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Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story starring Arsema Thomas

American-born actress, Arsema Thomas plays the character of young Agatha Danbury in Shondaland’s Queen Charlotte. The highly anticipated Bridgerton spin off has sparked colourful conversations around love and representation. Here, Arsema opens up about her journey to stardom and bagging her dream role on the groundbreaking series.

My conversation with Arsema started at the premiere event of Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story on the red carpet. Her regal aura is fitting for her on-screen role on the six-part series which launches on Neflix on the 4th of May.

It was scorching at the Picturesque Quoin Rock in Stellenbosch, but one wouldn’t have guessed this as Arsema glided across the red carpet. Her striking ensemble captured my attention as different media houses got into formation to chat to the gorgeous star. She cracked a warm smile as she made her way towards me.

The conversations around the series are mainly centred around representation so I ask her what it means to be a part of such a groundbreaking story, “it’s like a dream come true, I grew up watching a lot of shows by Shonda Rhimes so I feel honoured to be a part of something that’s so revolutionary. The show has this unconventional romance that takes place in the Georgian era, with beautiful costumes and space. When a job ticks all the boxes, it’s this one!” Affirming that it was an amazing experience, she adds that to believe in her character, Agatha, fully and fight for the story and see her treated as a 3-dimensional woman is rare. “It’s an absolute privilege!”

Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story. Arsema Thomas in Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story. Cr. Amber Pinkerton/Netflix © 2022

It’s Monday morning 11am CAT, when we pick up the conversation on Microsoft Teams. Arsema maintains the same vibrant energy, inviting me to lean in. We have more than just five minutes today so I ask her to take it back to the very beginning so we can get a clearer picture of this amazing woman and her journey with Bridgerton. “It’s interesting because when I got the call for Bridgerton, I was already an actor, and studying towards my master’s degree in London. And so I was really just receiving auditions from my agent at the time and going for stories that I was drawn to things that I was curious about.”

Asserting that you don’t choose your pieces, they choose you. “It was just a really interesting process because when I got the audition, I didn’t know what it was for. They just said, you know, this is something in the Shondaland universe, and I was already hooked.” Arsema shares that she’s been a fan of Shonda’s work since her childhood, “I would watch Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder and the way that Shonda writes her characters is unreal. it feels as though these are true people. And that’s a sign of who she is as a creator... her ability to empathise with every single character, to show all of their different sides.” The excitement in her voice is audible when she adds that she knew that regardless of her role on the show, she’d be in good hands, knowing that Shonda created it. “And that's pretty much where my Bridgerton journey started.”

Glamour: Amazing! And I think beyond resonating with Shonda’s approach to storytelling, you are believable on screen, and I enjoy watching your portrayal of Agatha. Can you talk about your background, and becoming an actor?

Arsema: It's an interesting story because initially, I was in small programmes in Nairobi where I grew up, doing acting after school, and it just became this release in imagination and creativity for me that I wasn't able to get anywhere else. And so I kept it as a hobby; this small light of joy in my life, and I was doing small plays in school; in elementary school, middle school and high school. And then when it came time to apply for university, the idea of being a drama student never even occurred to me, just because this industry is quite ruthless, to black women. We don't get that much space, in the stories that are told in the way that we're portrayed and depicted. And I think because of that, my parents wanted to give me a kind of safety net so encouraged me to stay in the STEM field. And so I applied in and studied biophysics, and watched as people went to drama classes and see that with jealousy. And continued to find my way in the health field, and applied to a master's programme at Yale. And there, I realised that I truly loved acting. I think at that point, I had no reason to not risk everything.

Glamour: So how did you settle into your new dream as soon as you realized you were willing to risk it all?

Arsema: Previously, I was ruled by this fear that if it didn't all work out, what happens when you love something so deeply and it doesn't love you back? I was going on the weekends during my master's programme and applying to whatever I could find backstage, it's so strange. I was in student films, community theatre pieces that required us to travel at 2am in someone's van to perform in churches in the lobby, or in just random places, just because I just knew that this was something I could do for the rest of my life and be happy. But I knew that I wanted to make it sustainable; to have a practice and a craft, and to make it like art. I was privileged enough to go and do a master's programme so at that point, I packed up my stuff and moved to Paris. And I studied acting in French and English, I was cat sitting to get by. It was such a growing process, and then I came to South Africa because my mother had just moved here.

And I met my first agent who really kind of took everything that I had as like raw talent, and gave me the confidence to really think about this as a a career and not just art. And from there, it just started to be a gradual incline. I auditioned for something that filmed here in Stellenbosch, which is so strange to be back here since then, and it was just this small Christian romance film, Redeeming Love. I had two scenes in it so I was just here for a weekend. And there was something magical about seeing a world just created from nothing. And I auditioned for many roles, and went then to The London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA) for my Masters in Fine Arts. And then as I was about to finish my second year, I got this audition. And here we are.

