When it comes to period dramas, we all know the drill: safe, family fun, until Colin Firth appears in a wet shirt – and that’s as risqué as it gets. But super-producer Shonda Rhimes, creator of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, doesn’t like to adhere to rules, and so it may come as no surprise that Bridgerton – her first foray with her production company Shondaland into costume drama – caused a huge stir when it arrived on Netflix.
Set in London during the Regency era, where women’s futures are made or broken on the marriage market, the series follows the rise of debutant Daphne Bridgerton, played by newcomer Phoebe Dynevor (think of her as a sensational nu-gen Keira Knightley), who falls for the commitment-phobic Duke of Hastings, played by Regé-Jean Page. Narrating the drama is none other than Mary Poppins herself, Julie Andrews, AKA the secretive journalist Lady Whistledown, whose periodical spills the tea on the latest society kiss ’n’ tells – and cancels people at will in a Jane Austen-esque version of social media. The ‘romance’ will have your grandmother clutching her pearls, and the pitch-perfect representative casting – with both the leading man and the queen, portrayed by Golda Rosheuvel, played by black actors – makes Bridgerton a period drama that finally reflects the world we live in.
Phoebe on representation in Bridgerton
The representation is something Phoebe is very proud of, she tells me, as we chat via Zoom from the living room of her family home in Manchester – which doubled up as the backdrop for her GLAMOUR UK cover shoot. “If we’re not seeing ourselves reflected in art, then we’re not going to engage with it, and that’s what’s so brilliant about Bridgerton. For me, it also shows that feminism doesn’t come in one form. Daphne isn’t your obvious feminist but she’s still in charge of her own destiny,” says Phoebe.
Female empowerment is central to the storyline and production of Bridgerton, as Daphne’s destiny is unlocked through her sexual awakening. However, the way Bridgerton approaches sex is game-changing, as it is never “gratuitous and essential to Daphne’s journey as a woman and finding her sexuality,” Phoebe reveals. Were the sex scenes the hardest to film, I ask? “The hardest were the ones on my own that were sexually driven, because there’s no one to vibe off,” Phoebe nervously laughs, referencing the show’s portrayal of female masturbation.
“I’ve done sex scenes in the past and it’s just, ‘Action! Do whatever you want to do.’ You feel very out of control when that’s happening,” she continues. “But we had intimacy coordinators on set, so we’d go through every single scene before we’d shoot it. We rehearsed everything like a fight scene, so I knew exactly where Regé was going to put his hand and at what point; it really frees you up, because there isn’t that weird thing of, ‘Oh, what’s he going to do now?’”
“Many of the shots are from the female gaze in Bridgerton,” Phoebe adds. “Watching Bond and male-driven films, I’ve seen it so many times, where the man is laid back in bed with his hands behind his head just watching a naked woman and she’s a sexualised object. In Bridgerton, it is very much Daphne’s perspective of Simon [the Duke of Hastings]; her looking at his body and her feeling that sexual drive towards him. It’s funny, because until you experience doing it that way, you don’t really realise that it has been the other way for so long.”
Phoebe on Bridgerton’s sex scenes with Regé-Jean Page:”We had intimacy coordinators on set, so we’d go through every single scene before we’d shoot it. We rehearsed everything like a fight scene.”
Bridgerton’s approach to sex shows just how far the entertainment industry has come in its treatment of women following the #MeToo movement. “I started acting when I was 14 and I have seen it really change,” Phoebe reveals. “Even just in the last five years there’s been a shift in wanting to make more fully dimensional female characters. The scripts that I’m reading aren’t just someone’s girlfriend. Also, it’s down to me as a woman being able to say, ‘Actually, I don’t feel comfortable with that.’ We’ve been given more power to be able to say ‘no’, and for a long time that wasn’t a thing. Women weren’t allowed to speak up.”
Phoebe’s family, much like Daphne’s in Bridgerton, has given her faith in her own voice, and has been a constant support since she first appeared on BBC’s Waterloo Road, at 14 years old. But their support was needed more than ever over the last year, when Phoebe moved back to her homeland of Cheshire for a lockdown filled with filming TikTok videos with her sister, Harriet, jigsaw puzzles and meditating. “The Bridgerton family are a really, super-tight-knit family and I have the same thing at home,” Phoebe smiles. “I’m really close to my parents and my family – they have shaped me every way they could; they’ve been such an amazing support system.” After all, Phoebe’s mum, Sally, is a TV icon, having played Sally Webster in Coronation Street since 1986, and her father, Tim, has been a writer for Emmerdale since 1995, with his latest creative work including shooting Phoebe at home for her GLAMOUR UK cover. “He’s also helped me with a lot of self-tape auditions in lockdown, which has been… interesting,” Phoebe laughs.
