Women Who Travel Podcast Arsema Thomas on Filming the 'Bridgerton' Prequel Inside English Country Homes and Traveling...
Women Who Travel

Women Who Travel Podcast: Arsema Thomas on Filming the 'Bridgerton' Spin-Off Inside English Country Homes and Traveling Across Africa

Host Lale Arikoglu sits down with the actor on the eve of the Bridgerton prequel's release.

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Calling all Bridgerton fans: This week Lale chats with actor Arsema Thomas, who plays a young Lady Danbury in the soon to be released Netflix series Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story, which hits our screens on May 4. The actor shares what it was like to work with the show's writer and creator Shonda Rhimes, reflects on filming in English country homes and the complex history behind them, and tells stories from her time spent living in different countries across Africa, from Uganda to Benin, and more.

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Lale Arikoglu: Hi, I'm Lale Arikoglu and this is Women Who Travel.

Today, I'm talking to actor, Arsema Thomas, who plays a young lady Agatha Danbury in the soon to be released Netflix series, Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story, from Shonda Rhimes.

Off-screen, however, Arsema has spent large swaths of her life living in different countries across Africa. It's an experience that has informed her approach to acting and the role she's now playing.

Arsema Thomas: I lived in Uganda, in Kampala, Nairobi, in Kenya, a brief time in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, Cotonou in Benin in West Africa, Lome, Togo, and Pretoria, South Africa.

LA: You know, I've only moved countries once, but I feel like-

AT: [laughs]

LA: ... even that is an opportunity for reinvention. Did you find yourself becoming a bit of a chameleon during those moves, and do you think that's why you've ultimately ended up acting?

AT: I think it's definitely why I'm a chameleon. Believe me, I've discussed this with my therapist ad nauseam, and I think specifically also growing up in different places, it meant that I didn't really have, like, a home that I felt strong ties to, and that made me feel like I could just kind of blend in seamlessly, and it was definitely something I took advantage of. Yeah. And maybe it is why I ended up doing acting, 'cause I [laughs] can-

LA: I just opened up like a whole bunch of like self-reflection for you.

AT: I know. [laughs] [inaudible 00:01:43] I'm entering into the abyss of my thoughts now. [laughs]

LA: You know what? Invoice me when you have your next therapy session.

AT: Oh, I will, I will. [laughs]

LA: But moving around the continent was also a powerfully transformative experience for Arsema.

AT: So both my parents are African. My father is Nigerian. My mother is Ethiopian, and those are like two of the east and west poles essentially of the continent. And so, I think I got to see in their eyes what they loved about their respective regions of Africa, and because they both worked, I mean, independently of each other, in economic development in Africa, I got to see through their eyes, a lot of the hopes and dreams that they had for not only their respective countries, but like the continent in general.

And I think there's something so beautiful about being able to have grown up in different regions and different countries on the continent, because the continent is treated like a country all the time. And to see the versatility, I haven't even been to that many. There are 56. It's one of the largest continents in like the world geographically. And so, I think there's something so interesting about an area that has so much... Is so rich in natural resources, has such a sad and tumultuous history, has been treated and looked as a monolith by the rest of the world, is considered the birthplace of humanity.

I don't know how I could not be in love and be enamored by it.

LA: Do you think the travel space journalism in general is getting better at telling stories of the continent and its many, many nuances?

AT: I think that potentially that sector of journalism has opened up so that a lot more Black writers can talk about the continent. I think that's what I've been more exposed to, is like being able to see through the eyes of someone from the diaspora coming back and writing about their experiences in, like, the countries that they have realized that they come from p- specifically.

But it's an interesting question. I don't think that it has done what it, it hoped that it would do, which would be to try and create a more accurate view of Africa. I think rather than trying to make sure that, you know, western media does the telling of an African narrative due diligence, I think what it should do is allow that narrative to be told by Africa itself. And I think that's kind of what is starting to happen. Yeah.

LA: There's one sort of fledging publication that I think is absolutely beautiful called Irin Journal that we've written about in Traveler before. Started by Mimi Aborowa, who grew up in Lagos, Nigeria.

AT: Oh nice.

LA: And you should totally check it out. It's, it's gorgeous. She's just done a couple of additions.

AT: Yeah, I will.

LA: Really beautiful. And it kind of has left me hungry for more. Are there writers or novelists or journals that you follow that you'd recommend?

AT: Yeah. There's a couple of really good journals that are coming out of West Africa. SUNU Journal is one of them that does this really good work on highlighting and creating a platform for a lot of creative writing. There's also, I think one of the greatest ways to explore Africa when you're doing writing is to read a lot of the fiction that comes out of the continent. And so, it makes me think of a lot of like the new writing that is coming out of Zimbabwe, and I think there's [inaudible 00:05:55] journals.

