There's a New Diamond of the Season: Meet Bridgerton Actress Charithra Chandran
There are spoilers ahead—you have been warned!
*Imitates finest Julie Andrews as Lady Whistledown voice* Dearest readers, unless you have been excluded from the cultural conversation of the last two years, you will be aware of the Netflix blockbuster series Bridgerton and its namesake family, who set the Ton ablaze with drama and scandalous storylines ranging from the archaic (marriage-market matchmaking) to the downright alluring and meme-worthy. (The Duke of Hastings seductively licking a spoon is indelibly marked in our thirsty minds.)
Now, Bridgerton is back for a second season, and in keeping with the storyline of the Julia Quinn novels the show is based on, the focus will pivot away from the initial tale of Regé-Jean Page and Phoebe Dynevor’s Duke and Duchess of Hastings and towards new love matches.
So that means dance cards are ready for bachelor Anthony Bridgerton (Jonathan Bailey)—who is determined to find the finest partner to reflect his status—and there’s a new family on the social scene, the Sharmas, consisting of single mother Mary (Shelley Conn) and her daughters Kate (Simone Ashley) and Edwina (Charithra Chandran). And whilst Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel) may have awarded Edwina with the coveted title of “diamond of the season,” an ensuing love triangle between Anthony, Edwina, and Kate means Edwina’s path to true love is “not flawless, my dear.” But it is certainly juicy enough to get Lady Whistledown’s quill well and truly going…
I meet Chandran via Zoom from her West London apartment, where she excuses her flatmate’s background chatter part way through our interview. He’s in the middle of a work meeting in the same living room—such is #WFH life. Like the original cast before her, Chandran has been plucked from relative obscurity in the acting world, and although she isn’t fazed by her life being on the cusp of changing since she has joined the cast of one of the most successful programs of all time (82 million homes watched the debut series within just 28 days of its release), she does still acknowledge that this is a pretty big deal.
The power of adding South Asian representation to Bridgerton—a show that challenged casting norms within costume dramas in its first season—is at the forefront of Chandran’s mind. “It has just done so much for TV and for actors of color and for representation. That should never be understated,” she says. “When I watched the episodes back, I cried because I just never, ever thought this would happen. It gives us hope that there is space for us in this industry, that roles that were never accessible now are, and it just would’ve never happened without a show like this.”
Along with the kind support of Bridgerton’s existing talent, who she now considers a family in their own right, the 7500-piece costume wardrobe also helped the 25-year-old rising star ease into the Regency world created by director Shonda Rhimes. “I genuinely think that my ritual for getting into character was the hair, makeup, and the costumes,” she says. “I remember I had my first hair, makeup, and costume fittings [all] on the same day, and as soon as I put on the first dress that they’d made for me, I was crying. I was like, ‘This is insane. Oh my God, I look like the girls from season one.’”
Chandran’s road to Bridgerton was not without a plot twist worthy of a show itself, though. “Oh my God, it is a very complicated story. At the time, it was filled with lots of dread, but obviously, it’s worth it now and may be worth it for the cool story,” she exhales, preparing to recount her lengthy audition process. “I first auditioned for the role of Kate back in November 2020 before the first season even came out [and] when the first trailer had literally just dropped. My agent was like, ‘I don’t know if you’ve seen this, but I have attached a trailer to this new show. Let me know what you think. They want you to audition.’ I saw it and was in love. I thought, ‘Oh my God, firstly, this is so fucking cool. Secondly, this is just going to be a megahit.’ So I auditioned in November, had a few auditions for it, and when the show came out, I binge-watched it in three days!”
She continues, “A little bit later, they said, ‘We don’t think that you are right for this role. Aesthetically, it doesn’t really work.’ I was cool with it, and I got an offer for another job, which was Alex Rider on Amazon Prime. I thought, ‘One door closes, another opens. Guess it wasn’t meant to be.’ Then in mid-February, I was sitting in the makeup chair for Alex Rider, and my agent called me, and he goes, ‘Okay, so they’ve signed someone for Kate, and they’re now looking at you for Edwina. What do you think?’ I just didn’t want to audition for Edwina as a sort of consolation prize.”
“I read the script, and the character was just so different from me, and [I] knew it would be a challenge performance-wise and really push me,” she adds. “I also thought, ‘This is really important because there are so many women, especially in South Asia where I’m from, that live Edwina’s life and grow up with the idea in their head that their duty is to be a wife, is to be a mother, and that forms their entire identity without, sometimes, the opportunity for exploration of more.’ I thought, ‘This is an opportunity to be a mouthpiece for millions of young women who don’t necessarily have the biggest voice of their own.’ And if I can show them that they can be so much more than what people expect of them, that’s great.”
So does the new series push inclusivity and representation even further? “For one thing, they are very explicitly immigrants,” Chandran replies. “The Sharmas come from India to England, and we have this multiracial society in London, but these people are different—not only because of the color of their skin but because they’ve grown up in a different environment, and they’re not in familiar surroundings. The same as with the first season, it’s done in a very subtle, subliminal way. It’s not very in-your-face, and that makes it easier to digest. The Sharma storyline brings in the idea of just being an immigrant and what that means.”
It is an experience that isn’t far from Chandran’s own. Her parents immigrated from India to Scotland, where she was born, to complete their medical training. When her father moved back to India for a couple of years, Chandran lived with her mother in Hoylake near Liverpool before going to boarding school at the age of 6 as her parents—then junior doctors working nights and rotating hospitals as part of their training—sought to give her some stability. “I was an only child, so to me, boarding school was like a constant sleepover,” Chandran explains. “I was so much younger than everyone else. I had to meet with the head and the matron and prove that cognitively I was able to manage—everyone else was 11, 12 years old.” This early independence speaks volumes about how confidently Chandran presents today. Though she confides, “I was so desperate to be popular, and everything about me—if it’s not obvious already—does not scream popular. I’m so nerdy and ridiculous. So imagine this typical academic theatre kid trying to be a popular kid. It just did not work!”
