When Simone Ashley first learned that the second season of "Bridgerton" broke Netflix’s single-week record for most viewed English language series, she initially had a moment of happy disbelief that so many viewers were connecting to her character Kate Sharma.
“It means so much to me that people are responding to her. She isn’t the typical heroine. I think she’s a beautifully flawed, self-realized character,” Ashley told NBC Asian America. “And that’s the kind of a heroine that I wanted to project out into the world for other women to see.”
Since "Bridgerton" introduced viewers to the Indian half-sisters Kate and Edwina Sharma last month, fans have been buzzing about the strong lead performances by Ashley and Charithra Chandran (who plays Edwina) and the South Asian cultural touchstones scattered throughout the season’s eight episodes.
Loosely based on the 2000 Julia Quinn novel “The Viscount Who Loved Me,” the new season tells the story of Kate Sharma, a young, independent woman who is determined to launch her beautiful and charming half-sister Edwina into society. But when the sisters meet the Viscount Anthony Bridgerton (Jonathan Bailey), Kate’s carefully orchestrated plan begins to unravel — and she and the Viscount find themselves getting closer and closer.
Kate “doesn’t have it easy. She’s not the debutante of the season — she’s not this diamond that can catch all of these suitors,” said Ashley. “She really puts herself behind and puts other people first. And she constantly has this battle between duty and heart. I’m just glad that people are rooting for her.”
Like the first season of "Bridgerton" in 2021, the new episodes center a multicultural cast and take a somewhat race-blind approach to the original source material, with the show changing Kate’s original last name of Sheffield to Sharma and noting that the Sharma’s late father worked for an Indian royal.
While both seasons have generated lots of discussions among viewers and online about the show’s casting decisions, both Hollywood and the British entertainment industry have slowly begun to cast actors of color in historical dramas in recent years, with Dev Patel’s star turn in 2020’s "The Personal History of David Copperfield" and the 2019 BBC adaptation of "Les Miserables," featuring David Oyelowo and Adeel Akhtar, as two prominent examples. But despite those small gains, being asked to read for a historical drama can still be a rare event for actors of color.
“This was the first time I had done a period romance,” said Ashley. “It all happened so fast, getting the role and then suddenly being on set. So I was very engrossed in bringing this character to life.”
Ashley clearly recalls the moment she glimpsed herself and Chandran in character on set and the emotions that were stirred up. “It wasn’t until I started seeing the monitors and the shots of me and Charithra on screen and it was two dark-skinned Indian women, two Tamil women on screen,” she said. “That was when I was like, ‘Whoa, this is happening.’”
That moment was particularly poignant given the role that costume dramas have had on British pop culture for decades. “I would watch 'Pride and Prejudice' and similar period dramas,” Ashley recalled. “But I never really imagined myself being in one, let alone one like 'Bridgerton,' which is set in 19th century London.”
Being cast as Edwina was also particularly poignant for Ashley’s co-star Chandran, because of her family’s love of historical dramas. “My mom loves them. The Colin Firth ‘Pride and Prejudice’ was one of the first things she connected with when she emigrated to the U.K,” Chandran, whose parents were both born in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, explained. “She passed that love down to me, it’s truly a dream come true.”
Kate and Edwina’s backstory as two young women new to London also felt personal and immediate. “The thing about the Sharmas is they are immigrants. They are from India,” Chandran noted. “They’re not just brown. They’re from a different culture. So it was wonderful to be able to reflect that in some of the things the sisters do together.”
Both Ashley and Chandran also say that they drew on their own family relationships to portray the strong sisterly bond between Kate and Edwina. “I have lots of cousins I’m very close to and generally I’d say my family is very much matriarchy,” Chandran said. “So it was pretty easy to kind of step into that world.”
Ashley also focused on her familial relationships and her instant bond with the co-star who plays her half-sister. “I don’t have sisters. But I’m very close with my own mother. And with Charithra, it’s hard to not fall in love with her and want to be there for her. She has such an amazing energy,” said Ashley. “As much as we talk about the relationship between Kate and Anthony, to me one of the deepest love stories was her relationship with Edwina and how it grows and changes.”