From the acclaimed series Broadchurch and to the Emmy awarded Fleabag, Emmy nominee Kelly Valentine Hendry has cast some of the most iconic performances in British drama and comedy.
When it came to casting Bridgerton, Hendry brought together an incredibly diverse and inclusive ensemble. “It’s time for us to tell our stories in a way that’s accessible to everybody,” Hendry says.
Bridgerton is Netflix’s flagship drama from its massive overall deal with Shonda Rhimes’ Shondaland. Based on a series of novels by Julia Quinn, the reimagined period romance drama is helmed by showrunner and writer Chris Van Dusen.
The series follows two families, the Bridgertons and the Featheringtons, that have daughters on the cusp of marrying age. Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Deynvor) and three of the Featherington girls are entering the social season in search for a husband.
Upon being presented to Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel), Daphne is highlighted as the one to watch this “season.” Thus, Daphne is the target of many suitors, but amid her search she reluctantly falls for Simon (Rege-Jean Page), the very eligible Duke of Hastings.
In speaking with Awards Focus, Kelly Valentine Hendry opened up about the process of color conscious casting, how she cast Phoebe Deynvor and Rege-Jean Page as the leads, and how her love for theatre sparked her journey into casting.
Awards Focus: When casting Bridgerton what was the biggest surprise in the process for you?
Kelly Valentine Hendry: Well we knew from the beginning that we were creating a reimagined regency, and ergo that we would be able to cast quite inclusively. I won’t use the term colorblind casting because we were very conscious of our casting, it was color conscious casting. We went out there looking for the best people for the roles. So the surprise was how free we were allowed to be in our casting choices.
AF: One of the things that I loved about the Bridgerton cast is how diverse it is. Were certain characters written into the script with a race listed, or was that left to the casting process?
Kelly: Definitely discovered in the process, and when we did think someone should be played by a person of color, it was more to do that specific social setting or location needing more balance and diversity.
So most of the casting really could have gone either way. If you look at Queen Charlotte, there is historical documentation that she may have been mixed race and so they latched onto that and ran with it. Lady Danbury was always going to be played by a woman of color, which helped create that social balance we were looking to create in that world.
We haven’t done particularly well yet in the area of disability, but that’s not to say that we didn’t give actors with disabilities a chance to audition, we’ve consciously tried to create as many opportunities for people of varied abilities to audition. I love to give as many opportunities as possible and then I try to cast the best actor for the role.
AF: I loved watching Nicola Coughlan as Penelope Featherington, can you tell me more about how that casting choice came about?
Kelly: Nichola self taped and then came in and read for me and Cole, who’s my associate. When we sent our selects through for that role, the producers came back straight away with ‘we want to offer.’ Nichola was Penelope Featherington. We were all on the same page!
AF: There is such incredible chemistry amongst the sisters in this show, what was the journey like of finding the right actors to create such a believable family dynamic?
Kelly: I love casting ensembles, it’s one of my favorite things to cast and I take pride in always casting actors who I know are also going to get along socially, and that really helps with that chemistry.
Each production has a different atmosphere and with Bridgerton, we worked out very quickly that the people who were being chosen were always people that we had seen in the theatre who had a hell of a lot of classical training as well as comedic ability, and that for me is my favorite type of actor, because I started in casting because of my love of theatre.
So, Bridgerton became quite a lot about the theatre actors who we had spent ten years watching, and it felt like they’d all come home. The Bridgerton and Featheringtons needed a distinction in their family dynamics, and that distinction came out in how the Featheringtons sat in the comedy world.
And that’s not to say they’re without their dramatic capabilities, because that’s what gives you the pathos when Portia Featherington breaks down. It’s very poignant when the comic actors stop being funny.
AF: You mentioned that theatre was something that got you into the casting world, can you tell us more about that and how you got started in casting?
Kelly: I went to LAMDA to study stage management and technical theatre, because I wanted to be a theatre director and I wanted to know the technical elements that could help me create. But I didn’t have a job while I was studying, and unexpectedly, as life normally happens, I was given the opportunity to make some money by going to work for Hubbard Casting.
They were just finishing off the Lord of the Rings trilogy at the time. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but it stuck and here I am! My love of theatre and stage management has helped me because one of the biggest elements of casting is seeing problems in advance and making sure you can cut those problems before they happen.
We see metaphorical trains hurtling at us sometimes and through experience you know how to deal with that and protect your individual productions. And of course on the creative side we get to look at actors everyday, we get to go to the theatre anytime and place and we get to travel- it’s perfect!
