Hugh Sachs has been acting on British television and the stage for 30 years. But it wasn’t until Bridgerton came along that he felt truly at one with the industry.
“I don’t think this would’ve happened on British television,” says Sachs, who plays Brimsley, the queen’s man and confidant, on Bridgerton and the prequel series, Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story, now streaming on Netflix.“It took Shonda Rhimes to go, ‘I’m going to take this genre, and I’m going to make it look like the world we live in.’ I have been waiting 30 years for this. See, above me at drama school was Jennifer Ehle, who did Pride and Prejudice with Colin Firth. And in the trajectory of an English actor’s life, it was a huge boost to do a costume drama. In my year, there were six people of color, and I thought it was so unfair that they wouldn’t get any access. That whole generation — Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Sophie Okonedo, Adrian Lester — they all missed out on these opportunities. Now, no one can do all-white costume dramas. And that’s because of Shonda.”
When Sachs was offered the role of Brimsley, he had only one question: Who is playing Queen Charlotte? When told it was Golda Rosheuvel, Sachs didn’t even remotely hesitate and answered with a resounding yes — “I knew we shared the same taste,” he says of Rhimes and Bridgerton season one’s showrunner, Chris Van Dusen.
And even before Bridgerton, Sachs knew Rosheuvel, Ruth Gemmell (Lady Violet Bridgerton), Adjoa Andoh (Lady Agatha Danbury), and a few others on the show from the theater circuit. They’re actually all on a WhatsApp group called “Bridgerton Older Bastards.” He describes their little cadre as this wonderful elderly theater company who find themselves subtly projected in a groundbreaking television series. And though Sachs, for his part, understands that his role as Brimsley in Bridgerton is a much smaller section of the romance stories swirling around the ton, he’s been thrilled to see his character’s backstory fill out through young Brimsley, played by Sam Clemmett, and to have his own Brimsley thread that arcs through his performance in Queen Charlotte.
“There was this extraordinary moment while filming the final scenes of Queen Charlotte,” recalls Sachs. “It was a night shoot at Blenheim Palace, the scene outside the ball where [young Brimsley and Reynolds] are dancing, and it fades into Brimsley dancing on his own. We were so buzzed by the time we finished that shoot; we were just standing on the steps of our hotel in Oxford, having a beer as the sun was coming up. And I realized that next door to the hotel was the theater where I made my debut 30 years earlier. That’s where it all started, the Oxford Playhouse, where I got my first job out of drama school. And if you’d have said to me then that I’d still be doing this in 30 years’ time and that I’d be dancing at Blenheim Palace, I would’ve had you sectioned.”
Here, Sachs gives his totally candid take about being a part of the Bridgerton series, expanding his character’s story in Queen Charlotte, and how Brimsley gets to talk to the queen instead of just taking orders.
VALENTINA VALENTINI: You’ve been acting for a long time, but have you ever had this sort of level of global recognition?
HUGH SACHS: I was in a really popular sitcom here for five seasons called Benidorm on ITV, which was loved by the people for whom it was made — mainly white, working-class people who holiday in that part of Spain. I left that show in 2011, and they carried on for another five seasons. People recognize me for that all the time here, which is weird. But I think it’s because Netflix bought it six months before lockdown, and lots of people started watching it from the start. I never thought I’d be on television, if I’m honest. I never saw anyone like me. I thought I’d just do plays, but now I’m in the second biggest series ever. I have this theory that if you want millions of viewers, it should have a single title, begin with a B, and I should be in it [laughs]. So, the whole experience of being in these shows is extraordinary; I’m still slightly bemused by it, really.
VV: Can you tell us about getting the role of Brimsley?
HS: I went in for two roles: the Duke of Hastings’ servant and Brimsley. I read a couple of lines, and then I completely forgot about it. Because we don’t do romantic fiction; we do Austen or Dickens. Then they rang and said that they’d like me to play Brimsley. I asked who Charlotte was going to be played by, and they told me Golda, and that was the first I knew of its intentions to be inclusive. I got the six episodes, and I thought, “I’ll read two today and do the other four tomorrow.” I read all six in one sitting. I just thought, “They know how to keep you hooked; they really know what they’re doing.”
