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‘Bridgerton’ star Simone Ashley on Kate Sharma’s humanity and representation

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Simone Ashley has always been a fan of the romance genre, but before being cast as Kate Sharma in “Bridgerton,” playing the lead in a period drama seemed improbable to her. “I never imagined that a woman who looked like me could be a part of one,” she says. In this episode of “The Envelope” podcast, Ashley discusses embracing the political aspects of her career, how acting on “Sex Education” prepared her for “Bridgerton” and how her upbringing taught her to be dream big.

Yvonne Villareal: Mark. It’s finally the moment we’ve reached the “Bridgerton” episode of our season, because we can’t talk about TV without acknowledging the much-anticipated return of Netflix’s popular period drama. Does it mean anything to you when I say you are the bane of my existence?

Mark Olsen: Well, I hope that you’re quoting something.

Yvonne Villareal: Look, I’ve already seen the season about three times for work, I swear. But we’re going to have to schedule a viewing party, clearly.

Mark Olsen: Yeah, I’ll, I’ll check my calendar.

Villareal: OK, fine. But in the meantime, let me get you up to speed. So the show is based on Julia Quinn’s popular Regency-era romance novels. And after a triumphant debut that had fans obsessing, I can’t stress that enough for Mark, obsessing over the love story between socialite Daphne Bridgerton and the brooding Duke of Hastings. The series shifted its steamy focus in season two to Daphne’s eldest brother, Anthony, played by Jonathan Bailey. And he’s navigating his reluctant feelings for a new woman in town, Kate Sharma, played by Simone Ashley.

[Clip from “Bridgerton”: KATE: Tell me, what has she done? ANTHONY: She has done nothing. It is you. You have made this much impossible. KATE: But I am leaving for India. ANTHONY: And just not far enough. Do you think that there is a corner of this earth that you could travel to far away enough to free me from this torment? I am a gentleman.]

Villareal: It’s very much got that enemies-to-lovers vibe. You know, Anthony first sets his sights on Kate’s endearing younger sister but really finds himself pulled to Kate’s forces. Kate is witty and headstrong and focused on her family’s needs more than her own, and he can’t help but be smitten by it. And the tension becomes really, really palpable.

Olsen: OK, now, now, I think you’re selling me on this. [laughs]

Villareal: Well, you’ll hear all about it in today’s interview with Simone Ashley. She joined me to talk about onscreen representation, getting acclimated to “Bridgerton” mania after starring in “Sex Education” and what she wants to see next for Kate and Anthony. But first, she walked me through the very important work of building that smoldering chemistry with Jonathan Bailey.

Villareal: Hi, Simone. Thanks so much for joining us.

Ashley: Hi. Of course. Thank you for having me.

Villareal: So let’s dig into “Bridgerton” a little more deeply. The chemistry in this season’s central romance is so crucial to the magic of the series, and Kate and Anthony have a completely different kind of love story. The psychological intimacy is much different. So tell me, like, what the chemistry test was like between you and Jonathan? It must be, I would imagine, such a weird thing to essentially have a job interview where executives decide if they think audiences will want to watch you two yearn for each other. How do you remember that, that experience?

Ashley: I remember I did a few self-tapes and before I knew it, I went to Oxford Studios to do a chemistry test with Jonny and it was very like we were just in a little room and we were sat next to each other and we had Shondaland on Zoom and the audition camera on us, and we just did a few scenes together. And chemistry is such a funny one to articulate because what really is it? But I think Jonny and I, he for one, is an incredibly generous actor, so it was effortless to react off him and work with him. And he’s obviously gorgeous inside and out and very emotionally intelligent. And I think we both really had a deep and parallel understanding of our characters and what they wanted and what we wanted to bring to this relationship. I just remember in the chemistry read really feeling it and I really believed it and it gave me such confidence.

Villareal: What were the scenes you guys had to do?

Ashley: We had to do the horse-riding scene from episode one where Kate and Anthony first meet, and then we did a scene from the library where Kate’s up at night and there’s a thunderstorm, and he comes in and they both discover like, oh, your father died as well. Like, I share that memory and that feeling.

[Clip from “Bridgerton”: ANTHONY: Here is my father’s library. His books were some of his most treasured possessions. KATE: How did he die? ANTHONY: He was stung by a bee. KATE: My lord, I am so sorry. ANTHONY: To see a great man felled by such a small creature. … It was … it was humbling, still is.]

Ashley: And there was a third scene, I think it was from the races, where Kate kind of educates him and shuts down on like why that horse is going to win and places her bet. And it was odd because we were just sat on chairs next to each other. We weren’t on the horses. So it was just very stripped down and it was all about just the eye contact and us reacting off one another.

Villareal: Were you a fan of the romance genre or even period dramas? Like I feel like I’ve waited my whole life to get a call about joining something like “Bridgerton.”

