At age 33, Jonathan Bailey has spent 82 percent of his life as a working actor, which is impressive in its own right. But it also makes a lot of sense as to why, when you ask him about a current role — namely, Anthony Bridgerton in the hit Netflix series Bridgerton — he answers with such gusto that he has a hard time stopping talking, regardless if he’s on a tight schedule. He seems to take it all very seriously. But don’t mistake the seriousness for solemnity.

“I have loved playing Anthony,” he audibly glows over the phone.

Still, the way Bailey talks about playing the eldest Bridgerton son, you’d think Anthony (pronounced “ANT-uh-nee,” for those not in the know) were a real person, Bailey’s family member, or a friend to be tended to and cared for like any other human, despite all his flaws and foibles. Bailey is totally protective of his character and feels a deep responsibility in playing him, and has done the work to get to the depths of Anthony’s psyche.

At the end of season one, according to Bailey, “Anthony was as close to rock bottom as it gets in terms of his evidence to reinforce his suspicion that he’s broken.” Now, heading into season two, “I think he’s got enough proof that he’s unlovable, and therefore not capable of love.”

Deemed this season’s rake, Anthony finds himself opposite Kate Sharma (Simone Ashley), who, along with her sister, Edwina (Charithra Chandran), plays a part in a love triangle of sorts that sees Anthony deciding whether he wants a life of lust or love. Bailey brings the perfect amount of brooding and brawn to the screen, but the actor actually began his acting career on the stage. His first professional production was at the age of 7, with a role as Tiny Tim in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 1995 version of A Christmas Carol. Two years later, he went on to play Gavroche in Les Misérables in London’s West End and picked up his first small TV role in Bramwell. For the next 25 years, he acted his way through stage, film, and TV, and in 2019 he won an Olivier Award for his critically lauded, gender-swapped portrayal of Jamie (originally named Amy) in director Marianne Elliott’s West End revival of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s musical Company. That was also the same year he was cast as Anthony Bridgerton in the little-known Bridgerton, which would become a worldwide phenomenon when it premiered on Christmas Day in 2020.

preview for 'Bridgerton' Season Two — Full-Length Trailer

Bailey is keeping his multi-medium engines revving, co-starring with Taron Egerton and teaming up with his Company director Elliott in Cock, a play by Mike Bartlett about love and identity in the 21st century, in a limited run in the West End — all while the world, again, is engaged with Bridgerton. With the Shondaland series now out in the world on Netflix, we spoke with Bailey about some fun things he’s been up to in the last year, how he uses stage acting to perfect his on-screen roles, and what he loves about “Kanthony.”

VALENTINA VALENTINI: Okay, before we get into Bridgerton, I just have to ask — how was the experience when you recently got to be a guest judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race: UK vs the World?

JONATHAN BAILEY: Well, the interesting thing about that is that it was the first time I pretty much left the house. It was filming during the middle of lockdown last year. So, I felt like I won a competition just getting to be there. But I just had so much fun. And it’s wild to see yourself in one of your favorite TV series. And usually, I get given a character, but I was myself and just loved it. And the queens were amazing, of course.

VV: In between filming season two of Bridgerton and now, you’ve joined another stage play. How important to you is it to keep up your theater acting as your screen career gets bigger and bigger?

JB: I think it’s really important. Everyone has their own ways in which they grow and hone their craft, but for me, it is always theater. You cannot re-create the five-week rehearsal period, which is sort of an academic and psychological study of humans — if you’re working with the right people where you can make mistakes and try new things. When it comes to film and TV, you can do that, but there’s a leanness to the time you’ve got and an economy. For me, especially being able to work onstage for a second time with someone like Marianne Elliott, being able to expand my understanding of myself in that way, make mistakes, try new things, hone the craft, I think it sharpens me up for the screen. But maybe too, because I started in theater, it feels like my tribe. Though I’ve loved playing Anthony and exploring a character over eight episodes.

VV: Doesn’t it require such different muscles, though? Acting for a live audience and acting for a camera are inherently different, aren’t they?

