After Phoebe Dynevor delivered the final line in the erotic corporate thriller Fair Play, a satisfying mic drop from her character Emily, and the film cut to black, audience members inside the premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, sat in stunned silence, mouths agape. What had they just seen? But they didn’t stay quiet for long; as soon as they emerged from the theater, the town started buzzing.
They talked about how writer-director Chloe Domont had written the script—about engaged hedge fund analysts whose relationship is rocked when one of them gets a promotion over the other—based on her own past experiences with men. They debated the film’s meaty themes, the push and pull between female empowerment and male fragility. And by the time Sundance was over, so was a hotly contested bidding war that ended with Netflix buying the film for a reported $20 million, one of the largest deals of the festival. (Fair Play will debut on the platform on October 6.)
For Dynevor, the film’s star, Sundance was a “whirlwind few days.” She was at the premiere in Park City, listening as reactions from the crowd swirled around her. A woman came up to her almost immediately to tell her how much the film had meant to her. Others soon followed. Afterward, Dynevor sat feeling both awed and overwhelmed in the back seat of a car next to her co-star Alden Ehrenreich, when he turned to her and said, “This is what it’s all about, right?”
“And I was like, ‘Yes, yes, it is. This is what it’s all about,’” Dynevor recalls. “It was my first film festival, my second-ever film, and I was still aware of how unique and special that experience was, and how it might not happen again or for a very long time.”
But it wasn’t just the flashy premiere or the high-dollar deal that had Dynevor and Ehrenreich feeling like they’d succeeded at what they set out to do through their work; what they were most excited about was the discussions the film was sparking. “This film was personal to me for a lot of reasons,” Dynevor says. “Every woman I know, it’s their experience in this world. And with any film with a message, you just really want it to start a conversation.”
When I meet Dynevor six months later, she’s in Dublin, having just finished a 10-hour day of rehearsals for her latest film, Anniversary, a thriller about a family torn apart when something called “The Change” envelops the U.S. She and I were planning to walk around her neighborhood in London for this story, but with the actors’ strike deadline looming, she asks to hop on Zoom instead to make sure she is showing support for union rules.
“I don’t make much of a fuss over myself,” she says. By day, she’s a Louis Vuitton ambassador, but at home at night, I find her in cozy mode. “As you can see, I wear this every day,” she says, standing up to show me her Anine Bing sweatshirt and sweatpants. “I had a co-star once tell me that I dress like a 14-year-old boy,” she adds with a laugh. I start off by asking her about Anniversary, and she tells me that, like Fair Play, it’s a thought-provoking thriller that explores power dynamics within a relationship—“clearly something I’m interested in,” she notes wryly. (She appears to have a thing for suspense; she’s also filmed a spy thriller called Inheritance, yet to be released.)
Her character is “a real villain,” unlike any Dynevor has played or imagined playing. “She completely disrupts the movie,” she says. “It’s fun to be the disrupter.” Anniversary was “one of those scripts—I felt the same way about Fair Play—where the minute I read it, I was like, ‘I have to be part of this.’ People need to see this and the message it’s sharing.”
Fair Play’s Domont tells me when she first talked with Dynevor, she knew instantly in her gut that she’d found her Emily. “Hearing her passion for it, hearing her own stories—it was as personal a film to her as it was to me,” Domont says. “And I just knew that she was going to dive headfirst into this material, and her commitment to it was really important to me.”
The next step was a chemistry read with Ehrenreich in L.A. “She was really hungry to express what she’s got to give as an actor through a role like this, and you feel that zeal,” Ehrenreich says. “All of us have other sides, and we’re very, very lucky if we get jobs where we can show those different sides of ourselves. So many actors are so much better than people even know. And with Phoebe, it was really special to watch somebody do that for the first time within a role.”
Dynevor read Hedge Funds for Dummies to prepare. She also spoke to men working in finance, but truthfully, her years in the entertainment industry were all the preparation she needed. “I felt like I knew enough about working in a very male-dominated environment,” she says. “There is an extra pressure being a woman in this industry, but I also think that it motivates me to work on stuff like Fair Play and to feel like, Oh, I can have a say at moving the needle—a very tiny, tiny say, but we use those things to our advantage if we can.”
