Jonathan Bailey Tells Phoebe Waller-Bridge His Deepest, Darkest Secrets
Before he was known as the dashing Lord Anthony Bridgerton or Tim Laughlin, the character in Fellow Travelers for which he won a Critics Choice Award earlier this month, Jonathan Bailey caught the attention of Phoebe Waller-Bridge with his confident, self-possessed audition for her show Crashing nearly a decade ago. “You came in like a fireball,” said the Fleabag star on Zoom with Bailey, recounting how, while reading for the role of the sex-obsessed Sam, Bailey asked permission to lay his script out on the floor in front of him like a rainbow. “You had no embarrassment. You didn’t actually refer to it again, but you took those few seconds to just completely set up what you exactly needed for that audition, and then you were so free.” In the years since, with roles in Bridgerton, the Showtime drama Fellow Travelers, and the upcoming Wicked movie adaptation, Bailey has become one of the most sought-after actors in the business, capable of generating sparks with whoever’s on screen with him. Waller-Bridge attributes this to the 35-year-old’s distinct understanding of tension. “You’re like a chemistry machine,” she gushed. “There’s this incredible erotic energy that people are so excited about.” Last week, from a hotel room at Claridge’s in London, Bailey talked to Waller-Bridge about longing, orgasms, frosted tips, nostalgia, Shakespeare, and his very first role: playing a raindrop in a stage production of Noah’s Ark.
PHOEBE WALLER-BRIDGE: Hi.
JONATHAN BAILEY: Hi.
WALLER-BRIDGE: I’m taking my glasses off. Now I can be real.
BAILEY: I’ve just had a gin and tonic, actually. I had a meeting and he really wanted a glass of Whispering Angel, so I was like, “Well, I’ve got to dive in.”
WALLER-BRIDGE: What’s the time there?
BAILEY: Oh, I’m literally around the corner from you. Literally, I’ve come into Claridge’s Hotel and checked in for an hour just to have a Zoom.
WALLER-BRIDGE: Oh, god. That’s so chic. Jonny, I want all of your secrets.
BAILEY: I feel like you’ve got quite a few of them already.
WALLER-BRIDGE: I do, actually. And we’re not going to talk about any of those. But I did also get to do a little bit of research on you.
BAILEY: Oh, god. What have you got?
WALLER-BRIDGE: Jonathan Stewart Bailey, I’d like to jump straight in with the fact that the first professional job you had was playing a teardrop, or a raindrop?
BAILEY: There were teardrops, but yeah, I was playing a raindrop.
WALLER-BRIDGE: You were a crying raindrop.
BAILEY: A crying raindrop in Noah’s Ark.
WALLER-BRIDGE: And how old were you then?
BAILEY: I think I was about 5 going on 29. I was really upset because it didn’t rain. The bitch that played Noah, she forgot the cue for the rain to come. So my dance didn’t make it, but at the end of the show they allowed me to do it once everyone had applauded.
WALLER-BRIDGE: I asked you that specifically because you’ve also said that your grandmother took you to see a production of Oliver in London and that’s what changed everything.
WALLER-BRIDGE: So was the raindrop before or after that? I am getting to something, I promise.
BAILEY: I think it was probably afterwards. I was really young when I went to see Oliver.
WALLER-BRIDGE: I’m interested because I read that seeing it made you decide you wanted to perform. Can you tell me the specific thing that made it click?
BAILEY: I’ll tell you, the most bizarre thing is that I had three seasons at the RSC under my belt by the age of nine. There was a moment where I played Prince Arthur, the kid in Shakespeare who gets his eyes gouged out and has to escape a turret. I remember doing that production and thinking I was aware of the power of words, if that makes sense. You’re so porous at that age, I think. It is such a gift, isn’t it, to be shown what iambic pentameter is.
WALLER-BRIDGE: Do you still feel passionate about Shakespeare now?
BAILEY: I do, actually. It’s my dirty, filthy habit.
