Filmhounds Magazine

All things film – In print and online

“I was playing himbos before the trend took off” — James Phoon Talks Bridgerton Season 3

8 min read
James Phoon, Bridgerton (1)

James Phoon, Bridgerton (1)

James Phoon is one of the latest to join regency drama , appearing as the well-meaning husband of series regular Prudence Featherington (Betty Carter). FILMHOUNDS spoke to the actor about the secretive casting process, unexpected surprises on set and what's next for Harry Dankworth in Season 3 Part 2.

Starting super generally, how did you get into acting?

It's something that I wanted to do from a really young age. I've always watched films and TV and really wanted to be a part of them. Do you remember on DVDs, there was a second desk with all the special features and behind the scenes stuff? I used to watch all of that and dream of being a part of it, but I had no idea how someone did that. I didn't know anything about that world, other than what I saw on those special features disks.

My mum suggested that I joined a local drama group, but I was really shy at the time and it took me a really long time to actually decide, “yes, I'm going to do this”. It really started when I decided to do GCSE drama, and then from that point on with each step I took I was learning about what came next. Learning what drama school was, and then at drama school learning what an agent is; it wasn't until I'd graduated that I really realised what a producer does and how the casting directors work. There are so many jobs within the industry, and I've slowly started getting my head around all of them now. 

You've been on screen and on stage; which do you prefer?

Growing up it was definitely screen that I wanted to do, especially fantasy and adventure. I was, and still am, obsessed with X Men—I used to watch that trilogy on repeat like all the time. I also wanted to do voiceover work on cartoons, which is something I'm starting to do now. I did go to the theatre growing up, but not as much as I watched TV and film. I really love every area of the industry now, the variety is really interesting to me.

Joining Bridgerton must have been exciting; what was the casting process like?

When I got cast, everything was very top secret in terms of my character. The other characters in my scenes, my wife, they all had code names. So I didn't really know exactly who I was or where I fit into the story until I started going to fittings and meeting the team. It was quite surreal, actually. Because it was something that I was such a fan of, and the design of the show is so iconic, it was bizarre to see it in real life and to suddenly be amongst it all.

Codenames are very dramatic! Was it difficult to find your character when so little detail was made available to you early on?

I think my character was really well written in the scenes that I was sent. I knew that he was not very intelligent but very adoring of his wife, and I knew that his wife was slightly more wealthy than he was. So I just really leaned into that sort of playful, goofy, loving guy. At the very beginning the specifics of who the other people in the scene were didn't really matter too much — the characters were written so well in the scene that you understood who they were as people without necessarily knowing which actual character they were. It's a funny process, trying to try to dig for information!

Going into the Featherington gang, all those brilliant actors have been there since season one. They know their characters inside and out, and they were ready and raring to go on day one. That made me need to match that preparedness and that energy and do Dankworth justice, to fit into what they were already creating, which was fun.

Bessie Carter (Prudence) and I got to do what I think is the first funny sex scene in Bridgerton. We do a scene that's really awkward and clunky, and really feels like the characters. It's not steamy and passionate, it's awkward like them!

Having to do your own investigations and putting the pieces together along the way must be very strange! Bridgerton is a very glamorous, shiny show; what's it like to really be there on set?

The sets are just as phenomenal in real life, which is a testament to the amazing designers on that show.

One thing that sort of surprised me is that a lot of the house interiors are actually in a studio. When they're split-level houses, like the Featherington house, there's a staircase that goes down to a little hallway. In my head, because it's shot so well, those things were really connected; you'd walk down the stairs to go downstairs. But in reality they're in two completely different parts of the studio, and you've got two fake sets of stairs that are cut between to make it look like it's one location. It really took me by surprise!

Nicola Coughlan mentioned in an interview that she was perpetually cold on set, and wore jogging bottoms under her gowns. Did you have the same problems with temperature?

