L’OFFICIEL’s February 2021 digital coverstar offered a smart candor to Daphne Bridgerton on Netflix’s hit show, navigating themes of gossip, sex, and high society. What’s next for the young, fashionable Phoebe Dynevor? The world, of course.
Even in an era of on-demand escapism and serial streaming, it’s difficult to imagine a more talked-about series in recent memory than Netflix’s Bridgerton. Arriving on Christmas Day from executive producer Shonda Rhimes and based on the bestselling Julia Quinn novels, the Regency period romantic drama proved to be as beautiful as it is bingeable. By late January of this year, an estimated 82 million households worldwide had streamed the sumptuous, pastel-saturated eight-part production.
The show’s first season (a second was recently greenlighted) centers around one very alluring pair of young lovers, Daphne Bridgerton, played by Phoebe Dynevor, and the Duke of Hastings, portrayed by Regé-Jean Page. The two actors bonded early on, getting to know one another between rehearsals and fittings, increasingly aware that they might also soon become household names. Nabbing a Netflix Shondaland show was a big deal, and they were jumping into it head first together. “We had a similar sort of background, a similar history of working. Really, we were at the same level,” Dynevor tells L’OFFICIEL over Zoom. “We knew that this was going to do the same thing for both of us. And there was a pressure behind that and we were both nervous.” Whereas Page had worked with Rhimes before, appearing in legal thriller For the People, the young actress was best known to audiences for the American sitcom Younger and British television series like Snatch, The Village, and Waterloo Road.
The Manchester-reared daughter of Coronation Street actress Sally and Emmerdale Farm screenwriter Tim, Dynevor was unlike most of her teenage actor peers. Though she began auditioning for roles at 11, she didn’t attend a professional children’s school or even act through most of high school. Despite landing a Season 5 role on Waterloo Road at 14, Dynevor says she wouldn’t solidify her love of the craft until three years later, when her sixth-form English teacher cast her as Antigone in a play. “I wasn’t musical theater-inclined, and so I was like, Backing Dancer No. 7 in Bugsy Malone at school,” she remembers. But being on stage in a leading role that required research and actually “embodying” a character, as Dynevor put it, was thrilling.
Inhabiting the role of Daphne, the perennially sparkling “diamond of the first water” of 1813 London’s society season, required working closely with a real-life phalanx of experts in dance, piano, horse-riding, and etiquette. Ditto spending countless hours in a parade of pale, intricately embellished Empire-waist dresses, which Dynevor found crucial to getting in the zone and personifying the character. Yet perhaps her most formidable test involved tapping into Daphne’s psyche. Polite but sharp-witted, impeccably mannered yet keenly aware of the slightest social misstep, Daphne is the object of near-constant envy, adulation, and speculation. “The challenge for me was to go in and find out the inner workings of who she was and how she felt,” Dynevor explains. “It’s a lot of pressure for a young girl to have to be good at all these things and impress the queen and find a husband. And, if they didn’t, they were shunned from society. It’s intense.”
At its core, however, Bridgerton is delightfully escapist, with series writer/creator Chris Van Dusen and author Quinn fashioning a fictional “alternate universe” for their characters. In it, race isn’t blind, but it’s also not an impediment to scaling the highest echelons of power, including the throne. (Queen Charlotte, played by Golda Rosheuvel, has been identified as a descendent of a Black branch of the Portuguese Royal House.) Well-born women are still under full control of the well-born men in their lives, but at least in Bridgerton, we get to glimpse their sex lives through a decidedly female gaze.
There are distinctly modern underpinnings to the series narrative, including a more robust sense of female agency. Nevertheless, Dynevor’s character remains a product of her time and circumstance. Beneath the pomp and corsetry, Daphne still had to come across as engaging and empathetic to today’s global audiences. Conveying a sense of relatability was paramount. “I loved her and I immediately knew who she was,” Dynevor recalls. “But I thought, if there are a hundred-and-whatever countries watching this, I want every woman to have some sense of what she’s going through.” The solution? Channeling the angst and apprehension that’s plagued women for centuries, and seemingly only accelerated in the last decade. “I just thought about women in the media, and the influence of social media—the way that younger generations are growing up with a lot of anxiety and mental health problems, even before the pandemic,” Dynevor explains.
Turns out, bringing the connection to the screen might have required some physicality on Dynevor’s part. Recalling her character, Dynevor pauses and unexpectedly starts giggling. She’s thinking back to her younger sister, who alerted her to the fact that people online were talking about her “neck acting.” In part, the observations seemed to be rooted in comparisons to actors like Keira Knightley—similarly fine featured and fond of period pieces.
“I didn’t even know I was doing it, but I think with the corset—and my need to express Daphne’s anxiety—there was a lot of sort of tense neck action,” Dynevor explains. Ultimately, she wanted to show the complexity inherent to a character lauded as perfection incarnate, caught between having to know everything while still ignorant of so much. Lacking even a basic understanding of sex and men, Daphne must put up a measured, socially acceptable front despite any inner turmoil. “It was about displaying two different emotions and not making her feel like this sort of Disney princess—that everything’s great, because she’s scared and vulnerable underneath all of that wide-eyed naiveté.”
