Rupert Young’s empathic sensibilities coupled with his talent create authentic and compelling portrayals of easily disliked characters.
For British actor Rupert Young, there’s no such thing as playing the bad guy. Seeing him showcase his craft is to find a man able to embody his characters in such a way he learns from them, no matter how they appear on the surface. Young’s career has allowed him to wear many hats, some longer than others. He can be found in a recurring role in the beloved BBC fantasy drama Merlin, currently playing Larry Murphy in the West End’s run of Dear Evan Hansen, for which he received an Olivier nomination, or most recently, scrolling the streets in 17th century London in the second season of Netflix’s smash hit Bridgerton.
Since its release in March, Bridgerton has continued to garner both critical and commercial acclaim. Currently, it holds the title of Netflix’s third most-watched English-language series, with all signs pointing to it soon being number one. Young was a new addition to the Shondaland hit. His character, Jack Featherington, emerges onto the playing field due to a death in season one. The heir to the title family’s eccentric neighbours’ household, Jack is all at once charming, conniving, and quick on his feet. He is a match for the traits held by more than one of his Ton-dwelling family members, falling easily into place as the “villain” of the season.
Rupert Young speaks with 1883 Magazine’s Sydney Bolen about joining the massive success for its second season, what he hopes is next for his character, the importance of empathy, and more.
Congrats on Bridgerton I loved it. I was a hard sell too because I’m a big fan of the book, but I am obsessed. Have you enjoyed the release hype?
I’ve seen bits online. Hilariously, the day it got released I got COVID.
Yeah, so I was stuck in my house. The day I was negative, I went on holiday. I only got back last night so I’ve got all this to look forward to when I leave the house today.
Well, it looks like most people really liked the season. This was the season that it was going to go either way because this story comes from the most beloved book of the series or what seems to be to me.
I think there was a lot of anticipation that we were aware of. It’s been amazing to see the feedback that we’ve got online and the numbers on Netflix. As you said, a lot of people have seemed to be excited by it, so that’s exciting in turn.
You play Jack Featherington, who is not in the novels. He’s a complicated character. Who is he to you?
When I took the audition it was very ambiguous. I was very keen to not know too far in advance where my character was going. I saw him as someone who was charming and gave off the facade of coming to save the family by making their life easier. He is very cynical when it comes to the English aristocracy, but then gets sucked into it in a way that was never his intention.
With Bridgerton being such a massive show, I’m so curious what the audition process was like.
I was asked to tape for it in October two years ago before season one dropped. I was sent the trailer. I thought it was good, but it was obviously not the massive show that it became. There wasn’t a script, but there were a few scenes with the character. All I knew was he was very charming and had come over from America. The names were all changed for the audition, so I didn’t know exactly how he fits in, but I knew he fit in with one of the main families. I did a few scenes and then didn’t hear anything for maybe four months. At this time, the show became a juggernaut. I think it was in March that I got a call saying, “Oh, you have a recall to meet the team.” Suddenly, I’m on Zoom with Chris Van Dusen and the Shondaland Executives doing a scene. It was very surreal, talking to someone because we’d been in lockdown for so long. The next day, I got a call saying, “you have a chemistry read with Polly Walker.” I did that and then was cast. It was very quick and very relaxed for a show that was so big. In terms of auditions, I’ve had far, far harder auditions with many many more rounds. The show I’m doing right now, I think I had 15 auditions for. To have it shrink down to two was quite nice.
Wow. I bet. From the people I’ve talked to that worked on the project, it seems that while on the outside Bridgerton is this massive thing, the creative team behind it simply sees it as a project they work on and just does what they do best.
Yeah, that’s the sense you get on set which is fantastic because I think the idea of turning up to this massive thing was very daunting. I got cast and then two days later, I’m having makeup tests and I’m having costume fittings. Before I knew it, I’m meeting the cast and we were rehearsing and doing a read-through on Zoom. I wouldn’t quite call it relaxing, but it was a really enjoyable start to a show. You get to meet everyone when you’re actually on camera, then you go and rehearse for a day when you’re not being filmed, so by the time you’re on set, you’ve met everyone. There’s an understanding. You don’t feel like a fish out of water. You don’t get worried that you’re turning up to ruin this massive show. I was very, very lucky to have that start.
Before you got into that, did you feel any pressure coming onto this massive success in its second season?
A little bit. I think because it was such a big, big show there was a huge pressure and as we touched on before, the idea of the show and the pressure of turning up and seeing the incredible sets and the incredible locations and meeting the incredible costume designers and makeup designers, and the teams is so huge. But weirdly, when you’re in it, it’s such a happy atmosphere of people who are just wanting to do the best job they can and have fun whilst creating great work. That might be because they’re at the top of their game. When you’re on the floor and doing the work, it was a joy. You turned up and you did your lines and worked with fun, great people. They made it a very welcoming set. From moment one I was made to feel very relaxed. It was a beautiful, talented, vulnerable, and lovely cast that welcomed me and everyone else who turned up.
I love hearing that. It makes me love the show more. If you could give Jack one piece of advice, what would it be?
I would say go easy on getting people to invest in the imaginary mines. [chuckles] He goes through a little quicker. He could have dragged it out a bit, maybe a few more seasons.
Regardless of if we see him again in Bridgerton, what do you hope is next for him in his fictional universe?
It is quite nice that I get to make it up myself because he’s not in the books. I love the idea of him going back to America and then missing The Ton. It contradicts the genuine affection I think he had for Portia, but I think he gets to America, finds himself a trophy American wife, manages to find a way to make money, comes back, and pays everyone back. But then creates more issues by finding his birth certificate and taking over the family home.