WALLER-BRIDGE: Your dirty little habit. I know what you mean, though, how if you come to it quite raw, and it’s not something that you’ve had shoved down your throat at school, there is nothing more epic and spectacular.
BAILEY: And being around people who are just so committed to their vocation, whether they’re writing or creating. The smell backstage at the RSC at the Barbican was like cigarettes, stage makeup, Joe Fiennes, and hope.
WALLER-BRIDGE: That’s a lot of beautiful smells you’ve got going on there.
BAILEY: I know. Talk about top notes and bottom notes. I was like, “These men, these titans of theater!”
WALLER-BRIDGE: That’s extraordinary that you were exposed to that kind of level of professionalism. Because you are consummately professional, and I remember that. You have this incredible ability to be completely live and spontaneous and wild at the same time as being so incredibly professional, and that’s why working with you felt totally safe. I know that I’ve got a professional actor coming today, but I have absolutely no idea what’s going to happen because you still managed to keep that spontaneity and danger.
BAILEY: I suppose it’s sometimes dangerous. Today I had to do an interview. Crashing came up and I described working with you as being on the constant edge of an orgasm and also hysteria.
WALLER-BRIDGE: It did have a kind of wild, beautiful energy.
BAILEY: There’s a chemical alchemy when you get the right group of people led by the right people.
WALLER-BRIDGE: I haven’t had that in quite the same way since, where everyone has equal importance in the story. That’s the thing that feels quite rare, actually, there’s like six of you and they’re all as fucked up as each other. I remember your audition. You came in like a fireball and you already felt like you had a Sam energy. You sat in your chair, took out your script from your bag, and then you were like, “Give me a second,” and you laid out your script around you on the floor. You had no embarrassment about what you needed or in front of you. You didn’t actually refer to it again, but you took those few seconds to just completely set up what you exactly needed for that audition, and then you were so free. And I just wonder if you’ve felt that particular type of confidence your whole life?
BAILEY: That’s a really good question. I’ve got three older sisters and I wonder if they are a structure. I’ve definitely been in environments where I don’t feel free, and then you give the worst performance of your life. What I’ve found in the last few years is that, of course, you have to adapt so quickly to work out what you need in order to be able to be free. I think if I don’t have the equivalent of that on the floor, I panic or get really scared.
WALLER-BRIDGE: There’s something about that, which is being able to play dangerously in a safe environment. I feel like that’s got so much to do with an understanding of tension, which I think you have. You’re like a chemistry machine. Obviously, with Bridgerton and then in Fellow Travelers, there’s this incredible erotic energy that people are so excited about.
BAILEY: I really think it comes from Crashing.
WALLER-BRIDGE: It doesn’t come from Crashing, it comes from you. I think you’re the king of tension. I think you understand what that is.
BAILEY: I think you can give yourself butterflies, can’t you?
WALLER-BRIDGE: Is that what you’re looking for, the butterfly all the time?
BAILEY: Yeah, I’m always looking for my butterfly farm. The misty, slightly smelly greenhouse full of butterflies.
WALLER-BRIDGE: That’s your tummy?
BAILEY: Yeah, that’s my tummy.
WALLER-BRIDGE: Did you always dream of playing leading man roles growing up?
BAILEY: Not at all, no. I never thought I would be able to.
BAILEY: I’ve realized that I’m completely in awe of other people and performances and creative endeavors. I go to the theater and I love a performance and I’m like, “How do they do that? I can’t see the seams.” So therefore, I feel like I must be driven by that. And when something comes my way, there’s a fear that it won’t work.
WALLER-BRIDGE: What’s really exciting to me is when I see palpable dynamics between characters, which you have done multiple times, like the relationship between Tim and Hawk. There’s so much opportunity for intimacy and that kind of danger. And when you get to play those sorts of roles, when you know that you can stand in front of each other and you don’t really need to do anything because it’s giving you something, it must’ve just been a joy walking into this world because it’s like a banquet of stuff to play with, right?
