'Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story' star stresses rarity of a 'beautiful journey for Black women'
"To be able to have a step-by-step guide to how to become an empowered woman is something, personally, that I just benefited from," Arsema Thomas said
Following the success of Netflix's Bridgerton series, creator Shonda Rhimes has given us the Queen Charlotte spinoff we maybe didn't initially think we needed, but we absolutely fell in love with, and the first episode is dedicated to the late activist Jacqueline Avant.
Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story is a prequel to Bridgerton, looking back at the life of Golda Rosheuvel's character Queen Charlotte, the younger version portrayed by India Amarteifio. The six-part series is specifically set around the early stages of her marriage to King George (Corey Mylchreest).
“You get to see a glimpse of the kind of emotional layer of her in Bridgerton,” Rosheuvel told Yahoo Canada.
“[To do] a deeper dive into this character and find out the whys, the hows, who this person is, who she was and how she became the person that we know and love in Bridgerton was something really fascinating and interesting to do for me.”
We also get to see how this world that we dove into in Bridgerton become a racially integrated aristocracy, referred to as "the great experiment" in its conception. This includes learning how Lady Agatha Danbury got her title, played by Adjoa Andoh in the later timeline and Arsema Thomas in the earlier years. Thomas' performance in an absolute highlight in the series as we explore Lady Danbury's journey to have more authority over her own life.
“It was like having a never-ending buffet as an actor, because it’s very rare that a lot of roles are written with such a beautiful journey for Black women,” Thomas said. “So to be able to step into something like this, where I get to play somebody so complex and nuanced, and who changes so much, is not only fun, but also quite validating that my story deserves to be heard, as much as anybody else.”
“On top of that, to be able to have a step-by-step guide to how to become an empowered woman is something, personally, that I just benefited from.”
The story still largely dives into the complexities of King George and Queen Charlotte's marriage, touching on racial issues, mental health and women's ability to make decisions about their own bodies. All while we also get a glimpse into the personal lives of a young Brimsley (Sam Clemmett) and Reynolds (Freddie Dennis), who have a romantic connection with each other but have committed their lives to serve the Queen and King, respectively.
'I wanted her to take this role and make it her own'
The best part of Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story is that all the actors who portray the characters that we got to know in the Bridgerton brought their own elements to these younger versions. It would have been a losing battle if we felt these actors were trying to mimic the characters from Bridgerton.
“India and I are really in a fantastically unique situation where we get to share this role and take her on a journey,” Rosheuvel said. “I wanted her to take this role and make it her own, I think she's done the most exquisite job."
"It really was about supporting her in her journey with Charlotte and embodying this character, and supporting her to be her own person with it. Charlotte demands that. She's very much a character that lives on her own terms, a character that is unapologetic, and I think you have to approach her in that way."
“I tried not to let what I'd read whilst auditioning, about Golda’s portrayal and how people imagined she would be like when she was younger, affect my performance,” Amarteifio added in a separate interview with Yahoo Canada. “I just wanted to go into it with a fresh mind.”
“I thought it'd be actually more interesting for people to get to see the sides of her that they maybe wouldn't have even thought were imaginable. Her vulnerable sides and her formative years, which are incredibly important in informing who you then become when you're older.”
Thomas admitted that she was "nervous" initially about taking on a character that comes with an expectation from the audience.
“It wasn't until maybe halfway through filming that it kind of all clicked that when I auditioned, I had never seen Bridgerton, so I came into it just being me,” Thomas said. “Somehow that was enough and so it meant that I could release myself from this pressure, ... because I already had everything there.”
“In meeting Adjoa and chatting with her, I realized we're oddly very similar, just in our personal lives, in our taste of books, in the our family dynamics. It didn't really need to be something that I forced. Also with the 40 years difference, ... it's almost like two different people. So it was one of those growing and learning periods of giving myself the confidence.”
Exploring the feeling of isolation
A significant theme in Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story is the concept of isolation. Each of the characters in the series feels isolated frequently, but how they live in that isolation sets them apart.
“I became obsessed with this theme of isolation throughout the period of shooting, not just for our characters but for every single character," Clemmett said. “[I’m] just fascinated by the idea that the love between [Reynolds and Reynolds] is so strong, but the number one duty in life is to serve, and that then leads them to live quite isolated lives.”
“We had to steal moments of solace and joy, as Reynolds and Brimsley,” Dennis added. “But even in those moments, the intimate scene that Sam and I share in Episode 2, I find it very interesting that they're still discussing the affairs of the King and Queen, despite the fact that this is a moment of lust and passion.”
“I think it just shows how intense and actually difficult their jobs are. They can never switch off, even in moments where they try and steal a couple of minutes just to be present and grounded with each other.”
For Amarteifio, she revealed that it was difficult to sit in Charlotte's moments of isolation.
“I think it's always difficult as actors … when you have to tap into more somber emotions,” Amarteifio said. “I did struggle occasionally. … It definitely highlighted and emphasized how lonely she would have been in this period.
“It's always really lovely to be able to have really happy scenes and jolly scenes, and the mood on set’s really lovely. ... But when you're having to spend so much time by yourself, and you're indulging in quite dark thoughts, it definitely influences how the rest of the set is and how you're feeling that day.”
For the character of George, his isolation is particularly different from others, primary led by his mental health issues.
“I think isolation is an interesting one for George because in a way, until Charlotte comes along, and until further on in Charlotte and George's relationship, George feels most isolated when he's around people, because he's never seen as a person,” Corey Mylchreest said. “The closest to himself that he is, is when he's on his own, when he is isolated, technically.”
“It was fun to play around with those ideas. … He wants isolation because he doesn't want Charlotte to see who he truly is. … It's so fun to play something that is so not black and white. It is so complex and entangled.”
'Important to be able to be political'
Rhimes, as the creator of this show and others, has a reputation for pushing the boundaries in TV. Unapologetically including themes and plot points that many often find uncomfortable to speak about in real life.
That is still very much the case in Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story, with the cast applauding how Rhimes crafted this complex and significant story for the actors to dive into.
“When I watched Scandal for the very first time, when I watched How to Get Away with Murder, these are moments that I saw myself reflected back to me and loved what I saw,” Thomas said. “[I] was interested and intrigued by how these women were able to move in this white, male-dominated world.”
“So to be able to speak Shonda’s words, there were moments where I was like, ‘gosh that's exactly what I wanted to say in that fight.’ It's almost like reparations in that, I get to take this power back by being able to have these well thought out, witty and quick words to say back to somebody who's trying to devalue me in that moment.”
Rosheuvel highlights that it's stories like this, that tackle issues we have in our own society, that we "need" to be telling.
“We have a very important platform as creative artists, as people who are creating content for the world that we live in now," she said. “Even through it's a period drama, there is space to be able to discuss these topics that sometimes can be difficult to discuss."
"I think putting them in the story form, into a creative form, whether it's through television, film, music, art. I think those places are really important to be able to be political, in a sense, and kind of drive the conversation forward … in a way that is accessible to people.”