Arsema Thomas had not seen the Netflix hit Bridgerton before submitting an audition tape to play young Lady Agatha Danbury in the prequel series, Queen Charlotte, while doing her masters in fine arts in London. But even without seeing the show that has captivated fans around the world, she knew she wanted the part.
“There was something interesting or different about this kind of storytelling, because it clearly grabs people,” says Thomas THR. “There was something about the fact that I’ve never seen a character written like that for a black woman before. If she supports the main story, she usually doesn’t have a 3D story of her own – she only exists in the realm of the protagonist. And to see this woman was so endearing, so mysterious – but in a way that didn’t diminish her complexity, but added to it in a beautiful way… I was like, ‘I want to be this woman when I grow up .’ ”
The prequel, made by Bridgerton producer Shonda Rhimes, delves into the rise of young Queen Charlotte (India Ria Amarteifio). Lady Danbury, whom Thomas calls a “mighty, strong, resilient woman,” is played by Adjoa Andoh in Bridgertonand Thomas says she worked with Andoh to create both the younger and older versions of the character, given that Queen Charlotte flashes back and forth between past and present Bridgerton universe. The 28-year-old actress also worked closely with 62-year-old Cyril Nri, who plays Lord Danbury, as well as intimacy coordinators for the sex scenes between Agatha and her character’s much older husband.
But there was much more to Thomas’s preparation of the character. Thomas is American but kept a British accent throughout all of her auditions. “Shonda didn’t know I was American until after three months of filming. She definitely thought I was British,” she says.
Thomas also interviewed her mother and grandmother prior to production. “Both are women who have been in extremely difficult situations and who are not bitter or resentful of the system, but rather understand that there is a purpose greater than their own comfort,” she says. “That’s something Agatha really takes advantage of. She is so driven by principles, by values and morality and ethics, and this idea of equality in its simplest form. That’s not something that comes naturally to me, so I had to appeal to the women in my life. She was also African by descent, and I wanted something that anchored her in that throughout the show.
Most of Thomas’ previous work was school plays, and she says those projects didn’t really prepare her for a nuanced role like Lady Danbury. “Those weren’t the most satisfying,” admits Thomas. “I feel like a lot of the drama schools I went to tend to overlook a lot of racial students, so I wasn’t really prepared to step into a role that so closely encapsulated my experience. I think that’s the beauty of a black female character written by a black woman herself.”
This story first appeared in a standalone May issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.