In Shonda Rhimes’ latest, Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story, newcomer Arsema Thomas plays a young Lady Agatha Danbury, the titular character’s bestie. The prequel to the hit Netflix and Shondaland series set in England, which dropped on May 4, tells the story of a young, newly crowned Queen Charlotte’s (India Amarteifio) ascent and marriage to King George. As we spoke about the role and what it meant to embody a young version of the fierce and self-assured Lady Danbury, Thomas still beamed, amazed that she was living out a once far-off dream. “To be a part of this journey is a massive privilege, especially as a Black woman—it’s an honor,” Thomas says of stepping into the Bridgerton universe. “[Rhimes] is so generous to share her gifts of storytelling.”
Thomas, whose pronouns are she and they, auditioned for the role in October 2021 while attending the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA). After landing the gig, Thomas “had to keep it a secret while going to class for five months,” she recalls, because filming didn’t start until March. The 28-year-old ended up dropping out of LAMDA to step into their major screen debut as Lady Danbury. Before the Rhimes production, she had only done the Christian period film Redeeming Love, based on the book of the same name by Francine Rivers.
The road to acting was a recent career transition for the Nigerian-Ethiopian rising star. She was first on a path into the world of sciences—earning a bachelor’s from Carnegie Mellon in 2016 and a master’s from Yale in 2018—but always felt acting came more naturally. They had done theatre in middle and high school but became a bit risk averse in pursuing it full-time.
But when she arrived at Yale, being “right across from the drama school” only piqued their interest in the craft even more. It was always Thomas’ first love, though she wasn’t sure how to turn a passion into a career until she spoke to the Yale School of Drama dean, who told Thomas to apply to the school’s summer program.
Though Thomas still felt strongly about their motivations for pursuing the sciences—to promote health equity and just policies—she quickly realized the field was riddled with the type of unfettered bureaucracy she wouldn’t enjoy. So she listened to that dean and did the summer program. Soon after, she “canceled my lease, packed up my things, moved to Paris, and never looked back.”
Thomas’ quest for advancing equity hasn’t been halted by the acting pivot. They see it as another means to further support the causes that matter most to them. “It’s not about being socially activated,” she says, “I just care a lot, and I don’t know how not to.” Even embodying a young Lady Danbury was its own lesson in advocacy and agency.
The Bridgerton-verse is ripe with biases still contended with today, from ageism and racism to sexism. Thomas says this was a significant draw to Lady Danbury—beyond the excitement of landing their first hit role, it was also an opportunity to shed light on fundamental issues. But stepping into Lady Danbury’s shoes was its own hurdle because “Agatha has that level of maturity to navigate those spaces,” they say. So Thomas had to turn to renowned authors like bell hooks and Zora Neale Hurston to prepare and “give myself that same knowledge.”
I grew up reading and discussing essential works by Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka and listening to Fela Kuti
She also reached out to Adjoa Andoh, the original cast member who plays the older Lady Danbury, for tips. “It was so helpful to get advice from her,” Thomas says. “We had a three-hour Zoom call and really bonded.”
They discovered they both had West African fathers, were close to their mothers, and loved the same books. They also “quickly discovered that we shared the same values. Speaking to her made me realize that regardless of what happens and what journey Agatha is on, it’s important that we have the same foundation of justice and love above all.”
The most striking part of entering the world of Bridgerton has been the show’s lasting influence and how it’s catapulted some of the original cast’s careers. Some even became overnight sensations like Regé-Jean Page and Phoebe Dynevor. Thomas doesn’t seem worried about that, though, because fame was never a draw to acting. It’s a calling she’s been laser-focused on. But at the same time, she frets most about the public’s reception of Agatha.
“I’m not really thinking about [fame],” she says with a peal of light laughter during our call. “I don’t really think it will happen. And that’s the pessimist in me, where I’ve looked at the world quite critically. That comes with imposter syndrome and feeling as though maybe there’s something about Agatha—what she’s going for—that might be too radical. So I feel very scared letting her out into the world. I trust her, but it’s like, how would the world treat her?”
Below, Thomas talks about their versatile background, ascent in acting, and how they plan to use their rising platform to advocate for the causes that matter most in their life.
