Are they in love in real life? That’s all anyone wants to know if they’ve seen the Regency romp Bridgerton and the sizzling scenes between Phoebe Dynevor as Daphne and Regé-Jean Page as the rakish Duke of Hastings. ‘I’d love to say there was really something between us,’ Phoebe smiles in a way that suggests she means it. ‘But no, it has always been strictly professional. There was so much pressure on us to get it right that it was all about the work. We have a really professional working relationship. I’m glad for that, actually. It would be very complicated if it went further.’
On-set romances are fine while everything is good, but hellish if you fall out. ‘I always hear about people falling in love with their co-stars. It’s yet to happen to me, but I’m intrigued.’ I’m grateful for the honesty of her answer, because there’s been a huge amount of interest in this beautiful young pair. Rumours suggest there is more to their chemistry than acting, but each has been enigmatic about this until now. ‘People really root for us. We have to say we’re actors, we’re doing a job, there is something to be said for not spoiling the magic… but at a certain point you have to say “no”.’
So that’s put things straight. Phoebe is bright, charming and disarmingly direct, but as we talk I can’t help feeling she’s only vaguely aware of what a massive star she has suddenly become.
Bridgerton has hit the number-one spot in 83 countries – including the US, India and Brazil – since it went up on Netflix in December. In fact, it is the biggest series the streaming service has ever had, with 82 million households around the world tuning into the show in its first 28 days online.
‘Nothing has changed in my life,’ says the 25-year-old actor who moved back to stay with her mum and dad in Altrincham, Greater Manchester, at the start of the recent lockdown. ‘I’m still at home arguing with my brother about the washing-up and doing jigsaw puzzles with my dad. It’s very surreal, because I know something’s going on but I can’t really see it.’
What’s going on is that Bridgerton has been watched by an enormous worldwide audience. That’s a sudden rush of global fame for a young actor who before this role was struggling to survive in an industry decimated by Covid. ‘I feel dissociated from it in our little bubble here,’ says Phoebe, but of course reports have reached her. ‘The reaction has been mental.’ Bridgerton is a bodice-ripper with a modern attitude: the frocks are bright, the breeches tight and the string quartets play songs by Ariana Grande. The women are the ones whose desires matter for a change. And the screen lights up every time Daphne flirts with the duke. ‘Chemistry is so weird, it’s like lightning in a bottle,’ she laughs. ‘It either works or it doesn’t.’
It certainly does this time, as the debutante and the troubled aristocrat fake an engagement to get society gossips off their back, then realise with horror that they are actually falling in love. Once they’re married the pair make love with naked abandon for most of episode six. ‘I watched it here with the whole family including my grandma and grandpa and fast-forwarded all the naughty parts. The remote was in my hand at all times. We skipped past episode six completely! I was like, “That’s just not worth watching.”’
We both laugh at the thought of her on the sofa with three generations of Dynevors, including her soap royalty parents Tim and Sally. He’s known for writing for Emmerdale, she has played Sally Webster in Coronation Street since 1986. When I ask what Grandma made of the show, Phoebe answers carefully. ‘My grandma has dementia, so she’s not aware of many things, but she loved the colours. My grandpa said: “She usually gets really bored by everything but she’s so engaged in this.”
I think that was because it’s such an amazing world, quite amazing on the eyes, so bright and colourful. So she loved it.’ The love in her voice is touching.
Her grandmother Shirley was reacting to a palette unlike any other period drama, with lavish Regency costumes in vivid coded colours inspired by the more expressive clothes of the 1950s and 60s. The aristocratic Bridgerton girls wear sophisticated pastels and silver, for example, while the Featheringtons are in bright yellows, reds and greens to signal they are outsiders.
The show is also far more frank than your average Jane Austen, contrasting the sexual ignorance of aristocratic women like Daphne before her marriage with the pleasure and freedom she enjoys afterwards, even using it to take control of her relationship. ‘There was definitely a spark in the room when Regé and I first read together. Bringing scenes to life is an exciting feeling anyway, but it felt like we were sparking off each other.’
That was only an audition though, and Phoebe was convinced she wouldn’t get the part. ‘This is not an easy industry. I’ve been acting for 11 years and even when you’re lucky it’s tough.’