Of course, with that particular sort of ingenuousness comes parody. Viral videos from comedians like Chloe Fineman and Kieran Hodgson have poked fun at Daphne’s inexperience, which becomes a focal point of the series in later episodes. Sex features prominently, albeit with more time spent lingering on male pecs and backsides than heaving bosoms. Having a female intimacy coordinator and filming those scenes in a technical manner akin to stunts allowed Dynevor to feel at ease, and above all, protected, she says. That hasn’t always been the case.
Recalling the not-so-distant, pre-Me Too era, Dynevor remembers shooting a pilot at 19 and feeling incredibly exposed and relatively powerless. “If you were an up and coming actress or an actor and you wanted to get work, then you had to sort of do what you were told—or you wouldn’t work, you know?” Dynevor says she’s noticed positive change in the industry in the past five years, particularly surrounding the filming of sex scenes on once male-dominated sets. Still, it can’t hurt to have someone who totally gets what it’s like to be super well-known as part of a sexy, fictional TV duo on your side. Enter Normal People’s Daisy Edgar-Jones, who FaceTimed with Dynevor not long after Bridgerton’s debut.
“She knew exactly what I was going through, from being part of a couple and [having] that sort of hit—known worldwide, during the pandemic,” Dynevor recalls. For what it’s worth, Dynevor is still not accustomed to being especially famous, or to having bold-face names reach out. But as Bridgerton’s fanbase, celebrity and otherwise, only grows, its cast will inevitably become subject to scrutiny. And whereas Dynevor still feels the weight of expectation to maintain a camera-ready appearance, some of her colleagues aren’t held to the same standards.
“Even on Zooms, I was expected to dress up and look my best,” Dynevor recalls of the recent interview gauntlet. “Some of my male costars were like, wearing whatever they wanted. If you’re in the spotlight as a female, there’s definitely still a pressure…It’s like the first thing they look at.” It’s tempting to draw a parallel between Dynevor and Daphne, though the actress is quick to concede things are greatly improved, particularly on the sartorial front. Talk turns to contemporary fashion, but not before mentioning Polly Walker’s incredible nipped waists on the show. (Walker, who also played Dynevor’s mother on Prisoners’ Wives, was one of the few characters able to highlight her hourglass silhouette.) Daphne had the more forgiving frocks, but she certainly never had the luxury of lounging in say, sleepwear, which was how Dynevor tuned into Dior’s recent Spring/Summer 2021 Haute Couture collection, virtually. “It was fun. I mean, it wasn’t the same,” she admits. “I was literally watching it in pajamas from my bed, but it was great.”
While an admirer of French houses like Dior and Chanel, Dynevor isn’t as hung up on labels and is cognizant of the need to shop more sustainably. “If I am going to buy something, I like it to be good quality and something that I can wear for years to come,” she reasons. “I’m not down for the latest trends, and I don’t want to be throwing out my wardrobe every year.” That said, Dynevor has only recently come to experience the perceived pitfalls of recycling outfits, especially with cameras lurking. “I have absolutely no awareness that people would ever want to take a picture of me,” she says. “And I actually got papped recently at the airport, with the exact same tracksuit and the exact same scarf on.”
Dynevor is better able to curate her life and likeness on Instagram, where she has 2.2 million followers and fewer than 200 posts. There, you’re more apt to see her alongside her castmates on set and in press stills. You’ll also see select images of powerful women, like Michelle Obama and Kamala Harris. The choices may have less to do with politics than with simply celebrating female strength. “I’m not fearful of having a voice or having pushback or people not agreeing with me. That doesn’t really bother me so much,” Dynevor explains. “I’m also aware that I am not clued up on everything. But I am clued up on what it means to be a woman. So, if I want to share a post about Kamala Harris, who I think is amazing, then I will.”
For the time being, her feed remains a mix of the truly personal and the glossy professional. But if Dynevor can amplify a vital message, she’s apt to do so. That’s what happened when Prevent Breast Cancer, a UK non-profit with around 4K followers, asked Dynevor to share a post about the importance of doing a self-exam. When she did, it got more traction than anything they’d ever posted. “I know that at least 1 million women are seeing a post about checking their breasts,” Dynevor recalls. “It’s a joy in that sense to have a platform and spread awareness.” And while she recognizes the potential to broadcast a multitude of messages, Dynevor certainly doesn’t feel compelled to become anyone’s proxy spokesperson.
First and foremost, she reminds us, she’s an actor. Though Dynevor will concede more projects have come her way recently, that doesn’t mean the floodgates have opened. Part of the gratification, she explains, simply comes from clamoring for amazing roles. “I hope that I always get to fight for stuff, ‘cause I think that’s part of the fun. But there’s also the idea of one day not having to fight so hard. As an actor, you basically fight and fight and fight and don’t stop fighting. So, it’d be nice to not have to do that.”
For now, Dynevor is looking forward to possibly writing and directing one day, along with taking on resonant character roles. “My next project, potentially, is the opposite of Daphne in every respect,” she reveals. While she can’t discuss details—and swears she doesn’t yet know how the next season of Bridgerton plays out—Dynevor is feeling confident about the possibilities. “I love a good challenge. I love playing Daphne, but I’d really like to just keep doing different things. I’m excited about the prospects.”
Chances are, we’ll be paying attention.
© Sarah Fones