Being at home has made Phoebe reflect on her use of social media, which is not too dissimilar to the world of Bridgerton. “They’re getting all dressed to the nines, Daphne pretty much always looks perfect – she’s not got a hair out of place – and that’s Instagram, isn’t it? It’s basically the same sh*t, different time,” Phoebe muses. “My younger sister is nine years younger than me and, between the ages of 15 and 25, there’s so much changing and shifting. I was lucky not to have social media when I was really young but, for my sister, that’s all she’s known. It’s interesting watching her grow up in a world where she sees people like Kylie Jenner and is very much influenced by what she sees. It’s so important that we’re reflecting a real version of ourselves on social-media platforms for people like my sister.”
Phoebe on equality:”We’ve been given more power to be able to say ‘no’, and for a long time that wasn’t a thing. Women weren’t allowed to speak up.”
Phoebe may be equally dressed to the nines for her GLAMOUR cover shoot, in Chanel, Dior and Philosophy di Lorenzo Serafini, but the sartorial drama served is far more freeing than the restrictive corsets on Bridgerton. “I was wearing a half corset – thank God – so not the full-blown thing,” Phoebe says. “It’s weird, because your boobs look very different when they’re pushed up to your ears; corsets are even worse than a push-up bra, and I don’t really wear bras, so it was interesting to see my boobs in that condition! You’d take it off and you’d have marks because they were tight and I’d think, ‘thank God we’ve come a long way from wearing these,’ because they would have night-time ones, too. It’s crazy what women had to go through.”
For all the corset marks and the literal costume dramas, caused by “a lot of rain machines and mud,” Phoebe was living her best wardrobe life. “I was living in LA when I got the call that I had the job and the first thing I did when I touched down in England was have a wardrobe fitting. I walked into this warehouse of costumes; there were so many incredible designers, and it was basically a factory just for Bridgerton. I was like, ‘Oh, my God,’ and that’s when it hit me, and in the end I had over 100 original dresses!”
Phoebe on Bridgerton’s costumes: “I walked into this warehouse of costumes… it was basically a factory just for Bridgerton… in the end I had over 100 original dresses!”
The sheer weight of this wardrobe, and pressures of taking on this leading role, did affect Phoebe, however. “I was super nervous about leading a Netflix show, and Shondaland being involved. It was nerve-racking; it was a big deal,” she reveals, referencing Shonda Rhimes’ $150 million Netflix deal – the most lucrative in streaming history.
“For the last 10 years of my life, I’d been going up for every single part under the sun,” she continues, reflecting on a career that has included projects that promised the big break that didn’t come – most notably, starring in Guy Ritchie’s TV show, Snatch, opposite Rupert Grint. “When you watch people’s success, you don’t see all the letdowns. But the rejection makes you tougher. I really appreciate all the ‘no’s that I’ve had in my life because I wouldn’t be sitting here today [without them].”
How did the letdowns affect her, I ask? “It was tough at times; I went through points of really low self-esteem. Particularly in my early twenties, of just like, ‘Why is this not working? What do I need to do? Who do I need to be for this to happen?’ That’s really dangerous, when you start going down that road, and trying to change yourself. The last two years I’ve grown up a lot and things started happening when I got confidence in myself and everything just clicked into place. I still have days where I wake up and I’m like, ‘I don’t want to be me today.’ I am quite self-aware but when you’re younger, you listen to what your brain is telling you. If your brain tells you your hair is not very nice that day, you’re going to believe it. But, as I have gotten older, I can acknowledge it and think, ‘That’s me feeling insecure today because I’m a bit tired but I’m not going to listen to it.’”
Phoebe on self-esteem and success: “I went through points of really low self-esteem, particularly in my early twenties of, ‘Why is this not working? What do I need to do? Who do I need to be for this to happen?’ That’s really dangerous…”
As our time wraps up, given her own recent ‘coming of age’ moment, I ask Phoebe what Daphne has taught her. “She has strength and courage to do what she thinks is right, follow her heart and not listen to anyone else’s opinion. I also learned that I’m a better dancer than I thought I was,” Phoebe jests.
But for all the sex scenes discovering the scene Phoebe found the hardest to shoot comes as a surprise. “One of the most difficult scenes for me was when Daphne walks down the stairs to greet the prince and everyone in the ball turns to look at her,” Phoebe admits. “It was actually the most uncomfortable scene ever and I just absolutely hated filming it, because it I didn’t feel very confident that day, I woke up and I just wasn’t feeling in my power or in my strength. Watching it back I look the exact opposite of how I was feeling. That happens in life a lot, where what we’re portraying on the outside is very different to what’s going on the inside.”
Away from these moments of self doubt there were of course the opportunity to throw some regency shapes in the epic ball scenes, which are set to orchestral covers of Ariana Grande’s Thank U, Next and Shawn Mendes bangers. “The one that stands out is the ball sequence at the end of episode one, where there are fireworks going off in the background,” she beams. “It was 5am on our first week of filming, we’d been in rehearsals for six weeks, and I was really nervous about the dancing. It was really that princess moment of, ‘Oh my goodness, this is incredible,’ and the start of such an amazing, wild journey.”
© Josh Smith