Bessie Carter

British actress Bessie Carter’s bigger role in this season of Bridgerton, not only showcases her talent, but lends itself brilliantly to the richer world showcased in season 2.

Bessie Carter is not your average up-and-coming actress. The British starlet grew up around what is now her professional craft thanks to the fact that both her parents, Downton Abbey’s Jim Carter and Harry Potter’s Imelda Staunton, are talents themselves. As young as age five, she fell in love with playing pretend and began honing her skills. Years later, Carter has developed an intellectual understanding and genuine love for her passion that shines brightly alongside her talent, making it hard to look away when she is on the screen. Already her credits include PBS’s Beecham House, BBC’s Cranford, ITV’s Doc Martin, and Starz’s Howards End, culminating in her latest foray: Netflix’s lightning-in-a-bottle period drama Bridgerton.

In the Shondaland production, Bessie plays Prudence Featherington, the somewhat vapid and conniving stepsister of the loveable wallflower, Penelope. While the first season was record-breaking itself, the second was even more so, earning the streaming service 193 million hours of viewing time in its first three days. Along with this bigger audience, comes a bigger role for Carter, as Prudence seeks to find success in the marriage mart herself. Bessie glides into the world of 17th-century scandal with ease and as much grace as her character will allow, filling a gap most weren’t aware was there in the debut season, and helping create a storyline that tops its predecessor, leaving viewers excited for whatever comes next.       

Over a virtual cup of tea, 1883’s Sydney Bolen talked with Bessie about coming into her own as both herself and her character, the best lesson she learned from her parents, her favourite piece of the Bridgerton wardrobe, and more.


Congrats on an incredible Bridgerton Season 2. I cannot express how much I loved what I’ve seen so far.

So, you’ve seen it?!


I’ve seen episodes one through six.

Oh, I’m so glad. I love that they put it on my Netflix account like I’m a secret agent. I loved putting in my code and being like “no one else can see this.” I’m glad you saw it. Thank you. 


You’re welcome. How are you feeling about the release? 

I just can’t wait for everyone to see Prudence, to be honest. Prudence has had a bit of a glow-up. She’s got a little bit more to say. I am excited for everyone to see what she has to do this season. Also, from a purely social point of view, I’m excited to party. We didn’t get to celebrate last season. It was very difficult to comprehend the success of the show by just seeing numbers on a screen. I can’t wait to get dressed up and see everyone dressed up. We’re all so close now. It’s going to be so fun to see everyone looking so good, and to watch it together. I’m buzzing. I can’t wait.


With Prudence’s bigger role this season and knowing now what a hit the show is, did you feel any pressure to live up to season 1 whilst filming season 2?

That’s a great question. Because of the nature of us all being locked down when it came out, there was no sense of its success. When we all came back, we were all really grateful to get back to work because we’d all just gone through the most anxiety-inducing, terrifying predicament over the past year. I counted myself very lucky to be among the people who knew they had a job coming up. For many of my friends who are actors, if they weren’t in a running series, or they didn’t have a job secured before COVID, all of the jobs after COVID went to all of the well-known actors who also just wanted to work. For the people who were slightly further down the line, everything’s been set back a couple of years. I just felt incredibly lucky. That sort of over-shown any pressure, I suppose. 


I get that. That’s a really good perspective to have on it all. 

Interestingly though, I found it challenging to find how Prudence did things by herself because before, we were Penelope’s bickering, evil sisters. For Prudence to have a storyline and some hope was all new. Finding her voice was an acting challenge in itself because she was literally just speaking more. I was like, “Oh, how would she say that? How would she feel about that? How would she do that?” It was a good acting challenge. Only in the last couple of weeks with the buzz about season 2, being able to physically go to events, and physically do press have I started to go, “God, I hope that people buy it.” [laughs] I hope that people still like Prudence and they still find her to be an antihero who you like and you’re gunning for. I hope she comes across as a bit funny because I want her to be funny.


I think she’s funny.

Oh, good. You’ve got to have some comic relief in a big show like that.


