On a cloudless spring day in Los Angeles, Regé-Jean Page is posing on a rooftop. It’s sweltering outside, and that’s not accounting for Page’s signature smolder.
Most fans got to know the 31-year-old British-Zimbabwean star from a distance, as the actor perched on his couch for one Zoom interview after the next to promote Netflix’s Regency romance drama “Bridgerton.” But Page is considerably more animated when he doesn’t have to fit into a virtual frame or into the buttoned-up persona of Simon Basset, the Duke of Hastings. Of course, Simon eventually lets it all hang out as the romance with his leading lady, Daphne Bridgerton, (Phoebe Dynevor) progresses over the course of the series.
And on the set of his Variety cover shoot, Page does the same — emotionally, that is. (Full disclosure: Page does not go shirtless during the photo session; this is not that kind of magazine spread.)
Clad in a fitted bright orange suit, Page pulsates with energy. He bounds around during the photo session, air-drumming along to the sounds of the Notorious B.I.G. and Lizzo. He has the kind of nonchalant and unassuming demeanor that indicates he has no idea that, in just a matter of days, he’ll send “Bridgerton” fans into a tizzy of epic proportions with the announcement that he’s leaving the hit series, which a record-breaking 82 million households tuned in to after its Christmas Day debut.
When asked if he was nervous about leaving the show that made him a star, Page responds: “Not at all, because that’s what was meant.”
“Simon was this bomb of a one-season antagonist, to be reformed and to find his true self through Daphne,” he explains. “I think one of the bravest things about the romance genre is allowing people a happy ending.”
When the news broke, however, fans were far from happy. The internet ignited in protest. Audiences (including celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Dionne Warwick) were confused, perplexed, even inconsolable.
Some questioned if this was a case of “Downton Abbey,” where star Dan Stevens was killed off after he exercised his option to leave the series at the end of his contract, or if the move simply gave Page more time to perfect his audition for James Bond, a role Vegas oddsmakers consider his for the taking.
Page wasn’t tracking the reaction in real time. “My phone was across the room,” he admits. However, executive producer Shonda Rhimes — who has been known to make drastic casting changes on her hit shows, whether by death or departure — was caught off guard by the shock that fans displayed.
“We’re used to speculation and drama when I kill a character off of a show, but this was different,” Rhimes tells Variety. “Regé was just doing what his character was written to do — ride off, alive, into his happily ever after.”
It may have been the plan all along, but when the breakout star leaves a big show at the height of its popularity, there are questions about what will happen next. For every George Clooney (who exited “ER” after five seasons to enjoy an Oscar-winning run at the top of the box office charts), there’s a David Caruso (who left “NYPD Blue” for the big screen and struggled for a decade before reclaiming TV stardom on “CSI: Miami”) or a Shelley Long (who departed “Cheers” for movie stardom that never materialized). The question is, which of these scenarios applies to Page?
Though he’s already booked high-profile roles in Netflix’s “The Gray Man” and Paramount’s “Dungeons & Dragons” adaptation, Page is open to joining another series. The actor isn’t really ruling anything out, except for being pigeonholed into any one type of character.
With screen credits dating back to 2004, Page has traveled an “insane journey” from his first role on BBC’s soap opera “Waterloo Road” to his U.S. debut as Chicken George in the 2016 remake of “Roots,” before the classically trained actor traded Shakespeare for Shondaland with ABC’s “For the People” and “Bridgerton.”
“I’ve been in more Regency duels than I ever thought I would or could,” Page quips before getting serious. “I didn’t think it was possible, and that’s my mistake for not believing in that and not accepting my own responsibility to make it possible through what we do as actors. I’m pleased that I’ve taken a couple of good first steps into what seems to be an ever-widening pool of possibility, and long may that continue.”
The doldrums of quarantine created the perfect storm for the success of “Bridgerton.” It was the right project — a lavish, steamy romance — released at the end of one of the most tumultuous years in history, just the kind of delicious confection, and distraction, that the world needed. The special ingredient was the right actor.
