LONDON — Jonathan Bailey has been thinking a lot about Tupperware. Not necessarily around its ability to hold food, though recently that function has served the actor well as he’s moved from production to production, but more how he has also been squishing different elements of his life into what feel like small, slightly misshapen boxes.
Compartmentalizing like this is “not the most comfortable thing to do, especially coming out of a pandemic,” Bailey, 33, said in a recent interview. But to survive, he added, it has become necessary.
This necessity has emerged as Bailey fast becomes one of the breakout stars of “Bridgerton,” Netflix’s hugely popular romantic period drama. The show blends mildly subversive traits — female characters have intellectual conversations and orgasms, and its cast includes people of color — with torrid love affairs. The recently released second season focuses on Bailey’s Anthony Bridgerton as he searches for a wife, and then meets his match in Kate (played by Simone Ashley). Netflix says it has broken viewing records, and Anthony Bridgerton fan pages now litter the internet.
Bailey, however, isn’t basking in the sudden acceleration of his fame. Instead, he is following the advice given to him at 23, he said, by the theater director Nicholas Hytner: Always keep working. Currently, that means putting himself at the mercy of a London West End audience almost every night of the week: He is starring in “Cock,” a Mike Bartlett play exploring sexual orientation and identity through the story of a doomed romance between two men — one of whom falls in love with a woman.
In recent weeks, while promoting “Bridgerton” during the day, Bailey was onstage most nights. The stress of doing both “overwhelm each other and cancel each other out, in a way,” he said.
The production of “Cock” has also been plagued with difficulties: Taron Egerton, the other star in the show’s billing, fainted onstage, contracted Covid-19 and then dropped out of the production altogether, citing “personal reasons.” Most recently, Jade Anouka, Bailey’s other co-star, also tested positive for the coronavirus, which means Bailey has been performing with two understudies.
Throughout it all, Bailey has persevered. In a recent performance, he moved with the solid grace of a dancer and deftly handled a drunken heckler who took issue with a monologue about whether sexual orientation was genetic. After taking a beat, Bailey looked directly toward the audience and delivered his next line as if to the heckler.
“It’s thrilling when an audience feels that they can respond as actually they want to, because it means that something animal is happening,” Bailey said of the incident.
Inside the World of ‘Bridgerton’
The Netflix series, which infuses period-drama escapism with modern-day sensibilities, is back with a second season.
The theater is Bailey’s acting home, and he credits the “alchemy” of “Bridgerton” as being partly thanks to so many of the actors, including Adjoa Andoh, Luke Thompson and Ruth Gemmell, having backgrounds in the theater.
Growing up in Wallingford, a prosperous town between London and Oxford, Bailey described himself as a “creative and expressive child” who was passionate about ballet and knew he wanted to be an actor from a young age.
He was cast in a Royal Shakespeare Company production of “A Christmas Carol” when he was 8, having been scouted in a local drama class. From there, Bailey describes his as a “slow career”: By 15, he had appeared in his first major feature film, “Five Children and It,” and was signed to an agency. At 23, he performed in “Othello” at the National Theater in London, and finally felt sure he could make a go of acting. And by 25, he was making a name for himself in Britain as one of the leads in the hit crime show “Broadchurch.”
Marianne Elliott, Bailey’s director in “Cock,” describes him as a daring performer. “He’s the nicest person you could ever hope to meet,” she said. “But when he acts, he can have an edge, which can feel dangerous in a great way. An unpredictability.” The pair first worked together on a gender-swapped production of the Stephen Sondheim musical “Company,” which won Bailey an Olivier award in 2019.
Sondheim, Elliott said, was enamored with Bailey. Three days before he died last year, Elliott told Sondheim that Bailey would be starring in “Cock.” Sondheim “literally stopped in his tracks, closed his eyes, put his hand on his chest and said, ‘Be still my beating heart,’” Elliott said.
In person, Bailey was charmingly earnest. Sitting in the plush elegance of a central London hotel and dressed comfortably in shorts, a gray T-shirt and a cozy jacket, he had a far softer demeanor than the smoldering, quiet fury that defined much of Anthony Bridgerton’s search for a wife.
“It was only doing Season 2 that I realized exactly what is required” of transitioning into a leading role, Bailey said. “In the Tupperware sense, you have to really tuck into that big Tupperware box.”
The younger male actors playing Anthony’s brothers may well lead their own “Bridgerton” seasons in the future, and so Bailey wrote them a guide that could be called “How to Survive Falling in Love in Front of 82 Million Households,” he said over email. It’s designed to help them “maintain a sense of sanity and balance” on set, he said, and covered the practicalities of working with the crew and who to talk to if they felt like things weren’t running smoothly.
When asked if he sees himself as a mentor, Bailey demurred. “Whichever Bridgerton sibling it is, I’m having conversations that hopefully just make them feel more solid and prepared,” he said, still sounding very like a mentor.
Nicki van Gelder, who has been Bailey’s agent since he was 15, laughed when told about this reticence. Bailey, she said, has a “generosity toward other actors,” and is a particularly important role model for some of the less established actors on her books, Van Gelder said, for not hiding his sexuality. “I think that definitely will have helped younger actors who are not sure” about publicly coming out, she said. “I have a couple of younger actors that I’ve discussed it with. They said, ‘Jonny is out, is it OK?’ And I said, ‘Absolutely.’”
In his Olivier acceptance speech, Bailey spoke passionately about the importance of L.G.B.T. representation. “If I can fill spaces that I didn’t have growing up, then I feel like that’s a really brilliant thing,” he said.
After his work on “Bridgerton” and in “Cock,” Bailey said he’s excited “now to think about my next projects, and how I can step into different versions of my understanding of representation.”
Overall, he tries to have “sharp instincts,” he said, when it comes to choosing work. He worked on early shows made by Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Michaela Coel, and prioritizes working with people he holds “in high regard, who are thrilling and exciting,” he said. “And more often than not, they’ll make sure that it’s a diverse cast.”
And that diversity is important to Bailey. “If you are innately someone who’s outside of society — I can’t obviously speak on race, but in terms of sexuality and queerness — you have that access to empathy,” he said. “And what comes with empathy is playfulness, because then you can see where the other person’s coming from, and you can feel safe to find the joy within that.”
“I’ll take playfulness,” he added.