When the Netflix show’s second season premieres this month, the 26-year-old actor will become a household name like Regé-Jean Page and Phoebe Dynevor before her. So how is she handling this major life change? Remarkably well.
Simone Ashley has spent the last few weeks hanging with her dog, watching old episodes of Friends, going on hikes. She learned kickboxing, ate healthy, and even managed to get some reading done. Not unusual activities for a 26-year-old looking to take some time for herself. But most 26-year-olds aren’t about to step into the leading role on Bridgerton. So yeah, enjoy that downtime now.
After premiering at the tail end of 2020, the Netflix Regency-era series executive-produced by Shonda Rhimes and based on the spectacularly horny Julia Quinn novels became a thing. In the four weeks after the show’s premiere, Netflix had estimated that 63 million households had watched it. Hair bows, corsets, Empire waists, and otherwise Regencycore-appropriate items started to show up in stores. Two-hour walking tours of key locations from the set were being offered for people who found themselves in Bath, England. And the show’s fresh-faced original leads, Regé-Jean Page and Phoebe Dynevor, scored rarefied pop culture rites of passage: a hosting gig on Saturday Night Live and a stint dating Pete Davidson, respectively.
So when I found myself on a Zoom call with Ashley in early February, I was surprised by how relaxed she seemed, given the fact that people (myself included) are constantly reminding her that life is going to change after the second season premieres on March 25. But change—as a general concept—is more exciting than a source of anxiety for Ashley.
“I’d like to think that I’m not a very fearful person,” she says. Even knowing how rabid the Bridgerton fandom is? “We’re in an industry that, yes, as an artist you can feel certain pressures at times, but we’re not performing heart surgery or curing diseases or having lives dependent on us,” she says. “That’s real pressure. When I put that into perspective, I’m like, ‘It’s fine.’”
This time last year Ashley was in Wales, filming season three of the Netflix comedy-drama Sex Education. She remembers the excitement on set about a new show called Bridgerton. “Everyone would be talking about it,” she says. “I was very aware of the show, but I hadn’t actually watched it yet…and then I got a text from my manager, saying, ‘There’s a role, and they’re really interested in you.’” Fourteen days later she had the part.
That part is Kate Sharma, a new love interest for eldest brother Anthony Bridgerton and the central figure of The Viscount Who Loved Me, the second book in Quinn’s fictional series. Despite her role as the lead in one of the biggest shows on the biggest streaming service, Ashley says the audition process was abnormally smooth. “I was very out of my head about it all,” she says. “I think, mainly, because it happened in such a condensed amount of time. I couldn’t think about it much.”
Around 10 days into the process, she did a chemistry read with costar and love interest Jonathan Bailey, who played Anthony in season one and whose character would be stepping into the fore during season two. “That was really exciting because he was obviously experiencing the whole outcome of the series blowing up, so he was telling me all the exciting things he’d been up to,” she says. “I was pretty starstruck.”
After they performed their scenes together, Ashley had a Zoom meeting with the Shondaland team. Rhimes was impressed. “There was a moment in her casting video where I felt most people tried really hard to be overly likable,” says Rhimes. “Simone leaned into Kate’s flaws in a brave and creative way.”
Ashley says Rhimes’s team allowed her to bring her own unique point of view on the character from the start. “I felt very confident and comfortable to speak about my thoughts on the character, and I think they liked my ideas,” she says. “It feels good when you feel like you’re right for a job in any industry.”
When asked what ideas she brought to that initial meeting, Ashley says she mostly wanted to delve further into the motivations for Kate’s and Anthony’s behavior. As those who have read the book will know, the pair don’t start out as lovers. In fact Anthony is initially pursuing Kate’s younger sister, Edwina, who has been declared the “diamond of the season.” Kate senses Anthony isn’t in love with her sister and objects to his courtship—and, well, you can guess the rest.
“It’s a very interesting enemies-to-lovers story,” Ashley says. “They have a lot of friction at the beginning because they resonate with whatever traits that annoy each other within themselves, and then that breeds chemistry. They’re both used to people walking away and being isolated, being left alone, being left with a lot of pressures and responsibilities, being slightly misunderstood. I think they met each other and it was like, ‘It takes one to know one. I see a lot of me in you, and I’m not going to walk away from you.’”
When it was announced that Ashley was cast, the response was overwhelmingly positive from Bridgerton fans. Quinn even posted a headshot of Ashley on Instagram, writing, “I couldn’t dream of a more perfect Kate. I mean, just LOOK at her expression.”
After watching Ashley’s performance, Quinn’s endorsement has only grown stronger. “A lesser actress might have allowed Kate to devolve into a Taming of the Shrew caricature, but Simone tempers Kate’s fierceness with all the vulnerability and devotion to family I worked so hard to bring to the character,” the author says. “Kate is a very different heroine from Daphne, but I think viewers are going to adore her. Once the world sees Simone Ashley in action, we’ll be clamoring for a Kate Sharma action figure.”
When viewers tune into the second season, they’ll see that the classic enemies-to-lovers tale more or less follows The Viscount Who Loved Me. (There’s a dramatic departure in episode three from the book—but sorry, no spoilers.) “It’s a very beautiful love story,” says Ashley. “What’s even more beautiful about it is that they’re very good friends. They have great sportsmanship and partnership throughout the whole thing, and I feel like that’s what Johnny and I brought. When we were working together in the scenes, there was a partnership there.”