Born in Trafford, she went to Cheadle Hulme School in Stockport but also joined her mum’s trade as a child actor, playing Siobhan in Waterloo Road at the age of 14. She has appeared in Prisoners’ Wives and The Musketeers as well as Snatch, an American series based on the Guy Ritchie movie of the same name, alongside Harry Potter star Rupert Grint. But Phoebe had a lot of rejections and had run out of confidence by the time she was called to audition for Bridgerton in Los Angeles.
‘Being an actor is 99 per cent being told “no”. Sometimes it does wear you down. I remember telling Regé: “I just want to say you’re brilliant. Good luck with it all – you’re going to be great.” I thought maybe he’d read with loads of other girls. He sort of smiled and giggled at me.’
The next day she was told the part was hers. The pair had six weeks to prepare, which included learning how to dance in the style of 1813, for the spectacular ballroom scenes in which much of the early flirting between Daphne and the duke takes place. ‘We were both quite worried about that because we aren’t the greatest dancers. We really did spend hours and hours learning the choreography.’
As Strictly fans know, that can bring people together. ‘There’s something about rehearsing a dance that is very intimate. You have to look into each other’s eyes, you can’t look down at your feet. You have to say: “I need to trust that I’m not going to trip over you and you’re not going to trip over me.”’
Bridgerton is based on the novels of Julia Quinn, narrated by Julie Andrews as Lady Whistledown, the all-seeing author of a society scandal-sheet, and the executive producer is Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal). The female gaze is what we get at every level, says Phoebe. ‘The women have real agency in the show, which is something I really loved about it.’
Bridgerton has been described as the ultimate post-Me Too series, and the production values reflected that when it came to the sex scenes: ‘You treat it like a stunt – you have an intimacy coordinator,’ says Phoebe. This is someone who oversees the moves, as it were. ‘She brings this bag full of equipment, like yoga balls and mats and padding, all these things you imagine they use for stunts. It’s just all amazing camera angles and you feel so safe. It’s all about making it look real but not actually doing it – like someone getting punched in a screen fight when you’re not actually punching them. I’ve done sex scenes before where that wasn’t the case and they are entirely different to shoot.’
Hang on, what does she mean? What were those like? Phoebe won’t say which production she is talking about, but her last big show was the blokey Snatch.
‘You’d be on set, then they’d go: “OK, we’re going to take the robe off now. And when we say ‘action’ you just pretend to have sex.” And that was your instruction. Then sometimes the director would yell: “Touch her neck!” Or they’d shout things. And you’d just do what they said. It was a very different experience.’ She winces. It’s not like that any more. ‘I’m so glad that intimacy coordinators are now a thing. I genuinely believe that you shouldn’t be allowed to do a sex scene without one, because it’s a complete game-changer. You feel so safe – not just the cast, the whole crew. Otherwise it’s really awkward filming two people going at it.’
What do they do with the yoga balls? ‘They go in between you. So when you’re together, you’re not actually together – there’s a yoga ball between you.’ How big are these balls? ‘They have numerous sizes depending on the angle or whatever!’ The point is the barrier they provide. ‘When you’re not really naked and there are so many things in between you, that makes for a way more comfortable experience.’
And everything is choreographed. ‘You know exactly where he’s going to put his hand, at what point. There are no surprises.’ If the pressure was off in the bedroom, it was certainly felt in the ballroom. Daphne’s star rises when Queen Charlotte picks her out from among the debutantes presented at court and calls her flawless… but she then has to live up to it. ‘I saw parallels with social media,’ Phoebe says. ‘Every single photo has to look a certain way.’
The same pressure was also on Phoebe, leading a massive production for the first time. So much so that she had what she calls a ‘full-blown panic attack’ on set. It happened as she was filming a scene in which Daphne comes down a grand staircase to meet a prince, with everybody’s eyes on her.
‘It was a really crazy schedule. I’ve never worked so hard in my life – often six days a week and loads of night shoots. So you’ve had two hours’ sleep, you’re absolutely exhausted, but there is someone saying, “You’ve got to look perfect because Daphne’s getting married today.” You just have to give in to that.’
How did she cope? ‘In the end, I realised Daphne is probably feeling the same, so I can feel this way and it’s not going to hinder my performance. But, yeah, there were a few moments of exhaustion.’
Phoebe brought a vulnerability to Daphne that is not in the books. ‘For me, it was the anxiety brewing underneath. She could never quite catch her breath – it was always a little bit overwhelming. That helped me relate to her and get in her mind.’
