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As Shonda Rhimes’ dynamite Netflix debut, Bridgerton captured audiences around the world and shattered the streamer’s viewership records as its most watched original series. While filming the show, director Julie Anne Robinson tried to warn star Phoebe Dynevor about the attention that was to come. “I was like, ‘Phoebe, you have no idea,’ ” says the Brit, who has a long history of working with Rhimes. Still, nothing could prepare the 26-year-old actress for how the addictive period drama would catapult her to fame. “It really was able to hit so many people, and that was quite unexpected for me,” she says. With filming on season two underway in England, Dynevor and Robinson talk about getting the first season off the ground, the scene that made them the most nervous and, of course, that steamy honeymoon sequence.
Julie Anne, you’d worked with Shonda Rhimes before, directing a host of her shows. So was it a natural segue to Bridgerton?
JULIE ANNE ROBINSON It was quite a natural transition. I think probably because I’m English they thought that I’d be a good person to direct it. (Laughs.)
Phoebe, how did you first hear about the series?
PHOEBE DYNEVOR I heard, “Shondaland is doing Regency England with Netflix,” and I was like, “I’m in!” (Laughs.) Then I got some scripts and read them and thought they were beautifully written. And then I was like, “Oh gosh, this one’s going to hurt if I don’t get it.” Because I was just so enthralled by all the characters and so excited about the whole world that they had created.
Julie Anne, you were intimately involved in the casting, and you’ve said that one of the actors you were proudest of casting was Phoebe. Why is that?
ROBINSON She has this incredible, very modern sensibility, and you just feel this energy and this dynamism behind her performance. But she also has the ability to have the glacial kind of look that the Regency era required. I mean, I’m just a huge fan.
Phoebe, what do you remember about the chemistry read you did with Regé-Jean Page?
DYNEVOR It was a blur. All I remember is being like, “Oh, that’s Shonda Rhimes,” and getting a bit nervous. And meeting Regé and being like, “Oh, he’s stunning.” And then leaving Regé and being like, “Well, good luck! I hope it goes well.” Because I just didn’t think I was going to get the part.
ROBINSON I remember I was sitting next to Shonda and we were watching. We knew then and there that it was going to be great, that it was going to work. I knew in the room. For everybody involved, it was unanimous: “We found the person.”
Julie Anne, you directed two episodes of the show, one of which was the first episode. How did you go about setting the tone for the series?
ROBINSON We did etiquette classes, but we were also very keen to make sure that the etiquette wasn’t alienating to the audience in any way. We wanted to translate the etiquette — the head nods and the curtsying — to what that means to us today. There’s this thing called “the cut,” which is my favorite thing in the world. It’s when somebody walks into a ballroom, makes eye contact with somebody else and then that person just looks away, and they would all write about it. Like, we’ve all experienced that. I’ve experienced that. And then something else that we did do, which was a collaborative decision, is we choreographed the dances to contemporary music to make it feel very present. Those are little ways that I was trying to keep it fresh, instead of it feeling like we’re doing something out of the history books.
DYNEVOR The dialogue is very period, but the direction we’d always have from Julie Anne was to bring it to the modern day. Those were notes we would get a lot on set: “Just keep the pace up. Keep it lifted.” That really helped with the dynamism of it all and why it appeals so much to a modern audience. There is such a modernism about it — a humor and a wit, which Julie Anne was really able to influence.
Phoebe, what did you learn from the etiquette classes?
DYNEVOR I just remember a lot of very low curtsies, and Jack [Murphy], our wonderful choreographer, just giving us little notes on how to sort of pull our shoulders back and, “Lower, Phoebe, lower for the queen!” I remember being really nervous about it.
ROBINSON Really? You didn’t look nervous. That was the amazing thing. You kind of donned the mantle of this flawless creature. You’d come into the rehearsal room and you’d be you. You know, you’d be kind of scrappy — I mean, no offense — but then would just take on this role, this incredibly graceful elegance that was fully required. It was really a glorious thing to see.
Julie Anne, you also directed the much-buzzed-about honeymoon episode. What did you do ahead of time to ensure that the actors would feel comfortable?
ROBINSON Phoebe, do you want to talk about that?