Domont says a highlight of filming for her was when Dynevor added a scream at the end of a fight scene. “Hearing her roar was one of my favorite days on set ever. I didn’t ask her to do that. She did that. She went there. Everyone had chills,” Domont says. “She brought vulnerability and the fierceness, the complexity, the duality of wanting to love someone and hurt them at the same time with one look.”
Fair Play is intense. It’s a thriller set within a relationship that tests just how far we’ve come. You think you’re evolved? What about when you’re faced with a power struggle in your own relationship? “We have this idea that the world is so progressive and there’s been so much change in terms of women and the #MeToo movement,” Dynevor says, “but there’s still so much progress to be made and so many things that haven’t been done or are still taboo.”
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The film confronts one taboo right in the opening scene, in which Dynevor’s Emily and Ehrenreich’s Luke hook up at a family wedding, but are interrupted when her period blood gets all over her pale pink dress. There’s no “ew, ew-ing”—the blood is treated as the normal bodily fluid that it is. In other words, it’s immediately apparent that this is not a film made by a man. Dynevor imagines a male director’s take on the scene: “‘Why would we do that? That’s not sexy’—that’s what they would think. But it draws you in and you know that this isn’t going to be your average film. When you see a film like this, it really pushes you to want to create more and put more female influence out into the world. We as women know these things happen all the time, but why are we not seeing it on our screens?”
In conversation, Dynevor is smart, comfortable, and assured, and I’m impressed that she doesn’t shy away from discussing some of the film’s thornier topics. “The thing that was really interesting to me is how modern feminism is clashing with traditional masculinity,” she says. “I think we’re progressing, but in a lot of ways that’s counteracted by the people holding on to traditional masculinity. We’re at this weird time when there’s a lot of polarizing opinions and feelings, and it made it even more exciting to tell this story.” When asked for specifics on her personal ties to the subject matter, though, she prefers to let her work do the talking. “Look, there are millions of examples. I don’t know if I really want to share any of them,” she says. “Just being a woman in the industry, working from a very young age, relationships, you name it—every woman, I think, will relate.” Later on, when we circle back to the film’s themes, she says she connected most with Emily in how hard she works to protect Luke’s feelings. “Emily is really trying to make herself small to make him feel masculine,” Dynevor says. “And I saw so much of myself in her for that reason—really going above and beyond to protect his fragile ego.”
I ask if, as a successful woman, she’s ever had to minimize herself in that way, and she says yes. “But I’m getting toward 30 now and the opposite is happening, where I’m trying not to do that anymore, and it’s a very nice feeling,” she says. “As you age, you get a wider perspective on things. You start to understand your purpose more.”
Dynevor has been working for half of her life to play a part like Emily. Her paternal grandparents both worked in the industry, her mother has held a role on the famed British soap opera Coronation Street since 1986, and her father works as a screenwriter. When I ask Dynevor if that makes her a “nepo baby” in the U.K., she has no problem admitting her unique level of access. “I was on sets as a child. I got to see it firsthand from a really young age. So there’s a lot of privilege in that,” she says. When she was 11, she went to an open casting call and made it to the top 10 out of hundreds of girls her age. She wasn’t cast, but she was hooked all the same: “I just begged to keep on doing it, and my parents couldn’t say no.” She landed her first professional role at age 14, in the BBC school drama Waterloo Road, and went on to be cast in many other British television roles.
The part that really sealed her fate, though, was when she was cast as Antigone in the school play at age 17. Playing the confident, forthright Greek heroine made an indelible mark on the young actor. “It was the most powerful role I’ve ever played,” she says. “Thinking back on it, there’s definitely a lot of parallels between Emily and Antigone, and I definitely am attracted to playing rebellious women, the rule breakers.”
In acting, she found a way to use the things she felt made her different. “I always had this really rebellious spirit and I didn’t quite know what to do with it. I questioned everything. I would question my teachers. I think I probably made people feel uncomfortable with my obsession with knowing the truth,” Dynevor explains. “Antigone is such an outspoken character—she’s pushing back against the system—and suddenly I was like, ‘There’s an outlet for this,’ and it’s like my whole world aligned.”
After landing a recurring role on the series Younger, she eventually moved to the U.S. in 2019, but felt her Hollywood career was going nowhere fast. She was about to throw in the towel and fly home to the U.K.—her plane ticket was booked, her suitcase packed—when her agent called to tell her to delay her flight because she would be reading for a role on Netflix’s Bridgerton.