Ashley: Oh really? [laughs]

Villareal: With the amount of times I’ve watched “Pride and Prejudice” or “Emma,” were those things that were on your radar before, or was this a new world to you?

Ashley: They were on my radar. The romance genre, definitely. I’m such a romantic, and I love romance, and I love when it’s very poetically portrayed in movies like “Pride and Prejudice.” Period dramas, I think honestly, not so much, purely because I never imagined that a woman who looked like me could be a part of one. And then “Bridgerton” came along and completely changed my mind and changed the whole narrative as to who we can see in these dramas.

Villareal: Well, both the book series and the Netflix drama have a big and loyal following, and we saw what a phenomenon the first season became and the way it propelled its leading couple to notoriety. So I’m curious, for you, what was that like walking into?

Ashley: Honestly, I didn’t really address or even experience that change of notoriety and how big this show was until it started premiering, until we started doing press for it. My process of getting the role was very, very fast. It was within two weeks, and then we were like straight into rehearsals or horse riding, training or fittings and filming. So I was very out of my head and very invested in the characters, relationships and the writing. Everyone would say the safest place that they felt was being back on set because it’s away from all the noise and it’s very simple. We’re just together creating something, working together, being actors, being creatives and that’s how I felt whilst filming the season, even if I was a new member as part of this cast.

Villareal: So when you’re not on set and you’re getting a sense of that noise, I mean, what’s that like? Because some actors struggle with the media intrusion that comes with their rising profile. How has it been for you, that transition and adjusting to it?

Ashley: I think it’s a journey, and I think it’s one that you can only really understand whilst you are experiencing it. I’m incredibly grateful for the warm response that we’ve all received from the fans, from young women, from young Indian women who have seen themselves represented onscreen. I think it was two parts for me. One being, I think for a long time I was like, I want to normalize this. I want to normalize the fact I’m a dark-skinned woman playing a romantic lead. I want to be taken seriously as an actress. But then it was also surrendering to the fact that, yeah, we’re still on this journey of normalizing these things, and I’m a part of that movement and I have to own that. And I am somewhat of a political statement, and that’s a positive thing. And then, um, and I found, I found it very liberating surrendering to that, and I’m very proud of it. And the second half of it, I guess, is I, you know, I was the youngest sibling. I always looked up to my peers, and the majority of my career has been auditioning and trying to get my breakthrough role, exploring myself as an artist. And now I have a platform and like a louder microphone than ever before. Because of “Bridgerton,” I really learn that I am representing young women and I can influence young women. And it’s a really nice feeling.

Villareal: Let’s dive into Kate for a bit. She’s this feminist character who is very independent and headstrong and is outwardly unapologetic about being single at a certain age.

[Clip from “Bridgerton”: ANTHONY: I was wondering if we’d meet again. KATE: So you might discern if my wit is acceptable, my manners genteel. ANTHONY: You were eavesdropping. KATE: It was hardly an effort, seeing as you were proclaiming your many requirements for a wife loud enough for the entire party to hear. ANTHONY: You take issue with my requirements? KATE: I take issue with any man who views women merely as chattels and breeding stock! ANTHONY None of that was meant… KATE: For Viscount Bridgerton, yes? When you manage…]

Villareal: As you mentioned, she’s someone that does yearn for love and she’s also someone who feels responsible, you know, for taking care of her family and is, you know, somewhat tormented by the pressures of the time that she’s living in. So for you, like, what about today’s culture helped you understand Kate’s in the world she was living in?

Ashley: I think what I loved about Kate when I first started reading the scripts was how honest to herself she was. I mean, that’s debatable because obviously within the story, she isn’t honest with her true feelings for Anthony, but I think she was honest in the sense of what her values were and she wasn’t interested in the playboy or in the hot guy on the street that all the girls want. I think she ran much deeper than that, and she wanted something with much more value. And she was very dedicated to her family. I think she’s a little bit sassy in that sense, because I think she knows her worth. She knows that she is incredibly smart, that she is observant, that she doesn’t have to be performative, that she’s very self-realized and can keep her cards to her chest. And I like people with that sense of mystery, because I think you have to earn the trust to get there. And I think that’s what we’re seeing in society today. Women who are very self-realized and know what they want are being so celebrated now. And I think that’s what’s amazing about this show is, even though it’s set in the 18th century, it’s voicing what’s happening in modern society now. And I think there’s a line, Eloise says that in one of the episodes, she says, what if I want to fly? What if I don’t want to marry and do all this stuff? What if I want to fly?

[Clip from “Bridgerton”: ELOISE: Why must our only options be to squawk and settle or to never leave the nest? What if I want to fly? You know who is flying? Lady Whistledown. She is up in the sky. A brilliant woman in business who fools the entire town whilst pocketing their money. Imagine the life she must lead, independence.]