I think that’s fitting. I like that a lot. You recently took on the role of Larry Murphy in Dear Evan Hansen. He’s not a very well-liked character. You must have done a stellar job as you were nominated for an Olivier award. How was it taking on his mindset?
Pre pandemic, I’d never done a year-long contract in an American musical before. I was interested in seeing what that was like. I also wanted to work with Michael Greif and that team, Pasek and Paul. I have to say that he is very different from me as a parent. He’s obviously a bit more of an asshole than I like to think I am. He’s a lot more focused on the All-American-Dad who isn’t there for his kids, doesn’t listen, and doesn’t connect with them. It was quite nice to play a part that was less vulnerable than myself and get my head around it but also to explore how a man goes through the grief he does. There is such a powerful story in that. Getting to do that every night, knowing that a lot of people go through what he goes through in real life, it’s been a challenge and nice to be able to do it for such a long time and develop the part.
I think part of the reason that he’s not very well-liked is that he is a complex character. They made him his own character, which is always nice.
I think it’s good. Because the musical has got such a huge teen following, I think a lot of people think “oh, that’s what it is.” But everyone goes through difficult times. Playing the role, knowing how men can be closed off and not know how to talk about their emotions in a way that hopefully we’re getting better at, is quite a nice way to explore that.
Did you learn anything from playing him?
I think so. Without blowing my own trumpet, I think I’ve always tried to have some empathy when it comes to being a parent, and sometimes if anything, I have too much of that. I think what I learned was that everyone goes through different things. I can shut off from things and try to go through things on my own. I think, “I can deal with that.” But actually, it’s much easier when you’re struggling with things to communicate with people. Playing this role, you realize how many people in this world are struggling with various things. I know we’ve heard it a lot, but it’s so true that the more you communicate, the easier things become. I’ve learned that in a way that I never thought I would when I started. Because I’ve done it for so long, it’s changed me and just made me realize how important it is to chat.
Definitely. I like hearing from actors when I do this that roles have taught them things. I think it’s taking what you do to an extra level which is fun to hear. When I was researching for this interview, I noticed that you often retweet things that have to do with charities and benefit events. Those kinds of things are always really near and dear to my heart, so I was wondering if there were any causes that you regularly support and wanted to give you space to talk about them if you wanted.
Oh. That’s very kind. My partner works in international development and has done a lot of work with some incredible foundations. There was a company she worked for called United World Schools, which helps build schools in Cambodia and around the world, really focusing on girls’ education in remote parts of these countries.
We work with a lot of mental health charities on Dear Evan Hansen. That’s something that I’m currently really interested in. That and international development as well. I think especially now, after the pandemic. I thought the pandemic would bring so much positivity to the world and it suddenly appears that that has had the reverse effect. I think it made people more selfish. It’s made me more interested in trying to do as much as I can to practice what I preach in terms of trying to create a better world for myself and the future. One with equality and an understanding that everyone is as important as each other. Sadly, it appears a lot of the world doesn’t necessarily agree with that.
I was in the same boat with that thinking and I recently read a book called Humankind by Rutger Bergman. It’s very good. It’s about how humans are wired to be good people. I really enjoyed it and read it in three days.
I’m going to write that down. I think that said, you do see that. I’ve got a four-year-old and seeing the way she is with other people. It’s just so joyous and happy. There’s nothing you have to necessarily teach them. You see so many parents who teach kids the wrong things and aren’t there to support them, which is where it all stems from. I think also the nature of men and women are different. I’ve been going to a few birthday parties for kids because of my daughter. You see four-year-old and five-year-old boys running around smashing cake into each other’s faces and being idiots and then the girls are sitting perfectly having amazing conversations and you go, “how are they the ones that are in charge?”. Boys never change, really. It might just not be cake. Somehow they’re the ones ruling the world. I hope that will change in my lifetime because it’s insane and you can see that from a very early age.
You’re preaching to the choir over here. I completely agree.
To close, you’ve kind of touched on this, but there’s a hot button issue from this season. I can’t think of a better person to answer it. When it comes to Portia and Jack, do you think they actually had feelings for each other or do you think they’re playing each other?
For me, when I first read it, I assumed he was playing her. Talking to the writer, he was very quick to say, “no, I think it is genuine affection.” That’s what I quite enjoyed. It was more fun to play because it raised the stakes. Suddenly he sees that she has got a wicked side and he finds that incredibly exciting and it makes everything more fun. Playing the end scene when she stays behind with her family and doesn’t go to America makes it much more heartbreaking. That’s what I wanted. Polly and I discussed this. It was a huge decision for her to make. It wasn’t just my character saying, “Oh, that’s fine. I’ll just go back to America.” I think it was very much a genuine affection because up until that point he was just trying to find someone to marry.
Okay, I go back and forth. I think if I read it anyway besides genuine affection, I thought she was playing him because Bridgerton always does this thing where they take the femininity rules of the time, the lack of rights, and turn it on its head. The women use it to their advantage.
I do like that take I have to say. I think the ending for her is so powerful. What Polly managed to do is show such a powerful character with such vulnerability. So you’re always second-guessing what’s going on in her mind. But I like the take that she was in it from the top. That’s great.
Bridgerton is streaming now on Netflix.
Interview by Sydney Bolen
Photography by Mark Cant
Styling by Ellie Witt
Hair and Makeup by Maria Comparetto