousand people isn’t an option. Improvising in Shakespearean text is a thrilling ride, but it’s what we kinda pulled off.”
They muddled through a few lines and then Page scampered off to retrieve his precious cargo – unnecessarily as it turned out. “Someone else heard my coded distress and came on with the letter. And gave it to [Pryce] after he was a third way through the speech that I don’t think he’d learnt, because it was all written on the letter!”
It’s a great anecdote, but of course Page being Page, there are lessons to be extrapolated – on the importance of teamwork and the shedding of ego. “The play only works if, when I forget the letter, you pick it up and improv it on. Otherwise I don’t look bad, everyone looks fucking bad. The play doesn’t happen. Which is not a bad lesson to take into life in general. Even on TV, it’s the same thing: it’s this massive almost socialist machine.
“The whole thing has to keep feeding itself. And if there’s too much ego in any given department it undermines everyone else. So it doesn’t pay to play this game too individualistically because you just bring everyone else down, and you don’t look any better for it.”
The question of mine that generates the longest silence? When I ask what he does in his spare time. “Um. Try to do no harm, basically. The old Google motto.” There’s the exchange of music with his brother. He produced a short film over lockdown, an experience he’s unlikely to repeat. “Producing’s rubbish!”
At least he kept busy: Page “finds it hard not to contribute.” Inertia is not a good state for him, physically or mentally. It doesn’t feel like a massive exaggeration to suggest that Page’s entire relationship with life and the world around him flows through acting; his love of it, his desire to better himself. To keep evolving.
Back in his band days, one of the members was an alcoholic. His job was to “babysit her, and make sure that she didn’t disappear or fall off a pier somewhere.” The experience wasn’t exactly uplifting. “It is really disheartening when you see a real addiction up close. But everything’s fuel.”
For Page, “whatever state people are in reveals something about yourself and the rest of us. It shows you what you could be. How anyone else could be. It shows you all the different pathways we could branch down, and which part of ourselves we don’t like looking at, which parts we do like looking at. What we find valuable, what we don’t. What scares us about ourselves.
It’s ridiculous to suggest that someone as multitudinous as Page, an actor with such a “very rich and complex inner life” to quote his former teacher Annie Tyson, could be distilled into two words; but “everything’s fuel” may hold the key to Page the artist. “The dark little corners where the unpredictable happens” are where he mines for inspiration. “All those places I’m scared to go in real life? It’s fun to watch someone do that for you. It’s like going down a mine in protective gear. You don’t have to go there because I have.”
That isn’t to say great art is the same as difficult art; as Page notes, “you can tell heavy stories super-light.” Or even light stories super-light: take Shonda Rhimes, where “you’re only ever three or four episodes away from the main characters dancing in a Shonda show. And I think that there’s something in that. There’s something in the fact that they respect joy.”
Respect joy, utilise darkness, tell the stories. Contribute. It strikes me there are worse creeds to live by. There are certainly worse people than Regé-JeanPage to show us how to embody them.
Into the unknown
Several weeks after our initial meeting, I catch up with Page over Zoom. He’s housebound in LA; ours is the first of a day of interviews to promote Bridgerton, “a talky-talky day” as he puts it. He looks good: designer stubble, shawl-collar cardigan, black ear-stud that I don’t recall him wearing back in London. Perhaps it’s new, or exclusive to American Regé. Perhaps I missed it.
“I guess it’s kinda cool,” Page says of swelling publicity around the show, publicity that necessitates multiple talky-talky days over Zoom. “That’s kinda what media and culture is meant to do, connect people when they can’t be connected. That’s started in earnest.”
He compares making a TV show to being part of a secret club, its membership limited to cast and crew. “It’s a little bit like chess club, except with geeky costumes. And suddenly you open the doors and let everyone in.”
Articles such as Entertainment Weekly’s ‘How Bridgerton is poised to revolutionise romance on television’ offer a taster of the maelstrom to come. Page will likely be at its centre: on YouTube, every other comment beneath the teaser trailer seems to be a more than slightly paean to the actor. A typical example: ‘Okay, but why isn’t everyone talking about how hot Regé is???????????’, which is sandwiched between two further comments talking about how hot Regé’ is.
He is set to become Bridgerton’s Colin Firth, or even Paul Mescal: the man on the show. Has he considered what his life might be like come January? “I’ve done my absolute best not to! It’s a wonderful thing, but it’s also a slightly overwhelming thing. I often treat work a little bit like I’m a racehorse. I put the blinkers on and I run. If there’s champagne at the finish line, cool. But right now I’m on the racetrack. You kinda just get the job done.”
He’ll be in LA when the show airs on Christmas Day, most likely still locked down. Unlike many actors, Page has no qualms watching himself on screen. After, he says, how can you improve on your work if you don’t evaluate it? Funnily enough, Christmas Day will see the release of another Page project: the 1950s-set Sylvie’s Love, a jazz-infused romance starring Tessa Thompson. So he’ll have plenty to keep himself occupied aside from crackers and charades.
I end our chat with the standard question: what do you hope for from the next five years? Past replies have ranged from the flippant (e.g. still be employed) to the specific (own a house in the Lake District). Page being Page, he goes philosophical. No ums, no hesitation. Speaking his thoughts straight onto the page.
“I hope to be continuously surprised, and learning, and in five years’ time to know things that I couldn’t even have imagined that I’d know at this point. To have experienced and done things I couldn’t have imagined that I’d do.
“The unexpected, is all that I really want. It’s my favourite thing about this job. It’s thinking that you’re going in one direction and discovering something entirely new. And growing from experiencing and exploring that.”
Nothing is guaranteed in life but I suspect he’ll get his wish. I can’t wait to watch him pursue it.
Bridgerton begins streaming on Netflix on 25 December.