Something else different from the books is that a large number of the characters are black. This is deliberate, backed up by the plot. ‘That’s such a brilliant aspect of the show. To see people of colour in positions of power is a very important thing. Some historians think Queen Charlotte was of mixed race. The character Will Mondrich [the duke’s friend] was based on a real black boxer from the time,’ she says. ‘When I was growing up I had so many people to look up to in my industry, actresses that looked like me, but a lot of people do not. That’s something that is changing, rightly so.’
One of those actresses was her mother, so Phoebe had an unusual example of how to earn a decent regular wage as an actor, but it went deeper than that: ‘I saw her work ethic, more than anything. My whole family’s in the industry. My grandma was a third assistant director, helping people on set, my grandpa was a director. My uncle’s a producer. My auntie paints sets. My cousin’s a make-up artist in film production. So I grew up seeing or hearing stories about the family dynamic of a production: all these incredibly talented creative people coming together to make something.’
When did she decide to try acting as a career? ‘I remember doing a school play when I was 17, playing Antigone. There was a moment on the stage when I knew this was it for me, for the rest of my life, no going back.’ She was already in Waterloo Road by then, I realise. Some actor parents would rather their offspring became something reliable and lucrative like a doctor or a lawyer. ‘There was a bit of that. But eventually they realised it was inevitable, so they caved.’
Now she’s suddenly an international star, is there any jealousy from her mum or other members of the family? ‘No, absolutely not.’ Maybe there is even a sense that this was meant to be, given that Phoebe and Sally have a curious connection to Bridgerton’s narrator. ‘I was two weeks late while my mum was trying to give birth to me. For some reason, she would watch Mary Poppins to try to get me out. She thought it would be soothing, so she’d watch the film on repeat and sing to me every night for two weeks. When I heard Julie Andrews was part of the show, I was so excited to meet her. Then, obviously, I didn’t.’
The star recorded her voiceover without meeting the cast. ‘So in lockdown I read her autobiography just to be close to her. I know absolutely everything about Julie Andrews now. I will meet her one day, though. I’m going to track her down.’
Surely that will happen at an awards ceremony sometime soon? She laughs off the idea. Phoebe has said in the past that fame feels like a threat because of the personal attention it brings, so what is she going to do about that now it’s happening? ‘Oh my God, I don’t know the answer to that question. But I definitely do feel that way. I have always been aware of that aspect of the industry and never really wanted it,’ she says. ‘But I’m so grateful it has happened with this show because I’m so proud of it. It’s giving people joy in a really weird time. That feels lovely.’
Have other actors been in touch to offer support? ‘Yes. The first person who reached out to me about the show was Daisy Edgar-Jones.’ The star of Normal People went through a similar thing last year when that show suddenly became hugely popular. ‘She sent me the loveliest message. It’s been great having her support and being able to talk it through a lot with someone who has literally been through the exact same experience – it happened to her during the pandemic, too – and the intimacy thing.’
Normal People was also full of tender sex, presumably achieved with the help of yoga balls. ‘There are a lot of parallels, so it’s been great to have her wisdom and be able to talk about it all with her.’
Bridgerton has made a splash in the US, so has Steven Spielberg been on the phone yet? ‘No. I wish! I think nice conversations are happening, of a kind I haven’t been involved in before. I’ve never done a film before, so I’d love to do one.’
Phoebe smiles happily, enjoying this close moment at home with her mum and dad before the new fame inevitably whips her away to Hollywood and beyond. ‘I’m yet to find out what the world has in store for me. So, yeah. We’ll see.’
– Phoebe’s real-life passions –
What’s the most romantic thing you’ve ever done?
A monologue in the rain.
As a child, what did you want to be when you were older?
A wedding dress designer.
What’s your earliest memory?
Walking in the Lake District.
The secret to a happy relationship?
Your best quality?
I’ve got really good hair. No, I’m kidding, it’s curiosity.
And your worst?
Your biggest bugbear?
People who don’t wear their face masks.
What would we find you doing on a day off?
What did you have for breakfast?
What’s at the top of your bucket list?
Jumping out of an aeroplane. I keep having dreams about doing it. My great-grandma, who died recently aged 101, did it when she was 91.
I like baking.
© Cole Moreton