Arsema Thomas Is Redefining Black Women Archetypes in Queen Charlotte and Beyond
Arsema Thomas, the breakout star of Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story, may not have been a household name when she took on the Netflix prequel. But anyone who caught her captivating portrayal of Young Lady Agatha Danbury is certainly paying attention now.
Born in Atlanta, Georgia, Arsema Adeoluwayemi Thomas has a multicultural background, with roots in Ethiopia and Nigeria, that has greatly influenced her perspective on race and fueled her passion for African excellence. That also comes through in her acting, which so beautifully reflects her own personal and professional journey of self-discovery and showcases the intricate layers of her multifaceted identity. Her regal and powerful presence in the role of Agatha in particular has been showcased across Netflix's Strong Black Lead account, further establishing her as just that: the strong Black lead.
While Thomas delivers a standout performance throughout the show, there's a particularly poignant moment when Young Agatha instills confidence in her son by reminding him of his noble lineage. As she declares, “You are Lord Danbury, and you will take your rightful place because you are entitled to it. Because you are my son. You are the son of Agatha Danbury, born name Soma, Royal Blood of the Kpa-Mende Bo tribe in Sierra Leone. You come from warriors. We win. Never forget that.”
This scene best sums up the impactful message conveyed throughout the season: that Arsema and Agatha alike embody a regalness and profound understanding of the importance of identity. They inspire us to embrace the complexity of our own stories. And for Thomas, this is only the beginning of her journey.
For Glamour's latest New Here, we learned more about Thomas's remarkable story, delved into the nuances of her identity and the diverse influences that have shaped her, and opened up about the wisdom she has gained along the way.
Glamour: How did you celebrate landing the role of Lady Danbury?
Arsema Thomas: I didn't celebrate. I was too shocked and still feel a bit of that now. Maybe it’s the fear of celebrating something that might not last. But, a part of me also wonders, why celebrate something that may happen many, many times over? It's a self-defense mechanism, I suppose.
How do you relate to your character, and what sets you apart from her?
Agatha and I share a strong desire to fight for justice and what is right. It's my guiding principle in life, something I truly believe in. But Agatha approaches it differently. She’s driven by her strategic nature and ability to see the big picture. She knows what battles are worth fighting and can stay three steps ahead of everyone. I wish I could have some of that foresight—it's the part of her that I’m truly in awe of.
If you could manifest a dream role or your next role, what would it be?
That's a scary question because what happens once that role comes and goes? I've always approached dreams with the romantic belief that they should be unattainable. So, I'm not sure what my ultimate dream job would be. But what could be fun to play next is a fantastical character, perhaps through motion capture, where I can physically inhabit a different being and explore voice acting and push the limits of my vocal range. Sometimes people get weighed down by aesthetics, so it would be liberating to leave behind the identifiers of my own body and truly become someone else.
Which TV shows or movies were you obsessed with while growing up?
I was obsessed with That's So Raven and The Cheetah Girls. It's funny because I grew up in Sub-Saharan Africa, so the range of available shows was quite limited. And when my parents finally allowed me to have cable TV, I had only 30 minutes a day to watch. So I usually caught episodes of That's So Raven or any equivalent show on Disney Channel. However, my father was a huge fan of James Bond, so I also watched those movies religiously with my parents. It was strange to be a girl growing up watching a womanizer, but for some reason I always assumed that I was the man in those situations. That's kind of what my dad would tell me. He’d say, “You're James, not the Bond girls.” And that was who I always identified with.
If we were to talk about the music in your life, what would you say is the soundtrack?
The soundtrack of my life would definitely include Mulatu Astatke. My mom is Ethiopian, and his music played constantly during my childhood. It holds a special place in my heart. Mulatu and Luther Vandross for sure.
On your Instagram profile, you mention being made of equal parts "Wahala" and "Doro Wat." What's your favorite aspect of being Ethiopian and being Nigerian?