Ashley: And I remember reading that and watching onscreen, and I think that was sad for all the women in the show, all the characters, and also women in today’s society, because I think that’s the narrative now. Women are saying no if they don’t want to. Women are saying, yes, yes, I can if they know that they can. And it is wing-spreading and it’s so liberating. And that’s what I loved about Kate. And I also love that she wasn’t perfect. I think the strong female lead is an amazing thing and it’s normalized now, I’d like to think it’s happening more often. I think what’s amazing about Kate, she was humanized and she’s not always perfect and strong. She makes mistakes. She is vulnerable. She is on a journey. I liked portraying that because I think that’s something in today’s society that I think we can get lost in being so headstrong when I think having that emotional intelligence and connection to what’s happening here in your heart, you know, it’s just as powerful. Because Kate, she doesn’t do all the music lessons like the other debutantes or read all the books or know all the languages, but she has such a strong emotional intuition and heart. And that’s what I loved about her. And that’s kind of what I want to portray to our modern-day audience.

Villareal: Tell me what you have come to understand about both what goes into playing a romantic lead but also what you’re interested in playing in a romantic lead or what you’re interested in expanding the portrayal that we see onscreen.

Ashley: I liked that Kate, it took a minute for us to earn her trust and for us to figure out her story. And I think as a romantic lead, I liked that it was a slow burn, even with Kate on her own and together with Anthony, to understanding who this woman was and what she wants, what she’s doing, a part of the society. And in a world like “Bridgerton,” where different characters are finding their romance. Kate, it was kind of a bit of a question mark. How does a woman and a character like this, who comes in very hot, how does she end up surrendering to love and finding her love? When do we see her happy moment? And I loved that factor of playing it and playing her as a romantic lead. To be honest, I think as a dark-skinned woman playing the romantic lead, that was amazing for me, because I do think dark-skinned women are beautiful and they are the object of everyone’s desires and they are deserving of love and they are romantic and they are for a better word, sexy and endearing and all of those things that all of us feel and deserve. So that was incredibly empowering to play. And also to not do it in a performative way. It wasn’t on the nose. It wasn’t, you know, written out in every scene that this is who she was. She was just normalized. And I feel like many women of different heritages can relate to her. And I just wanted the smart, self-realized woman to get her love as well and to not be seen as a negative connotation or something difficult or all of those things that all of us women have heard. I wanted people to really root for her and to understand her journey. And yeah, I want to see more women that look like me as the romantic lead.

Villareal: You know, the Kate character in the book was originally written as white. Did you worry that they would cast you as a South Asian woman but make you like a stereotypical white character?

Ashley: No. I mean, for one, this narrative wasn’t put into the the season that we saw. But I remember one of the audition sides that was a storyline that very much was about Kate’s heritage and her background and her history. And we saw a few flashbacks, and it was all exploring Kate’s time in India. And as soon as I read that, I was like, OK, cool. Like, we’re really going to acknowledge that this is, you know, a conscious casting of an Indian woman in the show. And so that gave me confidence. But also, as soon as I was in the costume fittings and the makeup tests and the wig fittings, there were so many different nuances and influences from Indian culture. The jewel tones, the jewelry, the Haldi scene, which was just incredible, to bring that to screen. The makeup, the hair. And I had a voice in it as well. Whenever I was like, oh, you know, Kate thinks she might be going back to India at this point, maybe we should have her hair more of an Indian kind of way. And Shonda took it on board and listens to me. And so I wasn’t worried. I was very, I’m very grateful to have entered this production with that much confidence. And to be honest, I think I wouldn’t have allowed myself to have been a part of something where I felt a slight insecurity in that sentence.

Villareal: A third season of “Bridgerton” has been confirmed, and we know that the sort of central couple or relationship will be Penelope and Colin, but where would you like to see Kate and Anthony’s story go from here? Are there aspects you want to delve deeper into now that you know the fairy-tale union is behind them?

Ashley: Yeah. So on a more lighthearted note, I definitely want to see Kate and Anthony really enjoy their love story. I think there was a lot of drama in season two and a lot of, you know, a time where they could have just let go and be in love with one another in their honeymoon period, so to speak. So I’m excited to see that and to see them be more playful and to be in love and to be, you know, now I call you man and woman destined to be together, husband and wife. I think in season two you see Kate quite isolated and she’s quite afraid to depend on others and to ask for help. So I want to see her more in a sense of community and family, and I would love to see her and Anthony have a baby. That’d be the cherry on top.

Villareal: When do you start production?

Ashley: At the end of the month, so end of June.

Villareal: When you’re in this whirlwind, has there been much time for you to sort of sit with yourself and think about what you want to do with this voice that you’ve developed?

