May 11, 2022 6:33 PM EDT

After starring in the second season of Bridgerton—the lush period drama that has become Netflix’s most watched English-language series ever—the actor Jonathan Bailey could have done anything. He chose something that he knew would be a challenge. “Cock!” Bailey says brightly, over lunch on a sunny London afternoon. A woman at a nearby table looks up, possibly scandalized.

That’s the name of the play, written by Mike Bartlett, that Bailey, 34, headlines now on the West End, in a sparse, spiky production directed by two-time Tony winner Marianne Elliott. He stars as John, a man in a long-term gay relationship who sleeps with a woman, causing a messy love triangle. It’s a talky play, but Bailey gives a muscular performance, embodying John’s inner turmoil as someone who’s so addicted to being desired that he ends up becoming kind of a—well, it’s in the title. Or is John instead the one being manipulated by those who desire him? “That’s the most generous way into the character,” Bailey says. Yet Cock is more provocative than even its title might suggest, with much to say about sexuality, gender, and the ways in which labels, even the ones we’ve chosen, limit us. “It’s just four people onstage with no set,” he says, “yet it’s one of the most expansive things, emotionally and thematically, I’ve worked on.”

Bailey, who was raised in Oxfordshire, England, has been performing since he was a child; he recounts dancing to Andrew Lloyd Webber for his grandmother as a little boy. After being scouted in a ballet class, he went to work for the Royal Shakespeare Company at the age of 7, performing in plays like A Christmas Carol and Les Misérables. He loved theater so much that one summer as a teenager, he staged a production of A Mid-summer Night’s Dream with his friends, just for fun: “It was completely generated by passion,” he says. He’s since become an accomplished stage actor, starring opposite Ian McKellen in King Lear and winning an Olivier Award for his performance in Company on the West End, also directed by Elliott. Onscreen, too, he has appeared in a string of acclaimed series, from Broadchurch to shows by beloved creators Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Michaela Coel. But it was the role of Lord Anthony Bridgerton, in the show adapted from Julia Quinn’s Regency-era romance novels, that anointed him as a global star.

Jason Hetherington

In the first season of Bridgerton, Bailey was just one member of a large ensemble. But in the second season, which premiered in March 2022 and smashed streaming records, Bailey’s Anthony took center stage. His search for a wife became the central story line, leading him into a very different kind of love triangle, here with half-sisters Kate (Simone Ashley) and Edwina (Charithra Chandran); his performance made him the subject of fervent fan adoration. Bailey credits show-runner Chris Van Dusen for building a period drama without precedent. “He proved that you can take two South Indian women and put them on the poster, and you can put a queer actor as a straight romantic lead, and deliver on this incredible global scale,” Bailey says. “It’s a reflection of how we’re moving as a society.”

READ MORE: From Bridgerton to Sanditon, We Can’t Quit the Regency Era

Bridgerton is executive-produced by Shonda Rhimes, the TV mastermind and writer-producer whose many hit shows have proved that inclusive story-telling isn’t just responsible—it’s good business. But for an industry with supposedly liberal politics, Hollywood hasn’t historically been friendly to openly gay actors: in the past, it was likelier you’d find “straight people playing gay roles, winning awards for it, and then being told that they’re brave,” says Bailey, “which is so demoralizing.” And the conventional wisdom was that audiences wouldn’t buy a gay actor as a straight leading man. To see Bailey now, as a wholly convincing heartthrob on one of the biggest platforms in the world, is a quietly radical thing, and an auspicious sign of where Hollywood is heading.

After lunch, we rent bicycles and ride along the Mall where, ahead, Buckingham Palace looms. It’s a breezy spring day. Cock will close on June 4, after which there have been rumors that the show will find new life, maybe in a move to Broadway, or in a film adaptation. For now, Bailey will have exactly one day off before he returns to set to film the next season of Bridgerton. It’s busy, but he’s grateful. “There’s that sense of taking stock, of making sure that I can fully realize all these amazing opportunities,” he says. “It’s something I don’t take lightly at all.”

We pause on the banks of the Serpentine. “So,” he says, “where shall we go next?”

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