During those typically tricky teenage years, the representation that Bridgerton brings would have helped Chandran the most, she admits: “I grew up in the Kate Moss era. I love Kate Moss, but [it was] very much the ‘nothing tastes as good as skinny feels’ world and the Victoria’s Secret Angels as the model du jour. I had no one that looked like me. I associated being me with not being beautiful, not being worthy of attention. I remember vividly Lupita Nyong’o as she was doing her award tour for Twelve Years a Slave in her red Ralph Lauren cape, her Prada blue gown, and I just thought, ‘Oh my God, this woman is an angel.’ It was only with that that I started seeing more and more representation, and I started loving myself. But it makes me really sad that, for about 16 years of my life, I didn’t, and I desperately wanted to change everything about me for that.” Beauty ideals and standards may have shifted, but irrespective of those fickle societal changes, Chandran has reached a level of self-assuredness that enables her to prioritize being “healthy [and] happy and feeling fulfilled in other parts of [her] life.”
I ask whether that long journey to self-love enabled her to find an appreciation for the beauty and dress traditions of her Indian heritage too. “A hundred percent,” Chandran responds instantly. “When I was younger when we’d go to weddings for my mum and dad’s colleagues or various functions and celebrations, my mum would always want me to dress up in traditional Indian clothing, and I’d be so upset and so embarrassed because I just didn’t want to be different. Then as I started to crave uniqueness and desired to feel special, I really started embracing my culture because I thought to myself, ‘What can I offer to this world that other people can’t?’ And one of those things, for me, is my heritage and my traditions, so now, I’m so proudly Indian, and I want people to know that.”
One poignant scene in the first episode shows Edwina’s sister Kate discussing Edwina’s suitors with Lady Danbury, the duke’s mentor from season one, saying that Edwina had to work “twice as hard.” Has that narrative been true in Chandran’s own life? “Parts of my life, for sure. Not that I felt that I had to work twice as hard, but I’ve certainly never had room to fail. I think [that] is more accurate in my personal experience,” she says. “That is someone who’s grown up, truthfully, with a lot of privilege. My parents are educated. I’m middle class, and I think that those things should be considered. Even with all the traditional privileges, I’ve never been allowed to fail. Maybe this is extreme, but I’m less likely to just get the benefit of the doubt. I have to be extra careful and conscious of what I do, how I behave, what I say, and over time, that can be tiring, for sure.”
Despite this, Chandran is not scared of taking risks in the face of possible failure. After graduating from Oxford University with a degree in philosophy and politics and with a job offer from BCG (one of the world’s three largest and most prestigious management-consultancy firms), Chandran decided to take the unpredictable path of acting. “I’ve always been performing since I was little,” she says. “I was a probably annoying kid who’d write plays, put them on and make people watch them. As I got to GCSEs and A levels, my parents were like, ‘Just focus on academics.’ Then luckily, Oxford is so good for drama. The university has produced so many amazing performers and writers, and I did more acting than I did my degree, and my love was reignited after a few years of it being dormant.”
“Then weirdly, COVID—which is a bit of a mindfuck, something that’s caused so much pain and suffering for other people—is kind of the best thing that’s happened to me, which is so fucked, and it’s really hard to rationalize that in your head. [Before the pandemic], because I enjoy performing so much, I asked BCG, ‘Can I take a year off before joining just so I can act and get it out of my system before I settle into this job?’ They said yes,” she says. “So for six months, I was doing short films, local theatre, whatever I could just to get experience, having the time of my life. COVID then happened, my job start date got postponed, and I really thought about what I wanted from my life and realized that the last six months had been the best time, that I’d truly fallen in love with performing, and I couldn’t imagine a life without it.”
As I remark that pursuing one’s passion is an incredibly brave thing to do, Chandran says, “When you’re a child of immigrants, all you grow up hearing is, ‘We’ve got to survive. We’ve got to make it. We’ve got to just live and survive and get through.’ Seeing my parents do that, I realised that surely they did that and they worked their arses off so that I could thrive, not just survive, right?”
It’s this same attitude that sees Chandran not buckling under the immediate pressure to find another big job straight after a blockbuster show like Bridgerton. “If I’m being totally honest, which I don’t think many people are about this… For sure when I got the role, I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to just wait by the phone, and people are going to want to call me. When am I getting that phone call with [Steven] Spielberg?’” she jokes. “And it’s the most ridiculous thing because obviously, that didn’t happen. I’ve been auditioning, and nothing has clicked so far, and it’s so funny because before Bridgerton I was auditioning, and as an actor, you don’t expect to get a role you auditioned for. You audition, and then you leave it behind. I’m in the process of reminding myself that I’ve got to keep working hard. I’ve got to keep hustling. I’ve got to keep improving in my trade because I can’t be entitled to anything. I can’t be expectant. I’ve got to keep proving myself.” Now those are the words of a true diamond.
Season two of Bridgerton is now streaming on Netflix.
Photographer: Jacob McFadden
Stylist: Holly White at The Wall Group
Hairstylist: Patrick Wilson at The Wall Group
Makeup Artist: Kenneth Soh at The Wall Group
Manicurist: Julia Babbage
Creative Director: Cassandra Lear
Producer: Samantha Obalim
Entertainment Director: Jess Baker
This post originally appeared on Who What Wear UK.