As a drama school kid who grew up “screaming into microphones” in an unnamed punk rock band, Regé-Jean Page is used to being a disruptor, in the best sense of the word. He’s used to questioning the world around him, to — as he puts it — looking at the world, interpreting it, and throwing it back at people and saying, "Hey, here's what I see. Is this who we are? I have no idea who I am, but maybe I can work it out if I yell it loud enough, and you yell back at me."
There’s no pretense to Page — he really does just want to do better.
When he booked the role of Chicken George in the 2016 remake of Roots, he recognized the gravity of taking on a version of something so important in the cultural canon that it “literally changed society” when the original miniseries came out in 1977.
“It's a bit like someone's brought you their precious old coat, and you're the cobbler, and they're like, ‘Please, can you mend this, and put some patches on it, and bring it into the 21st century?’” he says of the remake. “And it's like, ‘Aw, man, you love this coat. This is really important to you, this keeps you warm. I need to put my best work into this.’”
But his mind wasn’t just on his own star-making turn — he also knew there were more stories he could tell.
“My big entrance into this industry was playing an enslaved person, which is an absolute cliché of people of color,” he says during a Zoom call in early November, matter-of-factly pinpointing this as the moment he set a new career goal. After playing out Chicken George’s turmoil on Roots, he decided to seek out projects that also spotlight Black joy and love — specifically in period dramas, which have historically left out people of color and kept audiences captive to a false belief that all-white casts are more “historically accurate.”
Page, who describes himself as having been a “musical, loud, bouncing-around-the-house” kid growing up in Zimbabwe and the U.K., says acting started out as a hobby that earned him enough money to afford a Gameboy in his youth. But now, at age 30, he speaks passionately about the way he sees it as an act of service (he refers to “serving” an audience at least five times in the course of our conversation), a way of representing a community in the entirety of their humanity.
“What happens in culture often is, you go back in time and only white folks are happy,” he says. “And you know what? We've all known how to smile since the beginning of time. We've all gotten married since the beginning of time. We've all had romance, glamour, and splendor. Representing that is incredibly important, because period drama for people who aren't white shouldn't mean only spotlighting trauma.”
When it comes to representation of people of color, he says, “If we've endured white Jesus for this long, then folks can endure a Black Duke.”
If you can picture an arrow tearing through the air and hitting a bullseye at top speed, you’ll have an approximation of Page achieving his goal of romantic inclusivity this year. This Christmas season alone, he stars as a musician in 1950s New York alongside Tessa Thompson in romantic drama Sylvie’s Love and steps into the Regency-era boots of the aforementioned Duke in Bridgerton. Page, for his part, is excited about delivering two love stories at the end of a trying year, calling Bridgerton and Sylvie’s Love “big warm gifts” that also represent the undercurrent of duty running through his work, something he once called a “debt” he feels he owes to the culture at large.
“Every single time I step on stage or on screen, I am contributing to a culture in which there's a dearth of people representing folks that look like me, or that have our context,” he says. “Every time you are representing people, you owe them the wholeness of their humanity. I mean, I think that's universal, it’s the same for white actors ... Just as importantly, you owe everyone who doesn't look like you a full representation of yourself. Because half of the point of culture is to understand each other better, to get to know people we don't know.”
If the weight of that responsibility sits heavily on him at all, it doesn’t show. When we catch up virtually, it’s the Monday after the results of the presidential election were announced in Joe Biden’s favor. Page, who calls from his L.A. home (he’s living between L.A. and London at the moment), looks relaxed in a casual grey T-shirt and blue zip-up hoodie, reflecting the collective jaw-unclenching that echoed after days of uncertainty.
“It ain’t last week anymore,” he says with a cheerful grin.
Heavy may be the head that wears the crown, but on Page’s capable shoulders, the cloak of responsibility may as well be a superhero’s well-worn cape. He developed this sense of accountability when he studied at the Drama Centre London, where students were encouraged to take on projects that have something to offer to an audience, lest they become “self-indulgent.” Then came along Roots, which reinforced this mindset with a story so beloved that he felt the responsibility to look after this thing he had been loaned.
The same can be said for Bridgerton, the upcoming Shondaland and Netflix production, which has no shortage of devotees. Julia Quinn’s novels, on which the series is based, have sat atop New York Times bestseller lists since the first book in the series, The Duke and I, was published in 2000, and once casting was announced, nearly all of Page’s Instagram posts were filled with comments proudly proclaiming him “our Duke” even before a single teaser for the show dropped. A strong fanbase could be intimidating for anyone trying to bring a story to life, but Page calls it a “privilege” to play to an audience that’s already so enthusiastic. He likens it to wrapping a present for someone you know and love, and getting to imagine how excited they’ll be when they get it — “either because they know what they're going to get, or because it's going to be a surprise that you know will delight them.”
Page’s multifaceted performances in Bridgerton and Sylvie’s Love are akin to a star stepping up to casually announce himself, but in keeping with his drive to do meaningful work, they’re not just about him — they’re also the promise of a good time for all of us. It’s his firm belief that we all deserve to feel the elation of dancing in a ball in a grand palace in period England, to live out a fantasy, and it makes no sense to him to keep excluding people from it.
