Bailey grew up in Benson, a South Oxfordshire village of fewer than 5,000 people. When Bailey was a child, his parents put him in dance classes after he was inspired by a stage version of Oliver! he’d seen at age four. He won his first part three years later, playing Tiny Tim in a Royal Shakespeare Company production of A Christmas Carol. (When reached for comment, the show’s director, Ian Judge, admired his success but couldn’t really remember him. “Humbling! Put that in there,” Bailey says.) Around the same time, his older sisters who’d left home for university would return some weekends, armed with stories of city nightlife. They would play Bailey pop and disco classics from a compilation CD called Dance to the Max—“queer anthems”—by artists like Freddie Mercury and Frankie Goes to Hollywood. “I’d have to go up to my room and perfect the performance,” he says, before coming downstairs to sing and dance for his family.
Historically, he’s played valuable supporting roles that bolster a show’s narrative but has rarely occupied the main spotlight. Until this season of Bridgerton, One of his only other lead television roles was in a BBC children’s show based on the life of Leonardo da Vinci. “I’ve never gone into a screen test and had the ‘That’s him!” reaction,” says Bailey. “I’ve always crept round through the back door.”
It was during his teen years that Bailey learned how to perform as someone he wasn’t, as many queer people growing up outside of big cities do. He attended Magdalen College School in Oxford, a nearly 550-year-old institution that counts saints, sirs, and the composer Ivor Novello as past alumni. Bailey came out to family and friends in his early 20s and is, today, one of the few gay British actors working onscreen whose roles don’t seem defined wholly by their sexuality. Bridgerton has made him a sex symbol to many men and women, but he doesn’t like to talk about it. “Any actor who thinks they’re a sex symbol? Cringe,” he says.
I wonder whether his career decisions and his sexuality have stood in direct opposition to each other; if he ever felt the need to suppress that side of himself to get ahead. He recalls a story concerning a callous word of advice that someone once gave an actor friend during pilot season. “At the time he was told, ‘There’s two things we don’t want to know: if you’re an alcoholic or if you’re gay.’ The words stuck with Bailey. “All it takes is for one of those people in that position of power to say that, and it ripples through,” he says. “So, yeah, of course I thought that. Of course I thought that in order to be happy I needed to be straight.” The thing that’s always led Bailey’s decision-making in his career has been his own happiness, which is why it took so long for him to talk publicly about his own sexuality: “I reached a point where I thought, Fuck this, I’d much prefer to hold my boyfriend’s hand in public or be able to put my own face picture on Tinder and not be so concerned about that than getting a part.”
That instinct to stay true to himself is part of what makes him good at his job. “Jonny operates at a different voltage,” says Phoebe Waller-Bridge, his Crashing costar. “He’s a meteorite of fun with an incredible amount of energy and playfulness. Smoldering at one turn and then utterly innocent at the next, but all the time playing with this sense of untapped danger. That is the quality I love most about Jonny as a person and as a performer: his danger.”