Working closely with Shonda Rhimes for the last 17 years, Emmy-nominee Chris Van Dusen has had a hand in writing landmark Shondaland series like Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal. With Bridgerton, Van Dusen took the reigns as the creator and showrunner of the Emmy nominated Netflix series.
Van Dusen adapted Julia Quinn’s beloved novel series, which weaves the lives of a Regency-era society, and added an alternate history in which the London setting is racially integrated. The first season centers on the Bridgerton family, and the relationship between eldest daughter Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor) and her smoldering, potential suitor, the Duke of Hastings, Simon Basset (Regé-Jean Page) during the social season where young adults are matched for marriage.
Bridgerton captured the attention of a global audience, and recorded 82 million views within the first four weeks of its released. The show has also received 12 Emmy nominations, including Outstanding Drama Series.
“The show is inspired by really delicious, sexy romance novels,” Van Dusen shares. “I wanted to make the experience of watching the show be similar to that of reading one of those romance books as far as feeling sexy and dangerous, and fun.”
Van Dusen spoke with Awards Focus about the moment he knew he had a special series, the evolution of his relationship with Shonda Rhimes, how working with an intimacy coordinator enhanced the storytelling, and what fans can look forward to next season.
Awards Focus: The global response to Bridgerton has been incredible. Has anyone reached out that surprised you?
Chris Van Dusen: Diane Keaton reached out to me, which was surprising and it kind of made my life complete. Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton are also fans of the show. It really is amazing, and surreal whats’s happened.
AF: Was there a point during production for season one that you thought you had a hit show in your hands?
Van Dusen: I knew that I had something really special with Phoebe and Regé. They are just such incredible actors and so talented. We brought them both in to do a chemistry read together. We had them read the scene in the third episode of the first season where Daphne and Simon are at the art gallery, looking at the painting, and their hands kind of graze each other. They read that together and I just remember I looked around the room and all of our jaws were on the floor. There was something so electric happening between the two of them. From that moment I knew we had something special.
AF: You started in the industry as Shonda Rhimes’ assistant, and now you’re showrunning her first series with Netflix. How has your relationship evolved over the years?
Van Dusen: I worked in Shondaland for a very long time now, and it’s just about 17 years. I started as her assistant way back when Grey’s Anatomy was called “Sex in the Surgery” for a hot second. I worked my way up and I was always looking for more writing opportunities. I’ve always been a writer in some form. It’s where I saw my career going, and Shonda is so supportive. We have a shorthand now where we share a lot of the same sensibilities. She really stepped back on Bridgerton in order to give me the creative room and freedom to really make the period show I’ve always wanted to see.
AF: Did it weigh on you that this was her first series with her deal at Netflix?
Van Dusen: I think there’s always been a kind of pressure on this show. Certainly this is the first show I’ve created and showrun. The books are so beloved and have such a huge international fan base of people who care so deeply about these characters and stories. It was a good, healthy kind of pressure. It definitely worked for the first season, and I’m hoping it works for the second and beyond.
AF: Bridgerton feels on brand with many of Shonda’s shows, particularly with the romances and intersecting lives of the characters. Is that something that inspired you to adapt the novels?
Van Dusen: It’s what I enjoy writing the most, and what I think I’m really good at writing. There are bits and pieces I take from all the shows that I’ve worked on, and there are definitely some more thematic ideas that find their way into my work. It always comes down to character for me.
Bridgerton is a show about smart, funny, tortured people, and I’ve always been drawn to these types of characters. Their lives are messy and their love lives are even messier. Family and identity are two themes that I respond to deeply. With Bridgerton, these are women and men figuring out who they are. It’s women finding their agency.
AF: What considerations went into ensuring a cohesion with the array of storylines in Bridgerton, and were you deliberately planting seeds from other books in the series for future seasons?
Van Dusen: Absolutely. I always wanted to open up this world with this adaptation. I fell in love with the books and didn’t want the series to be solely about the Bridgerton family. I wanted it to be about a society, an entire world. So, I created a bunch of new characters and stories for the adaptation.
The origin of Queen Charlotte really came from my conversations with historians. There was this theory I learned that she was England’s first queen of color. When I heard that it was something that really resonated and I think the show started to come into focus for me at that point, as far as this world being multi-hued, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural. It was fascinating for me. Race wasn’t mentioned in the book, it was something I absolutely wanted to explore from the space of a period show and do it in a way that makes sense.
AF: Are you looking to expand the racial identities of the characters in upcoming seasons?
Van Dusen: The show is for a modern audience and there’s really this modernity to everything we’re doing. I wanted everyone watching to be able to see someone on screen that they can relate to no matter who they were. It is a re-imagined world at the end of the day, and it’s a sprawling, beautiful, colorful world that I established in the first season. So absolutely that’s going to continue in season two and beyond.
AF: How did having an intimacy coordinator on set help you to translate the sex scenes from the script to what we see on screen?
Van Dusen: I knew that the show is inspired by really delicious, sexy romance novels. That was something I wanted to lean into and make the experience of watching the show be really similar to the experience of reading one of those romance books as far as feeling sexy and dangerous, and fun.
Working with an intimacy coordinator was amazing, and I was so shocked that people have been doing this without them. We worked with an incredible team of intimacy coordinators who heavily choreographed those scenes well in advance. What it really came down to was making sure that our actors were comfortable, that they knew what was expected of them, and that they knew what they would be doing. When they walked onto set, nothing was left to chance.
AF: What’s exciting you most about season two?
Van Dusen: I’m obviously not allowed to say much right now, but the first couple of episodes are looking incredible. We have a new family, the Sharma family, with Kate Sharma (Simone Ashley), who is amazing. She’s a force to be reckoned with. Anthony is played by Jonathan Bailey, who is so talented, and when they’re on screen together, I’ve called them magnetic and it really is true because you can’t take your eyes off of them.
We really throw a lot at different things at Anthony to flex a lot of different muscles, pun intended. Laughs