Let’s jump right in: How did you prepare to play a young Lady Danbury, who’s a bit more uncertain than the older version Adjoa plays?
I read a lot. I read , , and Assata Shakur’s . Those works helped me incorporate the nuances of Agatha’s story into my creative process. I also turned to fiction, like , to better understand the experience of being a Black woman in a non-contemporary space.
My mom and grandmother gave me even more insights. My grandmother was in an arranged marriage when she was young. So speaking to her helped me empathize with Agatha’s situation with her husband because I’m not married. Being married is such a massive part of Agatha’s identity. It’s only when her husband is out of the picture that she comes into her full self. I don’t know what that type of imprisonment feels like.
And, of course, the script was its own preparation. I really got to see Agatha and saw she’s in the same place as me—where I’m feeling a bit lost. I’m the kind of person that sees what comes my way and flies by the seat of my pants. It gave words to emotions that I’ve been feeling but never had the vocabulary for.
It’s interesting you turned to anti-racist and feminist literary works. Why did you make this part of your routine? Why did you choose to remain present in the lives of such women to go on what seemed a challenging journey for a young Agatha?
I wanted to understand what it was like to live, breathe, and fight like that. There is a sense of optimism that bell hooks writes with that I personally lack—I’m naturally a pessimist. For instance, she thinks the world will be better, and that is something I wanted to fully immerse myself in. And it helped me go deeper with Agatha. I wanted to understand why she does what she does because we see her make extremely powerful moves with such intelligence that can only come from experience. And I don’t have those particular experiences.
You have quite an interesting coming-up story, having been born in Atlanta and then spent some time in Uganda, Kenya, and India, speaking five languages, including Yoruba, French, and Spanish. Did any of that versatility and enhanced perspective help you play Agatha and immerse yourself deeper in all the palace ruses?
It did. Because I moved around a lot, I naturally became an observer. I always wanted to take in all of the different surroundings. When you don’t know where you are, you can’t just start walking in the dark. You have to wait and get your bearings. That’s kind of how Agatha moves. She’s on the side-lines but takes a second to assess every situation. Like, she’s playing chess, and everybody else is playing checkers. That takes some real focus. So, I was able to call upon my own experience a bit to tap into that mindset: That idea of not always having to speak and just using the world around you as your information and power.
Arsema Thomas as Lady Agatha Danbury in Queen Charlotte.
Sticking with your upbringing for a second: You got your bachelor’s in biophysics from Carnegie Mellon and your master’s in health policy from Yale, where you delivered a TEDx talk on donor aid dependency and founded a woman-empowerment health app, , helping women get discreet delivery of female condoms to combat HIV/AIDS. First of all, congratulations on all of that—what a feat! Now, at what point did you think, “Actually, acting is my calling!” How did that all play out?
It was a very gradual change. I felt like I was living a double life for a long time. When I went to do my master’s, I was like, I can’t be so close to the Yale School of Drama and not be in there. Seeing all these people being and doing what I wanted was hard. The same feeling happened when I was at Carnegie Mellon, too. So that feeling of not doing what I felt drawn to do had already affected me, and then to experience it again at Yale, I was like, “Okay, I can’t do this!” So I decided to lean all the way in, got on backpage.com, and began auditioning for anything: student films, little TV specs, community and church theatre, and literally anything. I got to the point where I was like, I want to do this—I’m ready. I didn’t care in what capacity. There’s something about storytelling that I realized I loved. So I would do auditions every weekend, commuting from New Haven [in Connecticut] to New York. Back and forth, back and forth. At that point, it became clear to me that I wanted to do this.
After I spoke to the dean of the Yale Drama School in 2018, I did their Summer School of Acting program. Then that fall, I went to Paris to study acting in French and English at Cours Florent. Then in 2020, I started at LAMDA and dropped out last year to play Agatha.
I can’t believe this is my job. How lucky I am
Wow, what a testament to your focus and resilience. So you do the Yale summer program, jet-set to Paris, and find yourself at LAMDA, only to drop out for the best reason. In between all of that, how exactly did the role of a young Lady Danbury fall on your lap?