Glamour: Wow! It's quite an inspirational story, and I love that it speaks to your resilience, and not giving up when you know that you are destined for something. Earlier, you mentioned that as women, we have to fight for space. What does it mean to you to live an era where women are demanding a seat at the table, and where representation matters? More specifically, around Queen Charlotte. And being part of a story that sees you?

Arsema: It’s one of the most validating moments, not only for myself as a black woman, but also for myself as a creative. If it had not been for the show, I don't think I would be as fuelled as I am to create spaces for more black women to have a platform.I think it’s one of the greatest gifts!

This entire process has given me that confidence because it makes me want to create work, and makes me feel as though I have the space for that to happen for myself, that if I do it, I will be heard. And not just screaming into the abyss like I think so many of us feel. And so it just felt like somebody connected to me in a way that I'd never been connected before.

When I read this script… it's strange as an actor, when you read a script for the first time and you already know what the character is feeling, and where that emotion is coming from. That's such a massive gift to get from a writer. And that only happens when that writer understands where you're coming from. And I think that's something quite magical with black women. If you look at privilege on a spectrum, we tend to be at the bottom; whether it be black women or black trans women; black and femininity tend to be at the bottom. And because of that, we know the experience of a lot of those above us. And by elevating us, you elevate everybody. And that's something that Shonda has done. I think it's something more people will recognise. It's just going to be an amazing time for entertainment because of the show. I think it's just going to cause people to ask, what if? It's going to open the doors of possibilities. And how amazing is that?

Glamour: Absolutely amazing! And with that said, what other conversations are you hoping will emanate from the show? What do you hope people will take away from engaging with Queen Charlotte?

Arsema: I hope people engage with the fact that while it’s about black women, and a love story. There’s so much in there about the relationship between a mother and a son, sexuality, and identity. And even this idea of ailment, and how you deal with that, and grief. And so there are so many potential conversations to have. And that's what I hope that people recognise because I think people will be locked in on the visual cue of seeing black people in a genre “that we shouldn't be in” and not realise how fruitful and bountiful these six episodes are. The content is there. It's so easy, Shonda was generous!

Glamour: That’s so profound! What did you enjoy most about playing Agatha?

Arsema: I think my favourite thing about my character is that she’s just honest. You know, she is this woman that is so self-aware, in a very strange way. She can look into the eyes of people and own her mistakes, she can look into it and can stand in the midst of it. That is something so amazing! Unwavering confidence is something that I am truly in awe of when I see it in people. And that’s my favourite thing about her.

Glamour: I love that! I just remembered that yesterday the room was in stitches at the premiere as we watched the first scene together. I can imagine you had some funny moments behind the scenes. Could you share some of those?

Arsema: Oh, my gosh, yes! I mean, the behind the scenes moments, are probably my favourite. I can't wait to share the photos and everything because it really felt like a family making this together. We would do picnics outside during lunch and somebody would bring a speaker and we’d just dance. I also enjoyed having ice-cream in our costumes and I love the costume design, our dresses! I think my favourite thing was filming the scene where I explained what sex is, and everyone was just giggling at their drawings. There's there's so many to choose from!

Glamour: ln terms of the synergy you share with the other cast members how was relationship developed on and off set?

Arsema: It's been really amazing because I wasn't able to see a lot of them during my parts of filming just because a lot of my story doesn't take place with them. But being on this press tour, and everything that has happened even after we've wrapped has just allowed us to get closer because for all of us, this is such a magnificent and monumental moment in our careers. This is the first really big job for a lot of us. And so to be able to share in our moments of imposter syndrome and insecurity, and to be able to voice that to an honest ear who is going through the exact same thing, is a really generous gift. Mental health is something people don't talk about when it comes to this industry. So a project like this where one is able to have an ear is such a such a blessing!

Glamour: Oh, wow! It sounds like you had a lot of fun. Would you say you have a favourite scene?

Arsema: Honestly, it's so difficult to pick one. I cannot wait for people to finish the whole entire thing. And yeah, that's all I can say for now.

Glamour: We’ll definitely be watching! What’s your biggest takeaway from the experience?

Arsema: Oh! it's such a good question. I think it would just be to recognise your power.

Glamour: Do you have any closing sentiments? And what are your hopes for the series and how people receive it?

Arsema: It feels quite surreal if I'm being honest. I hope people love the music and the fashion. I hope it causes conversation, and I hope people want more.

Glamour: I love that! If you had an opportunity to sit down with your younger self who really wanted this dream and believed in it, and did whatever it took to get here. What would you say to her speaking to this moment?

Arsema: I would say don't worry. Don't worry. Take a breath and relax!

Glamour: Amazing! Thank you so much for your time. It's been a beautiful conversation and I love your energy!

Arsema: Thank you so much! I've been loving your questions. It's really an honour to talk to you and I honestly have to thank this entire continent because it's for them that I am the woman that I am, through and through!

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