Ashley: I’ve always looked up to a lot of actresses that have taken control of their careers. For example, Margot Robbie or Zendaya. And they’re producing and creating their own projects. And I want to do that. And it’s not really a daydream anymore. When I got this role and this opportunity and this platform, I set up a production company whilst we were filming last year. I said to myself, I want to do those things. I don’t want to wait for the perfect project to land in my lap. I think I’m smart and I’ve got creative ideas and I can bring people together and bring ideas together and, you know, many different kind of projects that I want to be a part of in so many different genres. And I sing quite a lot, so I’ve always wanted to use my voice, whether it’s in storytelling, in a musical movie or something that’s more athletic, like an action film or something that’s a completely different character that no one’s ever really seen me in before. All of those things.

But also, as I was saying, like, it’s not just being an actress. So I do want to be a part of this movement of change of what we see onscreen and in the industry and, you know, studios and corporations, yes, they have the power to help these projects come to life. But who’s actually driving that? And it’s the people of the world. It’s what people want to see, what people want to pay money towards or what people are invested in. And I think as soon as that clicked in my head and I understood that, I just wanted to do everything. Whether it’s start up my own makeup line for dark-skinned women, or I have such a deep love for fashion and expressing myself in that way and collaborations in that way, or music or storytelling, producing a film, I think the possibilities can be endless if you really let it be and if you put the hard work in. So when I’m not filming or I’m not in the middle of a project, I’m always thinking of other things I want to do.

Villareal: Well, when you’re a 27-year-old woman in entertainment, you have to worry about how women react to you, how men react to you, how studio executives react to you. For you, sort of coming to learn that, how has that made you think about what you want to do with something like your production company or how you want to ensure that you’re moving in the right direction or in a direction that is comfortable for you and will be comfortable for others?

Ashley: I think of two things when you ask that question and the first one is, it’s less of worrying what people think about me, I’ve learned, because it isn’t really about me. When you’re in this industry and you have notoriety, for example, what “Bridgerton” has given me, you are the source of many different conversations, depending who you are. So for me, a woman of color, it can be conversations on feminism or misogyny or racism or colorism or diversity or, you know, anything that’s surrounding a young woman. So anything that I do that might move the needle and people have an opinion on it, I really understood that it’s not really about me personally, so to speak, not all the time, anyway. It’s about the conversations surrounding what it means to be a part of all of this, if that makes sense.

And the other half of it is, I just want to relate to people. I think there is something deeper than superficialities like race. There’s something deeper than race that connects us, for example. And I want to create things that people can see themselves in no matter what they look like, how old they are, what gender they are, where they come from, how they were raised. It’s all a feeling and people remember how you make them feel. People remember a feeling after coming out of the movie theater or watching a series. And that’s the only way that I can really translate it. I want to be able to relate to people, to have that sense of community with the fans watching or the world watching. And that’s what makes me happy when I wake up and go to work. That’s why I want to do it.

Villareal: When you’re starting out, there’s this pressure to try to fit in and not necessarily embrace what makes you different. But for you, when did you feel like, OK, I want to play characters that explicitly have Indian heritage. Like, how long before you felt like, this doesn’t pigeonhole me. It makes me feel seen and I want more of it.

Ashley: Yeah, I think it is a journey and I think it’s something that I’m 27 and I’m still very young and I feel like every three months I’m growing and changing and learning so much more about myself and my position in this industry, especially since the show coming out. I think a few different things I can think of, one being I think accepting the fact that being a woman of color onscreen is a political statement. I think it was Mindy Kaling that originally said that, and I do reference that a lot because it was a penny-drop moment for me, because for so long I wrestled with, I want to be seen as an actress. I want to be taken seriously. I don’t want to only go for culturally specific roles. I want to do everything, I want to play loads of different characters. I want to do all these different things and I can still have that. But then it was also owning it and being like, well, yeah, I’m a part of this movement and I’ve got so much ability in me to help make a change and to do what I want with my career. It’s a good thing. It’s not something to wrestle with and to run away from.

I think all the opportunities surrounding “Bridgerton” and that come with being in a show like this, all the press we’ve had to do, the red carpets I’ve had to do, I have such a deep passion for fashion and makeup and, you know, it’s such a joy to step out as a dark-skinned woman and have my skin out, to look red-carpet ready and to feel as bright as the other women that I’ve looked up to in all of my time and career as an actress. It’s fun. It’s your crown moment. It’s been a journey. And I’d like to think the more that I’ve understood and owned myself and the more my self-belief develops, it just is more and more fun. But it’s hard work. And I think when you put the work in, then you can really enjoy it.

Yvonne Villareal: Have you been able to connect with Mindy? I obviously see the sort of words of encouragement she leaves on your Instagram, but, you know, she knows what it’s like when you have all this attention on you and people are sort of treating you like the representative of South Asian actresses. Did she give you any advice on how to handle that, or how have you come to learn how to handle sort of being considered the voice embracing that while also sort of reminding people, you’re one person, you don’t represent everyone?

