Bridgerton Showrunner on Race, Sex, Dukes, and Season 2

Bridgerton is the first big Netflix series from Shondaland thanks to showrunner Chris Van Dusen, who guided Julia Quinn‘s beloved series of novels from the page to a splashy, sexy, and thoroughly modern take on the high-stakes “marriage market” which dominated Regency England society. Featuring Phoebe Dynevor as Daphne Bridgerton, whose societal entanglement with Duke Simon Basset (Regé-Jean Page) drives most of the drama in this first season, there’s enough story here to fuel as many as eight seasons of the show — something Van Dusen would love to see happen.

The show is packed with unique twists on this genre, while still remaining very true to the romance of the novels, and while there are no spoilers for the series in the interview below, Van Dusen does get into how he and the writers approached the way the show incorporates race and explicit sex. He also got into the value of having an intimacy coordinator on set, his hopes for the future of the show, and why so many romance novels tend to feature dukes.

COLLIDER: I want to start off by asking how this show came together for you?

CHRIS VAN DUSEN: Yeah, so I was a writer/producer on another Shonda Rhimes show, Scandal, prior to this. And, as that show was coming to an end, I was looking for what I was going to do next. And, I knew I wanted to do something completely different than modern-day political intrigue on Capitol Hill. And, that’s when Shonda told me about these books, and I took them home that night. I read the first book that night, the second one, the second night, the third and fourth and so on. I just devoured them. I was immediately addicted and entranced by these books. I fell in love with them. They were funny, they were emotional, they were sexy, they were charming. They had this delightful family at the center of them, but most of all, they afforded me an escape. I think an escape was exactly what I was looking for at the time, and I think it’s also what audiences are kind of creating right now as well.

Of course. I mean, one major aspect with the show, which I’m sure you’ve already talked about plenty, is the fact that it has this really unique approach to race in terms of other projects we’ve seen set in this era. How did you guys ended up approaching it — especially the part where it gets written into the story at a certain point?

VAN DUSEN: Sure. Yeah. We knew we wanted to make the show reflect the world that we live in today. And, even though it’s set in the 19th century, we still wanted modern audiences to relate to it, and see themselves on screen no matter who they were. And, that’s something having worked in Shondaland for so long, since Grey’s Anatomy really, it’s what we do. We cast the best actors for roles in ways that represent the world today. And, we knew we’d had that same chance to do the same thing, and to do a similar thing with Bridgerton. Color and race is a part of the show, and it is a part of the conversation and it is, you’ll find it, written in the text or the scripts, just like class, and gender and sexuality are.

Image via Netflix

And, I think a lot of that came from collaborating hand in hand with the cast. Regé and I would have long conversations about his backstory. Adjoa Andoh plays Lady Danbury, and we would do the same. You really get to see those things reflected onscreen when you watch.

But also, working closely with historians, I learned this really fascinating fact that, Queen Charlotte was England’s first queen of mixed race. That’s something that many historians believe there’s evidence for today. And, it’s something that really resonated with me, because it made me wonder what could that have really looked like. And, what would have happened? What could she have done? Could the queen have elevated other people of color in society and granted them titles, and lands and dukedoms? And, that’s really how our Simon Bassett, our Duke of Hastings, came to be. We get to explore it in a really interesting way. And, it goes to the idea of what the show does is — we’re marrying history and fantasy in a really exciting, fascinating way.

Absolutely. I mean, I feel like I’m constantly hearing about stories about people of color in 19th century England that just have never been properly told before.

VAN DUSEN: Absolutely. I think that working with historians, it became very clear that 19th century Regency London was a lot more diverse and a lot more colorful than people thought it to be. Exploring that aspect and really digging into that was really, really interesting for me.

Absolutely. Meanwhile, at the beginning of quarantine, I went through a phase where I only wanted to read romance novels, and I found so many romance novels about dukes. From your perspective, is there a reason why dukes are so much a part of the genre?