Yeah. There's a lot of... The Caine Prize is a really great way of looking at a lot of new African writers, specifically from the southern half of the continent.

LA: You know, you live in London now. But is there another place that somewhat feels like home, and why?

AT: You know, I think I would say it would be South Africa. I think there's something interesting about South Africa because it was written really well by this travel journalist [laughs], um, about the fact that like this country feels so un-African, and I think because of that, it's become this destination point for a lot of other Africans, so you get beautiful, you know, neighborhoods of Ethiopians and Nigerians and Ivorians and Botswanans, all living in this one country that has one of the most charged histories in recent, like, times.

Like, apartheid just ended. And the country is still coming back from that, and I think... I hold it dear to my heart because it's still so hurt in a real way by a lot of the damage. But it is hands down one of the most beautiful countries I have ever been to. Y- I, like, cry real tears when I drive through Cape Town because it's... You see mist rolling over like Table Mountain. You see the beautiful coast. And at the same time, you're in a city with some of the most egregious forms of inequality ever practiced.

And it makes you really question a lot. And I think places that make you feel something like that, make you question something about what is your purpose, w- what do you stand for, I think are places that I hold dear to my heart because those are usually where changes is meant to happen, likely to happen.

LA: Coming up, Arsema on the magnetic energy of Cape Town.

When you're walking through the city-

AT: Hm.

LA: ... what does it, what does it sound like?

AT: I mean, so Cape Town is a lot of, like, the home of, like, Amapiano, which is one of like the biggest forms of house Afro beat music taking over, and South Africa is really known for like some of the great vocalists, I think. And I was just there recently, and I was walking through the street, and there was this choir of young girls singing some of the greatest harmonization of like beautiful... I think it was Zulu music, and it was... I couldn't help but sit there, and they were singing in the beating sun.

I think it was 33 degrees Celsius, and like, the water was crashing on the shore, and they were all Black, and you see these White tourists kind of walk by them, not acknowledging them, and this is just by the coast, because there's all of like the rest of Cape Town that is in the townships, and those are amazing, beautiful environments by themselves, but also extremely, extremely troubled for, you know, extreme forms of gang violence that is happening there as an after-effect of apartheid.

That whole entire country, I will live there probably. I will fight for that country. I will... Yeah. I just... It's one of those places that deserves so much and didn't get it. You know? I highly recommend it. I mean, I was about to do my PhD on South Africa, and like social anthropology of like the entire country. I find it riveting.

LA: Actually, it's great that you mentioned your PhD because you went to Yale for public health.

AT: Yes. Yeah. [laughs]

LA: And I think from what you've said in the past, it was because you wanted to improve healthcare across the continent, and you've talked at length about aid and often the misguided intentions of aid, or aid as an act of colonialism. Are there acts of charity or giving that you think are helpful? I think there are lots of trips that people take with agencies or organizations where either it's you're going in to like help for a week, or you're volunteer, there's, you know, lots of voluntourism.

AT: I feel like the greatest way, if you feel like you want to donate to a country, is to invest in it, rather than to... In a paternalistic way, give it what you think it needs. I was really curious actually about like what voluntourism looked like, because growing up in Kenya, I would always be on like the receiving end of groups of predominantly White people coming into, like, Jomo Kenyatta Airport when like I'm coming in to see my family, and like, you know, seeing the, or hearing like how they exoticized this country.

And it made me realize that when... Usually when you're doing that, you come in with a preconceived notion of what your experience will be, and you're only trying to prove yourself right. You're not also seeing the vast majority of the country you're going to, the one area that you and your church have decided to give to, and you know, it tends to be usually like something that is not asked upon by the community, but a prescription that is a transplantation of like a Western view of development.

Yeah. It, I think it is more of a selfish thing than actually really a selfless thing, because like, what are you doing to stimulate the economy? That's really what it's about. You've done nothing really. And so, it's really just like a vacation, isn't it?

LA: Here's Arsema Thomas ending her TEDx Yale talk called Charity: One Hell of a Drug.

AT: It will do away with this old practice of charity and revolutionize the way we look and interact with the world around us. The potential to do so is within you. It's within me. It's within the new generation and the old generation, just waiting to be tapped. So, don't feel bad for Africa. Believe in Africa. Thank you.

LA: In your TED Talk, you note that 20% of the population is aged between 15 and 24, which is so young and so exciting for a huge swath of the world to have such a young population. How do you see that proliferating in places like Cape Town?