Ashley: Yeah. I mean, that’s great advice. Thank you. I haven’t had a one-to-one with Mindy. I am scheduled to be speaking with her soon, which I’m very excited about. I bumped into her before events and it was, yeah, like words didn’t really have to be said. I was just like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe we’re finally meeting” and gave her a massive hug. And, you know, Mindy’s her own person and I, for one, wouldn’t want to put pressure on her to be like, “Oh, my God, you look like me, like you have all the answers! Tell me everything you know!” Because I’m sure she was on the same journey, but ultimately I would love to work with her. I think she’s an incredible writer, producer, actress. I love everything that she’s been doing from “Never Have I Ever” to “The Mindy Project” to “Late Night.” So, yeah, that would be a dream to do something with her because I think regardless of being two South Indian women, I think just as two creatives, I think we could make something quite special.

Villareal: Before “Bridgerton,” you were already part of the Netflix family with your role in “Sex Education.” You play Olivia, one of the most popular teens at Mooredale Secondary, and you were working steadily before that, but what was going on in your life when that role sort of came anyway?

Ashley: So “Sex Education,” it was like perfect for me because I was a series regular on the show and oh, I have the best memories filming that show. I was on that for nearly three and a half years. We were filming in Wales and it was an incredibly special cast because we all kind of grew up together. It was, for the majority of us, our first big job on a big Netflix series. We were just stepping into this industry and we all grew together over the seasons. It is such a diverse cast with such diverse voices, but we still just all related to one another and became very close friends. And I was living in London and working on “Sex Education,” and I think it was quite an innocent time in my life, really. I was a budding artist as I am now, but I was doing things that I probably can’t do now, and I had much more anonymity with that show, and I was working really hard for my next thing.

Villareal: How did your parents react?

Ashley: To “Sex Education”?

Villareal: Yeah.

Simone Ashley: They loved it. I mean, we just don’t speak about it. We don’t speak about all the embarrassing stuff.

Yvonne Villareal: Yeah.

[Clip from “Sex Education”: ERIC: Vomiting. OLIVIA: Yeah, I puked on his dick, all right. He says I shouldn’t give BJ’s anymore, but if I don’t go down on him that he won’t go down on me. So what do I do? What do I do? ERIC: Well, human sexuality is far more varied than you might realize. And each person has a history of unique experiences which translates into their connection with a chosen sexual partner, or indeed partners. OLIVIA: What?]

Ashley: I think some parents might acknowledge it and make a joke about it, but I think my parents got it and they were just so happy for me and very supportive and proud of me. And I think everyone loves that show. It’s so funny. The performances are amazing. I’m so proud of my cast in it. So yeah, my parents didn’t, they didn’t really comment on the, on the weird stuff. On the embarrassing stuff.

Villareal: Your bubble-gum skills are unmatched, I have to say, though.

Ashley: Thank you. Yeah, that was an idea that was inspired from Roller Girl in “Boogie Nights.” I love that movie. And in season one, I remember saying to Ben [Taylor,] our director and exec producer, let’s give something preppy and very John Hughes to Olivia. And obviously I wasn’t able to just rollerblade on set all the time. So I thought of bubble gum and yeah, I remember buying a whole packet of bubble gum on the way to set, and I put it in and I was like, Look how big I can blow a bubble, and then cut to spending six to eight months of the year for three years, just chewing bubble gum all day on set and blowing massive bubbles. Yeah. Oh, and it’s funny when you’re in, it is like a part of the work. But now I’ve got distance from it and it’s out and I watch. I’m like, Yeah, that was an important part of the character.

Villareal: I would imagine simulating sex onscreen is maybe one of the most difficult aspects of your job. In what ways did “Sex Education” help your comfort level with performing intimate scenes?

Ashley: It really kind of stripped it to the basics of what it is to simulate a scene. And it was such a great platform moving forward in my career, like for shows like “Bridgerton” where there are a lot of intimate scenes. In “Sex Education,” we had like a sex intimacy workshop where we completely broke the ice and you know, anything that was said, it was the most embarrassing or the most vulnerable, but it was a safe, intimate space. And we explored the movement of different animals to kind of portray different paces or different sexualities or how sensual something could be. For example, we look to how snails mate, and when snails mate, they actually produce a plasma that intertwines. So if it was a really sensual, slow kind of scene, we’d be like, oh, it’s like the snail. And it’s super like the plasma, like falling like honey. So we would make it about that or how dogs mate or chimpanzees mate. It’s very like fast-paced and a different kind of style. So this kind of scene, we’re going to make it very funny and quirky and just like silly and like, let’s think of like, this animal. So we would kind of focus on the other things around and then treat it like a dance and make it very character-driven. And the great thing in “Sex Education” was we had amazing intimacy coordinators and also were portraying 16-year-olds. It’s that kind of scene, that experience. Weird things that happen in these spaces. Yeah. Awkward, embarrassing, but also very normal. And I think it just gave us all, like, the practice and experience of how to be professional on a set like that. And you learn that you know, as well as you’re making sure that you’re protected and feel safe. You’re doing the same for whoever you’re working with, and your co-star and you really have to trust one another. And I definitely found that within “Bridgerton.”