There's something distinct about both of these countries. Every African country has its own unique qualities, but my favorite part of being Ethiopian is the history. It’s one of the most historically rich countries to have existed—from Queen of Sheba to the idea of Ark of the Covenant being in Ethiopia to the fact that Ethiopia was never colonized and how you see that manifest in the way the country is growing. Also, the food is undeniably amazing. But there's something special about the history for me.
When it comes to Nigeria, my favorite part is the attitude. There's something truly Nigerian in the way people address and act, and it never fails to make an impression. The use of Pidgin, the vibrant Yoruba culture, and the unique way of discussing things with a touch of hyperbole—it's all part of the charm. Growing up watching Nollywood movies, I was immersed in this atmosphere. Meeting Nigerians abroad always brings a sense of home, and Nigerians have a special connection with their diaspora that I haven't experienced with any other country.
If someone asked you, "Where's home for you, Arsema?" what would you say?
Home is wherever my mother is. Currently, that's in South Africa. However, it's a complex question because while I would love to say Ethiopia or Nigeria, I often feel like a foreigner when I visit those places.
In preparing for your role, you immersed yourself in literature, particularly works by and about defiant Black women. How does it feel to portray a character who challenges stereotypes and provides a nuanced portrayal of a Black woman, within the narrative of the Georgian era, particularly as we strive to move away from film and media's tendency to generalize and stereotype the Black experience?
It's such an important question, especially considering media’s tendency to portray Black women as a monolith or as the "strong Black woman" archetype, which I was cautious about with Lady Danbury. I didn't want her to be solely strong without vulnerability. People often underestimate the significance of representation and the impact it has. When you don't see yourself reflected positively or in a way that acknowledges your humanity in various forms of media, it leads to questioning your own worth, emotions, and dreams. To be able to portray a character like Agatha, written by a woman who believes her story matters, is a therapeutic and generous gift.
I feel a sense of protectiveness towards Agatha because she hasn't been given the respect she deserves. As an actor, it's my duty to provide that respect and challenge the narratives that have been imposed upon us. It’s encouraging because it means that something is changing ideally. If not changing, then at least I've clocked it so I can demand that in the next room. I can then be a part of the stories that do these characters justice. Because, at the end of the day, those are the better stories—ones that people watch because they see themselves within them.
Let's talk about Agatha's choice to ultimately remain single and invest in her friendship with Charlotte. How do you think that resonates with today's audience and contributes to the ongoing conversation around autonomy and choosing to be single in a world that values romantic relationships over platonic companionship?
You've captured it perfectly. It’s the Bechdel test. It’s the question, Do women have a life outside of the existence of men? And the answer is a resounding yes. There's a massive emphasis placed on romantic relationships, particularly for women in heterosexual relationships, and it's rooted in patriarchal norms. The importance of friendships is often undervalued. It's crucial to highlight and show the significance of it within the fabric of what community is.
I think women need to hear it often—that they can choose. I watch Indian Matchmaking [on Netflix] and see a show where women are told to be smaller and to reduce their expectations, that marriage is the end goal. Culturally, that is something my parents have also told me. To see this character, Lady Danbury, essentially have options and then say no reminds us that we have the agency to choose our paths to determine our happiness, whether that involves marriage or not. It was a truly refreshing and empowering aspect of her character that I was grateful to bring to life.
How has your upbringing in various countries and exposure to conversations about politics and African governance from a young age shaped your personal and professional perspective on race?
It gave me a more realistic understanding. My parents saw a lot of tough things in their upbringing. Their respective countries were either going through independence or the Derg in Ethiopia, with communism taking over. I was privy to that at a young age—that the privilege that I have is not one that they got, it's one that they fought for. My parents were martyrs for their continent, and so I take it all very seriously. To see our parents essentially lay everything on the line for these countries and their love for this continent made me realize that having a fight larger than me is the most sustainable thing I could ever do for myself. Also, understanding that the world was never going to hand anything to me—that I had to take it—is one of those things that toughen your skin. Yes, it makes the world lonelier, but they instilled in me that information is power.
How do you navigate your unique West and East African cultural heritage, and what have been the nuances of navigating and embracing these identities?
