Lady Featherington hits the Bridgerton trifecta in season two, earning viewers’ fear, respect, and ridicule — often all three in the span of a single scene. To be fair, she’s in rough shape; widowed at the end of season one when her knucklehead of a husband is murdered for his gambling debts, she seems resigned to pawning candlesticks and eating a potato-only diet to keep the household afloat for her three unmarried daughters. (And to keep up appearances for the ton, of course.) But when the new Lord Featherington arrives, only to reveal himself as a scoundrel as well? Instead of standing in a corner and drawing eyes to her bosom, Portia Featherington seizes control of his ruby-mine fraud to secure funds for herself and her daughters, and she’s able to get away with it all when the lord gets caught … since nobody believes he would need a woman’s help to form a plan. It’s pretty much the Regency equivalent of George’s father barging into the police station, except Lady Featherington is clever enough to hatch a scheme like that. What we’re saying is she’s is a hustler and a survivor, even if, whatever, she tried to entrap her daughter in marriage to her own cousin.
Polly Walker, who portrays Lady Featherington, revels in the complexity of a woman who, as she sees it, had to claw her way into society. We recently spoke about what motivates her character, that ball showdown scene, and what it’s like to wear all of those wildly fluorescent dresses.
I alternate between thinking Lady Featherington is a diabolical genius and a fool. After the finale, I’ve landed on genius.
Yes, I’m of that thought as well. I wouldn’t have gone along with that story line if she had been made to be foolish at the end. It was important to me that she was ultimately in control and came out on top. I couldn’t have done that story line with her being an idiot.
Did you tell the showrunners those feelings?
I didn’t have to. I was very protective of Portia all along. When I realized I was going to be given a “boyfriend” — not a very good one — I did not want her portrayed as an old fool. I vocalized that at the beginning. But they’re much smarter than me in the writers’ room, and they had no intention of ever going down that path.
How else were you protective of her?
You have to be protective of any character you play. You have to understand why the character acts as they do and what their motives are. And to be sympathetic, because often nobody else is in the story. I have to be sympathetic to her to show her humanity.
It’s interesting, because earlier in the season, the new Lord Featherington says something to the effect of, “I hope you know what you’re playing at,” because it wasn’t clear for a while what that was either. What is she playing at, in your opinion?
She’s playing a few things. She’s desperately trying to survive and protect her daughters. That’s her overriding motive. She has been unloved for so long and so derided. She’s very aware of people’s opinion of her, so she’s not a fool in that regard. She’s very clever, just born in the wrong century. She’s playing at rediscovering her femininity and herself as a woman. She’s consumed by her role as a mother, but we all know women are more than that. She would like love too. It’s tough for her. She doesn’t have any allies. She’s an outlier. Even if she had all the money in the world or was Lady Bridgerton, she would always feel like an outsider. She’s a lone wolf and not a team player. That’s not a negative thing. She’ll just always feel like a misfit.
Have you given much thought to her backstory or how she became the woman she is? I never read the books, so I’m asking this totally blind.
I also didn’t read the books, so we’re equal there. I was told that she’s not featured heavily and is quite broadly drawn in the books. I did ask the author, Julia Quinn, a few questions about what she thought. Was Portia the rich one? Was she the titled one? Did she marry into money, or was it the other way around? She wasn’t sure.
What did you decide for yourself?
I decided she didn’t come from money and married into it, which helped fuel her feeling of alienation and not fitting in.
That final scene, where she excuses her cruelty to the lord as maternal duty, was superb. I still think about your line reading of, “I am a mother!” It reaffirms everything you’re saying.
It was such a reaffirmation for me, personally. It was her moment of poetic justice and it came from a really deep place for her. And a great deal of sadness. I was so tempted every time I had to say it to instead go, I am a motherfucker! [Laughs.] That’s basically what was fueling the whole speech: You fucked with me, and I’m going to fuck with you now. That was the music playing underneath the whole scene for me.
What was it like to film that scene? Did it feel cathartic?
It was very late, around 4 a.m. I remember thinking when we were starting to set it up, There’s no way I can do this scene so early and finish it up in an hour. Can I do this justice? I knew I had to deliver, so I went into a headspace to get there. They let us get on with it without too much interference.
Do you view Lady Featherington as a villain at all, in the full scope of Bridgerton characters? I mean, she tried to entrap a man into marriage to her daughter, his own cousin.
I have to say, some of her schemes and techniques are slightly dodgy. It’s not a great way to behave. I don’t know if she’s a baddie. I think she has baddie tendencies. I don’t think she’s your typical saccharine, sentimental, softy Regency lady, but that’s why I like playing her. The more they exploit that side of her character, it’s better for me. I don’t want to be simpering in the corner at a ball, fussing around my daughters’ dresses. That would be hell. She’s not good or bad, she just has a dubious style. I feel bad for her daughters, honestly. But I think she has the best motive in the end, so therefore she’s forgiven.
She’s so street-smart. The writers seem to enjoy putting Portia in these difficult scenarios, and I hope they continue to do that and there’s never a resolution for her. You know what I also find interesting? She’s uneducated and has led an incredibly sheltered life. If she had been educated and out in the world, it would be a different scenario. She manages to survive even within that kind of society, which is quite unusual.
Are you surprised, given her devotion to her daughters, that she has never gotten wise to one of them being Lady Whistledown?
I think it’s a bit shocking, but at the same time it makes sense. She doesn’t value books or education. She thinks it does a huge disservice to a girl trying to find a husband. She overlooks everything about that. Portia is also aware of her daughters’ failings physically. She looks around and sees all these gorgeous young ladies, and she’s desperately trying to make silk purses out of her daughters. It’s not easy.
Penelope is the youngest, and she overlooks her the most. Nicola Coughlan and I have now told the writers several times that we want more scenes together. It would be great to further explore that relationship. But I suppose then there’s a danger of me discovering that she is indeed Lady Whistledown. Narratively, we’re kept at arm’s length to stop that from happening.
What do you think she’ll do once all her daughters are married?
There won’t be much purpose for her, unfortunately. Maybe she’ll run off a cliff. Maybe she’ll throw herself under a horse-drawn carriage.
Polly, we need you for all the seasons!
Maybe they just can’t be successful at getting married. I don’t know what the point of her would be. I don’t think she would be a doting granny. Bleh.
Is it a treat or torture to wear such brightly colored dresses?
It’s slightly torturous. I’m generally in all black or jeans on my own time. Being thrown in these bright colors is so alien, but it helps with the character. I’d like to be in more tasteful or subdued colors; I’d like to be dressed a bit more like Lady Bridgerton or Lady Danbury instead of these fluorescent colors. But that’s the Featheringtons for you. If I can do it, anyone can.