Ashley says she and Bailey didn’t hang out together outside the set—a new experience for the actor, who was accustomed to the dormlike environment of Sex Education. But because of COVID-19 restrictions, the cast had to be extremely careful to not test positive or it would affect the filming schedule. And so, Ashley says, she and Bailey would do their work separately and then play off each other in the moment.
“I trusted Johnny very quickly, and I felt very comfortable to be vulnerable in my character with him,” she says. “We have a lot of unspoken things between us, where we understood each other as actors and with what we wanted to create between these two characters. We’re just so enthusiastic to make this as magical and wonderful as possible.”
And don’t worry: There will be the kind of make-you-blush moments fans have come to expect from the series—and from Ashley, if you’ve been paying attention. But not all sex scenes are created equal. “Bridgerton is hot and sexy and steamy,” she says. “On Sex Education, that wasn’t really our objective. We wanted to show 16-year-olds or adults in the show having real sex and facing real-life problems and whatever might happen. Bridgerton’s more romantic than that.”
Ashley worked with intimacy coordinator Lizzy Talbot, and appreciated her emphasis on female pleasure. “I learned some stuff from her,” Ashley jokes. “Whatever the position might have been, she would say, ‘Well, let’s make sure that this is happening so that the woman comes as well.’” As for working with Bailey in those moments, “I felt very safe, especially in rehearsals. We always checked in with each other and treated it like a dance rehearsal, like choreography.”
Though Simone Ashley was born in Surrey, England, she says she really “grew up everywhere” and this lack of attachment to a definitive home base has been a constant throughout her life. She moved a lot as a kid, and long stays with her extended family in California were frequent. During the past few years, she’s mostly lived between London and Los Angeles. “I don’t think I’ve ever been in one place for over a year,” she says. “Every year, something changes—which can be exhausting but amazing.”
When I ask Ashley if moving around so much in her youth made it easier or harder to make new friends, she smiles. “Now I keep myself to myself a little bit more, but it got me in a lot of trouble actually—in good trouble.” Like the time she traveled to Indonesia on her own for “an Eat Pray Love trip” and took a ferry, a flight, and several hours of driving to meet up with a surfer in Sumbawa, only to discover she’d left her credit card in the ATM all the way back on the first island. Or the time she charmed her way to the front row of a Fleetwood Mac concert. When the security guards questioned whether she was in the right section, a total stranger—or new friend, depending on your outlook—next to her handed her a VIP ticket and said, “Don’t ask. Just take one.”
“I really liked going on adventures and hanging out with people,” Ashley says. “But now I’m a bit more content with myself and the amazing friends that I have. When I do have time, I guess I have to be more selective. When we have spare time, it should be around people that you can be yourself around and that you love.” For now, that free time does not include a romantic partner. She says she’s not dating at the moment—but “I’d like to.”
So, if it’s not a location, what does Ashley consider home? “I’m still figuring that out, to be honest,” she says. “I’d love to have my own family one day. I think that would be a sense of home for me.”
And besides, once her season of Bridgerton hits, Ashley’s life will only continue to change. She hopes to keep up the momentum and take advantage of the new platform she’ll be afforded. She’s put Sex Education in the rearview. (“I think my time on [the show] has come to an end. It’s very sad because I love them all so much.”) She’s athletic, so an action role would suit. She cites Uma Thurman in Kill Bill as a major inspiration. At the top of her list is a musical role, like Anne Hathaway’s in Les Misérables or Amy Adams’s in Enchanted. Ashley has been trained in classical music, opera, and musical theater, and she writes songs often. “I think if you can sing, you should use it,” she says.
Also important to Ashley: “I’m interested in culturally specific roles, but also very much so non-culturally specific ones. I want to go up for roles that anyone can relate to. I want to be seen for my talent. I think I’m very smart and I’ve got great ideas, and I want to be seen for that and not for how I look.”
She says she’s been offered “a lot of Bollywood stuff,” which isn’t really the trajectory she sees her career taking. “I said no to a lot of that because I want to change it up,” she says. “I want to take roles that maybe people wouldn’t expect me to play.”
As for Bridgerton, she’d like to return in future seasons, though the future of that remains unclear: “The special thing about Bridgerton is that each season is dedicated to a certain love story, but I think Kate and Anthony are such a fan favorite and an amazing duo together that a small appearance would be lovely.”
She’s also starting her own production company and is looking into developing her own projects. It doesn’t have an official name that she can announce—yet—but she’s filed the necessary paperwork. She says as soon as Bridgerton filming wrapped late last year, she was on a plane to Los Angeles for back-to-back meetings. “I love what Margot Robbie’s done with her career,” she says. “I love that she’s taken the driver’s wheel and set up her own production company, which I have done as well. I’m looking into developing things, taking baby steps, but I think it’s really exciting to be in a position where things are being put in front of you, but you’re given a microphone. You can grab it and create your own opportunities and turn up the volume on your voice.”
It seems Ashley knows the future is bright. “I’m still very young, so to be given that kind of power to breed my own opportunities and make things happen can feel a bit weird,” she says. “But this year onward, I’d like to keep my foot on the gas.
“My manager always says a wave is coming, and you can either get swallowed by it or you can get your surfboard out and ride it,” she says. “So I always think of it in that way—because it’s supposed to be fun, riding the wave.”
Author: Anna Moeslein
Published on March 10, 2021