Luke Newton on returning to the stage in London, glow-ups and being Colin Bridgerton
We love a glow up, don’t we? A cursory search for ‘Colin Bridgerton’ on Tiktok, for example, reveals the depth of the public’s obsession with the transformation of the Netflix series’ actor Luke Newton. He has gone from nice-looking boy (season one) to gap-yah-tanned chap-of-the-world (season two) to, now, and – sitting in front of me in a faded Mickey Mouse t-shirt that doesn’t quite hide his gym-honed bulk – ripped and smouldering leading man (season three, coming later this year, we think).
I mean probably smouldering on screen as season three is being kept carefully under wraps. Here, in this little dressing room at the Park Theatre in Finsbury Park, with his Dickies baseball cap wedged over his morning hair, the 30-year-old Newton looks as guileless and fresh-faced as he did when he played Elder Price in The Book of Mormon straight out of drama school, which is to say, very. Possibly due to the facials he’s been having on the recommendation of his Bridgerton co-star, Nicola Coughlan (whose skin, he agrees, is “like she’s a teenager”).
We’re talking glow-ups not just because Newton has been sculpted and buffed in preparation for taking over as leading man in the Bridgerton behemoth, but because he’s about to star in a new production of American playwright Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things at the Park Theatre.
The play, which was first performed at the Almeida in 2001 with Paul Rudd and Rachel Weisz in the leading roles, tells the story of an epic glow-up for Newton’s character Adam, encouraged by his new art student girlfriend Evelyn, played by Amber Anderson (Diana Mitford in the final series of Peaky Blinders).
I won’t give much more away, because there’s one hell of a twist, but suffice to say that the play raises questions of how far a person might change themselves for love, and whether art is a special case, exempt from commonly accepted social rules in its pure pursuit of truth.
“If I were to try to describe the play without spoiling it, I’d say it’s about subjectivity of art,” he says, “but then I’m really aware that if I heard that I wouldn’t go, oh, that’s a play I want to see.” Mercifully it’s also funny, as so many of LaBute’s plays are, while riding on a vicious undercurrent.
The text has been gently gussied up itself during rehearsal, with LaBute’s active input, to remove a few distinctly off-colour lines that neither the playwright nor anyone else is entirely comfortable with anymore.
“Yeah, we’ve kind of updated it,” says Newton, diplomatically. “The last time it was on was 20 years ago. But actually, what’s been really interesting is how so much hasn’t changed. The core messages about relationships and friendships, and there are so many things that I feel like are more important now and are more relevant, particularly with the Instagram generation, it feels like we really tap into that. It was almost like a play before its time.”
Going back to theatre “wasn’t necessarily something that was in my plans for the next couple of years,” Newton says. Having spent much of his youth wanting to be a musical theatre actor (he was spotted by an agent in Brighton in an amateur production of Billy Elliot, and attended the London School of Musical Theatre; he was cast in The Book of Mormon soon after) he got the TV bug properly after two seasons of The Lodge on what was then the Disney Channel, and has been knocking about in breeches for Bridgerton since 2020.
But when the opportunity of treading the boards between seasons “was dangled out, I was like, I can’t not go back to my training.”
He’s “excited to welcome people in and hear their opinion. That’s the thing about theatre that I’m most excited about, to be able to interact with people, because for the last few years we’ve all just seen comments and direct messages and stuff online.” (He does this a lot, “we” meaning the cast of Bridgerton, an indication of just how tight-knit the group has become).
That online response has its own complications; Bridgerton is one of the biggest and most popular shows in the world, but its colour-conscious casting has attracted its share of trolling, and Coughlan, who plays Penelope Featherington (her and Colin’s love story will be the focus of season three, which is really what everyone has been waiting for since the start), has endured some nasty body-shaming, with, it has to be said, great dignity.
Newton acknowledges that as a white man, he’s more or less invisible to the show’s trolls, but says that the cast and production team functions as its own support network (“I’m aware that it’s so clichéd to say when you’re in a cast that we feel like a family, but we really do,” he says).
