By Maureen Lee Lenker
December 26, 2020 at 10:00 AM EST
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From the moment Simon, the Duke of Hastings, strides on screen in Bridgerton, he owns the room. It’s written in the taut lines of his brooding presence and that undeniable smolder designed to leave marriageable misses weak at the knees, despite his own reluctance to marry.

But the man behind Simon, actor Regé-Jean Page, is far softer and more willing to admit to his innate romanticism than his television counterpart. “I'm a huge fan of romance as a concept. Romance is a wonderful thing and we need more of it in the world,” he tells EW. “Most things at their core are love stories anyway, whether they realize it or not. It's hilarious, the more seriously a show tries to take itself and detach itself from that, the more that the love story generally tends to come forward.”

When Page learned he’d be donning Simon’s waistcoat, he devoured the book The Duke and I, the Julia Quinn romance novel on which the first season of the new Shondaland series is based. “It is so incredibly page-turning and digestible and delicious,” he quips. “I burned through it, and at moments, it burned through me.”

Credit: LIAM DANIEL/NETFLIX

In case his skillful smolder didn’t give it away, Simon is a brooding hero modeled on the romanticism prevalent in the era when Bridgerton is set. “You have Byron, Shelley, and all these writers writing very big, new ideas at this time,” he elaborates. “All that comes to [play in] the costume explicitly. So that really excites me on a deeply geeky level.”

From the moment Page touched down in the United Kingdom to begin work on Bridgerton, he threw himself vigorously into crafting Simon into a Romantic hero with a capital “R.” He went straight off the plane to his first costume fitting. “We were talking about Byronic archetypes,” he explains “[Romantic poet] Lord Byron was writing these types of romantic heroes at the time, and so we talked about what that meant or how he dressed or what his collar would look like or what kind of exotic things Simon's bringing back from his travels around the world. The type of jewelry [Simon] wears is a direct descendant from the type of research we were doing on Byron and Byronic heroes."

Credit: LIAM DANIEL/NETFLIX

Page also prepped physically for the role, learning to box, perfecting his horse-riding skills, learning how to dance and carry himself in the Regency style, and more. Though he admits this process left him “very sweaty for many months,” he says the intense physical approach was also integral to the psychological development of Simon. “What people's entertainment is, how people resolve disputes and how sophisticated or unsophisticated that may be,” he notes. “How that intersects with what masculinity is at any particular given time and how that expresses itself, it's all one big mush where the physical prep is the same as the psychological prep, and they feed each other.

From his Byronic collars to his stints in the ring bareknuckle boxing, Page says ultimately it was all about the public face Simon presents to the world and how he must tear that version of himself down for a chance at true love. “So much of what the Regency is about is presenting this front of status and power and lack of vulnerability, which is also a lot of what masculinity is about,” he reflects.

Page was first introduced to American audiences as Chicken George in History’s remake of epic miniseries Roots (though Shondaland lovers will recognize him from his more recent stint on legal drama For the People). It seems like a big jump to go from a character mired in the trauma of slavery to playing a literal duke. But Page says he found a lot more similarities than one might expect at first glance.

“Both are period dramas, and both feature people who exist in the world around us, who’ve not been featured enough in the stories on our screens, and both, at their heart, are love stories,” he says. “They’re about people trying to find their way in the world, despite the various obstacles that society throws up — and how to be happy and loved and whole through that.”

More than anything, Page says both Roots and Bridgerton are firm reminders that people of color have always existed in history, even if we haven’t been telling their stories. “That's a huge part of why I wanted to turn up in the show,” he notes. “Because we exist and have existed and will exist in absolutely every walk of life from the beginning of time to the end of it. There is something of a deficit to be redressed there. We're at a moment in time where it is part of my job for people in my generation of artists to start telling those stories and filling them in.”

Bridgerton challenges the established notion of who inhabited the 19th-century aristocracy, positioning Page as a devastatingly handsome duke who must fend off meddling mamas and their impressionable daughters. But when it’s suggested to Page that, as an undeniably good-looking actor, he might share something with his character in terms of the challenges of sussing out whether someone is romantically interested in you for purely surface level reasons, he laughs it off. “If you [meet] one, you’d have to ask him what that’s like,” he humbly replies.

But then he digs deeper, pointing out how the show and Simon are actively engaged in interrogating just what it is that makes someone attractive. “Part of where our cultural conversation is, at the moment, is recognizing that Simon, in many ways, is desirable entirely because of his status as opposed to any kind of physical attraction,” he muses. “There's physical attraction because of what people see as desirable at any particular given time. But also Simon is deeply, deeply unattractive in various parts of his personality that need to be resolved as we go through the tumultuous eight episodes.”

For him, that’s what romance as a genre is ultimately about – finding the true beauty or appeal in someone. “I think that different people are objectively attractive in different ways and a big part of the romance genre for me is in discovering what that true attractiveness is,” he reflects. “What is truly beautiful about someone? What is that jewel at the heart of them? How do you dig that out? And how do you get to recognize it, despite all of the glamour and fireworks and bright lights in the way?”

Spoken like a true romantic hero.

Bridgerton is now available on Netflix.

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