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Allow Hannah Dodd to Reintroduce Francesca Bridgerton

May 20, 2024   |   Written by Max Gao

The actress talks taking over the role for season 3, her character’s search for a husband, and “getting thrown into the deep end” on set.

Hannah Dodd likes to say that she shares Francesca Bridgerton with Ruby Stokes. After Stokes originated the character in the first two seasons of the hit Regency-era romantic drama Bridgerton, Dodd has taken over the coveted role of the sixth Bridgerton sibling for the show’s highly anticipated third installment, the first half of which is now streaming on Netflix.

“Francesca is such a gorgeous character that it takes two people to get to tell her story, but I’m not trying to erase the fact that Ruby played her first,” Dodd tells ELLE.com on a recent video call from her flat in London. “I think we had a little chat when [my casting] announcement came out, and we were always liking each other’s stuff [on Instagram]. I congratulated her on her job; she congratulated me on my job. So it’s really lovely to share this with her.”

Dodd, by her own admission, was not expecting to audition again for Bridgerton. In the spring of 2022, Dodd—who had been in the running three years earlier to play Phoebe Dynevor’s character, Daphne Bridgerton—responded to a confidential casting call. The title and character name were clearly being kept a secret, but Dodd remembers self-taping a scene about a maiden at a ball.

It wasn’t until months later that Dodd learned, on the day of her Zoom meeting with Bridgerton producers, that she was a frontrunner to play Francesca. “I had no time to prepare in any way, so I just had to listen to what it was that they wanted and respond. It meant that I didn’t go in with any sort of preconceived ideas, which is a completely different way of working. Normally, I like to prep and really be ready,” she says, admitting that the experience was oddly “freeing,” if a little intimidating.

Dodd learned that she had landed the part at a family party, the day after her father’s wedding. “My agent had lied to me. He had said that I was going to go in again the week after because he knew that I was at a wedding, and I’d [otherwise] be thinking about it the whole time,” she recalls. Her agent decided to call only if there was even more cause for celebration—and indeed, there was. “I had loads of family and friends there, and it was the last day before my sister went back to Australia, so it meant that we got to have that moment [together], which was really nice.”

The middle of three children born in Colchester and raised between Essex and Suffolk in the U.K., Dodd began her career as a model and grew up as a classically trained dancer, graduating from the London Studio Centre in 2017. A lover of old musical films from the Golden Age of Hollywood, she was always drawn to the storytelling element of dancing—and discovered the same thing could be said of acting. “My first job was playing a ballet dancer for a TV show, so that kind of married the two and didn’t make it quite so terrifying,” Dodd says of her starring role in Hulu’s teen sci-fi fantasy Find Me in Paris. “I loved the dancing, but I was so into the research of the character and understanding the story arc, and I just never looked back.”

Dodd is no stranger to period pieces, having recurred in two seasons of Hulu’s 18th-century, London-set brothel drama Harlots, starred opposite Millie Bobby Brown in Netflix’s Enola Holmes 2, and played a young Sienna Miller in the Netflix miniseries Anatomy of a Scandal. But Bridgerton, which has been lauded for its sexually liberated and racially diverse reimagining of the British Regency era, has the kind of rare staying power that has transformed its main actors into global superstars—a prospect that, Dodd admits, makes her nervous. Until then, she insists that she remains focused on the work at hand.

After landing the role, Dodd dove headfirst into preparation, starting with Julia Quinn’s romance novels. While Stokes played Francesca more on the periphery in the first two seasons, Dodd joined the show just as the character was entering the ton, or London high society, for the first time. “That was an amazing surprise,” Dodd notes. “In the books, we don’t ever see how she actually does join society.”

Although Francesca’s book, When He Was Wicked, takes place at a later juncture of her life, Dodd wanted to capture little traits and behavioral tics that readers would recognize—her little half-smile, her sarcasm, her wit, her tendency to look upward—while taking account that the character is still more of an ingénueand has not yet been hardened by her lived experiences as an adult. “There’s a huge arc that happens before [her book], so I needed to work out where to start her and who she would be at this point of her life,” she says.

Like her onscreen counterpart, Dodd was learning to find her feet in a brand new environment. She jokes that, on her first day on set, she felt a little like the winner of a contest because she felt like she had stepped into her TV screen. Thanks to a last-minute scheduling change, she eased into filming with a one-on-one scene with Ruth Gemmell, who plays widowed matriarch Violet, Francesca’s mom. The next day, she filmed the opening scene in which most of the Bridgerton clan find Francesca playing Mozart’s “Funeral March” before leaving for Queen Charlotte’s (Golda Rosheuvel) annual debutante ceremony. (Book readers may sense a bit of foreshadowing there.)

Although her dance background helped her develop an “all-right ear” for the right notes, Dodd quickly realized that playing the piano is a lot harder than it looks. “Everything you see me play, I’m playing. What you hear is probably a much more talented musician, but I did learn everything,” she says with a self-deprecating laugh.

Since she is unable to read sheet music, Dodd learned how to play each song by memorizing the way her hands would move and the specific shapes her fingers would make—almost like how Phoebe learned to play the guitar on Friends. Dodd assigns a particular scent to each of her characters to help her with memory recall, so she would often spray Coach’s women’s perfume to help her remember Francesca’s pieces. (It didn’t always work.)