When the Shondaland team had difficulty finding its Duke, it turned to Page, who was wrapping up work as attorney Leonard Knox on “For the People,” and pitched him a one-season arc. It had been clear from his audition for Knox that Page had something special, “Bridgerton” exec producer Betsy Beers recalls. “I remember thinking what a uniquely talented and versatile actor he was,” she says, which made him perfect for Simon, too.
“The Duke was beautifully written,” Rhimes adds. “There are many actors who could have played the same role but brought a very different presence. The choices that Regé made in scenes built a performance that is not only unforgettable for so many viewers but also remarkable in its nuance.”
Rhimes doesn’t divulge details about how Simon’s absence will be addressed, since Daphne will return to the show, or whether he’ll be back in future seasons, but because each chapter is set to focus on a new couple, she has a warning: “I imagine it’s possible that after each season, you’ll be asking about a different actor returning.”
Page compares exiting “Bridgerton” to leaving high school. “You’re afraid of the unknown, thinking, ‘Oh, my God, I’m never going to make friends as good as the ones I have,’ and then you do,” he explains.
The Netflix series was never just a job; Page saw it as an opportunity to represent a new type of leading man to a global audience. While Simon fits into the brooding and broken archetype of Mr. Darcy and Heathcliff, the romance genre takes a big step into the 21st century both by exploring the underlying toxicity of those personality traits and by putting a Black man at the center of the narrative. “Me and my friends used to joke about the fact that you don’t see a Black man on a horse,” Page says, discussing the lack of representation in media.
As a Black artist navigating the entertainment industry at a time when issues of representation are being fiercely debated, Page is very intentional about the kinds of roles he plays.
“It’s so simple. I can get on a horse and I can put it on the screen; that’s step one,” he says. “I can be royalty, and [other people of color] can see the possibility of being royalty. Standing there, wearing the boots and the jacket, doing the dances, inhabiting a space that is perfectly possible for me to inhabit, changes how you see the world.”
It may seem naive to believe a television role can help push the world toward racial equality, but Page emphasizes how formative images are in shaping our understanding of one another.
“As Black people, we’re very used to empathizing with the world through white people’s eyes, because they’re the protagonists. I know what it’s like to look at the world and empathize with Superman because I spent my whole life doing that,” he explains. “What’s revolutionary, in its own way, is getting folks to see the world through my eyes, because then they are in my skin and looking at the world through me.”
The actor thinks back to a conversation between his brother, who drew comics as a child, and their aunt.
“She sat him down one day and asked, ‘How come all the superheroes are white?’” Page recalls. “And he was like, ‘That’s what all the superheroes look like, duh. They’ve all got floppy hair, and they fly through the air.’”
That childlike reasoning mirrors contemporary attitudes, as Page recalls the initial backlash to his casting on “Bridgerton.” “I’m going to shout out [the book’s] Brazilian fans specifically, because they had my back before anyone else did.” the actor says. “When everyone else was still passive aggressively getting all knotted up because I didn’t have blue eyes, the Brazilians were there for me.”
More recently, drama encircled the actor when a story appearing in The Hollywood Reporter (Variety’s sister publication) alleged that Page had been passed over for the role of Superman’s grandfather Seg-El on Syfy’s DC superhero series “Krypton” because he is Black. The story claimed that then-DC Entertainment chief creative officer Geoff Johns passed on the actor for the lead role over concerns that fans would expect the character to look more like Henry Cavill (the white actor who plays Superman in DC’s film franchise).
Later that day, Page tweeted, “Hearing about these conversations hurts no less now than it did back then. The clarifications almost hurt more tbh. Still just doing my thing. Still we do the work. We still fly.”
Page won’t specify whether the post was in response to the report, saying, “I think I said what I had to say within the tweet.”
He takes a long pause before continuing: “I decided a very long time ago that I would refuse to be defined by trauma and would only be defined by success, when and where it comes. And I will not waste what breath I have on feeding things that are not worth it. So I choose my words carefully. I spend my energy carefully, and I’ll continue to do that where it is necessary and welcomed.”