VV: What attracted you to the role of Brimsley?
HS: I mean, there wasn’t much on the page. I give the queen a piece of gossip in the second episode, and then most of it was just variations of “Yes, your majesty.” But I wanted to work with Golda, and I wanted to be in something that was going to change television.
One of the things I’ve loved about being in these shows is how they keep challenging the industry. I was really hoping season two would be as successful as it was because, as a gay man, having a leading actor [Jonathan Bailey] who was openly gay playing a straight romantic lead and it not being an issue was amazing to see. I knew it could change our industry — all those young actors who I know have been told to keep quiet can now point at Jonny and go, “Nope, it doesn’t harm your career.” Season one changed the racial politics of costume drama; season two changed sexual politics in our industry. It is moving the conversation.
VV: And now in Queen Charlotte, we find out so much more about who Brimsley is and how his own sexual politics play out in this world.
HS: What’s so funny is, as an actor, you do a backstory with your character. So, all that standing about in season one and two, I was thinking, “Okay, so this is his family, and this is where he’s from, etcetera.” And then Shonda comes up with something far more interesting! People keep asking what happened to Brimsley and Reynolds, and I just go, “I’m saying nothing because whatever I come up with would be nothing compared to if Shonda ever approached that question!”
VV: When did you know that Brimsley was going to be young Brimsley?
HS: Tom Verica sent me an email saying he was so pleased that I was going to be in Queen Charlotte, but I knew nothing about it at that point. They wanted a picture of me in my 20s, which I hated having my photo taken, so I rummaged through and found my drama school graduate picture. They sent me the picture of Sam, and I was massively flattered. But I wasn’t sure if Sam was! [Laughs.]
VV: What were your conversations like with Tom and with Shonda about bringing Brimsley to life in Queen Charlotte?
HS: Tom always liked Brimsley, I think. When we were doing Bridgerton, he’d say to me, “I just want to know more about him.” I don’t know what I was doing that made Brimsley so fascinating [laughs]. Like I’ve said, when I first signed on, I didn’t realize that young Brimsley was going to be such a big part of Queen Charlotte. But when I got those scripts, I read them like they were crack cocaine because I was finally finding out about who I was. I make this rather facile joke that I thought I’d been giving peak Idris Elba heterosexual butchness for two seasons, so I don’t know where Shonda got the idea that Brimsley was gay, and that always makes people laugh really loudly. But I am thrilled with it all.
VV: Did you meet Sam Clemmett to talk about him taking on the role of young Brimsley?
HS: I met Sam at the read-through, and we just bonded immediately. It was like having a new nephew. And because he’d done two years in Harry Potter, I knew we’d speak the same language, as we’re both theater creatures. We met about three times after that, but from the beginning, I said, “It’s yours. Do with it whatever you like.” I didn’t want him to feel in any way beholden to me. I said, “You’re starting his story; you do whatever you like.” I just wanted him to have that freedom. What I find fascinating is that of the four of us who cross over from Bridgerton, you knew the least about Brimsley, so therefore, you get to know the most about him in Queen Charlotte. Adjoa, Golda, and me got to watch three scenes, and it was incredibly moving because they had established those women as strong, powerful, matriarchal, bright, witty women, and to see Arsema and India, these really delicate, sort of not yet fully formed young people — the three of us were just in floods of tears. It was almost like watching home videos, remembering when I was that young and life hadn’t hit me yet. I was struck about how emotional it was to see that.
VV: Was there much difference performing with Golda in Queen Charlotte compared to Bridgerton?
