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The Debutante Having a Ball

May 05, 2024

Imagine doing audition after audition for a role in Bridgerton, only to lose out in a gut-wrenching final round. Imagine watching it turn into one of Netflix’s biggest shows while you remain stuck in an admin job, juggling spreadsheets.

And then finding out there’s a juicy part waiting for you in the third season after all. You could say it’s all been a lot for Hannah Dodd to take in.

‘I felt like a competition winner being taken around the set,’ the 28-year-old actress says about joining the period drama as Francesca, the shyest of the aristocratic Bridgerton siblings. ‘I thought I’d stepped into my TV screen.’ With her wide almond eyes, Dodd reminds me of a young Kate Moss, albeit from sleepy Colchester instead of gritty Croydon.

She twirls around the photo studio in bright yellow Louis Vuitton (she’s had dance training since the age of two). ‘Oh yeah, get that ballet out,’ she says, stretching her leg at an extraordinary angle while poised on a chair in huge heels. She winces. ‘My muscles are like, “Ain’t done this in a while!’’’

These are Dodd’s first steps inside the Bridgerton hit factory. The series is made by Shonda Rhimes, the American creator of Grey’s Anatomy, who signed up to make shows exclusively for Netflix for a reported £115 million in 2017. But Bridgerton still surprised everyone when it smashed the streaming giant’s record in 2020 for its most watched English-language drama.

Two years later, it broke its own record. Season three is out this month.

The show is also a star maker. Set in the 19th-century court of the fictional English Queen Charlotte, it is based on the novels by Julia Quinn and focuses on the eight Bridgerton siblings as they enter a London society dominated by Lady Whistledown, the anonymous gossip columnist.

The racy first season transformed the lives of Regé-Jean Page, who played the Duke of Hastings, and Phoebe Dynevor, who was Daphne Bridgerton, his love interest. Both were relatively unknown, two alumni of BBC One’s teen drama Waterloo Road. However, 12 sex scenes and 113 million viewers later, both became global names.
The same Bridgerton magic was sprinkled on the careers of Simone Ashley (Kate Sharma) and Jonathan Bailey (Anthony, Viscount Bridgerton) in the second season. This third season centres on Nicola Coughlan (Penelope Featherington), but the guaranteed fan favourite? Hannah Dodd.

Dodd’s character Francesca, previously played in glimpses by Stokes (who left due to other filming commitments), is elegant and steely. She is seemingly more interested in music theory than men, but things had to move fast. Piano lessons, fittings – it was all a bit of an overnight transformation. Which is apt for Dodd, as she had already earned the nickname Cinderella during her first big break, co-starring in a Burberry advert with Romeo Beckham when she was 19.

Not one to let the excitement go to her head, she hadn’t quit her cleaning job at her local pub. ‘They called me Cinderella because after the shoot I went and scrubbed the toilets the next day.’ As for settling in with a cast that had already worked together for two years, she still hadn’t met most of them by the time she shot her debut scene, in which the whole Bridgerton family walk in on her character playing Mozart on the harpsichord.

‘Johnny [Jonathan Bailey] has to say, “You look like you’ve gotten rather good!’’ But Dodd hadn’t – her harpsichord sounded like a cat being strangled. ‘I messed up the whole thing. I was so nervous, we had to do it quite a few times. He burst out laughing and said he really couldn’t say that line. So that broke the ice.’

Dodd can’t read music so ‘I had to use my dance brain and learn finger choreography. My piano teacher taught me it as a little dance. I thought I’d be able to play Mozart for life, it’d be my party trick – but as soon as I had to learn a new piece, the last one was gone.’

She has become very close to Claudia Jessie, who plays her naughty sister Eloise. ‘She’s the best human in the world. I think I told her I was obsessed with her after about four hours of knowing her. I attach myself physically to her when I’m with her.’ 

