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In January, Netflix announced that Bridgerton was watched by 82 million households — nearly half of the 200 million it reaches across the globe. In the span of one month, a pastel-colored, sexually charged period drama from creator Chris Van Dusen and power producer Shonda Rhimes had become the most watched series in the history of the dominant streamer. Not content with just commercial success, Bridgerton quickly inserted itself into the awards conversation. Now, with 12 Emmy nominations, the best drama contender will see if its admittedly wide fan base includes enough TV Academy voters. Van Dusen, deep in work on the Regency drama’s second season, spoke with THR about the best advice he’s ever received from Rhimes, taking cues from a soaking-wet Colin Firth in the BBC’s iconic Pride and Prejudice adaptation and offering his endorsement to future employers of Regé-Jean Page, Bridgerton‘s Emmy-nominated leading man who departed the series after its first season.
I don’t want to add to the pressure, but how are you handling the burden of following up that first season?
The second season is written, and we’re in the middle of production right now. We had to pause for COVID concerns, but we’re getting back to it, and it’s going well. I was based in the U.K. with my family for all of season one. Because [postproduction] is now based in Los Angeles, I brought my family back here and I’m going back and forth between L.A. and the U.K. It is a little different going [into it than] that first season now that it’s kind of a worldwide phenomenon. There are a lot more eyes and a lot more scrutiny, but I’ve always said this show comes with a healthy kind of pressure. Being inspired by these eight delicious romance novels, which already have a passionate fan following, the pressure is really baked in.
Having the source material, I’d imagine, alleviates some of the pressure because there’s at least some expectation of using it as a blueprint.
That’s true. With this adaptation, we did take a lot of liberties. We say we’re inspired by the books, [but] we don’t follow them word for word. We know we have characters who are new and original to the series who don’t appear in the books, and we’re exploring other themes and love stories. I’ve always wanted the series to be about a world, a society — as opposed to just this one family in 19th century Regency London.
In terms of that genre, did you have any particularly strong inspiration points?
I’ve always loved the period genre. There’s that 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice adaptation with Colin Firth, with him coming out of the lake and his white shirt. I remember watching that a lot, and that was inspiring in developing the show. Looking at these period pieces, they’re often considered a little more traditional and a little more conservative. I’ve always wanted to see a period piece that went further, that pushes boundaries and challenges the very idea of what a period piece can really be. So we didn’t want Bridgerton to exist in just one particular box. We wanted to take everything people love about a period piece and make it something fresh and unexpected.
The color-conscious casting, given the time period, is obviously really revolutionary. But you also have an interesting first on your hands, with an openly gay actor, Jonathan Bailey, playing the romantic lead of your second season. Were there any conversations about that?
That just happened. Johnny came in to read for the role, and I absolutely fell in love with him. I thought he was the perfect Anthony Bridgerton, and that’s really how his casting came to be. We didn’t really speak about anything else. He was just perfect for the part.
What’s the best advice you’ve gotten from Shonda Rhimes?
I’ve worked in Shondaland for 17 years. I grew up in Shondaland, and I worked across most of the shows. One thing she always told me was to think of the worst possible situation that you can put your character in — and put them in it. Don’t be afraid to do that. Literally think of the worst-case scenario. Write to that and figure out a way to get that character out of it. That is something that’s always in my head when I’m breaking story.
If another showrunner or filmmaker called you as a job reference for Regé-Jean Page, how would you describe him?
It was really such a privilege to work with Regé. He was incredible. We had a lot of conversations about Simon and Simon’s backstory in the beginning and throughout the process. He was really involved. And he’s also just so charming. He’s set to continue traveling the world right now in some really amazing way, so I’m really excited for him. I hope I get the privilege of being able to work with him again.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
And the Odds Are…
There’s no precedent for a show like Bridgerton winning an Emmy because there haven’t been many shows like Bridgerton. Part Regency drama, part soap opera, part highbrow bodice ripper, it is something entirely unto itself. The pedigree of power producer Shonda Rhimes and its status as Netflix’s most watched original series, however, make it impossible to ignore. Still, if Emmy voters are looking across the pond for best drama, they’re probably eyeing The Crown. — M.O.
This story first appeared in the Aug. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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