“It’s just talking about it when comments come up that hit a nerve, or just vocalising it, even in the makeup chair; we kind of wash it away together and support each other,” he says. “Also this cast in particular, a lot of us don’t engage. We have our social media, but it’s kind of like, we put stuff out and don’t see the responses too much. I think it’s a safe place. With something that’s so global, you’re always inviting the opposite opinion, even if it’s just for attention.”
They are, he says, “a real supportive bunch. We started doing bi-weekly zooms where we checked in and any concerns or anything that had been put out online were brought up. We feel really well supported by [producers] Shondaland and Netflix.”
Which is lucky, because, this being Bridgerton, there are A LOT of intimate scenes to get to grips with for the leading couple.
“We’d just shot this scene,” Newton tells me (obviously he can’t tell me the context, because spoilers), “and it’s been, you know, quite intimate, it’s a closed set, we just had a few crew in the room. And it felt really amazing to get that scene done, it had been really prepped for and really hyped up – and then suddenly it dawned on me, I was like, ‘Oh God, millions of people are going to watch this.’ It was a real sort of panic moment. But, we just dive in. It feels like such a safe space.”
Hence, though, the glow up. At the start of season two, Colin returned from his gap yah, or as it was called in the Regency, the Grand Tour, with the requisite tan and silly goatee (“Nicola even got me a T-shirt, it says CHAPS CHAPS CHAPS on the back, and Colin’s Tour. I wear it as a gym T-shirt because I can’t possibly wear it in public”). Has he been working hard at it? “Oh yeah, absolutely. [Nicola and I] spent a year just saying to each other, ‘I can’t believe this is actually gonna happen. Will it actually ever happen?’ And then as soon as the second season came out, I just jumped in the gym. As soon as someone goes, you’re going to be half-naked on camera, it makes you reevaluate.”
Newton has always wanted to be an actor. He grew up in Shoreham-on-Sea in Sussex, surrounded by performance. His father used to be a singer – “He was on Stars in their Eyes and won it in like, ‘95 or so. He still holds on to that. If we go out and I get recognised, he’s like [points at himself] Stars in their Eyes, remember?”, while his mother is the chair of the Brighton & Hove Operatic Society.
Plus, both of his maternal aunts performed in the West End. “The first show I went to see, I believe, was Les Misérables, and they were both in it at the same time playing Fantine and Éponine. And immediately, I was very young, but I wanted to play Gavroche. And I used to go night after night. I hated the bangs – I’d have to sit at the back, I’d be crying for the bangs. But all I cared about was being at the theatre. I just fell in love with it.”
It hasn’t all been plain sailing. There is a snobbery in the business about musical theatre actors, he says, and they are routinely underestimated. “After Mormon I did a show called Loserville, and then Legally Blonde. Then I met my lovely agent who I’m with now, and I said, ‘This is the plan. I feel like I’ve ticked off my musical theatre for now and I want to do TV and film.’ And I think it was a good two years, working in a bar; I had a really tough time breaking out of that and getting opportunities, even being able to get into the door to be seen for anything that was straight acting.”
He’d split up with his girlfriend at the time and was sleeping on his best mate’s sofa bed in his one bedroom flat, which sounds pretty bleak, but “actually, those are some of my favourite memories. You feel like you’re at the lowest points but when I look back, our friendship just became even stronger, watching football, playing the PlayStation together, it was great.”
He thinks it’s important for visible actors to acknowledge the lean times though. “Definitely. If I’d seen that in an interview, I would have gone, oh, I can keep going for a bit then.”
Because of course, then came Bridgerton. “I think back to that Christmas Day, when the first season came out, it’s just been a whirlwind since then, I can’t even comprehend how my life has changed.”
More facials, for one thing. “Yeah, and Nicola has these, like, [facial] massagers and sometimes when we’re in make up, if we’ve got a real close-up coming she’ll be like, ‘Do you wanna borrow it?’ And I’ll be like, ‘Ooh yeah, go on.’ Getting absolutely pampered in the chair, I love it… I’m having a great time.”
The Shape of Things is at the Park Theatre until July 1; buy tickets here