AF: Was it a challenge finding the right actors for the two lead roles for the show, knowing that so much of the show rides on their chemistry?
Kelly: When you’re working on the first season of a show, and you don’t know what that show looks like yet, you just get your head down and try to do the best job you can. You hope there will be an alchemy, which is what casting always is anyway, but you can’t plan for that to happen.
It’s not until you’re in the process that challenges appear. With Daphne Bridgeton, it became increasingly apparent that it was going to be challenging because Daphne had to be perfect. She had to be loved by women and men, she had to be funny, humble, she had to be the diamond of the season. She had to be, as the Queen said; flawless.
That’s really difficult to cast. And Phoebe had cracked it quite early on, but you always have to make sure that you’re making the right decision, and we definitely did.
Rege came very late in the day, because he was unavailable until the last minute. We had seen hundreds of actors at that point and nothing was quite working. But that can be exciting because then you meet the person you’re supposed to cast and you realize that the reason you hadn’t cast anyone up until this point is because this person existed and you just didn’t know it yet.
Phoebe and Rege did their chemistry reads in Los Angeles and boom! There was the Duke and Duchess!
AF: Bridgerton had a slightly more contemporary feel in comparison to other period pieces, how much was period considered in the casting process, and was there more flexibility with the casting because of the slight contemporary twist?
Kelly: Yes, it is a reimagined regency drama, so we can do whatever we like, and when you have hundreds of roles, you think why not play a little? It’s exciting to have all those opportunities for actors coming out of drama school who could have their first job- to be fair they don’t even need to have gone to drama school.
So we took some more modern takes on roles, but who cares and why not? None of us were alive then, so how do we know what happened? We’ve reimagined the time period so we can do what we like; and that freedom gave the show it’s accessibility to all kinds of people. I’ve never had so many people get in touch to thank the production for putting themselves on screen. And if you can change one person’s view of themselves, to a more positive outlook, then we’ve done our job. I’ve had many emails from young adults who have watched the show and thanked us for representing them. It’s storytelling at the end of the day and it’s time for us to tell our stories in a way that’s accessible to everybody.
AF: Casting Golda Rosheuvel as Queen Charlotte was such a fantastic choice, what were some of the things about her choices as an actor that made her so fitting for the part?
Kelly: Golda is so unique, she came into the carting room and she just was Queen Charlotte. She was just so different to everybody, so her take on Queen Charlotte was hands-down the most interesting. It wasn’t a difficult choice for us.
I loved that Golda wasn’t a household name, Golda has worked so hard to get to where she is, and she deserves everything! She’s such a talented musician, an incredible theatre actress, she’s done a lot of television, and I’m really glad to see her enjoying her moment in the limelight, she deserves it.
AF: I thought that Jonathan Bailey was such a perfect fit for the role of the older brother, Anthony Bridgerton, did you have him in mind for the role from the beginning, or was that a discovery that was made in the casting room?
Kelly: Jonathan I’ve cast before, Jonathan is such a wonderful man, he’s been in my casting office so many times. Did I read the script and say ‘that’s Jonathan Bailey’, no, but at the time that I read it there was no one who I thought ‘that must be (fill in the blank)!’ But Jonathan is an actor who I wanted to bring in from day one. He is such a skillful, hard working young man, and what he does in season two is so exciting and I’m so proud of him.
Over the years his journey has gotten him to this point and he deserves it so much. And I love that he’s an out gay actor playing a very sexy straight man, I think that’s really important as well, and also apart of that inclusivity conversation. A lot of people are talking about whether gay actors should play gay roles, and here Jonathan is playing a straight man completely believably! He’s a heartthrob and he should get credit for that. I’m gay myself and when you’re in a minority, you tend to be a lot more aware of how minorities are being represented.
AF: Were there any moments in casting Bridgerton that gave you a new perspective on casting?
Kelly: I will honestly say that Bridgerton is one of the best jobs of my life, it’s given me so much pleasure to work on as a casting director. I’m so proud of my team, and Bridgerton is such a big vehicle that it can include so many aspects of my casting office. I like other people’s opinions, I love working in a group and I think Bridgerton really facilitated that.
I think what’s on the screen is testament not only to me, but to the people who work with me here, and seeing how proud they are of everything; of the one liners, the maid and the cook, even featured extras, that gives me a huge amount of joy. When you’re given trust it makes you do better work and I feel like Bridgerton does give us that space to do the best work we can do as a casting team as I am forever grateful to Shonda and Netflix for that.