Oh, of course. I’m a huge fan of the books. One thing I love about the world expansion the show is able to obtain is the Featherington’s story. For you, who are the Featheringtons, and more importantly, who is Prudence?

Well, I read the first book, and then I decided pretty much based on what you said, I wasn’t going to read any of the others because that’s the springboard for the scripts, but I couldn’t find hints about my character particularly. Normally, I would always go to the source material and start from there and find any clue I could. But, because as you said, they are just mentioned as this other family in The Ton it was interesting to just use the scripts to find who they were. The first taste of Prudence I had was through the costume fittings. I went to three before the read-through or rehearsals. The designer Ellen [Mirojnick] had this amazing book. It would have a period statue or a painting of someone from the Regency period on one page, a modern-day high fashion look on the next page, and then a mashup of the two on the third page. Ellen pointed to it and said, “Shonda.” I was like, “what the hell is this show? It’s not your typical stuffy period drama where you’re wearing bonnets and it’s all in beige and brown.” It was electric and colorful and zingy. There’s this depth of opulence that Chris Van Dusen, Shonda Rhimes, and Shondaland have exploded onto the screen. The scripts gave me a taste of that, but it was the fittings that let me see the bigger picture. 



In this season we get to see a bit more of Prudence and Penelope’s relationship. How do you think that has changed in the aftermath of season 1?

Well, it’s the eldest and the youngest siblings. I think that’s quite an interesting dynamic. I’m an only child. I have no concept of what that dynamic is, so it’s quite fun to make it up. Prudence wants to be like her mother. She emulates her mum’s judgment of Penelope. That’s quite fun to play. I found it important to also find the truth in the fact that they are sisters. They have to look out for each other. They’ve spent 18 or 19 years together. They have so many built-in “-isms.” The bottom line is they love each other. Regardless of any fallout any siblings have, I think there is unconditional love there. I didn’t have any scenes with Nicola [Coughlan] one on one last year. I don’t know how much time our characters have actually spent one on one. It’s quite nice to find the newness in that. I know that Prudence just doesn’t get Penelope. Penelope likes reading. Prudence likes hats. That dynamic is quite fun to play.


One of the scenes that I really liked between the two of them is the scene on the stairs.

[Gasps] That was my favorite scene!


Yeah, I love the scene on the stairs! It’s a nice moment between the two of them. Because, yes, they’re sisters. But there’s a power imbalance because, with Penelope as Lady Whistledown, she has to decide, do I make this a scandal or do I not? It’s a huge decision on her shoulders. 

It’s so funny to hear you say that because I just see it as sibling jealousy. Prudence has no idea that Penelope could be capable of being Lady Whistledown. She never in a million years would guess that. What I love about acting is that I have to forget that as Prudence because I, Bessie, know the script and I know where it goes. What I love about acting is you have to pretend. That’s so obvious, but it’s true. That’s literally why I enjoy it. That and the dressing up. 


[both laugh] 

That was such a fun scene to play because we were both playing such opposite intentions.


Speaking of why you enjoy acting, You come from a family of actors. I read that you started acting yourself at 11. Did you always know you wanted to share this career with your parents?

It’s the most boring answer. Yeah. I remember doing my first school play when I was five. Well, I don’t remember it. You remember photographs, don’t you? I remember a photograph of me playing a little angel in the year one play. After that, I did drama whenever I could. The first time that I actually remember being like, “Oh, this is the thing I want to do for the rest of my life” was when I was 11. I played Henry the eighth in year six in a musical called Henry the Tudor Dude.


[both laugh]

I had a beard from the National Theatre that my mom procured somehow from the wig department. I remember singing and dancing going, “Oh, gosh, this is what I want to do.” My parents have since told me that when they saw it that was the moment they went, ”oh, she’s actually quite good.” That was a time before my parents were as successful as they are now. They were just jobbing actors. My mom hadn’t done Vera Drake, which was the film that set her into a different sort of realm of what jobs she would and would not do. Downton [Abbey] didn’t come along for a few years after that. I only knew acting as a job my parents did. It was nothing else other than that’s what they do. That’s how it became the thing I enjoy the most in the world.



