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To Arsema Thomas, ‘Queen Charlotte’ Is a Distinctly Modern Tale

By now, you’ve likely come across Arsema Thomas—her face is splashed across the Netflix app, advertising the latest Shondaland production, Queen Charlotte, a prequel to the hit Bridgerton series. Or perhaps you’ve already binged all six episodes of Queen Charlotte and experienced Thomas as the young Lady Danbury, with her large eyes that speak even when the actor has no lines. Maybe you’ve read about her, followed the press she completed in promotion of the show. If that’s the case, you’ve already heard her unique story, the time she spent at Carnegie Mellon and then Yale, getting a bachelor’s degree in biophysics and a masters in public health; her decision to leave that all behind and move to Paris to pursue her passion for acting without telling anyone, even her mother; her impressive resume that includes refugee work, TedTalks, app creation. You could know all of this about her, but it still wouldn’t prepare you for the person Thomas truly embodies when in front of you.

Thomas, who uses she/they pronouns, holds herself with an authority reserved for ladies of the ton (or children of diplomats, which she so happens to be). The 28-year-old speaks eloquently, making points that get you nodding aggressively in agreement. In a way, she is a lot like her Queen Charlotte character, Lady Agatha Danbury, a bright woman ahead of her time, using the tools available to her to push our world into the direction she sees fit. There’s a strength to both Thomas and Danbury. I mean, it takes strength to turn your back on six years of academic studies for a career in which you are (to be frank) technically woefully unprepared.

“I had a resume with high school plays and other little things that I had done here and there,” she tells W of her early acting experience. She knew that if she wanted to leave academia behind and pursue acting, she had to go all in. So, she packed up her things and moved to Paris, where she found herself as a 25-year-old among teenagers in her acting courses. “I was jealous because they had all this time to make mistakes and figure themselves out,” she recalls. “Whereas I was there, coming in as a more or less a fully formed adult, having to regress into an almost childlike state.”

Luckily, things started happening pretty quickly for Thomas. She booked a pilot, and then a period romance film, Redeeming Love, based on the Francine Rivers novel of the same name. When the audition for Queen Charlotte came around, Thomas not-so-jokingly “threatened” her agents to get her in. Not because she was specifically a fan of the original Netflix series, but because of the Shonda Rhimes of it all. “What [Shonda] does for the Black woman narrative is something I never had the chance to explore,” she says. “A lot of the characters I was playing weren’t written for me, or I was fighting with directors on visions and choices. To be able to be in something where I trust the writer, I knew it would be just an amazing place to keep learning.”

In prepping for the role, Thomas flouted time-accurate Georgian texts for more modern alternatives. “I read a lot of Toni Morrison to understand where that level of martyrdom comes from,” she says. For her, looking far into the past wasn’t necessary to understand the societal stakes of Queen Charlotte—despite the 18th century setting of the story. “These are patterns we see constantly in history and society,” she says, specifically pointing at the civil rights movement. “There were a lot of dark-skinned Black women working behind their lighter-skinned counterparts,” she says, citing Angela Davis and Assata Shakur.

Similarly, Thomas’ Lady Danbury remains behind the scenes, lightly pushing the Queen to realize that historic nature of her role. While Bridgerton was mostly cast colorblind, Queen Charlotte addresses the faux history that got society to that place where say, Regé-Jean Page’s Simon could marry Phoebe Dynevor’s Daphne without the ton blinking an eye. When Charlotte arrives at court, she’s mostly unaware the impact her marriage as a Black woman will have on greater British society, but Agatha is there to inform her of the significance of “The Great Experiment,” as it’s referred to in the show.

And while Agatha spars with many characters throughout Queen Charlotte’s six episodes, from her maid Coral to her suitor, Prince Adolphus, it’s her relationship with the Queen that Thomas feels deserves the most attention. “There is so much power in female friendships that I think people tend to overlook,” she says. Charlotte and Agatha’s relationship is a complicated one. There’s a power dynamic at play, an inherent lack of trust thanks to the secrecy of the crown, yet despite that, they’re able to bond and help each other. “The conversations they have are so nuanced,” Thomas says. “And the moment they truly allow the other one in, something existential and emotional happens internally.”

Charlotte and Agatha’s final interaction comes at the end of a ball thrown by the King and Queen. Charlotte confronts her friend for rejecting a marriage proposal from the Queen’s own brother. An initially contentious tone makes way for resolution as it becomes clear that Charlotte finally understands the importance of Agatha’s agenda. It’s a nice cap to the back-and-forth experienced between the two women throughout the season, but Thomas believes there’s more story to be told. As of now, Netflix hasn’t announced a second season of the show, and its choice to bill Queen Charlotte as a limited series has led many to believe these six episodes are all we will ever get. Still, Thomas is hopeful. “I think there’s so much more that can be excavated,” she says. “I think it would be such a disservice to say that her character and her story lives in support of others, because that just properly stamps in that stereotype.”

In the meantime, Thomas is staying busy. She’s making collages of photos to send to Adjoa Andoh, who plays the older version of her character on both Queen Charlotte and Bridgerton. She’s continuously promoting various philanthropic endeavors, supporting the current WGA strike, and furthering her own knowledge with a constantly evolving reading list featuring names like bell hooks and Noam Chomsky. She’s also working on herself, striving to reach a point of confidence often found only in fictional characters like Lady Danbury. Thomas is candid about her own struggle with imposter syndrome, something that has only grown recently, despite her starring role in Queen Charlotte.

“It’s gotten worse,” she admits. “Now that the show has come out, I’m like, ‘Now everybody will see that I’ve scammed Shondaland and Netflix into getting me this role.’ Imposter syndrome is definitely a me thing. It’s a personal thing. It will take a mindset shift, because people can tell you from now ‘til kingdom come that you’re great. But all it takes is one person to say you’re not, and you’re like, ‘You see?’”

In an odd, maybe messed up way, it’s comforting to see someone like Thomas dealing with imposter syndrome. And for Thomas, it was comforting to see her Queen Charlotte castmates struggling with it as well. “Here are these ridiculously amazing actors, and they all have imposter syndrome too,” she says. “It made me realize, ‘OK, so you’re nuts, which means I must be nuts. You’re wrong. I’m wrong. We’re all wrong. So maybe we’re all going to be fine.’”

W Magazine

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