Why romance is such serious business for 'Bridgerton' star Jonathan Bailey

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A man jumps in the air on a theater stage.
Jonathan Bailey of "Bridgerton." (Jason Hetherington / For The Times)

When he joined “Bridgerton” as the brooding Viscount Anthony Bridgerton, Jonathan Bailey had an instinct that the show was going to be something special. But he couldn’t have predicted quite how big the Regency period drama would become, particularly in its second season, which focuses on Anthony’s will-they-or-won’t-they courtship with Kate Sharma (Simone Ashley). Initially, he was drawn to the “Holy Trinity” of Netflix, Shondaland and the fact that it was a period piece, but the opportunity to shine a light on romance as a more serious genre was an added bonus.

“[I loved] the romance genre being given this platform — it’s always been seen as quite a lightweight literature,” the actor says, speaking from a theater in London where he’s starring in a revival of a Mike Bartlett play. “Of course, it's fluffy because it's accessible and it's hopefully something that you can bathe in. But at the same time, it can really tap into very human, very private and very high-stakes human experiences.”

He adds, “There's a lot of pressure on romance, I think, because you have to be so truthful. But that's what you want, isn't it? You just want to find the truth in everything.”

Before being cast on “Bridgerton,” Bailey had a thriving theater career, and most of his onscreen work was on British TV shows. He wasn’t particularly well-known by American audiences prior to the first season of “Bridgerton,” which introduced Anthony as the emotionally withholding head of household driven by duty rather than heart. These days, Bailey has to contend with actual screaming fans, who have appeared outside the theater, and the knowledge that he is the subject of dozens of online memes.

“The pandemic is only just really beginning to end for me with the ‘Bridgerton’ schedule and the isolation of working,” Bailey notes. “So the heartthrob [aspect] and understanding that, I think will come. I mean, it's f— flattering, of course. And it's also a testament to the way that the ‘Bridgerton’ stories are told. [The writers] know what they're doing and there's so much that they can do to signal these brilliant moments of chemistry that ignite something in everyone's heart at home."

Anthony’s journey in Season 2, from uptight viscount to heartthrob love interest, resonated strongly with viewers, particularly as he confessed to Kate, “You are the bane of my existence and the object of all my desires.” Bailey says the character feels “quite simple” to him now, but Anthony is a complicated man whose emotions are made more complicated by the arrival of Kate. The actors didn’t discuss the relationship ahead of filming; instead they allowed the tension to play out in real time.

“You want to pace the intimacy and how the layers are peeled away,” Bailey says. “I love the rehearsal period in the theater and being in the room for seven weeks and being able to really make mistakes. When you do something like ‘Bridgerton,’ that rehearsal period really happens in your own mind, on your own. It's quite isolating. And if there's ever a character you can pour your sense of isolation or pandemic anxiety into, it's Anthony.”

A man in patterned silk clothing leans up against a red, reflective wall.
Before being cast on "Bridgerton," Bailey had a thriving theater career. (Jason Hetherington / For The Times)

For Bailey, the approach is the same whether he’s in a Shakespeare play with Ian McKellen or in a gauzy romance drama. Sure, there are moments when he feels more self-aware than usual, such as Anthony’s steamy bathtub scene brooding over Kate, but Bailey wants all his work to be as sincere and truthful as possible — even when he’s a “bit embarrassed.”

“There was actually a camera in the water between my legs looking back at me,” he says, laughing at the recollection of filming the scene. “So it was almost like a water birth. And I remember afterwards, I was so appalled at myself over the day that we had experienced and so confused, because you can't really explain it to anyone.

"It was just when the rules changed and you could go meet people outside, so I went to a pub that night and had a pint with my mates. When I got up to get the second round, I was like, ‘I’m chafing a bit.’ And I realized I still had my modesty thong on, because I was so traumatized and I ran so quickly from set that I hadn't even taken off my little pouch. I still have it to this day.”

It can’t have been too traumatizing as Bailey and Ashley have both signed on to return to “Bridgerton” in subsequent seasons — Season 3 goes into production shortly after Bailey wraps the Bartlett play. But the actor is also looking forward to seeing how he can evolve his career.

“‘Bridgerton’ has got its own unique aesthetic and tonality,” Bailey says. “It's funny, because you couldn't really imagine yourself in it because it didn't really exist. It's so vibrant and commercial, as well as being open enough for people to come in and give really interesting, detailed performances. But with every job I've done that I've really enjoyed, I've never really 'seen' myself in it. If you can see yourself in something, you've probably already worked out your performance or the why. But if there's that friction, then it means you're going to come up with something new."

A man crouches on a rooftop wearing patterned, silk clothing.
(Jason Hetherington / For The Times)

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.