Bridgerton is back. Is Simone Ashley braced for how it will change her life?
As Simone Ashley says, “Representation matters”. Having felt early in her career that she was being typecast for roles by the colour of her skin, Simone never imagined she’d end up starring in a smash hit period drama because she’d never seen anyone in one who looked like her. “I didn’t really watch period dramas much because I felt like I couldn’t relate to them, maybe because I couldn’t see myself within one,” she admits when we meet. “And then,” she adds with a grin, “Bridgerton came along.”
Until landing the lead in Netflix’s romping Regency hit – the first series of which was watched by 82 million households and made instant stars of Phoebe Dynevor, Regé-Jean Page and Nicola Coughlan – Simone had never been hamstrung by a corset, ridden a horse, danced a ball, had to perfect her elocution or visited the Georgian city of Bath. Overnight, she found herself neck-deep in the high society world of the 1800s; thrust into a saddle, a ball-room, a shooting party and a corset. Still, as she points out, what appealed to her about it is that, although it’s set in the 19th century, “it’s about real people with real human problems and feelings”.
Simone Ashley sweeps into a studio in Camden, north London, for the GLAMOUR interview looking fresh, in classic street-style – simple black jeans and a black top; taller than I expected, at 5ft 8in, and lithe. Accompanied by her adorable five-year-old Cockerspaniel, Myla, she’s been busy decorating her new West London flat, having recently moved back to London from LA.
She’d grown tired of British winters – “I’m a sun baby” and fancied “a change” when she moved to the States to be closer to her family and friends. “There’s a very nostalgic part of California for me because I spent a lot of my childhood out there,” she says. She’d barely arrived in America when she had to turn around and come right back after landing the role of Kate Sharma in Bridgerton, the oldest sister of a glamorous Indian family newly arrived in the ’Ton. Her character immediately catches the eye of Anthony – the oldest and most eligible Bridgerton (played by Jonathan Bailey).
Filming Bridgerton threw Simone into Regency life. She loved the Georgian city of Bath, where they filmed – “Oh, my God. It’s so beautiful. It’s like London as if it was untouched.” But as for wearing a corset? “That was… interesting,” she grins. A wardrobe crew had to help her dress “because when you’re in a corset, you can’t put your shoes on,” but no one warned her to watch what she ate.
“On my first day, I was like, “OK, first day as a leading lady, got to eat lots of food, be really energised.” So, I had this massive portion of salmon and that’s when I needed to be sick, basically because I was wearing the corset. I realised when you wear the corset, you just don’t eat. It changes your body. I had a smaller waist very momentarily. Then the minute you stop wearing it, you’re just back to how your body is. I had a lot of pain with the corset, too, I think I tore my shoulder at one point!”
She was also thrust into a saddle on her first week on set, filming frantic horse-riding scenes despite having only ridden once before. “I’m quite natural and I’m quite sporty anyway,” she laughs. “At the start, I was in the saddle every other day, pretty much for one to one and a half hours a day. I loved it. After moving from LA, and a lot of change, I think that was something that really helped, because once you’re on the horse, you kind of get out your head and you don’t think of anything else.”
Filming closely with Jonathan ‘Johnny’ Bailey, who plays the philandering viscount Anthony Bridgerton, the actor welcomed her onset by leaving flowers in her trailer, a sweet gesture she reciprocated. “I would always leave him his favourite snacks in his trailer. We had a very unspoken rhythm going on in that sense, leaving gifts in each other’s trailers.”
This season, Bridgerton explores feminist concerns, delving into the work of feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft, as the girls become increasingly aware of society’s limitations on women. As a feminist, Simone isn’t sure she’d have coped during the Regency period. “Now women just have more freedom to be whoever they want to be. There’s not a small, tiny box that we have to fit into any more.”
She feels “a lot has changed” for women, but also that “there’s still lots of room for development”. “I probably have dealt with a lot of sexism in my life. I don’t really feed any energy into it, and maybe there’s a problem in that? Maybe there are things happening that I should acknowledge, and should let affect me?”
With #MeToo a wake-up call for the acting industry, she thinks one positive outcome is women now bolstering one another. “I definitely think women are sharing this microphone more fearlessly now and supporting one another.”