AT: We're gonna see a lot of young people starting to leave these countries, which is going to change the entire landscape across Africa. When you think about some of the ages of these countries, like they're not that much older than, I mean, me, for instance. Like, my father was alive when Nigeria got its independence. There haven't been that many leaders who've come from the Millennial group, so that makes me super excited. I feel like it's going to mean that there's going to be a lot of activism and action that's going to be oriented in creating revolution and creating new ways of engaging with our environment, just because of the things that are being discussed now over like the social media sphere.

And I think for Cape Town, it's going to mean that with the newer generation that's been in a normalized world with desegregation of South Africa, that's going to look so different. It just, it makes me super excited, if you can tell. I'm like buzzing off of my chair because, yeah, the horizon is plentiful, options are bountiful. Yeah.

LA: In a moment, we talk to Arsema about what it was like filming the new Bridgerton prequel in English country homes and the complex history behind them. But first, a dispatch from listener Monica who went to teach in an enormous refugee settlement in her home country of Zambia.

Monica: You can travel around the world, but sometimes it's what's at your doorstep that matters. I am born and bred Zambian, and I love my country. I love its culture and its traditions. I love its people who are friendly and peaceful. I love the beauty of our natural banners and I'm proud of our history. My country provided for me while I was educated [inaudible 00:15:51], and as a young graduate, I was happily living in my bubble.

My bubble began to stretch when an Irish friend invited me to join a team of 10 international volunteers on a literacy project in one of Zambia's refugee settlements. My [inaudible 00:16:06] refugee settlement was established in [inaudible 00:16:08], including Angola, DRC, Luanda. The settlement is the size of Singapore and was built with housing, schools, and [inaudible 00:16:20] for up to 70,000 refugees. The refugees live in basic homes with basic amenities and a need to supply solar power.

We arrived in a truck, carrying tents, a field kitchen, and over 3,000 children's books. It's a mobile library. We have to camp site out of the bush with a space for tents and our own amenities, which were a [inaudible 00:16:45] and a basic washing cubicle, each surrounded by bumble curtains [inaudible 00:16:51] decent level of privacy.

Now, I am no camper and I just don't get it why people choose to travel halfway around the world to live in a tent. Had my Irish friend been more upfront about our living conditions, I would have stayed in my neat and ordered bubble. Thank you very much. But once in my [inaudible 00:17:13], there's limited transportation to the rest of the world, and I had to knuckle down and make the most of things.

Our first school visit was an eye-opener. The teachers had few resources. The children were crammed 60 to the class, yet the joy with which we were received was overwhelming. The classroom lit up with energy and life. We met orphans, teenagers in charge of families, and former child soldiers. They all had stories to tell. They told us of how they had to flee their own homes. Some had witnessed their own family members being killed.

They walked for months in search of safety, through the vast forest across flowing rivers until they reached Zambia and the settlement. This was a new start of a new life. They took us for walks around the settlement. We met their families, visited their homes, admired their vegetable gardens. We ate food cooked by grandma, and we even went fishing in the stream. This was everyday life, and they mostly were happy.

Every evening at Mihaba, we sat on a termite hill, watching the bright red orange sunset drift down over the settlement. The children were screaming and laughing while they played football. And as night fell, a million stars appeared in the huge African sky above. I was content. I had stepped outside myself. It was no longer about me and my comforts, but about what it is I can do with and for others.

Africa taught me that, and that's how I developed a new love for travel. And no, I still do not do rough camping. [laughs]

LA: After the break, Arsema talks about what it was like to work with the legendary Shonda Rhimes.

Shonda Rhimes is such a massive name in television.

AT: Yes.

LA: And has done some incredible things in terms of casting and the stories she's telling-

AT: Mm-hmm.

LA: ... on, um, to change who's on television. What was it like working with her?

AT: I mean, I, [laughs] I started acting because of Shonda Rhimes. She was the first person that made it evident that if I wanted to do this job, there would be jobs out there for me. Like, I would be wanted. And so to be able to work with her, I was... I mean, still shell shocked. Like, she is also like a person with a, like a fucking spine. You know? Like, she knows what she believes in, and she doesn't waver from that.

We were doing a tour of Kew Gardens, just to see kind of like the place where Queen Charlotte and King George were actually living.

LA: And that's Kew Gardens in London for-

AT: Yes. Yeah, yeah, yeah. In West London, nearabouts where you are, where you're from.

LA: Know it well.

AT: And it was so interesting to see her ask questions about the house, and 'cause she had already written it. And like, seeing everything line up, it was... I mean, it felt like she was almost commanding the interview because of just how much research she had done for, like, creating this entire season.

LA: Obviously, Bridgerton, and I'm assuming Queen Charlotte is going to be the same, in that it is just set in the most beautiful storied houses across the UK, and landscapes. What are some of the locations that you loved filming in, and that we can look forward to when we watch the show?

