Bridgerton’s new gay star James Phoon ‘very excited’ by potential queer storyline

Bridgerton does a lot of work in terms of putting diversity at the forefront of its stories,” actor James Phoon tells PinkNews.

The rising British star is joining the cast of Netflix’s Regency era mega-hit for season three – its biggest and best season yet – playing Harry Dankworth, the hapless new husband to Prudence Featherington (Bessie Carter).

Phoon is discussing the recent promise by Bridgerton’s new showrunner Jess Brownell – who took over from Chris Van Dusenahead of this season – to introduce an LGBTQ+ romance into the show at some point in the near future. It’s a prospect that Phoon, like his new co-star Nicola Coughlan, who plays Phoon’s sister-in-law Penelope Featherington, are thrilled about.

“Although it’s in this fictional Britain, and the representation we see isn’t exactly the way that Britain was in the 1800s, these people did exist in terms of different races, people of different gender identities, people of different sexualities,” Phoon says.

As an out gay actor with British and East-Asian heritage, that representation matters. Harry Dankworth might not be queer, but that doesn’t mean the people around him can’t be. It’s a shift in Bridgerton’s otherwise heterosexual world that he’s excited to see come to pass.

“Just because we haven’t heard about them before, and because the story and the spotlight hasn’t been on them, it doesn’t mean they didn’t exist. It just means we didn’t know about them, and I think that’s really important,” he adds.

“The increasing representation is so, so important.”

James Phoon in a white striped jumper and blue jeans, laying down on the floor.
Bridgerton and Wreck star, James Phoon. (David Reiss)

While he’s previously starred in BBC’s queer slasher comedy Wreck as Hamish, and is currently performing as Branwell Brontë, brother to Charlotte, Emily, and Anne in Underdog: The Other Other Brontë at the National Theatre, Bridgerton is Phoon’s biggest role to-date.

As he enters one of the biggest TV fandoms in the world, he talks to PinkNews about becoming Harry Dankworth, being part of the Featheringtons, and why more gay actors should play straight roles.

PinkNews: No spoilers here, but Harry Dankworth is definitely providing the comic relief in Bridgerton season three. Are you innately drawn to comedic roles? How did you bring him to life?

James Phoon: I really love this character. He’s really different from the other gentlemen at the Ton. A lot of the other men in this series are the alpha male; they’re the bachelor who is looking for a wife, and very much the providers of the family. I think what’s nice about Dankworth is that he’s not that at all, he’s someone who really loves the idea of love. He really wants to be the perfect adoring husband to Prudence [Featherington], his new wife. But he’s still quite young, and he doesn’t have that experience, and doesn’t quite know how to do that.

We had a lot of fun, Bessie [Carter, who plays Prudence] and I, playing with that dynamic, especially at the beginning. We didn’t really know each other, we just met, so we could really lean into little awkward things like physical touch, where it might feel a little bit funky, because you don’t know each other yet.

James Phoon as Harry Dankworth, with his new wife Prudence Featherington, played by Bessie Carter.
James Phoon as Harry Dankworth, with his new wife Prudence Featherington, played by Bessie Carter. (Netflix)

Harry is kind of like an endearing, Regency himbo.

When the [audition] tape came in, it was all codenamed so I knew… that he had a new wife and was very adoring of her, and he wasn’t very intelligent. But I didn’t know who any of the other characters were in the scenes. I didn’t know they were the Featheringtons.

I just immediately got the writing and the character; there was so much to play with in the scenes that I was sent. I think my initial thing was that I wanted to make sure that he was likeable. I think it’s quite easy to be an annoying himbo, but I wanted him to be someone who’s got a lot of heart and he means the best in every situation, even if he doesn’t quite get it right.

Finding out that you were going to be part of the Featherington clan, particularly this season where the focus is on them, must’ve been incredibly exciting.