Simone believes in women using their voice. If she wanted to share one piece of advice with other women it would be, “Don’t be afraid to be difficult. It’s a word that we hear a lot these days, ‘Oh, she’s being difficult or tricky,’ when, actually, maybe someone’s just following their instincts and speaking out for themselves, and I think why not? Why wouldn’t you? It’s not a bad thing. You’re just taking care of you.”
Simone’s character, Kate Sharma, has been described as ‘headstrong’ and it’s a trait Simone appreciates. “I’m learning to be more headstrong,” she says. “I’m quite an emotional person, and I think that’s a really great thing, but part of growing up is learning how to control your emotions and be stronger in your mind. Kate’s really mature and I’ve learned a lot from her in that sense. Maybe I can sometimes be a bit of a people pleaser, but [Kate] would encourage people to speak their truth, and I really like that about her.”
Taking on the lead in one of Netflix’s most-watched shows could be intimidating, but Simone’s, “Really good at detaching from all that and then focusing. It’s just such a brilliant story – Chris Van Dusen is such an amazing writer. And the relationship between Kate and Anthony is so beautiful that it was easy to just get lost in that.”
Simone landed the role, moved back to London, and was just assembling an Ikea desk in her new flat when her casting was announced and her phone began “blowing up”. Amongst the messages arriving were two from actresses she looks up to – Freida Pinto and Mindy Kaling, “just being really lovely and supportive and sending their congratulations.”
“I remember watching Freida in Slumdog Millionaire and Mindy in everything she’s done. She’s incredible. There’s no one like her. She’s so cool. I’d love to work with her. I think she’s an amazing writer, producer.”
Born Simone Ashwini Pillai, in Camberley, Surrey to first-generation Indian parents, they later moved to Beaconsfield in Buckinghamshire and spent time with relatives in Ojai, California.
Simone always knew she’d end up doing something artistic. “Anything other than something creative didn’t interest me,” she grins. She credits her upbringing with inspiring her love for the Arts. Her father was a pharmacist who had a passion for photography, film and music. “My dad had this really cool record player,” she says. “He would always have Bob Marley playing, Fleetwood Mac or The Doors or The Rolling Stones. Really great bands, great artists.” Now, her taste ranges from Nina Simone to trip hop. She loved films – watching Disney classics with her brother, “We had The Jungle Book playing all the time” and being inspired by Uma Thurman in Kill Bill. “I loved Tarantino… I guess she [Uma] influenced me.”
Her family were initially unsettled by her showbiz ambitions. “My parents were quite protective over me. They’re first generation. They came from India to this country, so they didn’t really have a life where they could choose to be whatever they wanted to be,” she says. Still, they encouraged her. “My mum in particular, she was so supportive taking me to my singing lessons and dance classes,” she says. After sixth form at Redroofs School for the Performing Arts in Berkshire, alma mater of Kate Winslet and Dani Harmer (star of Tracy Beaker), Simone spent time studying Music Theatre at ArtsEd, whose endless famous alumni include Julie Andrews, Darcey Bussell and Will Young.
Simone felt driven by a sense of destiny. “I don’t know if it’s stubbornness, I just couldn’t ever see myself doing anything else. We had no connections in the industry. I had no one to look up to in that sense, I was just always incredibly driven and had a very scary sense of ‘no doubt’. I think if you have that kind of mindset, then you don’t really allow any chance of something not happening for you.”
She cut her teeth in various well-known British dramas, Guilt, Broadchurch, Casualty and Doctors. When she landed another Netflix smash hit, Sex Education – playing bubble gum-blowing cool-girl Olivia Hanan – a bitchy ‘untouchable’ infamous for her fear of showing her boyfriend her ‘cum face’. Simone tells me that she had “zero idea how big it [the show] was going to be”.
On set of Sex Education, they had a lot of creative freedom, encouraged to improvise and share ideas. “Mimi Keene [Ruby] brought her own dog into the series by season three. She’s amazing. She is such a character and she brought so much of that to the role.” Simone conceived Olivia’s signature bubble-gum habit, “On the way to set, I got the driver to stop by Tesco, got all this bubble gum and showed the director I could do massive bubbles and it just became a thing.”
She laughs at the thought she was anything like Olivia as a teenager, “I was never a part of the popular crew. My God, I was not at all.” She has a photograph on her phone, which she refuses to show me, of her at 12 looking decidedly unfashionable. Yet now she wishes she could tell her teenage self to have more self-assurance, “to get to know yourself more, own yourself more, and just have confidence in yourself”.