BAILEY: Totally, and it feels sort of vital and sexy. I do remember this one memory, which I guess I’ll share with you now. I did play and there was a tiled wall,at eye level with a mirrored border around. And there was a guy, we were into each other, and I remember just looking up in the middle of a conversation and he was looking at me in a reflection. And I was like, “This is what life is about.” Anyway, I think that it must have something to do with feeling the most alive in that.
WALLER-BRIDGE: Do you know Esther Perel?
BAILEY: Yeah, I love Esther Perel.
WALLER-BRIDGE: So she’s written about how she believes that your next orgasm begins at the very end of your last one, which is basically our whole life just building up to our next orgasm.
BAILEY: That’s just fantastic. It’s just so positive and hopeful—
WALLER-BRIDGE: And so beautiful, isn’t it?
BAILEY: It is.
WALLER-BRIDGE: Everything that you encounter in your life, every conversation that you have, is in some way building up to the next euphoric physical experience. Every single character has to have that inside them one way or another, because every human does. And I think with Fellow Travelers, because you long for them so much as an audience and you want them to have everything that they want from each other, but they’re also brutal to themselves and to each other, there is something so extraordinary seeing characters in that time portrayed in the way that you guys have portrayed them.
BAILEY: One thing that we’re all born with is the sense of longing. Longing comes before anything else, doesn’t it? Whoever you put on the wall, laminate the poster or whatever, it’s there. And actually, if you long for someone, more often than not you don’t think you are worthy of it. And that, to me, is a way into characters.
WALLER-BRIDGE: Do you remember your laminated poster longing person?
BAILEY: I think I had the Simpsons, which was obviously me trying to disguise myself as much as possible. Lucy Liu was a big one for me, too.
WALLER-BRIDGE: Well, I can see that.
BAILEY: I suppose there’s the laminated wall in my literal bedroom and then there’s the laminated wall in my gay—
BAILEY: Who was yours?
WALLER-BRIDGE: You know what? It’s really interesting, because I was the eagle in the Rescuers Down Under. That wasn’t necessarily a sexual longing, but it was a romantic idea, that overwhelming sense of watching the Rescuers Down Under and being able to run out of the back of my house on my own, age 10, and jump onto the back of a giant eagle and he’ll fly me around. But in terms of just a hottie that I really fancied, I think it was probably Leo [DiCaprio].
BAILEY: Oh, yeah.
WALLER-BRIDGE: Are you a nostalgic person?
BAILEY: Yes, I think so. I think a lot about my younger self. I’m always like, “Guys, remember this?” It’s slightly annoying, but I’m always drawing a line between the past and now for sure.
WALLER-BRIDGE: That’s how you measure your life, by remembering the time that’s gone by or what 11-year-old you would think of what you were doing?
BAILEY: I think I’m probably more romantic than nostalgic, if that makes sense.
WALLER-BRIDGE: Go on.
BAILEY: Well, I just think I’ve fully committed to the idea of everything being brilliant and then I work backwards from there.
WALLER-BRIDGE: Well, having starred in two hit period dramas and also being a huge part of the fact that they are a hit, that’s why I wondered about what your relationship is with the past and history, and how much you actually knew about McCarthy America?
BAILEY: Oh, no. Have you got a quiz?
WALLER-BRIDGE: I actually don’t. Do you want one?
BAILEY: No, that would be the worst.
WALLER-BRIDGE: Do you enjoy historical novels? Do you live in the past in any way in your mind? Or you are kind of like, “We’re here and we’re moving forward?”
BAILEY: I do think I’m here and moving forward. I really struggled with history at school, I could not take in information about the past. When it came to exams, I would remember the page where things were written but I couldn’t stitch together epochs and eras and kings.
WALLER-BRIDGE: It crashes my brain, too. I have a friend, and you can say to her, “June 24th, 1999,” and she can tell you pretty much what she was up to.
BAILEY: That’s amazing.
WALLER-BRIDGE: You can see her go into the diary in her mind. She has a very different wiring of her brain. But speaking of longing, are there any fictional or real life couples, gay or straight, that captured your heart over the years?