So I got an agent in London, Gary O’Sullivan, who was just submitting my tape to anything and everything. Basically, helping me get ready to be in the industry. I wanted to do that while I was still at school because it’s another form of practice. And one of them was the role of Agatha. Honestly, I didn’t think I’d get it. Because you send these self-tapes off, and maybe one in 100, you get one call-back. And so, this role was that one out of the 100 that I got a response on. And it was the one that I wanted the most. It was so strange.
Kismet, perhaps? Like this was your time. When you think back to the audition and the process, how do you think you scored such an opportunity of a lifetime?
I mean, that’s why I have imposter syndrome. I do believe in myself as an actor, but I also know so many incredibly talented actors who are still waiting for this type of recognition and to be able to live off of a job. It’s so rare. And so, for it to happen to me fresh out, I feel absolutely grateful. But, at the same time, I keep thinking, “Why me? How?” You know? But, I’m now like, what can I do to make sure that everybody can have the same opportunity? I want to open as many doors as possible because of that.
Specifically, though, I think there’s also a natural similarity between Adjoa and me. And who knows, maybe I also charmed the team into hiring me!
I love the relationship between Lady Danbury and Queen Charlotte—very much bestie goals. What was it like working with India Amarteifio IRL?
She’s really great. She’s truly an artist. Seeing her work is a privilege and enjoyable—like working with a friend because she makes it so easy. From the moment they say “Action!” she’s in it. And because she’s so in it, she brings you in, and that’s truly when the best part of my acting comes out. It’s so amazing when you have a scene partner like that who sets it up for you. They throw you a ball, and you catch it and throw it back—that’s exactly what acting is. And so when somebody is receiving and gives you space to also be you, it makes the process more effortless. You don’t usually get that with many actors.
India Amarteifio and Arsema Thomas behind the scenes.
And, generally, how would you describe working on set and with your castmates?
We all became a family to the point it became indiscernible between cast and crew. We all ate lunch together. We all enjoyed each other’s company. Some of us knew each other from other projects. When it got warmer, we would all sit outside, play music, and play football during breaks—it felt like camp. I was like, “I can’t believe this is my job. How lucky I am.” What set that kind of pleasant vibe up was that those from the original cast were so welcoming to those of us who were new, like me, India, Corey [Mylchreest], and Sam [Clemmett, who plays Brimsley]. It was easy to see that they all love each other, which made it easy for us to fall into that love as well. I miss it constantly.
In its own way, the show taps into social issues still felt today. From your Insta and prior academic work, it’s easily discernible that you’re very much politically and socially activated. How would you describe your journey to activism?
I’ve always been quite politically motivated because my parents are. Growing up, all around Sub-Saharan Africa, specifically, you can’t help but be a part of the politics because it’s an everyday matter. My parents [dad: Nigerian; mom: Ethiopian] majored in economic development, so they practiced that. They were there when the Biafra War [the Nigerian Civil War] and Nigerian independence were happening. So, naturally, they were part of the politics because that was part of their life. They always talked about “how do we lift Africa as a continent up?” and discussed the importance of such things. I grew up reading and discussing essential works by Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka [famed Nigerian authors] and listening to Fela Kuti [renowned Nigerian musician and political activist] all my life.
And so, because of them, I’ve understood: how can I not care? I feel for everyone in such a profound way. If I don’t care about what’s happening around me, even if it’s not impacting me directly, I don’t know what else I would be doing on this earth. Not only causes like the Black female experience but every experience being marginalized and racialized. Because we cannot be liberated unless all of us are liberated.
And now, you’re on the verge of stardom. How do you plan to use your rising platform to continue pushing and advocating for the causes that matter most to you?
I’m in the early stages of discovering what this platform means. I’m still figuring out how I will advocate for things. But the platform itself has not impacted me much. I just know that now more people are looking and reading what I, maybe, repost from somebody else. But I want to leverage whatever platform I have so that people who’ve been saying things and fighting for so long can have the attention they deserve. That’s the most important thing to me: That I do this job that I love and, at the same time, help and lift people up. This is what Shonda Rhimes has done. She has leveraged her opportunities so that other voices and other stories can be seen and heard. And that’s what I want to do as well.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.