Simone Ashley On South Asian Representation, Breaking Barriers With Bridgerton And How She Actually Likes Her Tea

Simone

As a fashion/pop culture writer, Bridgerton feeds into both my interests—chemisettes, corsets and love triangles? Sign me up! Naturally, when season 2 of the popular regency drama dropped on Netflix last month, I binge-watched it in a night. Even though I missed Regé-Jean Page’s brooding presence and symbolic rear-end—the second season instantly dethroned the first as the favourite, from the moment the leading pair stepped (rode) into the frame. While I can write a love sonnet about the Viscount (Jonathan Bailey) and his disarming gaze, this one is about the ‘bane of his existence and the object of all his desires’—Kate Sharma (Simone Ashley).

Simone

Simone is a Tamilian-Indian British actress who first rose to fame with her mean-girl character Olivia Hanan in the cult teenage drama Sex Education. Even in a supporting capacity, Simone managed to garner appreciation for her sassy-yet-confused portrayal of Olivia, but it was her entry into the world of Bridgerton as the protagonist that sky-rocketed her into the A-list bracket overnight. It was mostly because millions of young South-Asian girls finally saw a brown-skinned female lead who wasn’t reduced to a caricature of her culture but was presented in all authenticity. Growing up, there was no rightly done South-Asian representation and no, the Patil sister from Harry Potter doesn’t count. Watching Simone gracefully embrace her natural beauty without it becoming a point of conversation, was a big win. Especially for women in South Asian households, where stigmatisation of melanated skin is still a part of casual dinner table conversations.

Simone

On the day I was scheduled to interview Simone over Zoom, I meticulously planned my day and cleared an hour before bedtime routine for a quick chat with the girl of the moment, who was in a different time zone. My phone buzzed an hour early stating that Simone has already joined the call—I frantically checked the time, grumbling to myself that I have yet again failed at time management. To my surprise, this time, it wasn’t me and the glitch was from the other end.

Making the most of the situation, I joined the call while still in the waiting area of my dentist’s office—hoping my fellow patients would gauge my situation from the beads of sweat on my forehead and will remain inaudible. Unable to successfully multitask and showcase my enthusiasm, I heard an excited (almost) squeal-y ‘hi’ followed by a mini prologue of her day for my rather dispassionate sounding introduction. “I always get timezones wrong,” confessed Simone, initiating the conversation and instantly putting me to ease. After studiously watching her Late Night appearances for research, I knew she’d be a delight to speak to, but 2 minutes into the conversation and I almost forgot I was surrounded by a crowd of strangers suspiciously trying to make sense of what I was doing.

Simone

Period dramas have always fascinated me—from the larger-than-life demeanour of the characters and enchanting backdrops to fascinating dialects and opulent costumes, it has never failed to spark my intrigue. While these shows painted a dreamy visual for me, it was always aspirational and never relatable. I never saw a dark-skinned woman be in the frame beyond her duty as a handmaiden in these tales. This was until Simone Ashley entered Shondaland and bagged the part of Kate Sharma a.k.a the leading lady of Bridgerton season 2.

Simone

From being typecasted in her career earlier because of her skin colour to now befittingly representing South Asians through Bridgerton

“I was so happy to get a role with such incredible material. It was a privilege to tell such a complex and beautiful love story, but also to represent the Indian community through the eyes of an Indian woman with South Indian-Tamilian heritage was equally rewarding. The idea was to break that barrier of colourism that we do see on screen. Although, the second part wasn’t really at the forefront of my mind. I think I believe me being on set and achieving goals within my career and achieving success in my career is a political statement in itself. Yes, proving that, that anyone can really do anything that they want and choose any career path that they want. I am very grateful for Shondaland, particularly for encouraging diversity in their writer’s room, where the idea of the female lead to be South Indian was born.”

Simone

On playing a lead character that is strong and opinionated based in the 1800s, contradictory to the coy and demure protagonist from season 1

“Kate is quite nuanced, she is quite brave and fierce and opinionated. But a message that I wanted to convey through the character, was that those kinds of attributes really do come from a place of truth and authenticity. I think Kate is very comfortable with portraying humility. As a woman of colour, I suppose that is something that she’s had to experience throughout her life.  It was really fun to add a layer of rebellion to her character, who wanted to make a shift in their culture back then. She came from a place of wanting to protect and love her family, but also just seeking and articulating the truth. And I think that’s something that I’d like to see more within were female characters. It doesn’t necessarily have to be someone very fierce and hard on the outside or inside and as long as it comes from a genuine place.”

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The journey from playing a side-kick in Sex Education to bagging the lead role in Bridgerton, Simone Recalls

“I started out auditioning when I was around 17-18, just like many other aspiring actors I continued to hustle. I worked a lot of side jobswaitressing, and working in retail shops, but continued to audition. For me, it was not only about exploring different material through books, scripts, movies and theatrehaving life experiences was equally educational for me. I always had my foot on the gas, I never took my foot off. I learned so much when I got my role in Sex Education. So deeply grateful for that series, I spent about three and a half years on that show, and into the pandemic as well. And being a series regular, I learned so much and developed more layers in my acting chops. Then Bridgerton came along and I landed my biggest role, which gave me a platform and an opportunity to continue growing and learning. Even though I have been working since I was 17, the opportunities have now definitely opened up for medriving me to move forward.”

Simone

On being in the driver’s seat of her career, right from the beginning

“I want to make a shift in what we see and what might be expected to be seen of me in roles that I continue to take on, whether they’re culturally specific roles or non culturally specific roles. I’m really interested in musicals, I grew up studying a lot of musical theatre and singing. I love stories that really tell the story of what it is to be within the human experiencethere’s something much deeper than race and gender, and age. I’m also grateful for my team, who are pushing me in the right direction to meet with incredible filmmakers and artists to collaborate with and present material that I can’t put down. I set up a production company last year that hasn’t been officially announced with its name, but I have a project that I’m so excited about. I was really inspired by actresses such as Margot Robbie, who put herself in charge of her career and launched a production company to create roles for other women and roles that she wants to do herself.”

Simone

To hold the door open and make space for more South Asian Women

 “My stylist Rebecca always says, we have fingers, not wands. And sometimes in this industry, I think a lot of people feel we can wave a magic wand and the perfect project will come in front of us, I don’t think that’s the case. I also want to create other opportunities for other South Asian women and women from a variety of different Heritage. I constantly want to keep the ball rolling and keep myself creatively inspired and busy. If there’s anything that I can share with women, especially south Indian women, you know, is to really own your own voice and to share that with others and to not be afraid of it. Otherwise, no one’s going to do it for you at the end of the day.”

Simone

Lastly, how exactly does Kate Sharma prefer her tea?

“I’m more of a coffee girl. I like I wake up in the morning and the first thing I think about is having my coffee. I am a big coffee ritual person. But I like tea, ‘chai’ to be more precise, not the blasphemous chai tea *scoffs*. But I really need to find a good place to have one, personally I always mess up my chai. Either I don’t let it brew for long enough or I always put too much of something in there, hence I resort to making coffee.”

Simone

For more on period dramas, read here

 

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