As you have pursued it as a career, have you ever felt pressured to prove your talent because of who your parents are and what they’ve accomplished?

Absolutely. That is the honest answer. I never felt like that as a teenager because everything that I did, the National Youth Theatre, the RADA Youth Company, drama school, didn’t know who my parents were. I very much got all of those things off my back, which set me up to have an underlying confidence in myself and in my acting being its own entity. Interestingly, I think after leaving drama school, six years ago, I have felt a constant drive to be seen as Bessie Carter, in my own right, not “the daughter of.” It’s quite a nice driving force. It keeps me hungry and makes me want to be better in every job I do. I always want to be better than in my last job because I want to work forever. That probably comes from the fact that my parents are also actors, and I want to prove to everyone that I’m also a really good actor. 


That you can stand on your own two feet. Is there anything you’ve learned from either of them that you take with you when you approach a new role?

Oh, that’s a lovely question. I’ve never been asked that question before? Every actor has their process. For a long time, I was very reluctant to ask their opinion or to ask what they do in their preparation. We all do our own thing, which feels important to me and I love it. I have friends whose parents are actors. They are a lot more open about doing self-tapes with them or asking for advice, but I’m quite determined to find my approach.


I think I would be the same. 

Yeah. Acting is also so subjective. I might read something and see one thing. My mum might read it and see something completely different. I don’t want to do my impression of her ideas. The basic things that I’ve learned from them are: be kind, be nice to work with, respect everyone on set, whether it’s the person driving you in or the person rigging the lights, or the director from America who’s scary with a big name. It doesn’t matter. Everyone is equal. Those things have been ingrained in me. When I used to visit them at work, through osmosis I absorbed those things because they’re two of the kindest, most generous people I have ever met. 


How lovely! What is your dream role? 

Lady Macbeth. It always has been. I’ve played Lady Macbeth twice. Once at the RADA Youth Company and once at Guildhall. I would honestly cut off someone’s right arm to play that character. I think she is so complex and damaged and traumatized. I have such a fascination with why people do “evil things.” I think Shakespeare is so timeless and there’s always going to be room for it. We can reimagine the productions. We can reimagine the casting. Thank God, we can. I would kill to play Lady Macbeth. Pun intended.


[laughs] I think that is the most specific answer I have ever gotten to that question. I respect that. Bringing things back around to Bridgerton, after season 1, I loved all your behind-the-scenes content. I love seeing modern products in the period setting. If you could steal one outfit from this season, any character, whose would it be and which one?

What a good question. It doesn’t have to be mine. Oh, my God. Well, I’m just going to immediately count out the Bridgertons because I find their clothes beautiful, but I always want to go a little bit louder. So, I will end up choosing a Featherington one. You know what? It’s going to have to be my own. It’s my dressing gown. We used the same one in season 1. I specifically asked for it back. The sleeves are the most incredible sleeves I’ve ever seen in my life. They’re puffy and they go all the way down. It looks like a lineup of meringues going up my arms. It’s also really comfortable. I feel like I’m Virginia Woolf and I should be writing or painting or sketching. Maybe I like it because it’s the most demure out of all of Prudence’s looks, but I love it. 


Maybe when the series ends, they can give it to you.

I would genuinely wear that dressing gown to lure men. I would.


[both laugh] Those are my favorite kinds of dresses. As I’ve mentioned, I’ve not seen the final two episodes. I don’t know Prudence’s full arc. To close, if you could give her one piece of advice for the season, what would it be?

It’s the advice I genuinely want to give any young woman. Don’t put all of your value on whether a man chooses you or not. That’s what I want to say to all of the young women in Bridgerton and most of the fantastic women in my life. Don’t put your worth on whether or not a man chooses you. They should be so lucky. You are fantastic.


Bridgerton is streaming now.


Interview by Sydney Bolen

Photography by Joseph Sinclair

Styling by Krishan Parmar

Makeup by Justine Jenkins

Hair by Sophie Sugarman

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