Betsy Beers, an executive producer on Bridgerton, said that at the time Dynevor read for the part, they had been searching for their Daphne for a while. “Finding the right Daphne was very difficult. She goes from being a woman who has been bred and trained to go into the marriage market, to a woman who discovers what she really wants and who she really is,” Beers explains. “And we saw it immediately with Phoebe. She had this incredible ability to both embody the rigid rules of Regency-era England and also transform into a heroine we could all identify with.”
Beers said she loved watching Dynevor go on the roller coaster ride to the point where she is “deceived and decides in a gigantically courageous moment to take matters into her own hands.” She adds that the character arc aligned with the kind of project she knows Dynevor is eager to take on: “Phoebe wants to work on things like that, where she makes a point and where she is able to say something. She’s able to create roles in which there is a possibility for agency.”
When Bridgerton premiered on Netflix on Christmas Day in 2020, Dynevor was entirely unprepared for just how successful the show would become. “I was really naïve. I don’t think there was a period of my life as an actress when I thought about fame. My only goal was to work as an actress and not have to have any other jobs,” she says. “And so I just didn’t expect it to change my world in the way that it did.”
Shortly after Bridgerton debuted, she began dating Pete Davidson. (This was post-Ariana, pre-Kim in the actor-comedian’s serial dating timeline.) She again had no idea what she was getting into. “It just goes back to being naïve—I didn’t think anyone would care,” she says of the public fascination with her six-month-long relationship with Davidson. “I was just being a young woman and dating and somehow that provokes a conversation. There were lots of hard lessons I had to learn through basically just having a personal life. You realize, ‘Oh, I can’t live my life in the way that I used to. I have to keep my cards slightly closer to my chest.’ There was a time, for example, when I’d post anything on my Instagram, and now I’m very, very careful about what I put out into the world.”
Those “very surreal” six months were also the first time she’d had to deal with paparazzi in a major way. “This whole world that I was opened up to was really intimidating. Having men outside your house with cameras is super scary when you live on your own,” Dynevor says. “There were men who would wait outside my house with cameras, and it was the same men a few times. I don’t want to go on the record and say that I was being stalked, but when you have paparazzi who are waiting outside your house, it definitely feels like that.”
The photos that the paparazzi took provided another lesson. “People are going to make up whatever story that they want to make from a few pictures, that’s fine,” she says. “I had to learn to let things go and let it wash over my head instead of the normal reaction, which is to be like, ‘But that’s not true, and that didn’t happen.’ You have to let it go and focus on the work. I really am just here to act; I love my job so much, and it was weird for me that the attention was being taken away from my work.”
It was also hard to handle because her home is her happy place. She’s lived in “the middle of nowhere,” a quiet neighborhood in north London, for four years. She feels “away from it all” when she’s there and loves how she knows people’s names at her local pub. She’s been open about struggling with anxiety in past interviews, but says she’s been working on it a lot and talking to someone, which has helped. “As a woman in this business, all those anxieties are heightened because of other people’s opinions. My brain can so easily spiral, and I just have to bring it back to, What do I want to do? What do I want to say? Where do I feel happy and cozy?” she says. “The more you prioritize the simple things in life, the easier the outside noise becomes.”
She treasures her time at home with her family—“very small-town Northern people”—whether she’s baking chocolate chip cookies, enjoying a cup of tea with her grandfather, or getting the piss taken out of her by her siblings. “I’m at the point in my life where I have an incredible family and group of friends and I feel really safe. And also I get to work on films like Fair Play. There’s a pride and a sense of creative control that, as a young actress, I didn’t feel like I had, because you’re at the mercy of other people.”
Dynevor used to say she just wanted to keep working. But now she says she wants to keep making work that matters, always mindful of that brave teenager who played Antigone. “As a woman in this industry, there are a lot of voices and opinions; it helps to focus on what my younger self would have wanted. And to have creative control, and to be telling stories like this, is everything I ever wished for. That’s the kind of gift that came out of the whirlwind.”
Hair by Ward Stegerhoek for Bumble and Bumble; makeup Frank B for Loveseen; manicure by Yukie Miyakawa for See Management.
This article appears in the October 2023 issue of ELLE.
Kayla Webley Adler is the Deputy Editor of ELLE magazine. She writes and edits cover stories, profiles, and narrative features on politics, culture, crime, and social trends. Previously, she worked as the Features Director at Marie Claire magazine and as a Staff Writer at TIME magazine.