BAILEY: Oh my god, what a question. What about Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling in Blue Valentine?
WALLER-BRIDGE: I think Morticia and Gomez Addams were the most romantic couple.
BAILEY: Yeah, I see that.
WALLER-BRIDGE: They understood it. They got it all.
BAILEY: Also maybe Ryan and Marissa in The OC.
WALLER-BRIDGE: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Any gay male couples that you ever looked up to or were romanced by?
BAILEY: Well unfortunately, there just weren’t that many were there growing up.
WALLER-BRIDGE: So wild.
BAILEY: But I met Matthew Rhys recently, who I just love. And I was thinking about that relationship in Brothers and Sisters. And then there was Queer as Folk. Russell, T. Davies changed the game. So many people owe so much to him just purely for visibility. There is no Tim and Hawk to a 2023 audience without Queer as Folk.
WALLER-BRIDGE: But did you feel frustrated?
BAILEY: Well, speaking of history, I was doing media studies with an amazing teacher and I decided that I was going to do my dissertation about the representations of Hutus and Tutsis and the Rwanda genocide, looking at Hotel Rwanda and Shooting Dogs. And then Brokeback Mountain came out and I was like, “Hang on, how can I possibly create a world where I can go and have a free pass to go to the cinema to watch it 10 times?” I’m really proud of my 17-year-old self, I wasn’t necessarily out, but I changed the topic to representation of homosexuality in Brokeback Mountain and I watched that film 10 times. And this amazing teacher, Dr. Brunton, who probably had an idea of what was going on, was just like, “This is brilliant, keep going, keep going.” And I think it was the best mark I ever got.
WALLER-BRIDGE: Do you still have it?
BAILEY: It must be on a hard drive upstairs in the attic. And obviously, that completely changed me, something chemical happened there. But it’s funny, I’m not clear on memories. And I do think it’s a common thing for a lot of people, growing up and having to survive and be basically in fight or flight, there’s a murkiness to how I recall.
WALLER-BRIDGE: Of course, because you couldn’t be truly present because you weren’t being completely yourself.
BAILEY: Totally, yeah.
WALLER-BRIDGE: When you look back and start unpacking it, do you feel overwhelmed with sympathy for how hard you were having to work as a 16-year-old, coming up with excuses to see the movie that you wanted to see?
BAILEY: Yeah. But I spent more time trying to be sympathetic towards the people that were around me who didn’t support or couldn’t help. I look back and I go, “Hell.”
WALLER-BRIDGE: Yes. But you are representing that and living that for so many people now. Your speech at the Critics Choice Awards the other day was so sublime and beautiful and straight from the heart. You are so electric as a human being and that is the most important thing. There aren’t many people in the world that can do that, that can stand there in front of people and speak from their heart about what it means to them to be given this opportunity. And I know that your career is just going to be the most extraordinary journey. When I first met you, I remember sitting with Josh [Cole], who was the producer on Crashing, and we were like, “If we get this guy, it’s going to be the game changer for the show.” And I know that every single person now wanting you on their project is feeling the same thing.
BAILEY: I definitely feel overwhelmed by that, but it’s lovely to hear.
WALLER-BRIDGE: Can I just ask you one question which I couldn’t remember about Crashing?
WALLER-BRIDGE: The frosted tips were your idea, wasn’t it?
BAILEY: I had this conversation today. I think it’s in the script. But my reference picture was Justin Timberlake in double denim.
WALLER-BRIDGE: No, I don’t think it was [in the script], because Sam’s a character that I hold closest to my heart because, in so many ways, he represents how I feel about maybe my inner life. I just love him so much, and your ability to play every single little corner of him that I dreamed of.
BAILEY: Maybe that’s the answer I was looking for when you asked if I was drawn to any romantic couples? No, it was just about wanting bleach blonde hair.
Grooming: Christine Nelli using Oribe at Kalpana.
Photography & Fashion Assistants: Cole Norton & Jake Westmore.
Location: Sunset Strip Studios.