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Regé-Jean Page On Redefining Regency-Era Masculinity In 'Bridgerton'

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

So I'm a huge fan of period romances, especially British ones, you know, set in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, which is why I devoured the new Netflix series "Bridgerton" from executive producer Shonda Rhimes. What's immediately different about this period drama is the cast. Racially diverse characters populate all classes of British society, including the highest echelons. And the most eligible bachelor in all of England is a Black man - the duke of Hastings, who's played by Rege-Jean Page.

REGE-JEAN PAGE: He is a tall, dark, handsome, brooding, thoroughly broken man who is struggling with issues of legacy and pride and trauma. And he takes a tumultuous episode to try and unpick that joyous ball of yarn.

CHANG: In other words, a classic leading man for this kind of material.

PAGE: I think he fits pretty well into the archetype of kind of, you know, the stoic, brooding...

CHANG: Mr. Darcy.

PAGE: ...Clint Eastwood type. He's very kind of, you know, Darcy, Heathcliff. Like, all these men...

CHANG: Yeah.

PAGE: ...Are hugely emotionally stunted. And that generally tends to be their redemption arc - kind of trying to find their way through that.

CHANG: Absolutely, absolutely - though, you know, one of the most striking things about the duke from the very outset is, of course, the fact that he is Black. Tell me; what do you think that achieves when audiences take in a diverse cast like this?

PAGE: Well, I think it's incredibly important that when we are indulging ourselves in these kind of great, big Cinderella fantasies, that everyone gets to see themselves as worthy of status and glamour and love and redemption. And being the protagonist in these stories and being the protagonist in these settings where you can see yourself as rich, attractive and admirable is important for absolutely everyone.

CHANG: And yet the story is not completely colorblind, right? Like, I want to talk about one of the few moments in the show where race is directly addressed. There's this conversation between your character and Lady Danbury, who's, like, kind of a mother figure to Simon, the duke. And she seems to be suggesting to him that the king and the queen's interracial marriage is this huge step forward for Black people.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BRIDGERTON")

ADJOA ANDOH: (As Lady Danbury) We were two separate societies divided by color until a king fell in love with one of us. Love, your grace, conquers all.

PAGE: (As Simon Basset) I believe that remains to be seen.

CHANG: I'm curious. How important did that scene feel to you in shaping this character for the duke?

PAGE: I think in the earliest of our conversations and kind of going on through developing the production, Chris Van Dusen and I talked about...

CHANG: Chris Van Dusen - he's a showrunner.

PAGE: ...Talked about the opportunity to spotlight Black joy in a period drama, which is relatively unheard of...

CHANG: Right.

PAGE: ...And revolutionary in itself, whilst respecting our experience. And I think that that's part of what this conversation is. It's very familiar to any people of color watching the show - the conversation of twice as hard for half as much, you know? And so I think it's nice to see parts of your experience reflected within that wider arc of a love story.

CHANG: You know, another thing that made Simon Basset, the duke, quite different from other Regency-era romantic leads - and perhaps what ultimately makes him a modern character - is that even though he is a man struggling with his demons, he seems vulnerable. There's something different about his masculinity than you see in many male leads in other historical romances. They don't seem to wear their pain the way that Simon does. Can you talk about that?

PAGE: Well, I think it was important to me from early on. I kind of made the decision that I didn't want to lionize the brokenness of men in that type. I didn't kind of want to do any more damage in that sense. I kind of wanted to try and continue in the tradition that Shondaland is very good of - bringing in 21st century perspectives to whatever it is they're doing and try and kind of, you know, put some vitamins into pop culture.

And so I was like, well, where are we at with discussing masculinity? How can I contribute to something of a feminist lens to this while examining the male hero in this story? And I thought that part of that is bringing in this conversation that we have contemporarily of masculine vulnerability and where the strength in that lies and where the redemption in that lies and where - what's appealing about that in a romantic hero and what we're looking for in our lovers in the 21st century.

CHANG: That's so interesting. What do you mean about the feminist lens into masculinity? Where do you think that is reflected in this series to you?

PAGE: I think it's - we're at a point in history where kind of since you had Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Mary Shelley start writing these books that we've kind of adapted into the genre of the period drama, we've had, like - what? - four or five waves of feminism since then. And the genre on television appears has stood fairly still. And so we kind of wanted to see what we could do to advance that in the lens of the show. I think we're at a point in history where, generally, people consider themselves to be feminists in the sense that we believe in the equality of the sexes. And so how can we bring that agenda into the editorial stance of the show? And for my part, that's in the male romantic lead. And so...

CHANG: Yeah.

PAGE: I kind of tried to find my lane and do my part.

CHANG: There was a lot that I'm sure audiences could relate to watching the way Simon the duke was struggling to relate with Daphne, the woman who eventually becomes his wife. And I was wondering if there was any particular scene, as they were figuring out how to have a healthy, sustainable marriage - if there was any particular scene that spoke to you personally.

PAGE: I think in that sense, it reminds me of every relationship I've ever had. I think it's figuring out how to make sure that the people in the relationship are collaborators, figuring out how to make both people protagonists in a relationship and how that needs compromise.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BRIDGERTON")

PAGE: (As Simon Basset) I do not want to be alone. I know that now. And what I do not know is how to be the man you need me to be, the man you truly deserve. I do not know how to do this.

PHOEBE DYNEVOR: (As Daphne Bridgerton) Yes, you do.

PAGE: (As Simon Basset) Daphne...

DYNEVOR: (As Daphne Bridgerton) I know you do. You stay.

CHANG: So what do you want audiences ultimately to learn or to take away from the duke of Hastings' story?

PAGE: Precisely that.

CHANG: Yeah.

PAGE: That there is always a place to listen and evolve and grow; that there is more than one type of strength; that a lot of the time, exerting strength and dominance - which Simon, I think, starts from - can in fact be what's holding you back, what's making you weaker. And I think that figuring out how to open the doors in yourself that make you worthy of love and capable of giving love is that ongoing conversation that I was most interested in exploring.

CHANG: Rege-Jean Page stars in the new Netflix series "Bridgerton." It is out now.

Thank you so much for sharing your time with us.

PAGE: Sure. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF RYUICHI SAKAMOTO'S "AMORE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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