TV

Jonathan Bailey Talks “Bridgerton” Britches and Gay Life in Victorian England

The out actor on playing straight in Shondaland's scandalous new Netflix series.

Netflix has a Christmas present for anyone who loves some scandalous Victorian drama.

Shonda Rhimes’ inaugural Netflix series, Bridgerton, based on Julia Quinn’s bestselling novels, follows the escapades of the eight children of the late Viscount Bridgerton in early 19th-century England. One of those siblings is the eldest son, Anthony, played by Jonathan Bailey. The out actor has appeared in Broadchurch and Doctor Who and won an Olivier for his role in the gender-swapped revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Company on the West End.

NewNowNext spoke with Bailey about slipping into his Bridgerton britches, being an out actor playing straight, holding hands with Sondheim, and why he thinks RuPaul is a demigod.
 

I was wondering about dressing up in that period garb. Did you think it was fun, or was it too much work?

I think it’s pretty much, for me, a dream come true. The novelty does wear off, of course — I think when you’re six months in and you’re desperate to go to the loo. We don’t wear corsets, so as men we can’t complain. The britches can ride quite high, and good old Anthony gets to wear white britches which meant that I think I had to wear a dance belt underneath, which proved to be quite uncomfortable, especially when riding a horse. There was a lot of things I had to contend with, but I don’t think it comes anywhere near what the women had to do with their mystic power corsets.

This was first Shondaland show for Netflix. What was the set like? Was it extravagant?

I feel like as parents, if you get Shondaland and Netflix coming in to birth you as a project, I think you’re pretty privileged. It was insane, really. The sky is the limit. I think creatively Shondaland are completely on point, and they always have been in terms of diversity and representation and making sure that all their shows are completely current and represent the audience that are watching them. But, at the same time, Netflix can just push it over the finish line in a sort of glamorous and sophisticated way. On top of knowing that, the actual filming of it felt very intimate. Of course, there were hundreds of people working on it and the design of the sets were incredible, but we, as actors, were protected from all that work that predated us getting on set. So by the time you’ve grown your muttonchops, you’ve got your britches on, all you have to do is really turn up and know your lines, and the rest is a Netflix Christmas show.

I wanted to ask about the muttonchops! Were those fake, or were they yours?

Real deal, baby.

Wow. Impressive.

Thirty-two years, they took to grow. They were good. They were sort of like mood rings because if I had a week off, I’d come back and we’d have to chisel them back out again, and the line is a bit wonky. So you can really see how late I was to set if they’re pointing downwards. I think for Anthony, it’s really important that he felt sharp and serious. He’s so desperate to try and fulfill his role as man of the house and he’s completely capable of doing it, so I thought he would definitely have the muttonchops.

LIAM DANIEL/NETFLIX

Did you have to take any etiquette classes or dancing lessons to prepare for the role?

Yeah, we had the full whack. It was like a Regency boot camp, and it’s something that I could only hope that everyone could buy into. It was kind of a workout because we did loads of boxing, loads of horse riding, which was brilliant. So got to know them really well doing all those sorts of things, and then had a historian for me. If there’s anyone like me who is curious about history and loves especially the early 19th century, it was just such a treat to be able to sit down and have a historian there who worked on The Favourite. She really knew her stuff. The most important thing for me, I think, was just asking really boring questions about day-to-day life, like what do they snack on? If you want to get a glass Port, how would you do it without letting the people downstairs know? I think all the sorts of gentlemanly questions. What happens after they go to the gentleman’s club? If they want to go and visit their mistress, how did they do that? It’s all those sorts of things that I think hopefully make it slightly more real.

While I was watching, I was like, “Would I like to live back then?” Is there any appeal to living back then to you?

Well, those balls are basically live-action Tinder, aren’t they?

Yeah.

So I think the benefit of that is that you get to see the people in the flesh. It’s quite like a small community so everyone knows everyone’s business, which I think possibly is pretty horrific. I think what’s brilliant about this is seeing Regency through 2020 lens, a.k.a. Shondaland. You realize that the gossip columnist sort of represents Twitter, cancel culture, as we know it today. The need for presentation and the confusion of identity and trying to deliver on what society needs you to be is pretty much Instagram, isn’t it?

But I don’t think being gay back then would’ve been very fun.

No. I think being gay then would have been pretty horrific in terms of being able to live out and be present and visible, but presumably there was quite a lot of exciting underground pockets. So you get that as well. You get the queer counterculture. But, definitely, you’d go for 2020, wouldn’t you? You want to hold your sweet love’s hand in public.

Going into the show I thought you were playing gay. In the first episode you’re hooking up with girls, and I was like, “Okay, but when does he start hooking up with guys?”

But why did you assume that?

Well, because, sadly, the gay actor usually plays the gay role.

Yeah, I know. That’s why it’s so good, isn’t it? They just get it right at Shondaland. I think it’s exactly the way it should be. I think everyone should be able to play anything. I know as an actor, you just want people to be surprised.

Samir Hussein/Samir Hussein/WireImage

That’s a continuing conversation about only gay actors playing gay roles. I know Kristen Stewart recently said, “Well, that’s a slippery slope because then maybe that means I can’t play a straight character.” What do you think about all of that?