VAN DUSEN: That’s really funny. I honestly don’t know the answer to that. I feel like dukes are close to the top of the food chain without being actual royalty. I think that our Simon, he’s not your average duke. He’s not your typical duke. First of all, he’s a duke of color. And second of all, he wants nothing to do with this world of the marriage market. He wants no part of marriage. He wants no part of society. And, I think watching him grapple with those things and his desires for things that are outside of this world, is what’s really interesting about our duke.

One thing that I found really interesting was how the show makes such a strong argument for the basic idea of sex education. Like, these characters are just acing basic issues that would be easily rectified in a society where people talk openly about what sex actually is. In the writers room, how conscious were you of that issue?

VAN DUSEN: What we always looked at with breaking stories in the writer’s room was how to make these stories and characters feel relevant to today. And, I think underneath all the glamor, and the lavishness, and this beautiful escapist world, there’s this running modern commentary about how in the last 200 years, everything has changed, but nothing has changed for both men and women. The women, they were clad in all of these incredibly restrictive clothes, and they were literally tied into their corsets, but they still wanted to bust out of them and find their agency.

Image via Netflix

And I think, one of the things that the show gets to explore is the female plight, and how women have been strategizing to assert themselves, and find their agency for generations. I think a overarching theme of this first season is, I’ve always referred to it as the Education of Daphne Bridgerton. She starts out as this picture perfect, wide-eyed, innocent debutante, and we watch her grow into something else entirely — this woman who finally figures out who she is and what she’s capable of. When she starts the season, she knows nothing about sex. And, the only model of love she has is really the love she saw her parents share. But the sex education for Daphne is very much a part of her transformation and her arc this season.

Of course. In terms of that, how much on your mind was the fact that “Okay, we’re doing this for Netflix, we have the opportunity to have legitimate sex scenes in a genre which doesn’t typically get to express itself on screen that way”?

VAN DUSEN: Yeah. I think that Netflix really afforded us with an amazing level of creative freedom, and they were so supportive and so encouraging of the vision from the very beginning. We never shied away from the fact that this is a show inspired by eight really delicious romance novels, and that sex was always going to be a part of the show, and the steaminess and the sensuality is balanced by the romance. As much as we’re steamy and sexy, we’re also unapologetically romantic at times. I think that it’s that balance that I really love about the show, that we’re able to do both things.

I saw in the credits that you had an intimacy coordinator — what was that experience like?

VAN DUSEN: It was amazing. And, we couldn’t have done the show without her. She worked closely with myself and with our director, and super closely with our cast. All of the intimate scenes were heavily choreographed and approached much like an action sequence would be approached. It was very “your hand goes here, your leg goes here, this is this, this is that.” It really was about making our actors comfortable, and really having them be the ones who were driving the action in those scenes of intimacy. We wanted them to be able to do what they wanted to do, and go as far as they wanted to go.

Of course. Have you had past experience with scenes that didn’t have an intimacy coordinator on set?

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VAN DUSEN: I did, yes. The intimacy coordinator role is definitely newer, and I’m so thankful and happy that it’s now a thing, and it’s becoming a standard role and a standard position on sets. Because really, it’s so necessary for the comfort of the cast, and really to get the most creatively out of those scenes, I think as well.

Excellent. To wrap up, there are eight books — plenty of material, clearly, for future seasons. How much have you got planned? What do you hope for a Season 2?

VAN DUSEN: I feel like the first season was primarily about Daphne and her love story with Simon. But, this being a family of eight children and there being eight books, I would love to be able to focus and really tell stories and love stories for all the Bridgerton siblings. For each character, for sure.

Image via Netflix

So, you want eight seasons?

VAN DUSEN: I would love that. In success, I would love that.

Like you said, “This is Daphne’s season,” and she does feel like she has like a pretty complete arc. But what kind of future do you expect for Daphne and Simon as characters?

VAN DUSEN: It’s interesting. I think it’s too early to tell right now. I think that we’re along for the ride of Daphne and Simon’s love story this first season. And, I think we’ve done some work in Season 1 to set up other characters. We really dig into Anthony’s love story. We’re really exploring Benedict as well, and Collin, and Eloise relationship. I think it’s a deep well of story for us to explore.

Bridgerton is streaming now on Netflix.

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