As Page looks back on his most successful roles — namely Simon and “Roots’” Chicken George, the latter the charismatic son of a slave mother and their master — he notes that they bridge an important gap in the stories Hollywood tells about Black people, which are most often framed through the lens of oppression. Because these two 19th-century characters exist in the same era, albeit in different geographic locales, they are emblematic of the true scope of the Black experience.
Page recalls sitting in the Duke of Hastings’ carriage, riding through Bath, England, with Dynevor, when he made that revelation about his roles.
“The last time, and only other time, I had sat in a 19th-century carriage I was being dragged away from my family [and sold to a new master] in the U.K.,” he says. “Next time I sat in that carriage, I own the carriage as royalty. That is the progress in storytelling to fill out that picture. What gave me the greatest satisfaction was balancing that scale.”
Off screen, Page might not own the carriage, but he’s undeniably commanding his place in Hollywood. He has experienced an intense wave of attention over the past five months, but thanks to lockdown not much of the adulation has been in person. The timing is fortunate, since the more glitzy and glamorous aspects of stardom — from the red carpets to the paparazzi — make the very private star uncomfortable.
Helping Page navigate it all is Emmy winner Sterling K. Brown. They met during the 2016 Emmy season, when Page attended one of his first big Hollywood parties with close friend and “Roots” co-star Malachi Kirby. From across the room, Page spotted Brown, who was on the circuit for “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” and when they started talking, Page says, “My brain just turned off.”
“I was like [mimics stumbling over his words] ‘Oh man, that thing you did with your hand was so cool. I just want to be you,’” Page recalls. “And Sterling just smiled patiently and let me do that and then talked me through how not to be overwhelmed by this room. He reassured me and said, ‘You’ve got stuff ahead of you. You can breathe.’”
Where Page thought he was being nerdy noticing the way Brown mimicked an explosion as Christopher Darden walks away from Marcia Clark’s hotel room in Episode 7 of “People v. O.J.,” the more veteran actor was impressed. In fact, he had been eager to meet Page since spotting him in “Roots.” “I remember thinking, ‘Look at this dude doing the damn thing,’” Brown says. “He had this wonderful swagger about him.”
Since then, Brown has become a pseudo-mentor, giving Page advice ahead of big moments like his “Saturday Night Live” hosting gig. “He’s talked me through a couple of things that scared me,” Page says.
From Brown’s perspective, Page’s grounded nature makes him very easy to root for. “He wasn’t somebody who’s like, ‘Give me a couple of years and I’ll be making $10 million a flick.’ He really loves the art of illuminating the human condition,” Brown explains. “If stardom comes — and stardom is clearly approaching — I don’t think he was ever actively seeking it; it just kind of happened.”
Page is wary of the idea of “capitalizing” on his “Bridgerton” success, saying that’s when acting becomes self-serving. But he can acknowledge that things have changed post-Shondaland. He no longer has to audition to get offers from major industry players.
His first post-“Bridgerton” shoot was “The Gray Man,” teaming with Joe and Anthony Russo, who are coming off their über-successful run directing four Marvel films, including 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame.” The Netflix action-thriller, due out in 2022, stars Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans and boasts a $200 million budget.
“The freakiest thing about working on a Russo set is that the standards are so insanely high for everyone in every department that they don’t police you through stuff,” Page marvels. “They’re like, ‘Here’s this insanely difficult thing; do it.’ And then they just expect you to be able to do it, because they don’t hire folks who can’t.”
For example, the actor says the filmmakers rewrote each of his scenes the night before shooting them. “They were like, ‘You’re from the theater, right? You can handle it,’” Page recalls with a laugh.
The rewrites were less about testing the actor’s ability to memorize lines and more about the filmmakers working to tailor the role to the performer, which happened on the fly because they were still getting to know him.
