Bridgerton casting director Kelly Valentine Hendry details what it was like assembling the breakout ensemble of 2020 and casting a period costume drama with no limitations.
Last winter the cast of Bridgerton took the world by storm and quickly became one of the most popular Netflix shows to date. In a world where more and more shows are beginning to look like Blockbuster films, the immediate phenomenon for a Regency costume drama was even more surprising and all the more exciting because of it.
In large part that was due to the sprawling ensemble at the core of the drama that was filled with talented actors largely unknown to American audiences. Speaking with Awards Daily, casting director Kelly Valentine Hendry detailed her process of what it was like putting together the SAG-nominated ensemble: one that consisted of overnight sensations like Rege-Jean Page and Phoebe Dynevor; and character actors like Adjoa Andoh that commanded the screen in every scene they were in; and relative newcomers like Nicola Coughlan and Claudie Jessie who you can’t help but relate to.
Valentine Hendry also discussed what it was like bringing together the adored ensemble and how the material allowed her to tear down more traditional barriers in casting and find the group of actors that at the end of the day would tell the best story and excite audiences at a time when we needed it the most.
Awards Daily: From the very beginning Bridgerton was celebrated for being this Regency costume drama that utilized colorblind casting, which is something that while common in the UK, especially in theatre, is not as common here in the US. What were those initial conversations like when you and the creative team first met to discuss the vision of this world?
Kelly Valentine Hendry: We always knew this was going to be a reimagined version of history. To have those limitations lifted is a dream for any casting director. Like you said it’s something we have been doing in theatre over here for so long and we should be doing it in television and film as well.
When the producers and I first met, we never specifically talked about how Bridgerton would be a show that would be massively inclusive. Maybe that’s why they came to me as the casting director because I take pride in things like that and as casting directors we tend to have a lens on the world that is more inclusive, at least I would hope. They gave us the space to look for the best performers and we had the freedom to read anyone apart from a couple of roles that we knew we wanted a diverse actress.
AD: Overall, Bridgerton takes a lot of creative liberties, whether that be through colorblind casting or its more modern flourishes in the creative elements of the show. Did that give you the opportunity as a casting director to look for actors that stylistically might not seem like an obvious fit for a costume drama in terms of their own acting styles?
KVH: People have to realize that at the beginning we didn’t know what the show was going to look or sound like. We see early stages of scripts, and when we’re working with a collaborative group (and luckily we were) we have the power to change things and point out elements that might not work. So when we start casting we are going in blind and all we have to go off of is our own instincts.
Everyone that I brought in to read came from my own intuition of who might work. It also allowed me to consider the personalities of these people and who I was drawn to a and those were people that were funny and quick witted.
Overall, it took a little while to work it out. For example there was a division between the Bridgertons and the Featheringtons. We had a family that was important because of the beloved book series so we knew that Bridgertons, had to be perfect and the audience would need to love them flaws and all. The Featheringtons on the other hand were funny. They could be ridiculed but we would need to sympathize with them. So it felt natural that the comedy performers ended up being cast as the Featheringtons while the actors playing the Bridgertons were more known for straight dramatic roles. The one exception to the rule was Claudia Jessie (Eloise Bridgerton) who manages to bridge comedy and drama perfectly and that works so well for the show because Eloise is the bridge between the Bridgertons and the Featheringtons.
AD: The show features a massive breakout ensemble of actors who are well-known in the UK but for the most part are being introduced to American audiences for the first time. We also saw stars like Regé-Jean Page and Phoebe Dynevor become overnight sensations. What was that process like finding those two leads especially since a lot of the show relies on their immaculate chemistry?
KVH: I knew the second I saw them. We read hundreds of actors for each role from all over the world and the only thing we knew was that they had to have an English accent.
Phoebe we pulled out early on as a very strong possibility but when you’re looking for the lead of a show you always continue to look. We got quite close to filming and we knew that Phoebe was hands-down the best option. What she did better than anyone else was simply that she was perfect. She’s not threatening, she’s the type of beauty that men would want to marry. Most importantly she has this comic thread underlining everything and that’s so important because this role could easily be annoying. To the testament of her performance she made Daphne sparkle and she was the only person who pulled that off in their audition.
When it came to the Duke we read multiple actors that came very close to being cast. However, Regé became available at the last second because his show wasn’t picked up. We pulled him in immediately for a chemistry test with Phoebe in Los Angeles. When we saw that chemistry read, it was done. Nobody else even came close.
AD: One of my favorite performances of the season was Golda Rosheuvel’s interpretaion of Queen Charlotte who was tasked with portraying one of the only historical figures in the show. Did that change your approach at all in the casting process?
KVH: Golda has been known to me forever because she is an accomplished actress. She’s really cool and she’s an amazing singer. They HAVE to do Bridgerton The Musical. They could just use this brilliant cast and bring them to the West End.
When Golda read she had just finished filming Dune. She walked into the room exactly like Queen Charlotte, her eyes were half shut. After you see her version of Queen Charlotte there can be no other version. She’s so easy, so relaxed, and she knows her craft. She knows what to do with so little while wearing these ridiculous and incredible costumes. To be honest this was an incredibly easy process to cast this role because of her.
AD: Where did the idea come from to cast someone as iconic as Julie Andrews as the voice of Lady Whistledown?
KVH: Thank you for asking this! If I had looked at this show as another casting director I would have assumed the producers dealt with Lady Whistledown. The first thing I did when I joined the project was jot down a list of ideas for Lady Whistledown. Julie Andrews was on there and listen, it’s not going to be the most original idea but it’s by far the best idea. I can’t claim that I’m the only one that thought of this genius idea. Right away everyone loved the idea and the rest is history.
AD: Were there any other characters that were the most challenging for you to cast?
KVH: It’s amazing what we call the thorns in our sides in casting, and it’s always the smaller roles. We were lucky because everyone read for the roles. Casting actors who read make my job a heck of a lot easier because I don’t have to do the sale. I just have to take their tape to the creative team and let their work speak for itself.
Prince Friedrich was quite hard actually. We cast an actor named Freddie Stroma. Obviously, the character is supposed to be German and I pride myself in international casting. We don’t need someone to put on a fake accent, we are beyond that now. However, when Freddie Stroma read we knew we had to go for the best actor and it just so happened that he was British.
AD: Was there any character that was the most fun to cast?
KVH: I’m a huge fan of Polly Walker’s Portia Featherington. When we read her it was one of these moments in casting where I feel so proud. She came into that room and immediately took that role because of her skill.
Casting Kathryn Drysdale as Genevieve Delacroix was fun because I knew everyone was going to wonder why I cast a British person doing a French accent. But that’s the whole point! I knew it would cause confusion but as the season progressed it would click for audiences. Kathryn is someone with these incredible dramatic credits while also being incredibly funny. When the entire creative team came to London she is one of the few actors who actually got to meet with Chris, Julie Anne, and Betsy in the room. That was a great audition to witness.
AD: You’re already well into casting the second season. With the first season it seemed like a more traditional casting experience where you actually got to meet with actors in the room and hold actual chemistry sessions. With the second season I imagine that was an entirely different process where a majority of it was over Zoom. What was that like for you to shake up your process?
KVH: It’s not as hard as you would think. Actors have become incredibly adaptable to the situation and that’s a testament to their skills. At the end of the day, when we send auditions to the executives they already aren’t in the room; we were already sending them tapes to begin with and so far we haven’t gotten it wrong from not being in the room. If the actor’s skill is there we can see it on the screen and at the end of the day that is what the public sees as well. Instead of working with an actor in the room we’re able to see what their gut reaction to a character is in the self-tape and when they get it right it’s immediately clear.