TV & Movies
Bridgerton’s Ruth Gemmell On The Truth Behind That Scene With Jonathan Bailey
And why Violet Bridgerton is so very far away from her reality.
Spoilers for Bridgerton Season 2 ahead.
At this point, it seems everyone has watched Bridgerton. Yet, Ruth Gemmell, who portrays matriarch Lady Violet Bridgerton, is somewhat detached from the frenzy. In fact, she found it “bonkers” when she realised just how big the first series had become. “I don’t do social media, so I had no idea,” she tells me. The actor, who spends her free time gardening, is more than happy to take a back seat and “live vicariously through” her younger cast mates. “I’ve been around a bit, so I know it [the hype] can go as quickly as it comes,” she admits.
The Bristol-born actor got her big break in 1997, starring as the lead opposite Colin Firth in the romantic comedy Fever Pitch. Since then, she has made appearances in many well-known British TV dramas including Waking the Dead, EastEnders, and Casualty. But when Gemmell landed the role of Violet in Bridgerton, she knew early on that the project was like nothing else she’d ever worked on. “The sheer scale of it was an indication that this was something quite extraordinary,” she explains. Marvelling at the wardrobe fittings she had for her character, she adds: “There are warehouses full of clothes. I’ve been on some big jobs, but never as a fundamental part of the whole thing.”
In Season 1, Violet is introduced to viewers — or readers, if you will — as the dutiful mother of the eight Bridgerton siblings. She helps her eldest daughter, Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor), make her entrance into society and search for a prosperous marital match. However, in Season 2, we get to know Violet as an individual, who has a history and life of her own. This was a welcome change of pace for Gemmell, but by no means a shock.
“The first eight Bridgerton books written by Julia Quinn are predominantly about the children, and how they each found love. But there’s a ninth book, where you get to see Violet’s history,” she tells me avidly. “From finding love and getting married, to motherhood and losing her husband, and then becoming a content, older woman… I always knew those stories were there, so I anchored [my] Violet on them.”
In one particularly harrowing flashback scene, we see a recently widowed Violet giving birth to her youngest child. Now that her husband, Viscount Edmund Bridgerton, is dead, her eldest son, Anthony (Jonathan Bailey), is the new head of the household. Violet endures a complicated labour, and at one point, the doctor inquires as to whose life he should save if things take a turn for the worse: the mother or the baby. But he doesn’t ask Violet — oh, no, he asks the man of the house: her son. Violet has no autonomy over her body or future, and what follows is a tense, anguished exchange, as the grieving widow pushes against the fact that her son has been given the right to make such a decision. It’s a gruelling moment for a young Anthony, too. How did she navigate filming this scene, I ask?
“There’s this woman, and her son is the head of the household, and she should really be listening to what he says, yet she puts him in his place and tells him to grow up. I loved that, it really amused me.”
“I felt the need to get the physicality right first,” Gemmell explains. “I have no children, so I needed it to be as true as it could be.” Dedicated to making the “breathing” realistic, the actor enlisted the help of a midwife, who talked her through the labour process. However, the pair had a slight setback when they were rehearsing the scene. “We were staying in a hotel during lockdown, and she and I gave birth in a disused dining room. There was a glass window, and everyone was walking past,” she laughs. “It was really embarrassing trying to give birth whilst the world was going on outside.”
Aside from perfecting the physicality of the sequence, it was also important for the actor to feel at ease on set. “With Jonny and the rest of the crew, you need to feel safe, and that you can c*ck it up and start again, without being afraid,” she reveals. “For me to feel confident in what I’m doing, I like the environment to be a healthy, happy one.”
Luckily, Gemmell and Bailey had already established a close on-set relationship. “It was really lovely to know I’d be working so closely with Jonny [in Season 2],” she admits. “He’s an amazing actor, and incredibly generous.” It just so happens that Gemmell’s first in-person audition involved an interaction with Bailey. Reliving the life-changing moment, she tells me, “It was the scene with Violet and Anthony, where she’s telling him off for getting in the way of Daphne finding a good marriage match.” The actor cherished the moment because she felt the power within it. “There’s this woman, and her son is the head of the household, and she should really be listening to what he says, yet she puts him in his place and tells him to grow up,” she notes. “I loved that, it really amused me.”
Gemmell is only too aware that Violet’s agency, although empowering, would most likely not have happened in the early 1800s. “She would have never been given that platform, but it’s a modern show, in an older context,” she reasons. The women are front and centre in Bridgerton’s new season, and the sole focus isn’t on their romantic relationships, but rather the ones they share with each other. One such blossoming friendship is that between Violet and Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh) who relish their roles as matriarchs. The pair often interfere in the goings-on among the younger set, and aren’t afraid to cause a little mischief of their own.
“She’s a force to be reckoned with,” Gemmell says of Andoh, before elaborating on their real-life kinship. “She’s lovely to work with, and as I’ve got to know Adjoa, Violet and Lady Danbury have been given more of a platform to show their relationship. ... It’s quite nice to have those moments where friendships, and the niggles you have with each other, are tested.”
Fans can expect to see plenty more on-screen fun with Violet and Lady Danbury, as they — along with Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel) — will be the main subjects of Netflix’s Bridgerton spinoff. “I know very little,” Gemmell says, coyly. “It follows the Queen, Violet, and Danbury, as well as their younger selves.” And while she’s not yet been told who will portray her younger counterpart, Gemmell looks forward to finding out. “I’m intrigued to meet her. It’ll be hilarious,” she muses. The actor is, however, keen to rule herself out of the running. “That would require lots of Vaseline on the lens,” she quips.