After a busy Christmas sending us off with two bundles of sheer joy like some kind of dashing Santa, Page plans to “go hide in the cozy corner in a cabin somewhere far away from everything.” But first, the work.
Read on as Page discusses his current bedtime reads, his favorite villains, and the most uncomfortable non-outfit he’s ever worn.
What's the last thing you do before you fall asleep?
I'll read a book usually. I'm working through Anna Deavere Smith's Letters to a Young Artist at the moment, and alternating that with Toni Morrison's Jazz, which I've been working on since Sylvie's Love and I keep dipping in and out of, and then getting distracted. It's nice to read myself a bedtime story, basically. It's a good time to take in someone else's thoughts and see if your brain can do something fun with that when you fall asleep.
Yeah. Don't be looking at a screen, which is what I do.
Yeah. I'm trying to get away from that. I mean, the other thing I'll do is I'll probably doom scroll through Twitter for a while. Like, "No. Bad boy. Read a book."
Who is your favorite villain?
I think everyone is a villain if you look at them closely enough. I think with the superhero movies we watch at the moment, there's very much a kind of “might is right,” whoever punches hardest wins, which isn't necessarily the most heroic thing in the world. But if I had to pick one, Heath Ledger's Joker wins hands down, or Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood. Excellent villain. Tommy Shelby [in Peaky Blinders] is meant to be a hero, Cillian Murphy is annoyingly perfect in that show because you could debate all day whether Tommy Shelby is a hero or a villain, and I adore that because that just means you've got a really nice, full, complex human being.
Can you describe a memorable dream you've had?
I was rereading Neil Gaiman's Sandman before I went to bed for a while recently, and that resulted in a few horrific nightmares, and so I took that off the bedtime list for a while. There's a character in there called the Corinthian who has teeth for eyes, and he was chasing me around for a while trying to eat my eyes. I'm sure that that means something terribly meaningful, but I don't want to know what it is.
What is the first album you owned?
Tracy Chapman's self-titled. I was lucky enough to have parents with good taste, who passed that down to me. It's still basically my Bible. I think there's this incredible clarity and honesty that Tracy has in the album. People overuse the phrase timeless but it's completely timeless. There's a pure, unfiltered humanity, and it's the most moving thing I own still.
If you were required to spend a thousand dollars today, what would you spend it on and why?
Probably give it to the ACLU.
Alright, I like that. Why the ACLU in particular? Is there a cause you're passionate about?
I just think that it's a particularly relevant time to think about American civil liberties. [Laughs] I mean, I don't know, maybe it's just something in the air. I think that it's a good thing to reinforce. I just suddenly rediscovered Everlane, there's an Everlane shop down the road from me, and I bought the 100% Human mask, and [a portion of] the proceeds of that go to the ACLU. So maybe I'd buy a bunch of 100% Human masks and give them to all my friends.
If you ran for office, what would your slogan be?
“We can do better.” I think that is both hopeful and chastising in equal measure.
Who would you pick as your running mate?
Ooh. Who would I pick as my running mate? Someone different enough from me to keep me in check. I think that it is an incredibly important skill, to keep taking on ideas that are not your own, and so I'd pick someone on that basis. Someone who can tell me I'm an idiot, and that we can find our way forward from there, so that I can do better.
Name one place you've never been, but have always wanted to go.
Because I feel so ... I'm terrified to go because I have no access to it. I have no family from Japan, I have no one to guide me through it. I always want to understand things that I don't understand.
What is the most uncomfortable outfit you've ever worn?
Pretty much everything on Bridgerton. Ironically, the less you're wearing, the more uncomfortable it gets. When you're talking about all of the less clothed scenes — of which there were a couple — they tend to involve more tape. So it's kind of like reliving that scene from The 40 Year Old Virgin over and over again, because when the tape comes off, that is not a pleasant time for anyone involved. So that is the most uncomfortable thing that I've worn.
Who is your favorite Robert, Downey Jr. or Pattinson?
What's your favorite movie of his?
I'm going to be an absolute peon and just say probably Iron Man 3.
That's an interesting choice, why 3?
I just think he settles into the role more and more as they go on. I think he's been Iron Man for long enough that he probably gets better performances in some of the Avengers movies, but this is his movie, he's completely in control of Tony Stark.
When was the last time you cried?
What is your favorite bagel?
There's two, one which I'm proud of and one which I'm ashamed of. The “proud of” bagel is a sesame bagel with lox, cream cheese, lemon, rocket. A nice classy bagel. I have, of late, accidentally invented my new favorite bagel at home. It is a blueberry bagel with cream cheese and cherry conserve, and it's kind of like this weird cheesecake bagel that is so wrong and so right.
That actually sounds really good.
It's one of the best. I highly recommend it, but not on a daily basis.
Sylvie’s Love hits Amazon Prime on December 23. Bridgerton will be released on Netflix on Dec. 25.
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Photographs by Andy Jackson. Polaroid Photos by Regé-Jean Page. Special thanks to Polaroid. Production by Kelly Chiello.