Villareal: Yeah, I was curious how it was to sort of develop your voice to express any concerns you might have before a scene, or , make sure your comfort level was being considered. Did you find that it came easily because of this?

Ashley: Yeah, I think so. And I think I’ve always been quite confident in that sense and both my sexuality and speaking up in a professional environment about what I need. And we were very heard and taken care of on “Bridgerton,” even on “Sex Education,” we had rehearsals and conversations. But for “Bridgerton,” I remember we set up a Zoom with Jonny and I and the director and our intimacy coordinator, and we wanted to find out what makes sense for the scene, what isn’t performative, what’s truthful, what’s authentic. All these different ideas and then you get excited about it. Then we do have the conversations of no, I’m not really comfortable with that, feels a bit vulnerable for me, can we make sure that this is in place? Or, yep, I’m down for that, actually, can we have more of this because I think it’s great for my character. So you just have that conversation. It’s a team effort. So, yeah, I felt very comfortable and very confident and safe.

Villarreal: I want to talk about your own teenage years now for a little bit. Like you took an interest in musical theater, but then pivoted to screen acting. When you made the switch, how did you hope your career would unfold or what expectations did you have of how your career would unfold?

Ashley: I’ve always had a very scary sense of no doubt. I never for a second doubted anything. I always resonated with the movies and the performances that I watched and was just like, I want to do this, and I think I have what it takes and for the right reasons. I think that I can pick up a script and have creative ideas. I think I’m very musically inspired and that helps me with my work and I just went for it. I started out when I was like 17 and I was like, well, you’ve got like 10 years to get this going, so you better put your foot on the gas now, and that was it, really. I didn’t really have any expectations or, oh, this is what I want to do or what I want to do next. It was just knocking on a lot of doors, always, you know, just believing in myself. And when I did have roles, just learning, soaking it in and learning as much as I could. And musical theater, I think, gave me a lot of discipline. And there’s something very classic and archaic about musical theater. I love both musical theater and film, but film, for one, I fell in love with it and just wanted to be a part of it in any way possible.

Villareal: Where do you think that self-assurance comes from?

Ashley: I think I’ve always been a bit of a dreamer. And since I was younger, I always had a bit of a hard time in high school, as many of us have, and my way of getting through that was, I always wrote letters to myself, especially on the new year, and I’d be like, OK, this time next year, this is going to happen and this will happen and whatever. And it was never like, you know, I want to be a millionaire. I want to do this or I want this or that. It was always, I want my voice to be heard and I want to be able to express myself as an artist. And I’ve always been such a dreamer in that way. And I’d like to think that I get what I want reasonably. And yeah, I’ve always loved working hard. I think my mum raised me in a very disciplined way to just, you know, always have good values and work really hard. My parents, you know, being Indian and coming to London and raising me and my brother, they gave up and sacrificed so much. So I think many people from heritages outside of the Western world understand that, you know, how privileged and lucky we are because of what our parents did for us. So I think maybe it came from that. And I think I always, in high school I knew it was a very transient thing. I didn’t think that high school was forever. I always knew that there was going to be another world and that sense of freedom to do whatever I want. And I’ve always been a bit of an adventurer and curious about the world and people. So yeah, I don’t know where it came from. I think, I just love it. I’m very competitive and I love a challenge. And if someone says, no, you can’t do something, I’m like, “Well, I’m going to give it a go anyway.”

Villareal: Yeah, yeah. I mean, you come from a family of engineers, doctors, accountants, etc., but your parents have been supportive of you pursuing an acting career. But do you think they get it? Like, was there a moment where they were like, oh, you’re on the right track, we don’t have anything to worry about?

Ashley: So I think “Sex Education” was the beginning of that and then “Bridgerton” obviously I think they were like, yeah, we get it and you’re on the right track and you’re fine. So yeah, it took “Bridgerton,” but they were always very supportive, but I think I just always kept it quite private, to be honest, because I didn’t want them to misunderstand. And then for me to take that personally and doubt my own skills or whatever it is that I’m on, I kind of wanted to do the work and be like, see, like, this is what I’m up to. And then they’ll be like, oh, OK, I get it. I don’t know if this is because I was the youngest that they kind of gave me a bit of leeway. and they were like, yeah, yeah, she can like do a thing. And they kind of, you know, humored me. I was very stubborn and I think I removed myself from the noise of other people potentially doubting me just because they were protecting me by moving out. And I moved out very, very young and I was like, I really want full independence on this.

