‘Tis time to join the ton as Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story hits Netflix screens today! And to celebrate this joyous occasion we sat with one of the period piece’s breakout stars – Arsema Thomas.
Born to a Nigerian father and Ethiopian mother, Arsema’s rich African background lays the foundation for a number of things – her passion for justice in the African continent, and her portrayal of bridger-verse favourite -a young Lady Agatha Danbury. In our latest issue which features Arsema and leading lady Golda Rosheuvel, who plays Queen Charlotte in the Bridgerton stories, we chat with Arsema about her new role and the weight behind it. From tapping into her Nigerian roots to base her character, to her slice of the very essence of the series, she gives us a closer look at the inner workings of this Shondaland masterpiece.
Read more from our interview here!
What was the process of getting the role like?
The process was honestly very fast and very furious. I got the audition and at the time we did not know what it was for. I didn’t think anything would happen – I just went in and did my self-tape. I think the scene had been from Season 1 of Bridgerton – one of Penelope Featherington’s lines. At the time, I had never seen Bridgerton so I tried my best to give just me and hoped that would be enough and they liked it. I kept hearing back until February of last year and I went in for a chemistry read with India (Amarteifio – who plays young Queen Charlotte), and then Corey (Mylchreest who plays young King George) came in towards the end and it feels still like a dream. It was a very fast process.
What were the challenges of playing the character of young Lady Danbury in Queen Charlotte?
The struggle that I had with playing her is that I’ve never been put into a situation like hers. Not having the freedom to say your mind and not having even the choice of clothing. And so, to be a woman in that situation and not be angry and not want to immediately fight back, but to be able to hold in all that emotion and have such control was such a struggle for me. As an Actor, we’re all kind of reactive and we just say what’s on our mind; she (Lady Danbury) is so thoughtful and has a strategic way of observing the lay of the land and inserting herself into the most optimal position that I think it was difficult, but that I took away from that character and I now practice in my day-to-day life for sure.
How connected are you to your Nigerian roots and did you take any inspiration from any Nigerian royalty to add a unique spin to your character?
So my father was from Lagos, my middle name is Adeoluwayemi and I grew up a lot in Bénin. So we would always drive into Lagos and there was a lot that I brought in specifically from Nigeria for this character. Because there is this West African calling that she has. I made waist beads for her and had colours specifically chosen for her that I wore throughout the entirety of filming just to keep myself grounded. Lady Danbury is a West African woman. It made me miss Nigeria so much more having to play her in such an English setting because she misses it too (this character). She feels away from home in a very similar way.
She is so similar to a lot of the women in my life who have never had the chance to be shown in such a light. I think this woman is in a lot of our lives and she tends to be in the background and so something is refreshing and so revolutionary about moving her into the spotlight, and giving her the laurels that she deserves.
It was also very personal and very moving – it’s what I wanted to do acting for so that I could just expose the inequality of the stories that we tell.
You’ve spoken about the struggle of bringing this character to life and you’ve delivered a performance about a woman who refuses to only see herself as a victim and makes her situation work in her favour. How you arrived at this complex balancing act?
That’s a great question. When I was thinking about it intentionally, how to engage in this space of conflict, I was so overwhelmed because I realized that while this show takes place in the Georgian era, that same amount of conflict exists now in many of us. You know, this feeling of not being able to speak out of fear or the way that society views us but having this kind of fire, this internal understanding of right and wrong, this need to want to make a change, and I feel like that conflict resides in me. I think I’ve had that conflict all of my life.
Growing up in Sub-saharan Africa I was exposed to a lot of what I found to be wrong. And the feeling of bureaucracy, of politics and all those things that kind of hold us back from creating change is the same thing that Agatha is feeling, just to a different degree. And so there is something very cosmic when you as an actor get to address the conflicts that are affecting you also internally as a person and I was lucky enough to be able to draw upon that in a very safe environment. But also when the writing is as good as it is, it also feels like now I have the words to say what I feel.
What was the most memorable scene for you?
The most memorable scene for me was the first showdown with Princess Augusta. In it, I say this speech that I am so honoured to say because so seldom do those words get to be spoken. This amazing rebuttal in this very heated debate between two strong and independent women. It felt like fire. When every bit of your senses is tingling – you hear it, you feel it, you smell it, you see it.
And to act also across Michelle Fairley from Game of Thrones makes you be on your best behaviour – she was an amazing scene partner to work across. Watching it back I saw what she was able to bring out of me and vice versa and I love that scene. I would act out that scene over and over again (I promise).
This is your first production and it’s a big production. What did you love the most about working on a series like this?
The thing that I loved the most is that everybody, from the Executive Producers to the cast and crew, and even the Marketing and PR, everybody has the same goal. Because they noticed that there is something special about this show. It does something that shows have never done before. It speaks to a lot of demographics that have always been overshadowed, and it revolutionizes a genre that a lot of people thought was old and stale and will never be new again. And so when everybody has the same viewpoint and wants the same thing, it feels like you’re making a film with friends.
It was a blessing that this was my first experience because then I can then walk into the next set and demand the same things. You can say that ‘I don’t want there to be a hierarchy between the actor and the crew’; ‘I want it to be equal between all of us’; ‘I want there to be a collaboration’. It’s positive experiences like this that change the next experience for all of us.
In the series, we get to see a beautiful friendship between Lady Danbury and Charlotte, what was it like working with India on this end? Was there a particular moment you shared that you remember fondly?
It’s so funny because that moment happened the first time we met each other. We were walking into the chemistry read and we both clocked immediately who each other was playing. And on top of that, we were both wearing the same outfit – down to the shoes we were wearing; same shoes, same jeans, same shirt and so there was a disarming aspect of that and then there was a dynamic I think that we understood.
I say this often, and I think it’s quite important that it must be repeated, that when you are specifically a Black woman, there is this knowledge of sisterhood that just happens innately when you are in rooms that you would normally not find each other in. Mind you, we are also sisters to other people so there is that actuality of sisterhood. There is that cultural aspect of sisterhood that just made the whole thing organic, natural and effortless. So every time we saw each other on set we would hang out in each other trailers, I would send her a text as I left set making sure she was okay, and we would try and grab coffee – it was truly something effortless and outside of this world.
The series follows two timelines; did you feel like your portrayal had to be in sync with the older Lady Danbury?
Maybe not in sync but cohesive. At the end of the day, I imagine 40 years from now myself, I would be very different than I am now. So there was less a need to be the same and more that the journey needs to be similar and that’s why we kind of needed that same starting point. We both agreed on where she was born, and what kind of family she had; all of these small details that were not in the script but at least could inform the decisions that I made so that the decisions that Adjoa (Andoh) made at least made sense. Because when you flip back and forth between these scenes, they had to be of the same vein or at least of the same family. So it was very important for me to also give Adjoah the space to talk about the character that she created and crafted because there was a lot of work that went into that, and I could then use even the personality (the way that she spoke about things) to inform the decisions that I made. It became a very collaborative and easy process.