There is a lot of laughing on set, even though they have a 4am call time to get through all that hair and make-up: ‘Clauds always says we wear ourselves out by 11am.’ She also adores the show’s choreographer Jack Murphy (waltz, polka, quadrille, galop are all staple Bridgerton dances). ‘I kept saying the other love affair of this season was me and him.’

Luke Thompson, who plays her brother Benedict, ‘has also done loads of dancing, so we’d have banter about which one of us was Jack’s favourite and get very competitive’.
She admits the books that inspired the show have a ‘very sexy’ plotline for Francesca, a character arc that runs well beyond season three. (A fireside scene, involving a gardener’s cottage, wet clothes and a very physical marriage proposal, is surely one of the most sensuous in regency romance fiction.)

While Dodd is tight-lipped about her love interest, there is definitely one, as she had to work with intimacy coordinators. ‘Which isn’t something I necessarily wanted to do in my career. But I read the book [When He Was Wicked, the sixth Bridgerton novel, in which Francesca is the central character], and then when I got the role, fans kept tagging me in videos saying, “Does Hannah know what she’s letting herself in for?”

The cast certainly do. Her co-star Bailey has spoken about the measures the show took to preserve actors’ modesty: if two people are performing a sex scene they must have three barriers (little cushions) separating them. A half-inflated netball is often wedged in between on-screen lovers to allow for movement without physical connection. Dodd is grateful for those intimacy coordinators.

‘They say that as an actor you should act as a “yes person”, and [they] are there to be the “no person”. Sometimes you can agree to things on a set, but then afterwards you’re like, “Actually, I didn’t want to do that.” They are there to list what you’re happy with and make sure nobody goes around that.’

Dodd has been working since she was 15, when a photographer, who’d taken pictures of her modelling for a local hairdresser – ‘it was a chain of two branches, so I thought I’d already made it,’ she says – sent them to Select model agency, which had launched the careers of David Gandy and Sienna Miller: ‘I didn’t really understand it, but I got signed.’ 

Being a ‘goody-goody’ at school, Dodd felt conflicted about taking the work ‘as missing lessons was horrendous for me’, but she realised, ‘If I wanted to go to dance school it’d be expensive and my waitressing job might not pay for it. I was such a little try-hard geek at the time.’

The middle of three siblings raised by parents who expected them to take responsibility for themselves, she says, ‘I’d get the train to London by myself at 15 for model castings. My dad gave me the A-Z and we’d plot with a pen where I needed to go as we didn’t have internet on our phones.’

After leaving school, as a dance student she shared a house in North Finchley that was infested with mice, where the living and dining rooms were used as bedrooms. ‘We were very good girls. We did go out sometimes at the weekend, but we had ballet at 8am every morning, plus I had to pay for it all, so I worked weekends as well.’

She has experience in other period dramas, namely Hulu’s Harlots, Netflix’s Enola Holmes 2 (‘I feel like I’ve said, “I’m never doing a corset role again” a million times and here we are!’ she says) and Anatomy of a Scandal, playing a young Sienna Miller. ‘She’d walk on to that make-up bus at 6am looking amazing,’ says Dodd. ‘I was just like, “Oh god, what are we going to do? How do you give me her face?” There was loads of make-up.’

With a season of Bridgerton money in the bank, she’s bought ‘a teeny flat’ in Southeast London. She doesn’t have a boyfriend, ‘so it’s my own little space. Before that, my dad had moved me so many times. I was literally in a single bed a few months ago, in my friend’s spare room, in between moves. I was like, “I can’t do this any more.’’

However, because of her Bridgerton schedule she has barely spent any time in her new flat, ‘so my TV is still on the floor and I don’t have curtains. I’m using a bench for a coffee table. It’s quite tragic.’

And career-wise, what now? Dodd is tight-lipped about the TV series and film project she’s working on next, but Bridgerton’s knack of turning little-known actors into big names seems guaranteed to pay off.
Whatever, it’s a heck of a long way from scrubbing pub toilets.