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Claudia Jessie: ‘A clown is all I ever wanted to be’

If you’re a fan of Eloise Bridgerton, get to know Claudia Jessie, the righteous and rebellious actor who plays her

The second series of Bridgerton has just dropped as Claudia Jessie zooms in to talk to The Big Issue. Throughout the interview her phone keeps buzzing with friends and family sending messages wishing her a Happy Bridgerton Day.

Based on books by Julia Quinn, Bridgerton is a perfect blend of glamour and drama. Tradition with a modern twist, deliciously escapist.

The first series arrived at a momentous moment: Christmas Day 2020 – the year Christmas was cancelled, the rotten cherry on top of a miserable year.

While we had to make do with smaller social gatherings and party games performed via video, an invitation arrived to enter the fantastical, hyper-real world of regency-era London.

And just as the world is experiencing another era of global gloom, Bridgerton returned with its second series to provide some respite again.

Jessie plays Eloise Bridgerton in the Netflix phenomenon. Playing a more central role this time, Eloise is smart, sassy and switched on. The character serves as the audience’s access point into the peculiar social structure and rules of the ‘ton.

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Although she has an unhealthy obsession with discovering the identity of Lady Whistledown, Eloise is a rebel with plenty of causes. And so is the 32-year-old actor who plays her.

Claudia Jessie didn’t have the easiest upbringing but it’s shaped who she is today.

Claudia Jessie as Eloise and Nicola Coughlan as Penelope in Bridgerton. Picture: Netflix
Claudia Jessie as Eloise and Nicola Coughlan as Penelope in Bridgerton. Picture: Netflix

The Big Issue: How are you feeling now that the second series is out there?

Claudia Jessie: I just hope people love it. In that beautiful way they loved season one. I’m getting loads of texts from my family and friends saying Happy Bridgerton Day, which is very funny.

The first season arrived when Christmas had been cancelled for everyone. What are your memories of that day?

It was the most sort of delicious form of escapism, wasn’t it? We were in our third and bleakest lockdown.

My boyfriend and I couldn’t see our families. So we were just on the boat [Jessie lives on a houseboat in Birmingham, more on that later]. We got loads and loads of party snacks from Iceland, just went crazy with chilli sauce, ketchup and mayo and loads of food you dip in.

I’ve got loads of boat neighbours so at midnight, we all stood out on our bow decks and cheered and there were fireworks. So it was quite lovely. Not my normal Christmas. But it was nice. [More on Jessie’s ‘normal’ Christmas later too.]

Did you expect Eloise to be a fan favourite?

I was nervous that people would be like: Claudia’s crap. That’s my natural disposition, to be quite nervous.

I’m not on social media and stuff. So I miss the real, very quick feedback, you know, that whirlwind of discussion that happens after something like Bridgerton. Every now and again my mum would tell me, nice things or Nicola [Coughlan who plays Penelope] would send me screenshots of things.

I was very hopeful that people would like her. On the page, she’s so funny and quick-witted and so close to the audience that I was hoping people would be able to connect.

Do you have much in common?

I’m nowhere near as cool as Eloise. I never have been, I never will be. I most certainly was not that cool when I was 17, or 18. I was a nervous little mess. The only thing like we really do share is a sense of humour. Comedy is really the centre of my heart. I’ve got an insatiable desire to try and make people laugh. But Eloise, is cooler than that. She just does it. And I’m: ‘Please like me!’

If you lived back in Bridgerton days, would you kick against or conform to society’s rules?

I don’t have any strong views about getting married or having children. I don’t want children, but I still have this part at the back of my head telling me that society does want me to do these things. And maybe I just should. So I wonder if maybe I would have questioned things a bit more. Not as courageously as Eloise does, but I think I would have had something to say because even now people still ask why I don’t want children, like it’s a wild concept.

In a memorable scene Eloise says: “My rebellion is not some party dress I put on to play a part mamma and it is certainly not some accomplishment I have developed like singing or painting to attract a suitor.” But is rebelliousness a quality that can be developed?

I read somewhere that empathy can be taught. And imagine if we did that… When I was in school I don’t think we were talking about empathy or altruism or compassion. All of those things that were ingrained in us in children – to feel shame or embarrassed about things that are perfectly normal and natural – those things stay with us. Then in our 30s and 40s and beyond, we’re desperately trying to undo all of that.

Social media does not give us the beauty of patience, because everything happens like [she snaps her fingers] so that’s how we think we need to be as well. We think we need to be correct like that, or undo all of our trauma and anxiety just like that, but it doesn’t.

I remember reading this article that said the most long lasting, consistent and fool-proof way of developing happiness is to support other people. There’s science behind that – people who hold onto their food don’t actually last as long as those who give up their last bit of bread.

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If Eloise could time travel, what would you tell her about the world today?

I want to tell her about climate change. I’d probably want to apologise. Ever since I was very young I’ve cared about people’s rights to a dignified life – and by dignity I mean a roof over their head, food and contentment.

It made me make loads of decisions in my life. I went vegan seven years ago. I haven’t shopped on the high street for about six years, because I will not contribute to fast fashion.  And ever since I was 22 I’ve volunteered every Christmas at a homeless shelter.

I always think, do you reckon one day in the future we’ll be like, ‘Do you know that people used to just walk past people on the street? Do you believe they used to batter animals and put them in between bread?’

I suppose I’d want to say to Eloise, I’m so sorry you’ve got no time. I’d say I’m sorry.

Where did your passion for activism come from?

I came to understand through watching my mother that we are all a hop, skip and a jump away from something really bad and really dangerous. Witnessing her work hard, then there would be bailiffs at the door. I remember all the times she had my brother under one arm, me under the other, whilst they were smashing the door she was like: they’ll go away soon, they’ll go away soon, we just have to hide.

Through my mum’s remarkable resilience, I realised that there’s something in giving your all. I started practising Buddhism when I was 17 years old. It really made me want to be the kind of person that could plant trees without ever enjoying the shade from them. You know, just doing something for the future.

So many people ask me: do I miss bacon? Do I miss just buying something from H&M? Do I you know miss Christmas with my family? The answer is no. And I love my family deeply. It’s not that I don’t miss them. It’s that it doesn’t feel like a sacrifice to me. Because I have to do something whilst I’m here.

The cost of living crisis means more families than ever will be in that position.

Not everyone has access to the sort of life that we’re all expected to live. Have you ever noticed people have to have loads of descriptions about themselves? They can’t just be an actor, it has ‘actor, writer, dancer, entrepreneur, influencer’. we can’t really just hone in on one thing anymore, because it’s not respected enough or something like. The world is expecting us to do everything at once.

There was a time where women were really like pushed back and now we’re expected to be able to boss everything, breastfeed two children at the same time whilst going to work on the tube.

There’s so much pressure to do everything and I think multitasking is hugely overrated. I don’t know how people are supposed to afford this expectation. A respect for people’s different circumstances is really important.

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What’s the one thing that would describe you then?

A clown is all I ever wanted to be. All I wanted to do growing up was make people laugh. I actually considered going to clown in college in France for a long time.

Eloise is a bookworm. What are you reading at the moment?

I’m actually reading The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman. I can’t wait to read the second already. It’s so light and funny and brilliant. You can hear Richard Osmond’s humour in it.

I read a lot of really bleak books recently. And my boyfriend was like: Claudia, maybe try an uplifting one. So – very romantic – I came home one day and there were flowers and the Richard Osman book, which I was so touched by.

The second series of Bridgerton is now on Netflix

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