I think a lot of us, first or second-generation Americans, specifically those who've had parents immigrating from Africa, have gone through that period where we low-key didn't want to be African. It wasn't considered cool or aligned with African American or hip-hop culture. Now, I’m at this point where I deeply love and appreciate this aspect of my identity, which informs everything I do and fight for. I have to thank Africa in a way because it would not have happened had it not been for the continent. It's interesting because Nigerians want to claim me, and Ethiopians want to claim me, but understanding Pan-Africanism and what that means—that’s the fight I'm willing to die for.
How did the passing of your father and your subsequent decision to pursue acting impact your perspective on life? Particularly in navigating the pressure imposed on children of immigrant parents to follow a specific academic career path.
It was tough because I grew up not recognizing that the creative field would ever be an option. My parents come from this very difficult environment and fought so hard for me and my sister to not have to go through those struggles, then to see their daughter pretty much throw it all away. It was not what they wanted for me, but it was not what they wanted for themselves. So they persuaded me to go through the more academic tech, stem route. But when my father started to get sick, I recognized that his perspective shifted.
He had always been in the economic development world and a little bit in science and technology, but mostly in the bureaucracy space and policymaking. And all of a sudden, he wanted to be in the startup space. It was confusing, especially at a time when his health was the priority. But while he was in my care, we spoke a lot about regret. I had always looked up to my father, so I didn't think he could regret any of his choices. It turns out that there were a lot of things he regretted. To see him and what regret on a long-time scale looks like was enough for me to change what I wanted to do. He had been ruled by fear, and I'd never heard him talk so frankly. It made everything feel profound. If you're not willing to take the risks and the chances of life, what is the point of being alive?
Earlier, you mentioned your love for Africa and how a new wave of Black talent is embracing and celebrating it. This is also reflected in the fashion and beauty we’ve seen in your recent press tours. As a champion of Black excellence, how do you think this movement will shape trends? How do you anticipate it will inspire young girls to embrace their natural beauty and heritage?
For the longest time, Blackness has always been in the fashion and music space. All of it is built off of Black people, let's be real. And Black people came from Africa. So truly, everything is African. But now we're at a tipping point, and a part of me hopes it's not a wave but this new space we're entering. I am constantly in awe of other Black women showing all aspects of their Blackness. But also, the capitalist landscape that we are operating in can take our beautiful African heritage and commodify it. Like the way that waist beads are making a severe comeback. Do people know what they are about when you wear them? And this is mainly for the cultural appropriation chat of it all.
With the new trend and direction of this engagement, with all visual cues of Blackness, I'm hoping that it will at least encourage girls to look at themselves in the mirror and love what they see. Because blackness is not just the skin. It's the hair, the nose, the lips, the eyelashes, the curves, the legs. It's so many things that get hidden because the skin is almost too much. It’s the, “We need somebody Black, but we don't need to show how Black they are.” I remember hating my hair growing up. I absolutely loathed it. Even now, I was crying the other day because it wasn't doing what I wanted it to do. And it is all rooted in the fact that, you know, 4C hair, even now, is still considered to be undesirable. I'm hoping that might be the last stretch because having an Afro, even the name, indicates how uniquely Black that experience is. The moment we truly accept that and people can feel free to go out in their bonnet and their wash—you know, the way white women can just roll out of bed, run a brush through their hair, and leave—I think it'll be a big shift for me and my personal journey. We can either go to a different space and have conversations and engage in the changes that need to happen, or we can go back to the way we have been.
You've said Between the World and Me is your favorite book. How so?
It's the first book where I finally found the words and thoughts I had been searching for. It beautifully captures the fears and complexities of the Black identity that I've experienced. Ta-Nehisi Coates' writing style is extraordinary and captures the Black experience. It's like, you don't know where you fit because many of these categories were built without you in thought. It's a book that reaffirms your existence and leaves you pounding your hand on your chest, saying, “I exist.”
Ruhama Wolle is the special projects editor at Glamour.
Originally Appeared on Glamour