It was a lot going into it, because everyone else in that gang has been doing the show since season one. So they really know their characters and they’ve been working together and become friends for years prior to me joining the show. I was very aware I was like the new kid at school going in, and that’s what made me really want to do the story justice and match what they were bringing.

James Phoon as Harry Dankworth in Bridgerton season three, alongside the rest of the Featherington clan.
James Phoon as Harry Dankworth in Bridgerton season three, alongside the rest of the Featherington clan. (Netflix)

Harry Dankworth isn’t queer, but we know that a potential gay romance is coming to Bridgerton soon. As a queer actor, what does that mean to you?

I think Bridgerton does a lot of work in terms of putting this diversity at the forefront of its stories. Although it’s in fictional Britain, and the representation we see isn’t exactly the way that Britain was in the 1800s, these people did exist in terms of people of different races, people of different gender identities, people of different sexualities. Just because we haven’t heard about them before, and because the story and the spotlight hasn’t been on them, it doesn’t mean they didn’t exist, it just means we didn’t know about them. I think that’s really important.

There’s a lot of conversation today about wokeness and modern diversity, and I think it can be easy for people to think that these are all really new concepts, but they’re not – they’re human concepts that are innate in us.

In terms of representation in a slightly different way, in terms of race, I recently found out that – I’m part-Chinese – the first Chinese person to gain British citizenship was in 1805. So that was around… 10 years before season three of Bridgerton [is set].

James Phoon poses while sitting against a brown wall and wearing blue jeans white and red trainers and a white striped jumper.
James Phoon. (David Reiss)

In the past, I felt like there wasn’t a place for me in period dramas set in the UK. But actually, there were Chinese people living here and that man in 1805, who got British citizenship, he married an English woman. I think he died before they had children, but it’s very possible that there were other Chinese people here who were having children, and there were mixed race children like me, in the 1800s in Britain, and we don’t hear these stories.

So yes, I’m very excited about this queer story that Jess is teasing.

Plus, Bridgerton isn’t exactly representative of real life in the 1800s. In season three, there is literally a violin cover of a Billie Eilish song.

It’s really interesting as well because this show is so set around this courting season in London, and it’s all about this male-female relationship dynamic, so it’s going to be interesting to explore how does a queer relationship fit within that society that is so specifically focused on men and women.

It’s also great to see a queer actor like yourself taking on the role of the straight, loveable himbo, alongside Jonathan Bailey, another gay actor playing a straight character. Ten years ago in this industry, I don’t think many gay actors would’ve got the opportunity to play straight roles.

It’s a balance of both sides that you need. There needs to be stories that have characters that are specifically queer, or specifically of the global majority, and that’s really important. But I also think it’s important to have stories where that’s not the focus, and where an actor doesn’t need to fit the reality of their character.

As an actor, you’re always doing something that isn’t you, you’re never 100 per cent your character. So why does your sexuality have to match that thing? It’s just one fragment of who we are as people, it’s not our whole identity. Not all gay people are the same. I think the increasing representation is so important.

Just lastly – what’s it like being in all that Regency-era attire during filming? 

The days are really long, especially if you’re shooting a ballroom scene. Because there’s lots of mini scenes within one scene, those scenes sometimes take up to a week to film. You can be in those costumes for like 12 hours a day, for a week.

Most of it fits really well because everything is custom made by the amazing design team, so everything fits perfectly. But the thing that does really get me is the stock, that big tie that you wear around your neck. Just having something tight around your neck for hours and hours on end… I turned into a brick by the end of day.

We’re filming over eight months, so we sort of [filmed through] almost every season. But this was the year of that 40 degree heat wave [in 2022], and so there were a few days where it was literally 40 degrees, and we’re in all of these layers, like neck to toe with only your hands and your head out of the costume.

James Phoon stars as Harry Dankworth in Bridgerton season three. The first four episodes of season three are streaming on Netflix from 16 May; the second four episodes will be available from 13 June.

James Phoon stars in Underdog: The Other Other Brontë at the National Theatre in London until 25 May.