Simone Ashley didn't always see herself as a screen actress.
The British actress, 26, who will be the new romantic lead in season 2 of Bridgerton and is featured in PEOPLE's 2021 Ones to Watch package in this week's issue, initially had her heart set on musical theater.
"I grew up singing quite a lot and studied a lot of classical music, and then that kind of led into musical theater and I fell in love with musicals," Ashley says. "Whilst I was studying musical theater, I actually started to watch a lot of movies, particularly [Quentin] Tarantino films."
The Pulp Fiction and Inglourious Basterds director's work shifted Ashley's perspective on her career. "I was really inspired to maybe try screen more," she says. "I started auditioning for more film and TV screen-based projects and never really continued with musical theater."
While a return to the stage may be a goal for another time, Ashley soon booked her first big role on Netflix's Sex Education, which premiered its third season earlier this month.
"I was a very classical actor with pennies left in my bank account," she says of the game-changing moment she got the call for Sex Education. To celebrate, "I took myself out for sushi and tuna tacos and some sake."
Upon being cast as the headstrong Kate Sharma, a love interest for Anthony Bridgerton (Jonathan Bailey), on the No. 1 show on Netflix (well, until Squid Game, that is) earlier this year, Ashley simply got down to business. "Before I knew it, I was going into the studios where we film for fittings," she says. "It happened incredibly fast."
While she says she's really "trying to just focus" and not get too overwhelmed by her newfound fame or any sort of pressure that comes with Bridgerton's sophomore season, Ashley says there have been "some pinch-me moments," especially when she heard from one of her favorite stars.
"When Mindy Kaling messaged me, because I'm a super hardcore fan of hers, I grew up looking up to her and her work and still do, that was a bit of a pinch-me moment, because I never really thought I would ever interact with Mindy," Ashley says. "She just said congratulations and was just really lovely."
Of course, Ashley "messaged back with loads of emojis!"
As for the show itself, Ashley clearly connects to her character, Kate Sharma, whom she describes as "sporty and competitive" and "really smart."
"She listens to her own instincts and she's not easily swayed by what everyone else is doing," Ashley continues. "We meet her in different vulnerable moments and discover her background a little bit more and the family trauma that she holds."
Bridgerton season 2 is expected to arrive on Netflix in 2022.