Martins Imhangbe is a total knockout — when it comes to boxing, that is.
The Bridgerton actor stars as Will Mondrich, a charismatic up-and-coming boxer and loyal best friend to the brooding Duke of Hastings, in the new Netflix hit series.
The eight-episode Regency-era delight, based on the first book in Julia Quinn's series of the same name, has exploded in popularity since it premiered on Dec. 25.
Imhangbe, who grew up in southeast London, tells PEOPLE over a Zoom video call that the success of the show — which marks his television debut — has been "a whirlwind."
"I knew the show was good, but I didn't know it was going to have this huge reception. It's mind-blowing," he says, adding with a laugh, "Not bad for a screen debut."
Speaking about the show's inclusive casting — a rarity in many period pieces, which have historically excluded BIPOC stories in a false attempt at historical accuracy — Imhangbe, whose character is the show's only (and shining) example of a doting husband and father, says that the spotlight on Black love "felt like a long time coming."
"It was nice to see people being included into the story and not feeling like they don't exist or they don't belong or they're not privileged enough to be sat at the table," he tells PEOPLE. "It's nice to feel included in that narrative and in a prideful way, not in a way that's filled with depression, we're not playing slaves — it's not that age old narrative. So it felt like a very proud moment, and I hope that this opens a lot more doors and it just sets an example, that there's nothing to be afraid of."
With a background in theater, Imhangbe jokes that he's been "spoiled" with such a positive — not to mention successful — first experience working in TV.
"I've heard some horror stories from actors about their first time being on a huge set, but that wasn't my experience at all," he says, commending the show's creator Chris Van Dusen and the entire production crew for "being very collaborative and being open to ideas." Being on set and working with the team, he explains, "you always felt like you were being looked after […] I felt very much in amazing hands."
Speaking of amazing hands, perhaps you noticed that Imhangbe's are on full display in most scenes: gloves were foregone for bare-knuckle boxing in the 1800s, a style of combat "completely different to now," he says, which focused less on fancy footwork and more on achieving a knockout. In addition to a rigorous training schedule with boxing coach Cuong Hua in London, Imhangbe — a self-described "huge boxing fan" — says he "had to unlearn everything I thought I knew about boxing" in order to delve into the role, which he reveals was based off of the first real-life Black boxing entrepreneur Bill Richmond.
Regular workouts played a crucial role in supporting the actor's mental health throughout the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, he adds. "It took me out of my head. I'm a deep thinker. Sometimes I can get lost in my thoughts and I can get caught up in the future, and if there's no clarity, I sort of feel a bit at sea. So it was nice to be able to use exercise as a way of escaping my head and just really exerting that energy out."
Reflecting on his experience of lockdown in London, Imhangbe expresses that sometimes it "feels like you're at sea on this ship without a compass, without a map. And you just have to sort of try and navigate. Sometimes it's raining, sometimes there's a storm, sometimes there's sunshine, but you just have to keep on going until you find a shore and find some sort of peace."
His Bridgerton costars offer their own form of a lifeline via a lively group chat.
"We have a huge WhatsApp group. So every now and again, we'll keep each other posted with what we're up to and it's nice. It's nice that everyone feels that all their hard work has paid off and everyone's extremely proud of their work," he says.
Asked if he and Regé-Jean Page, who plays his onscreen best friend Simon, Duke of Hastings, have found time to discuss the proliferation of breathless, pining social media posts directed at them since the show's premiere, he laughs. "Briefly, briefly."
While he playfully notes that his "followers have gone up on Instagram," he's mostly tuning all that out, focusing instead on staying grounded while his career takes off.
"I think it's so easy to be caught up in people's opinions and perceptions of you. It's so easy to be caught up in all of that. And it's just remembering that a lot of that is not real," he says, adding that his family and friends have been incredibly supportive.
While an eagerly-awaited second season has yet to be confirmed, fans can't help but speculate on what lies ahead for the beloved cast of characters. Imhangbe himself has plenty of questions about how his character will develop, after an end-of-season plot twist led the boxer to question his values for the sake of financial security.
"I would like to see how he takes care of his family, but also how he inspires the next generation of boxers," Imhangbe muses. "Does he make it a lot easier for people like him coming up? Knowing how hard it was for him to get to where he is, does he make it a lot easier for the next generation? That will be interesting to see."
Bridgerton is now streaming on Netflix.
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