Speaking via the phone from London, Simone Ashley sounds out of breath. It soon becomes clear this is because, besides being a talented actor, she is a remarkable multitasker. Simone is juggling media interviews ahead of her role in season two of Bridgerton and a far more domestic duty. “I’m taking my dog for a walk through Hyde Park,” she admits, laughing.
It is just weeks away from the launch of one of the most anticipated follow-ups to a Netflix series, and possibly one of the last times the tall and striking Simone, who’s 26, will be able to walk through the popular park without being mobbed. Is she prepared for the fame that is about to be thrust upon her?
“This is the biggest role that I’ve had, so I can’t speak from experience,” she says. “I can only imagine nothing can really prepare you for it. But I try not to pay too much attention to that side of things.”
Judging by the hype around the upcoming Regency-era drama, though, it will be hard for Simone to ignore. This season is centred on her character, Kate Sharma, and Anthony Bridgerton (Jonathan Bailey).
Those familiar with the source books by Julia Quinn will know that Anthony initially sets his sights on Kate’s younger sister Edwina (Charithra Chandran). But when Kate decides Anthony is not worthy of her sister’s hand in marriage, he tries to win over the Sharma family. While Anthony and Kate initially clash heads, it’s not long before they develop feelings for each other.
Simone’s portrayal of the strong-willed (and happily single) Kate is sure to be a hit with fans. “Kate is a modern voice, a bit ahead of the time, compared to what women were going through in the 1800s,” agrees Simone. “She’s against what women needed to follow back then. She’s a bit of a rule-breaker and she’s a little bit awkward, which is what I really like about her. She doesn’t seem to fit in easily.”
So what does the more traditionally inclined Anthony see in her? “There’s something endearing about her that draws him to her. It is her honesty, it’s the fact she doesn’t go out to people-please and that she has an opinion.
“It doesn’t necessarily make her the most popular person in the room all the time; it makes her different, shy. But she’s so devoted to her little sister, and I think that’s something Anthony is drawn to as well.”
If you’re thinking Kate sounds like the polar opposite of Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor) – the “Diamond of the Season” (the best catch of all the ladies looking for a husband), and whose love story with Simon Basset, the Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page) dominated the first series – you’d be on the mark. But Simone is quick to point out the similarities between the two characters.
“The amazing thing about the show is that it does represent incredible, vulnerable and empowered women,” she says. “Daphne herself was an incredibly smart, intelligent portrayal of a powerful female even if she did initially start out as the “diamond”. In the end, we did see her become a mature woman.
“With Kate, it’s like the other way around. She’s quite hardcore, guarded, a bit frosty, a bit feisty. But there’s also strength in her vulnerability and in the end we might see her allow someone to come into her heart … let her guard down. I think being a strong, female character isn’t necessarily anything new, it’s just a new spin on it.”
Simone’s self-assured manner offers glimpses of her own Kate Sharma qualities. She, too, has had to overcome challenges to follow her life ambitions, which were beyond her family’s experiences.
Born in Surrey, England, to Tamil Indian parents, Latha and Gunasekharan Pillai, Simone (Ashley is her stage name) grew up in a family of academics, but was drawn to the creative arts. She studied at Redroofs Theatre School (famous alumni include Kate Winslet and Joanne Froggatt) before training in acting at The Arts Educational School London.
Her parents were apprehensive about her chosen profession. “They still find it quite scary and unsettling,” she told South Asian-culture website Veylex in 2019. “There is no crystal ball, no security, no guarantee. Which can be a parent’s worst nightmare. But they know I’m a smart lady.”
Early in her career, Simone picked up small parts in a number of TV series, such as Broadchurch and Casualty, before landing her breakthrough role in the 2019 Netflix hit, Sex Education. Although not one of the leads, her character Olivia Hanan, a member of the “Untouchables” (a group of impossibly cool teens) was a memorable one, and would help lead her to where she is today.
“I think Chris [van Dusen, Bridgerton’s showrunner] had seen me in Sex Education, and I think Johnny [Jonathan Bailey] and him had a few conversation and whispers about me,” she says. “I got a text from my manager at the end of January last year and he was like, ‘There’s this role that they’re interested in you for.’ ”
A flurry of events led to her landing the part. “It all happened in 14 days. I sent in the self-tapes, I had Zoom meetings and then I went to meet Johnny in person for a chemistry test. Then we met with (production company) Shondaland on Zoom.
“When I got the role, I was immediately in wig fittings and make-up tests, and horse-riding and accent training, and read-throughs and rehearsals. I didn’t really have a moment to be like, ‘Wow, this is happening.’ It’s only really now that I’m going, ‘Oh wow, my god, I got the job, this is really happening.’ It’s definitely been a whirlwind of a year.
“But that’s our job as actors: to get up super early and go to set, and do night shoots, and be in a bubble for months, and read scripts, and be in character, and not wear our own clothes every day. But the magic of all this is when you see the final product. That’s when the penny dropped for me. ‘Gosh, I was a part of this fairy tale and got to work with amazing people.’ ”
Now that Simone has caught her breath, how does she feel about this fairy tale being launched in front of a whopping worldwide audience? After all, the first season was streamed in 82 million households during its first month on Netflix, and quickly became its most-watched original series in 83 countries (it has since been beaten by Squid Game).
She says, casually, that it doesn’t really get her excited. “But of course I’m human, I’m not a robot, and I have some feelings about the millions of people that are about to see it! But just watching it, it was so beautiful and that’s what gave me the chills: to see what we’ve achieved.“
Nevertheless, Simone knows parts of her life will forever change, and she’s keen to maintain some privacy, especially when it comes to what she posts to her nearly 500,000 Instagram fans. “We’re in an age where we are all using social media in a quite unconscious way, and we are putting up things or engaging with things without asking ourselves, why are we doing this? What are we getting from this? Is it because we want validation? Likes? The attention?
“I feel like social media can inflate the narcissist in all of us. But I think I’ve got a good handle on that. It’s cool to have anonymity if you can.” And it definitely helps when dog-walking through Hyde Park.
Written by Genevieve Quigley
Published March 13, 2022