Sex Education featured somewhat risqué scenes including Olivia trying not to let her boyfriend see her ugly cum-face during sex and fellating a banana at a party until she projectile vomits, but Simone wasn’t worried about filming the shots which were playfully explicit. “I felt really safe and I had a lot of fun on Sex Education, because we were portraying young people, adults, a whole range of different people experiencing the kind of things that we all experience in intimate situations, the highs and the lows and the different problems.”
The cast all lived together in Wales, like a family, eating together, “We would all stay up until 2am just chatting. It was amazing. It was very, very special. I made some friends for life on that set. We all kind of grew up together.”
Her closest friends were Aimee [Lou Wood, who plays Amy Gibbs] and Emma [Mackey, who plays Maeve Wiley]. “I’ve learned so much from Emma. I really look up to her…” Asa [Butterfield, who plays Otis Milburn] “was amazing. He would always host games night.” Simone bonded with Kedar [Williams-Stirling, who plays Jackson Marchetti] over a love of food and cooking together. “I’m really good at breakfast – I can nail an amazing brunch spread – but I think my curry is my statement dish.”
In Bridgerton, Simone was excited to be cast alongside Charithra Chandran, who plays Edwina Sharma, Kate’s little sister. Like Simone, Charithra is Tamil. “I learned a lot from Charithra. I learned a lot about my own culture. She’s trilingual, so I learned a lot of different words from her. My mum tried to teach me Tamil and Hindi, but I didn’t really pick it up.”
Social media is abuzz with excitement about seeing two dark-skinned South Asian women cast in the new series of Bridgerton – which is famously groundbreaking in its use of ‘colourblind’ casting in a period drama – but Simone seems somewhat ambivalent about the fuss. “I just always saw myself for my personality and not for the colour of my skin,” she says. But she acknowledges that, “Representation matters, and yes, there is a minority that needs to be represented more, and I’m very aware of that… Everyone should be seen. I think we can all relate to each other in some way.”
In the past, Simone has spoken about how “Colourism is an ongoing issue.” Today she admits, “I felt very typecast sometimes,” although she quickly adds that that was “years and years” ago. Now she says it’s important to her to take both “culturally-specific roles and non-culturally-specific roles”. What she wants most is “to be seen as an actress who has talent and has a brain, and it just doesn’t matter what I look like.”
The global success of Sex Education and Bridgerton is turning Simone into an international household name. In some ways, her life has already changed. She’s trying to enjoy it. “My manager always says – especially within the pressures of this industry – it can sometimes feel like a wave is coming, and he just says you can choose to either be swallowed by it, or you can get your surfboard out and ride the wave.”
If she’s made one concession to fame, it’s just being a little more careful what she posts to her – current – 487K Instagram followers. “Now, I’ve got to make a decision. Do I want the world to see this or not? How much of my personal life do I want to share?”
She’s recently got into fashion. Being invited to sit on the front row at the Prada show at Milan Fashion Week and Chanel in Paris. Haute Couture is “a bit of a new world, she admits. Until now her biggest purchase was a Chloé suit from an Italian outlet store. Last year, she became the face for Loewe’s Paula’s Ibiza fragrance. Fashion is a world she’s “really interested in exploring” more. “I think we’re in a world now where women are doing incredible things. Like you look at what Rihanna’s done with Fenty lingerie. Maybe one day I could do something like that… but give it a moment!” she laughs.
She is ambitious, yes, yet for a young woman with the world at her feet, she’s also grounded, a quality she seems to owe to her mum. “I think my mum always raised me to have a good heart, and know everyone’s human,” she says. “My mother grew up in a small village in the south of India where it was not really about your money or the clothes you wear. Being a good person was your currency. She always brought us up that way.”
The last series of Bridgerton made overnight stars of the cast, now for Simone anything seems possible. “Oh, God, don’t start the Bond rumours!” she jokes, when I ask what she’d like to do next. Her ambitions are vast, yet modest. “My dream is to be able to play lots of different, exciting roles and work with a whole range of amazing filmmakers. That would be my dream – to just not be pigeonholed.”
Written by Katie Glass
Published March 25, 2022