DYNEVOR It was just such a collaborative experience, which is what I think is very important with those scenes and what I would never do any other way now, because instead of that being just what the director wants, it’s very much like what everyone wants from the scene. And I think that was very much the starting point of “OK, what does Julie Anne want to see? What do I feel comfortable with? What story are we telling here?” And those conversations really helped. Then, from there, we were able to block with our intimacy coordinator and it just made everyone feel safe and feel like they had a say, as opposed to it being one person’s vision — which is really important.
ROBINSON When I first heard about an intimacy coordinator, it’s only natural as a director to think, “Oh, there’s somebody going to be getting in the way?” But then as soon as we started working, it just made so much sense. You see it as a stunt coordinator for sex scenes, literally. The way that you would work with a stunt coordinator is you would give your general approach to a stunt sequence. You wouldn’t say, “And then this person punches this person.” And then you talk about it with the actors. Then they go away and rehearse that stunt sequence, and then you come back in and work together to shape it further. And that’s what happened here. It takes a lot of the nervousness and the emotion out of it. It becomes a technical exercise, which I think is actually the way to make those scenes [better]. We were telling a story, so we were concentrating on the emotional arc of the character rather than worrying about technicalities or somebody being embarrassed. Our starting point was: What is the emotional story that we’re trying to tell?
Julie Anne, you’ve said that you were particularly interested in the journey of Phoebe’s character, Daphne, and being able to explore issues of sex and power from a female gaze. Why was that appealing to you?
ROBINSON It’s just a unique opportunity in my experience. I think issues of power and sex and the female gaze are not often brought together in this context, and that’s something that I was very interested in exploring. Certainly Daphne’s journey through episode six was one that I think is fairly unique in televisual history. So I was fascinated by that. And you’ll find in my work that I’m very against gratuitous, exploitative cinematography of female bodies or female forms in any way. Everything is geared toward the emotional journey of the character, and that’s my starting point as a director.
Phoebe, what scene made you the most nervous?
DYNEVOR The scene that I remember being the most nervous about was the same where Daphne talks about what it’s like to be a woman to her brother Anthony and they were riding horses. I knew that it was going to be challenging. It was actually mostly performance wise that I was nervous about. And then we got to set and then I remembered that we also had to horses. [Laughs.]
Did you have experience riding horses before or did you have to learn for the show?
DYNEVOR No, I had to learn for the show. And that was the only scene I really had to ride a horse for because all the sort of galloping ones the producers obviously wouldn’t let me do because if anything happened, they wouldn’t have a Daphne. But I’m glad I rode so many horses because for a scene like that, you did have to know how to control a horse so you could also get your words out at the same time.
Julie Anne, what was it like directing with real horses?
ROBINSON So this is one of the times where having never directed a period drama before was a handicap. We talked about the scene and it was very important that it was in a park full of people that were all watching now. We were shooting the scene and it was really difficult to get the two shots and the singles that we needed because the horses wouldn’t cooperate. They wouldn’t walk side by side in a way that I could capture on camera. It was agonizing for the actors and I apologize for that, but towards the end of the scene, one of the crew [members] came up to me and said, “Why didn’t you use this device?” And he showed me this device, which is like two fake horses going up and down. And he said, “This is how we usually do it.” And I was like, “Why didn’t nobody tell me that?”
You guys filmed in a lot of historic locations. What was that like?
ROBINSON The main thing as a director though is you don’t get a chance to leave very often, so the thing I really remember was that when I was tired, I wasn’t allowed tea on set. And tea was like the only thing keeping me going. So sometimes — and I’m not proud of this — but my assistant Barnaby would sneak on a cup of tea in a closed container and I would just be drinking it while directing. I’m not proud of that and I wouldn’t do it again!
Did either of you anticipate that Bridgerton would be such a hit?
ROBINSON I can tell you now that Phoebe didn’t because we had conversations on set. And I was like, “Phoebe, you have no idea.”
DYNEVOR I remember we did a week of press leading up to [the premiere]. Obviously the interviewers had watched it and their feedback was like, “Oh, wow.” People loved it, and it was such a surprise to us. I knew that I, as an audience member, would love to watch something like this, but I think it was just the fact that it really did hit such a wide audience. My grandparents enjoyed it and my sister enjoyed it. It really was able to hit so many people, and that was quite unexpected for me.
Phoebe, what is the most surprising fan interaction that you’ve had since the show came out?
DYNEVOR I mean, Kim Kardashian DM’ed me a few times …
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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