JB: Well, I don’t know. You need a really clear thought and to know exactly what you’re trying to do and what your character is trying to achieve in a scene. That’s the same for stage or screen. Of course, there’s loads of technique, and you have to look after yourself in either scenario — it’s still a long haul. You need to get fit, you need to get your sleep, drink as much water as you can. I will say that with theater, you’re doing your prep with other people, whereas when you’re filming something like Bridgerton, you’re doing it all on your own. They have a handover of directors to come in to do two episodes at a time, so that’s a very different thing, but we have Chris [Van Dusen, the showrunner], who is phenomenal. I, like, really love him, and I’m so excited to see what he’s going to go on and do. He’s got this sophisticated and kind way of working where you know it’s genial, but he’s humble with it. He was always there, so he was sort of a theater director in a sense and could cinch it in at the waist when it needed to be. But yeah, what you learn in theater is easily applied to screen, and technique can be honed, like anything, but fundamentally, I think it’s the same.

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Jonathan Bailey as Anthony Bridgerton.

VV: As the star of Bridgerton this season, what pressures did you feel going in to filming?

JB: The fact that the show was received so well, of course, that increased the pressure. But I think pressure is kind of helpful. And specifically if you’re playing someone like Anthony who is under pressures to the nth degree, who is pretty anxious. I just wanted to do the character proud, the story proud, knowing that there will be people watching the show that also loved the books. Between book Anthony and Chris Van Dusen Anthony, I wanted to find as much humanity in it as possible. But there was a wealth of things I could dive into in the run up to filming — I listened to the audiobook every night before we got scripts. That eased any nerves, getting as close to him as possible. The book is so intricate with Anthony’s idea and fear of mortality, his sense of time running out, and his conversations with Kate about that at the end. And you can’t fit that all into the series, but they’ve managed to condense it into allegory and metaphor in the show. But it’s investigated quite deftly by Julia Quinn, and it’s so helpful for bringing them to the screen. So, yes, there were ways in which I could ease the pressure going in to it, which is to just work. That’s another thing you learn in theater — the more work you put in, the less scary it is.

VV: Speaking of pressures, Anthony has quite a few of them weighing on him. I’ll be honest — it was frustrating watching Anthony this season be so stubborn and hardheaded. How did it feel to play him this season as opposed to last season?

JB: I think that at the end of season one, he is completely fractured and broken. There had been a confidence in the way he managed his siblings, particularly Daphne, which was obviously controlling and toxic, but with season two, you can sort of understand where he was coming from. And what was so clever about including Anthony’s relationship with Siena [Sabrina Bartlett] in the first season is that it showed his head and his heart, but in a more visceral way, where at the end of it, when she rejects him, it’s as close to rock bottom as he gets in terms of his evidence to reinforce his suspicion that he’s broken, or that he is invalid. His self-hatred is proved right there. Which, actually, is a really good place to start season two, because now, fundamentally, I think he’s got enough proof that he’s unlovable and therefore not capable of love.

bridgerton l to r charithra chandran as edwina sharma, simone ashley as kate sharma, shelley conn as mary sharma, jonathan bailey as anthony bridgerton in episode 207 of bridgerton cr liam danielnetflix © 2022
"I definitely felt more isolated and probably a bit more anxious doing it this year. I just really, really have Anthony’s back."

VV: Anthony doesn’t really know what love is, does he?

JB: We see during flashbacks what love means to Anthony — it’s this incredibly traumatic and upsetting thing. We learn quite quickly that he wasn’t gifted a free and easy childhood; it got stolen from him, these really key years in his development. Hopefully, we do get to understand his behavior in season one with these scenes, though. And this year, I felt more isolated because he struggles so much and is less confident in his ability to mask it. Then he meets someone like Kate Sharma — amazingly played by Simone Ashley— and the thing about Kate is that he is completely naked in front of her, as in he feels exposed because she seems to understand him straight away and calls him out on everything. And he understands her, and that’s what makes their love so deep and rich. So, yes, I definitely felt more isolated and probably a bit more anxious doing it this year. I just really, really have Anthony’s back. I think everyone assumes they know him and give a shrug and an eye roll and brush him off. But he’s doing the best with what he’s been given, and what he’s been given is so much less and more complicated than what the siblings were given, and he protected them from that.