Well, I think that everyone should be able to play everything. I think that’s part of the craft of being an actor. It seems to me that the conversation surely is about how many out, visible actors get to play a lived experience. Gay characters are always brilliant because there’s just so much complexity and so much confusion and so many obstacles that they have to overcome. Psychologically, gay people are brilliant. Queer people are great because they’re empathetic — they’ve been othered, they’ve got open hearts, they have a strong sense of love and fighting for that. So, of course, everyone’s going to want to go on and play those parts. I think the issue comes when you see straight people continually win Oscars for those roles and presumably gay actors overlooked. At the same time you’ve also got this myth, which is a very real thing, of “can actors be out in Hollywood and still play straight roles?” Of course, you just get on and do it. If a good job comes your way, have the conversation, work hard, and see if you get it. If you get it and you manage to be a part of unpacking that myth, then we all win, really.

I actually loved it. Once I realized, I was like, “Oh, he’s playing straight. That’s great.”

Yeah, and there’s never been a conversation with Shondaland, I don’t think. It’s brilliant because there’s so much visibility in the show in representation, and my sexuality’s never come into it. I think that’s brilliant and that’s the way it should be. Of course, I totally would have loved to have seen an out, gay actor play this sort of role when I was in my teenage years. Actually, if I’m really honest, when I was 28, four years ago, [that] would have really helped. I’m not going to compromise on my happiness for anyone, but I will continue to work hard and work with people like [Bridgerton showrunner] Chris Van Dusen and Shondaland if I can.

I love that. Switching gears, Company is one of my favorite musicals. What was it like being in that show?

It was good. I read a couple of scenes actually for Bridgerton whilst in between two shows of Company. So there was a hangover from the two or I moved quite swiftly into this, which is brilliant. Company was a dream come true — it was completely insane. I think if you’re wiping out some choreography with Patti Lupone on your left hand side, and she’s moving her own tables and chairs in the middle of dance beats, you’re like, “This is mega.”

Did I see a picture of you holding hands with Stephen Sondheim?

Yeah, he was amazing. He appeared in the early previews and you could just hear his voice, “Yeah.” Then as it went on, we recorded the album and he was there. It was just like a dream. Just absolutely bonkers. The final party, he came and whispered sweet nothings in my ear.

Do you have any other plans for theater coming up?

Possibly, yeah. All I’ll say is: Big Steve.

I was reading an interview with you in Attitude about Company, and you were talking about how you’re preparing for the role and reading The Velvet Rage and Matthew Todd’s Straight Jacket. Have you read anything in the past couple of years that’s really struck you or watched anything queer that’s really left a mark on you like those books?

Yeah, good question. I’ve actually just read an amazing book called Swimming In The Dark. I think it’s really important no matter who you are to lean on literature to see yourself represented and to see other people who perhaps are experiencing similar things talking about and their experience just because it keeps you really sharp and empathetic. That’s an amazing book. Surely that’s going be made into a film at some point. That led me into Giovanni’s Room because there’s references to that. I always make sure there’s a nice slice of queer literature on my bedside table amongst other things. They always, always keep me going. I think it’s so important for everyone to read Straight Jacket and The Velvet Rage. I think the difference in culture and the way that those queer experiences are explored from an American psychologist to the British media, pop representation of it, I think is fascinating. For anyone who might need to feel a little bit less alone or that they’re being isolated… I think those books really make you feel like you’re part of something bigger.

Those two books should be required reading.

Yeah. Put it on the curriculum, quick!

I feel like RuPaul’s Drag Race U.K. could do a good Bridgerton spoof acting challenge…

Oh my god, I so hope so. Can you imagine? I might get asked to go on. I know Michelle Visage. I might have to suggest this. She was doing Everybody’s Talking About Jamie when I was doing Company. She’s a massive Patti fan, so through that we met. But that would be amazing.

Do you watch Drag Race? Are you a fan?

Yeah, of course. I have to tell you, it’s interesting because years ago I watched it. I was watching the American series and it used to make me feel really anxious, which I think is quite telling. But through my blossoming I’ve come to love it. They’re so talented, but they’re just so mega. There’s nothing better than the mirror chat when they get ready. The fact that they were so horrible to each other at the beginning made me feel a little bit scared. But then you realize there’s just so much love and it’s so positive. I think RuPaul is a demigod.

Going back to Bridgerton, what are you hoping for Anthony in Season 2?

It’d be nice to see him smile a bit, wouldn’t it? Maybe lose the muttonchops and maybe tame his hair? Maybe get a crew cut. The brilliant thing is because they’re based on books, so it’s amazing to know where a character goes because it equips you to be able to really meander around all the different moments that Chris so brilliantly has put into the show. There’s a conversation that’s so loud about male mental health and about the need for men to start talking about their emotions. It just bounced off the page that this is a guy who is really struggling, has been bequeathed this responsibility, which is kind of ludicrous because I don’t know if his personality would necessarily suit running a family, and let alone running his family at that age having lost his father. He’s obviously completely in love with someone and has a ravenous sex drive that he is constantly having to suppress, which actually feels like quite a queer story or it’s like an everyman’s story, isn’t it? This is what’s so brilliant about Regency England: It’s all glamorous and it’s all presentational, and they all look like dip-dyed swans, but ultimately they don’t have any space to make mistakes at all. Even the Bridgerton siblings don’t communicate. So the idea of communication and conversation is so important in this, and with that in mind, I just hope that Anthony begins to be able to love himself so that he can love someone else.

Bridgerton hits Netflix on December 25.

I write about drag queens. Dolly Parton once ruffled my hair and said I was "just the cutest thing ever."
@chrisreindeer