Anthony Russo was first turned on to Page by a group of moms raving about him on the playground over the holidays: “They were talking about him in the most glowing and excited terms, like ‘You have to meet this guy; he’s amazing on ‘Bridgerton.’” By March, Page was on set. Russo says it was the actor’s dexterity as a performer that made him the perfect hire.
“We are fans of characters that are complex — ‘good guy’ characters who are compromised in some ways, and so-called bad guy characters who have virtues — and we gravitate toward actors who can play that sort of complexity and that duality,” Russo adds. “He knows how to embody a paradox really well, mean- ing he can be very attractive and alluring and seductive while at the same time being very threatening and dangerous.”
Of course, fans immediately noted that Page raised the heartthrob-quotient of the cast, with Hollywood’s newest hunk acting opposite two of the internet’s favorite boyfriends in Gosling and Evans. “They are extremely attractive people,” Russo concedes. “In this film, they’re playing characters that have a depth and complexity that goes beyond what their looks might say about them.”
After wrapping “The Gray Man” in Los Angeles, Page traveled back across the pond to begin production on “Dungeons & Dragons,” the feature adaptation of the role-playing game from Paramount and Hasbro/eOne. Like the Russos, the film’s directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein first noticed Page on “Bridgerton” and set a Zoom meeting with the actor.
The pair was impressed by Page’s humility. “He didn’t seem jaded from the onslaught of attention. He’s a genuinely nice guy who has a keen awareness of the mechanics of stardom,” Daley says. “He naturally exudes a sense of dignity and heroism that is fitting for the fantasy genre.”
With the shoot in its early days and details surrounding the film kept top secret, Page is careful to avoid spoilers when talking about joining the cast, alongside Chris Pine, Michelle Rodriguez, Hugh Grant and Justice Smith. “It’s a brilliant job. I’m literally paying my mortgage by fighting imaginary dragons,” he says excitedly.
With each new announcement, anticipation builds around Page’s next move. The biggest rumor swirling around the actor is whether or not he’ll take over for Daniel Craig as James Bond. Page has been asked about the reports in interviews, during which the actor playfully referred to the role as the “B-word,” saying it’s been a badge of honor for many Brits who’ve achieved pop culture prominence. There are also online whispers that Marvel might be interested in snagging Page for a potential role, with some suggesting he could join Ryan Coogler’s ever-expanding exploration of Wakanda with the “Black Panther” sequel and series.
Page shrugs off the speculation. “I spend a lot of time at the moment talking about what other people are saying about me, as opposed to anything I’m actually doing,” he cracks.
“I can’t talk about the B-word, because I’ve got nothing to say on the B-word. I can’t talk about which jobs I’m not doing, because I’m not doing them, [but] I’m very happy with the work I am doing,” he continues. “I’ve been a huge fan of the types of movies that the MCU has been putting out, that have made it possible to do the kind of work I’m doing now, both directly and indirectly — with the Russos and with the genre that I’m working in with John and Jonathan,” who wrote Sony and Marvel’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming.”
Whether or not Page plays a superhero, those around him believe Hollywood is his oyster.
“He has the right mix of je ne sais quoi to be a star. He has the romantic appeal; he’s devastatingly handsome. He speaks the King’s English beautifully. I think he’s going to make a really easy, seamless leap to the silver screen,” Brown says, comparing Page’s potential to that of a young Brad Pitt.
Anthony Russo agrees, sharing that he and Joe have already discussed some new ideas with Page.
“He is fully capable of being a top-tier actor — that kind of movie star that people come to a movie for,” Russo predicts. “I think we’ve just seen the tip of the iceberg in terms of what he can do.”
Page’s priority is to continue surprising and challenging himself. “The thing that has always appealed to me most about this career is getting to encounter and interact with the unexpected,” he says.
And as far as the sex appeal of future roles, Page adds, with equal parts sincerity and a wink that’s practically audible over the phone: “I want everything I do to be as sexy as ‘Bridgerton,’ just in different ways.”
Spoken like a man who knows his audience.
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