Villareal: So tell me about moving out of your household so early. What was that about? And like, what were you seeking from doing that and what was it like just not, you know, being home at such a young age?

Ashley: I loved it because I grew up in quite a small town that was relatively close to London. So I did have the freedom. If I took a train or a car to London for a few hours, I could experience the city. I have family from California, so I visited California quite a lot. I was raised on such amazing music, a lot of rock and roll, Fleetwood Mac, Rolling Stones, Bob Marley, the Doors, the Doobie Brothers, all these things. And I just remember having great music that influenced me as well. And I was just always on the road and I did a bit of modeling and that kind of helped me pay the bills and have that, you know, this is what I’m doing with my time when I’m not living at home. I don’t think it was necessarily the most healthy thing to do, but it’s got me to where I am now. I wouldn’t recommend on anyone, but I think I’ve always been incredibly stubborn in that sense and just always wanted my independence from a very, very young age. And, you know, being an Indian girl, yeah, there were aspects of that culture where women especially are expected to marry at a certain age or to do something. And any time that conversation came up, it frightened me because I didn’t want anyone to have control on my life and what it is I wanted to do. I didn’t want to get married at a young age. I didn’t want to be restricted. I had such self-belief in my heart that I was capable of all of these things and I just never wanted anything to take that away from me. So yeah, I mean, I loved leaving home at a young age. [Laughs] Which is a horrible thing to say!

Villareal: How old were you when you left?

Ashley: 15 or 16. Yeah.

Villareal: I think I still ask my mom how to properly cook chicken, and I’m in my 30s, so, like, leaving at 15, I’m just like, I don’t know what I would … I would have been like, such a baby about everything.

Simone Ashley: I was a baby. I think maybe I thought I was an adult, but I was a baby. Yeah, I just I think, you know, I may not be like the most well-read as some people or, like, have all these skills and speak five different languages, much like Kate, to be honest, but I think I learned quickly. So that was something I think that just kept me out of trouble, most of the time.

Villareal: How much of that decision, to leave your home early and sort of strike out on your own, how much of that do you think comes from knowing that your parents didn’t really have a life where they could choose whatever they wanted? Like, how do you think that set you up for what you wanted out of your life?

Ashley: I think I understand that more now because I’m 27. But when you’re 16, you don’t really humanize your parents. I, for one, didn’t. And I didn’t really fully understand how much, you know, how privileged I was, the life that they’d kind of given me and supported me on. And they didn’t have options like me, you know, they were restricted. And they did have to sacrifice a lot and I understand that more now. I saw that struggle, and I saw that restriction in them and other people that I observed as well. And I just never wanted that for myself. I wish there was a better way to say this because obviously this is for what this is, but I think there is a sense of magic that I have within my imagination. And I think things are possible if you really, really manifest it and believe it. And I remember saying this to Jonny actually, when we were having a drink when filming last year, and I said, like, oh, I’ve always had this like Disney sense of imagination in anything that I do and the approach to my work. And I never want to lose that because I think the day I lose that I’ll be like, “Oh, well, that’s it. So I probably should get a normal job now,” which is, you know, not to say a normal job is a bad thing, but, you know, I don’t think I’ll leave it. I think I’d like to always stay in touch with that side of me.

Villareal: Well, to build on that, what sort of roles are coming your way since “Bridgerton”? How are you thinking about the moves you want to make from here?

Ashley: I’m very excited about this year. There’s a lot of things yet to be announced and things at the end of this year particularly that are coming out. And some things musical where I’m using my voice, which I’m very excited about. Things I wasn’t expecting someone that looks like me to play, which has been really nice. So many different things. I have always been inspired by Uma Thurman in “Kill Bill,” always wanted to play that badass female athletic kind of character where I had to train for a role I’ve always loved, like, high-adrenaline sports, like horse riding. So “Bridgerton” was perfect. I love cars. I love race driving like Formula 1. I always wanted to see a female in the driver’s seat and not playing just the girlfriend. So there’s something in that genre, without saying too much, that’s in the works. I’ve always wanted to play an A.I. like in “Ex Machina” because I think to see a woman of color, not to make everything about race, but the story of an A.I. is how can we relate to an artificial intelligence? It’s not about how you look, it’s a feeling. And that’s something I’ve always wanted to play. And then as a role where you have to explore the physicality. I’m really excited about that. And, you know, I’ve always been very, as you can guess, influenced by Disney movies and that sense of imagination. So this is yet to be announced, but there’s going to be like a voice-over movie, which I’m really excited about. Oh, yeah, I have a dog. So and any dog lovers listening to this know that you make a voice for your dog and, you know, impersonate an animal. So I’m excited to be doing things like that. And obviously “Little Mermaid,” that I got before “Bridgerton.” So it’s a very small role, but I’m excited to see that movie coming out next year. But yeah, there’s a lot of stuff within the movie space and in the fashion space that’s yet to be announced this year that I’m very excited about.