There’s this scene in the last episode, which, actually, I’d talked to Chris about and asked him if we could have a scene with Anthony and Gregory Bridgerton. It came from wanting to show that Anthony has come to a place where he’s starting to deal with his long-buried grief over the death of his father. We never see him talk about his father, and I thought about how amazing and moving it would be for him to talk to his siblings about memories of their father for the first time, and that came down to the youngest, Gregory, who was only a baby when their father died.

VV: To clarify, you asked for a scene to be written, and they just said yes?

JB: I mean, it wasn’t as clean a transaction, but I did pitch it when we were filming block two. I said, “Look, I think this could be really amazing in terms of the story and the characters’ development to remind the viewers that in order to talk about grief, you have to have dealt with it.” The whole point with Anthony is that he can’t talk about it, and he buried it so deep that it’s coming out in all these controlling and toxic mannerisms. So, it shows that, but it also shows the distance between the experiences of him and his siblings. Anthony is really complicated, and that’s why I was really drawn to him. When [executive producer] Betsy [Beers] and Chris suggested I play Anthony, I was like, “Yeah, great idea!” There’s always something really interesting going on with him.

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"The amazing thing about Kanthony is that they’re worldly, and they’ve both experienced a lot. So, they’re coming at it at a quite even keel."

VV: Well, and this season we do get to dive that much deeper into all those things going on with him. But we’d be remiss to not ask about Kanthony — Kate and Anthony’s love story!

JB: Kanthony, yes! Simone and I approached playing these parts in quite similar ways, in that we didn’t actually socialize much. I think that was key for these characters, for us to work on it individually and then leave it to the day. There was a level of understanding and commitment, and we had each other’s backs. It was a long haul, and we really were teammates. I do remember [laughs] … it’s like this montage of moments of, like, absolute hysteria between us. The problem is, when you’re acting and fall in love with someone, you’re looking them in the eyes — the eyes are the way into the soul, and that is brilliant to explore that. But also, it means that if one person gets the giggles, it is so challenging to get back on track! We had a few hairy moments there [laughs]. We do have some big moments of coming together, and they were always quite tough scenes, because they’re quite long, and there are so many different shifts. The power balance between them changes. Unlike Daphne and Simon — where Simon was the one who had all the information in terms of a sexual relationship, of love, and what it is to be a man and a woman in a relationship, and Daphne was learning and trying to come to terms with it — the amazing thing about Kanthony is that they’re worldly, and they’ve both experienced a lot. So, they’re coming at it at a quite even keel, which means that then when they really do go at each other or when they’re trying to work out what this thing is between them — something somewhere between hatred and complete lust and love — it’s really delicate. And you can only do that with someone that you really trust in. And Simone is just amazing. It’s so great to see her first TV role where she’s a lead throughout. It’s exciting to see what she’s going to do.

VV: Lastly, this season focuses a lot on the games of the ton — on the field and in the ballroom. What are the sports you played most growing up?

JB: Tennis and rugby.

VV: Oh, those are quite different sports.

JB: Yes, somewhere in the middle is probably my perfect sport. Maybe curling?

VV: Are you still quite a sporty guy?

JB: The Baileys are a quite sporty family. I get quite competitive. Like, I struggle playing board games, even. I remember I was on a trip in France, and there was a ping-pong tournament. I was like, “Oh, please, no.” It’s almost unbearable. I don’t want to be asked to join because I just get so into it. Of course, I did play in the tournament, and I ended up getting to the final. And my competitiveness can get me to the final, but then I always blow it in the end. Something happens along the way; I can’t fully get to that finish line. It’s kind of upsetting. Sports. I find them upsetting because I want to win so bad. I think that’s probably something Anthony and I have in common [laughs].

Valentina Valentini is a London-based entertainment, travel, and food writer and also a Senior Contributor for Shondaland. Elsewhere she has written for Vanity Fair, Vulture, Variety, Thrillist, Heated, and The Washington Post. Her personal essays can be read in the Los Angeles Times, Longreads, and her tangents and general complaints can be seen on Twitter at @ByValentinaV.

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