AT: I loved filming in Bath. I mean, I think Bath is just a magical place. I, it looks so beautiful. Have you been there?

LA: I went on a high school trip when I was 15 to go to Jane Austen's house.

AT: Oh nice. [laughs] Okay. You don't seem so excited.

LA: Which I think [laughs] I would have been way more into now than when I was 15. I think I got in trouble because I like went and had a cigarette.

ArT: Oh no. [laughs]

LA: And... [laughs]

AT: It felt so empowering to see myself in these like beautiful gowns and these wigs and to see myself in these massive estates. I mean, like we were in Hampton Court, which is huge, huge. So there is something about seeing these spaces that are usually when, in cinema and on TV, occupied by White people, not occupied by me.

LA: In this scene, Lady Danbury, played by Arsema, is in a bathtub when her maid delivers the news of an invitation that will significantly raise her social standing.

Speaker 5: The butler says you received a letter from the palace.

Speaker 4: The palace? The palace?

Speaker 5: That is the surprise. You have been invited [laughs] to the Royal Wedding.

Speaker 4: Uh, Cora, have you gone mad?

Speaker 5: It is true. An invitation has arrived for you both. I've already called for the [inaudible 00:22:58]. She's on her way over. She cannot make a new gown before tonight, but she can-

Speaker 4: No. You are mistaken. [inaudible 00:23:03] do not mix ever.

Speaker 5: I am certain. The ladies made it the bassets that they've received an invitation as well, but the [inaudible 00:23:11] prince since has invited our side, well, your side.

Speaker 4: Why?

Speaker 5: I don't know, but there is more. You are to attend the new Queen as part of her court.

Speaker 4: I think you'd better show me this letter.

LA: What drew you to that character?

AT: I think there's something about her and her struggle that is so familiar to me. She reminds me of, like, my aunt. She reminds me of the woman that I aspire to be. She also has like these... She's like this... Like, I hate the term beautifully flawed, because everything is beautifully flawed. She represents so many people. And how she operates with that pressure is something that I find to be so graceful.

LA: For those unfamiliar with the show, what is her struggle?

AT: I mean, just like what the struggle is like of like being a Black woman, I think, is her main one, and then, you know, being a woman in this time period in the Georgian era, it was a woman is considered to be an object, a tool to pass money on from family to family. It's a transactional marriage. And so, what it's... That struggle of being in a situation like that while having a mind of your own, while having thoughts and opinions and wanting to change things, yeah, she... It's like a rose growing out of concrete type situation, this like juxtaposition of something beautiful next to something so hard.

LA: You know, it's interesting that you talk about her in that context, which I think is a real through thread of, obviously, of the show and the storylines. You know, one of the things that made Bridgerton garner so much attention when it first arrived on Netflix was Shonda's very, very thoughtful and deliberate casting. And it really upturns British history and who was in positions within British aristocracy.

AT: Yeah. It's interesting because a lot of the houses, we would use some of their furniture or we would bring in some of our own, and some of the furniture that we didn't use was put into like, uh, you know, just to the sign. And I was looking at it, and a lot of it had quite, like, racist iconography of, you know, Black figurines holding up massive candles, all of this. You know, I mean, really, if we're truly going to be honest, a lot of like the economic development across England has come off of the backs of colonialism. And so, it was amazing, but at the same time, like all of the jewelry that we were meant to be wearing was mined from Africa.

You know? It's like all of the gold that we are being adorned with or that all of these royal physical forms of wealth are all taken from colonies. You know? And so, there is some cognitive dissonance that plays with the mind. And I think that's why Shonda does a really great job of saying like, "This is fiction. It's fiction," because I think the moment you start to pull at that thread, you realize how, like, just insidious racism is, that to truly do, like, make a place like Regency London look like that, would mean that like from the very beginning of everything that we had known has to be completely different.

LA: Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story arrives on May 4th. And if you're going to England to visit one of the many grand palaces or country homes open to the public, then take heed of Arsema's insights and take some time to research the history and think critically before visiting. Thank you to Netflix for providing that clip. Next week, the BBC's Chief International Correspondent, Lyse Doucet, talks about reporting from Ukraine, Turkey, Afghanistan, and Brazil.

See you then. Thank you for listening. I'm Lale Arikoglu and you can find me, as always on Instagram @lalehannah and follow along with Women Who Travel on Instagram @womenwhotravel. You can also join the conversation in our Facebook group. Allison Leyton-Brown is our composer. Jennifer Nulsen is our engineer. Jude Kampfner from Corporation for Independent Media is our producer.