Tom Verica is used to juggling.
As a director, producer, and actor for Shonda Rhimes’ Shondaland, he’s filmed dozens of episodes of gasp-worthy television. At one point, the Havertown native was working behind the scenes on Rhimes’ ABC hit Scandal while moonlighting as a character (and sometimes corpse) on its time-slot neighbor How to Get Away with Murder.
But it wasn’t until Bridgerton, the bingeable period romance filmed in Britain that’s the first fruit of Rhimes’ $100 million deal with Netflix, that the balls Verica needed to keep in the air were taking place in actual ballrooms.
Filming four elaborately choreographed social occasions in five days “was probably the most challenging aspect,” Verica said of directing the second and third episodes of the show, which was created by former Scandal writer Chris Van Dusen from the work of romance novelist Julia Quinn.
One trick: Location, location, location.
“We had three balls in this one building [Leigh Court],” in Bristol, he said. “In some of those scenes, if I open the doors, you would see a completely different ball theme.”
They included, he said, “what we called the ‘ingenue ball,’ which is the end of the third episode when [Daphne Bridgerton, played by Phoebe Dynevor] descends from the stairs, what we called the ‘bird ball’ [also in the third episode], where there’s parrots in there, ... and then there was what we called the ‘mirrored ball’ ” in the second episode, which took place in a room with many mirrors.
A fourth ball was filmed in Bath, which also stood in for London in many street scenes.
“We thematically had to challenge ourselves,” Verica said. “We had these kind of vision boards for each ball” that included everything from the colors of the main characters’ costumes to how the rooms would be decorated. For the “bird ball, it wasn’t scripted, but I brought in these live parrots” in cages, one of which was at the center of the dance floor.
For one ball, he talked Van Dusen into letting him drop rose petals. “We had a beautiful place. But the floor was not that pretty,” he said.
The Haverford High grad got his start as a director on the set of NBC’s Philadelphia-set Bandstand drama American Dreams, where he costarred as the father, Jack Pryor, and his start in TV as a dancer on Philly’s Dancin’ on Air.
He’s played his share of TV cops and even an astronaut — in HBO’s From the Earth to the Moon — but until now the closest he’s come to a costume drama was directing an episode of Shondaland’s short-lived Romeo and Juliet sequel, Still Star-Crossed for ABC.
Before Bridgerton, he was executive producer of the ABC legal drama For the People, whose cast included Regé-Jean Page — now Bridgerton’s breakout star.
“I am not a romance novel reader,” Verica acknowledged, and he has yet to read any of Quinn’s books. “I’ve gotten to know her, and I adore her,” he said of the author, who visited during filming.
But when the opportunity to direct the episodes came up, “I was like, yes, I would love to do a period piece,” Verica said. A Netflix-level budget allows a “much more cinematic approach to it, which is what I’ve been desiring to do for quite some time. ... And these actors were just tremendous. We swung for the fences.”
Baseball metaphors might not mean much to the lords and ladies of Bridgerton, but Verica said he’s “hearing from buddies of mine who may be pulled in to watch by their wives but who really like” the show, possibly “because there’s a different approach to it.”
One notable difference: casting. In a departure from most costume dramas, the British upper crust depicted in Bridgerton includes a number of major Black characters, starting with the queen herself, as it builds on speculation that George III’s wife, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, had African ancestry and reimagines the British aristocracy as a truly integrated high society.
“I have a personal position on this, having biracial kids myself,” Verica said. He and his wife, actress-turned-playwright Kira Arné Verica, are the parents of a 13-year-old son, Dante, and a 10-year-old daughter, Ciana.
Seeing a Black actor like Page as a lawyer in For the People or as the duke of Hastings in Bridgerton may help Dante see himself in such stories, said Verica. “I think this is what the appeal is to the younger audience, that people do see themselves. ... It may not be historically accurate, [but] there’s a creative license to, to a degree, make it accessible.”
Both of the younger Vericas appear in Bridgerton as extras.
“It was an opportunity for them to spend time with Dad on set,” and though Dante had made a few appearances as young Gabriel in How to Get Away with Murder, “he doesn’t have any interest in [acting], which I’m happy to hear,” Verica said. “I think they were surprised how long it took to go through getting fitted for the wardrobe and then they get bored very quickly ... . After a couple of takes, they’re done with it.”
Netflix is unlikely to be done with Bridgerton, having recently projected that more than 63 million households would have streamed at least a small part of the show in the first 28 days after its Christmas Day debut. (Netflix doesn’t release actual ratings, and doesn’t use the same measurements TV networks do, but by its own standards the show appears so far to be one of its biggest hits.)
Though a renewal hasn’t yet been announced, producers have begun preparations for a second season, Verica said. He’s now working on another Rhimes show for Netflix, Inventing Anna, but he expects to be more involved in Bridgerton than ever.
“I’ll be bringing directors in, I’ll be directing another block myself, and working with Chris [Van Dusen],” he said, as part of his recently expanded duties for Shondaland, which have him involved in the production of all the company’s shows.
Moving from ABC to Netflix, he found “a different mentality,” he said. “There was just such a support of creative vision and creative storytelling and boldness” at the streaming service. By contrast, broadcast networks tend to repeat and reformat what’s worked for them in the past.