Villareal: What role is it in “Little Mermaid”? Is it a role I would know or is it like they created a new character?

Ashley: They created like an ensemble is all I can say. People weren’t supposed to know that I’m in it, but I think it got leaked. So that’s all.

Villareal: And you’ve already shot it, right?

Ashley: Yes. So I got the call for “Bridgerton” actually when I was filming it. Which was a very memorable experience.

Villareal: Oh my goodness. OK. Well, fans of “Sex Education” were obviously disappointed to learn you wouldn’t be returning for the fourth season. Was it strictly a timing issue?

Ashley: Timing issue, yeah. I’m so grateful for “Sex Education” and “Bridgerton,” but I think after three and a half years of playing Olivia, I just felt I wanted to give Kate a chance as well and be invested in her and her journey in season three, amongst other projects surrounding it. It wasn’t an easy decision, mainly because I love working with that cast so much, and I’m going to really miss them and spending time in Wales with them, but maybe I might go and visit, which should be fun.

Villareal: Do you think you have unfinished business with Olivia? Like, how would you have liked to see her story progress? You know, we saw her sort of reveal her story about sexual assaults. What would you have liked to sort of tie up with her?

Ashley: I really wanted to see Olivia and Eric have more scenes together and have a friendship because I’m very close with Ncuti anyway. So for that biased reason. But also, I just think, they would have been so funny together because they’re very contrasting. I wanted to see Olivia, maybe break away from the Untouchables a bit more because she already is kind of on the fence with them. And she is kind of playing this role of the cool girl who chews the bubble gum and like acts all cool and stuff, but she’s actually very goofy and vulnerable and cringeworthy and awkward, which I love about her. I think maybe it would have been nice to see Olivia kind of take charge, maybe be the head of the year or something that had a sixth form or like something like that. But someone actually said because of the bubble-gum thing, Olivia was destined to be a dentist because whenever we wrapped, they’d be like, ooh, let’s hope they cover your dental because your teeth are going to be rotted by chewing on the bone. I was like, Oh my God, maybe Olivia will be a dentist. And it’ll be like one of those things.

Villareal: Well, before I let you go, I saw your “Jimmy Kimmel” appearance, and I need to know more about your new venture into tattooing. For our listeners who don’t know, you bought a tattoo gun during COVID lockdown in L.A. and tattooed a sphinx on your ankle and you also tattooed your co-star. So tell me how tattooing your co-stars went down. What did you tattoo on people? Tell me everything.

Ashley: Yeah. So I was actually in Seattle last week and that was like a kind of shoot where I was working with some music artists and we spoke to their management and it just wasn’t going to work timing0wise, and I didn’t have my kit on me. So that’s kind of how it works. Like it’s my offering to people. Maybe it’s a way of people pleasing, I don’t know, but I think it’s really fun and it’s a nice memory. And you know, if I find a connection between people when I’m working with them, then I’d like to just do something silly, and if they’re happy to, if it is someone that is into tattoos, then yeah, I’ll do something that’s really kind of not too recognizable and small. But yeah, who have I tattooed? I can’t show many people. I nearly tattooed my makeup artist.

Villareal: So many.

Simone Ashley: Yeah, yeah. I’ve only tattooed myself once. but I’ll be mainly, like the glam teams I’m working with, very intimate relationships. It wouldn’t just be anyone, but maybe it could be.

Yvonne Villareal: Who on the “Bridgerton” cast has gotten tattooed by you?

Ashley: No one on “Bridgerton” has got a tattoo. I really want to tattoo my makeup artist, Jessie. She’s got loads of tattoos, and we were supposed to. I was going to do a B on her. So I think this season, I’m going to have a little bit more flexibility with my schedule and “Bridgerton.” So I think I’ll use my time to do a tattoo on her ankle of a B or something. I can tattoo you one day. One day, yeah. You have tattoos?

Villareal: No, I’ve never gotten one. I’m a scaredy cat.

Ashley: Oh, really?

Yvonne Villareal: Yeah.

Ashley: But that’s the fun in it! [Laughs] We can do a little cat then!

Villareal: A little cat, maybe. Yeah. What even sparked it? Were you always into tattoos?

Ashley: I was like, yeah, I’m not covered in them. I’ve got three tattoos and I think that would be my limit. I don’t know. I think lockdown just made me really do some wild stuff. I did tie dyeing, banana bread making, all working out, reading books, all of the things. And it just got to the point where I was like, what do I do next? And yeah, I don’t know where it came from.

Villareal: All I know is please keep track of it on Instagram if you make any sort of tattoos on the “Bridgerton” set.

Simone Ashley

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