“I really thought it was going to be my hidden talent, that I’d be able to whip out Mozart at a party. But every time I finished one piece, my brain would just get rid of it and focus on the next one,” she says, turning her laptop to show a keyboard sitting in her living room. “I am hoping that I can have some more lessons and that I have actually absorbed a little bit, so I won’t be starting from scratch again.”

Since being “thrown into the deep end” during her first few days on set, Dodd has integrated seamlessly with the rest of the Bridgerton cast, who, she says, were much more down-to-earth than she had expected. The cast has grown to function like a real-life family; Dodd will often seek out different actors for personal and professional advice.

But there is no denying that she has found a kindred spirit in Claudia Jessie, who plays her older sister Eloise: “Clauds is the love of my life, and we would sit in hair and makeup every morning. I would not have been able to get through that season without her.” (And fret not, dearest gentle reader: Dodd confirms that the Bridgertons have recorded a new batch of TikToks that should be dropping soon. Florence Hunt, who plays youngest sibling Hyacinth, “is fabulous at getting us all to do them.”)

Compared to her siblings, Francesca is much more introverted and does not feel the same urge for external validation. Having spent months at a time living with the siblings’ Aunt Winnie in the countryside town of Bath, where she has honed her skills on the pianoforte, Francesca feels much more comfortable communicating her thoughts and feelings through music than spoken words. But that is not to say that Francesca is a total recluse.

New showrunner Jess Brownell “had talked from the start about introverts and how it’s not just like, ‘Oh, you’re really shy.’ It’s a whole working person behind that,” says Dodd, who saw parts of herself in Francesca. “Introverts can be really outgoing and confident with a small group of people, and then in a new environment be absolutely terrified and really quiet. We just wanted to make sure that different situations bring out different sides to her [personality].”

Francesca’s debut on the marriage mart, for instance, brings out a more pragmatic side to her character. Having already accepted the fact that making her debut is a rite of passage for her family, she simply wants to find “a nice person” who can allow her to “continue living the life that she wants,” explains Dodd. “I always talk about how Eloise fought the whole concept, and Daphne romanticized the whole concept. Francesca kind of sits in the middle, in that she accepts that it’s her turn, and the quicker she gets it done, the quicker she’s out of the spotlight. That feeling of eyes on her and the level of expectation is something that she really struggles with. [The identity of] her husband is not something that she’s grown up fantasizing about.”

Francesca’s piano-playing talents soon catch the attention of the Queen, who calls her the “sparkler”—rather than the traditional “diamond”—of the season and introduces her to Lord Samadani (David Mumeni), a Viennese marquis who has designs of having eight children of his own. But Francesca, instead, finds herself drawn to the quiet comforts of John Stirling (Victor Alli), the Earl of Kilmartin.

The stark contrast between the two suitors becomes clear at the ball in the fourth episode. While she appears mildly disinterested by Lord Samadani’s attempts to make polite conversation, Francesca lights up when the Earl of Kilmartin gifts her a rearrangement of the music that they once heard together in public. “Lord Samadani wants her to be on the dance floor, center of the room; he is proud to show her off. The dancing is for everybody—it’s for the Queen, and it’s for the room. John comes in with something that will speak only to her,” Dodd says. “I really think that moment really shows the difference in characters and their expectation of Francesca.”

Whereas all of the other Bridgerton love stories have shown an initial spark that has evolved into a fiery romance, Francesca and John might have the slowest burn of them all—their idea of flirting is standing or sitting in complete silence. “What we wanted to do with John and Francesca is [show] this almost mature relationship that we see with older couples, and that ability to sit in the silence together and not need to be saying things. You just know that you’ve got each other,” Dodd explains.

“They both struggle with this idea of what a person in the Ton should be,” she adds. In that quietude, they’re able to make the other person feel seen and worthy. “I think that all of those moments are trying to show that he’s not expecting her to be anything or do anything more than what it is that she is. That is enough for him, and vice versa.”

Book readers know that the first half of season 3 only lays the groundwork for Francesca’s bittersweet story. Although she is “very aware of certain things” that will happen down the line, Dodd stresses that “it’s just not the time” to focus on those details just yet.

For now, Dodd is most excited to delve into Francesca’s individual relationships with her siblings. “I would love to get to explore the Eloise-Francesca relationship. It really stands out in the books, and they are described as ‘accidental twins,’ and they do have this sense of humor,” she says. “I also love the relationship between her and Hyacinth because they are completely different people. Colin’s [Luke Newton] had a lot going on this season, so [his relationship with Francesca] is definitely something that can be explored in the future.”

And should the occasion arise, Dodd says “it would be a privilege” to get to adapt When He Was Wicked—a story that, she feels, is ultimately about resilience.

“I think a lot of people can relate to her, even if you’re not an introvert. She has a story that will represent a lot more people and just the realities of how messy and difficult life can be,” Dodd says, careful to sidestep any spoilers for those who have yet to read the books. “Everybody has a similar big moment like that in their life—whatever it might look like—[where you find] that strength to love again, or stand up and fight for yourself, or just wake up and get out of bed in the morning. A lot of people have felt the depths of life, and Francesca represents that story.”