The temperature thing is definitely always a real point whenever you're filming! Especially on this, because we filmed for eight months. We were filming during a 40 degree heat wave, so for part of filming it was literally 40 degrees and we were in costumes with layers and layers and layers of wool and jackets. And then, to completely contrast that, we were also filming in January, outside, when there were frozen-over lakes and the trees were covered in frost. We really did experience both extremes!

I always think it's unfair in period dramas that the women nearly always have the more fun costumes, but there are certainly some fun choices for all the characters in Bridgerton. Did you enjoy wearing very formal clothing for the part?

The costumes are honestly amazing. They make everything from scratch, so everything is perfectly custom made to fit your body. It's just incredible. At my first fitting there were bits of fabric hanging up with drawings attached to them, and little labels of when they would be used. Getting to see that process, from fabric to fittings to finished garments, was so special. It really adds to the effect when you're wearing them, knowing that hundreds of hours of people's time and effort have gone into making these things.

For the men, I have so many incredible waistcoats and it's sort of a shame that they're all hidden underneath the jackets! They're incredible too, but I have really interesting waistcoat fabrics and patterns and you just have tiny little glimpses, through the collar or around the waistline. There was one really gorgeous waistcoat, which is going to be in episode eight, which is a slightly iridescent, shimmering purple.

I don't want to implicate you in a crime, but what would you steal from the set?

Probably that waistcoat! Or my watch fob. The men all have watch fobs, which have a pocket watch on one end, and a piece of fabric with little adornments and trinkets attached to it.

I'd spoken to Dougie [Hawkes, associate costume designer] about how we could incorporate my, and Harry Dankworth's, Chinese heritage, and we decided to put it into the watchfob. There's a little symbol on there of fu (福), which means good luck, and blessing, and happiness. That felt  like the perfect way to capture Harry Dankworth as a character and to show part of his heritage. It's a tiny little thing that maybe no one will see, but it's a really interesting detail to me.

I love how much care is put into the small details for props and accessories, it has such an impact on the final product.

It's the same with the Lady Whistledown papers. They're all completely written out and have all this gossip on them. It's detail that probably no one will ever see, but it's there just in case. It's an amazing amount of work.

You've spoken about incorporating Dankworth's Chinese heritage into the details of his accessories; how did you approach the idea of heritage when you were working on the character?

As someone who is of mixed heritage, especially when you're growing up, sometimes it's a big part of your day and sometimes it's really not a part of your day at all. It's just who you are, and sometimes it requires more focus than others. I think it's really important in terms of representation on screen that sometimes characters can be very specifically connected to their heritage, and at other times they can just take up space with their presence. Harry Dankworth is a character of mixed heritage, but that's not the defining feature of his character. It's part of his upbringing and it's who he is, and we wanted design elements to reflect that, but it's not at the forefront of his story or who he is as a person.

His defining trait would have to be himboism, I think, which has definitely been a big trend on screen recently. Did you draw on any of other performances for Dankworth? Ken comes to mind…

Often in the industry, things end up sort of coming out at the same time by chance. We started filming this season two years ago, so I was playing Harry Dankworth before the himbo trend took off. By the time that Barbie came out, we'd finished filming a long time ago, so I didn't get to draw on any of those characters!

It's weird the way things coincide like that. Another show I do is called Wreck, a queer horror slasher. It came out just after Squid Game, and quite a lot of reviews were drawing parallels and wondering whether it was inspired by it. We were all like, ‘Squid Game came out a month ago—how quickly do you think we made this show?!'

You were something of a himbo trendsetter, then! What can people expect from Dankworth, and Bridgerton in the second half of this season?

Dankworth and Prudence have been introduced to us as a newlywed couple who don't really know each other that well. Dankworth is very eager to be a good husband to her and cares very much about her, even though he doesn't quite know how to read her at the moment. There's some growth in them learning how to be a better couple and how to look after and understand each other better.

There's this race between the sisters to be the first to produce a male baby and make a Featherington heir — that's well and truly on in the second half of the season.

Bridgerton Season 3 is available to stream on Netflix.