HS: There was a lot more eye contact! Normally, she’s throwing orders over her shoulder because I’m always five feet behind her, but in Queen Charlotte there’s more talking between the two. That first scene when I’m talking to her about her daughters and we are eyeballing each other and she’s not bollocking me, she’s actually listening to what I’m saying, it was moving because with the pandemic and Covid protocols, I suddenly felt like it was the first bit of acting I’d done for about four years since most of what I get to do is respond to her orders. Golda, Tom, and I all hugged after that scene. Tom is a really good actor, but a brilliant director, and I think subconsciously we’d all been waiting for a moment like this where we got to explore these characters together in a more in-depth way. I love these meaty moments I get to have with Golda. Tom is so generous as a director — he sees everybody and creates this really warm, creative set. A lot of the crew from Bridgerton were there, so it was great to really flex those muscles with all of us in the room.
VV: The in-depth exploration of these characters is no joke in Queen Charlotte. How did you approach it, specifically between you and your charge, the queen?
HS: One of the arcs of Queen Charlotte is the ricochet effect that George’s illness has on everybody. I’m sure it’s part of the reason Reynolds and Brimsley don’t stay together in the end. It certainly dominated her life — her desire to look after him and to get an heir meant she may not have been the best mother possible. There’s that beautiful scene when I tell her that her daughters are not getting married not because they’re being difficult or willful, but because they don’t want to leave her here alone while George is still alive, and that it’s an extraordinary act of love, what they’re doing. She thinks they’re just trying to be irritating, and I’m telling her that’s not who they are. George’s illness has affected her, it’s affected Brimsley, it’s affected her children. It was lovely to have those moments where I was not telling her off but just explaining that because I have watched these children grow up, I know a little bit about what they’re going through.
VV: I guess it’s like that situation when you’re really good friends with somebody, you can say the hard things.
HS: Well, yes, or say nothing. Like that moment when Charlotte says, “I was a good mother,” and I don’t say anything. I’m basically saying in that moment of silence, “You are not a bad mother, but your children have a point. And I’m here to say, ‘Just give them a breathing space; they’re good kids.’”
VV: It’s so interesting to hear you speak as Brimsley this way because it’s more like you’re her husband. Or at least, filling in for a role that George hasn’t been able to do because of his illness. Brimsley is like Queen Charlotte’s work husband!
HS: She will see Brimsley more than she will see George. Even though it’s a servant-master relationship, Brimsley was there from the beginning to guide her into this weird world. Lesser writers would’ve given the queen a sentimental moment to encapsulate that, but she just is absolutely who she is, and I’m absolutely who I am — living my life on tiptoes going, “What kind of mood is she in today?” But actually, because of the longevity, he will give her advice and go, “Look, be easy on these kids.” But the stress she’s under, I mean, not only is she the monarch, but she’s also raising her family, and she’s got to find an heir. It’s sort of like she’s the CEO of three of the biggest companies on the planet. And when one is under that pressure, some of the kindness gets rubbed off at the sides, and her kids get it in the neck. Brimsley has that moment when he says that everyone here cares for the king, so we are all in this together — we are all tiptoeing around his illness, and we need to look after each other.
VV: What has it been like to see how much the Bridgerverse has grown in popularity?
HS: What I love is that you don’t have to explain what it is. When I say I’m in Bridgerton, even though some people haven’t watched it, they know exactly what it is all about. That’s a real thrill. I tell people it is the equivalent of a long, hot bath with lots of candles and bath oil listening to your favorite album. People need distraction. We love the gritty crime dramas and the toxic family sagas, but Bridgerton is this world we all didn’t know we needed. The main thing is the joy that people get from it. And now I’ve had the thrill of finding out who I am in the spin-off. Who’d have thought when I went into that interview that we’d be here, four years later, talking about young Brimsley?
VV: It will be so interesting to see how people read Brimsley in season three of Bridgerton and beyond because of all the backstory we’ve gotten.
HS: It’s like I say to my mates, if you ever go in for a walk-on in a Shondaland production, take it! You have no idea where you are going to end up.
Valentina Valentini is a London-based entertainment, travel, and food writer and is also a senior contributor to 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 and Longreads, and her tangents and general complaints can be seen on Twitter at @ByValentinaV.
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