For Nicola Coughlan, secrets are a part of the job, on-screen and off. While filming Derry Girls, her breakout series about a group of friends growing up in Northern Ireland during the 1990s, Coughlan kept her character Clare’s big coming out moment in the season 1 finale from her co-stars until the very last moment. But for months now, she’s been guarding an even more incendiary twist: The revelation that Penelope Featherington, the wallflower she so convincingly plays on Netflix’s Bridgerton, is actually Regency society’s most acid-tongued purveyor of gossip, the notorious Lady Whistledown.
In a world where the only conversations most of us can overhear are family members’ and roommates’ work calls, Bridgerton is a decadent feast of whispers and double-entendres. Shonda Rhimes’ Netflix debut, adapted from Julia Quinn’s best-selling romance series tracking the romantic trials and tribulations of the Bridgerton clan and their rivals, the Featheringtons, is a celebration of Western civilization’s 300-hundred-year-old obsession with celebrity gossip. Part blind item, part Gossip Girl, Lady Whistledown’s Society Papers is the fuel that powers the main cast’s barbs and banter as they dance around societal expectations and into each other’s beds. Even a decree from the Queen can be overturned by a particularly sharp Whistledown insult.
Voiced by Julie Andrews throughout the series, Whistledown’s true identity is hidden until the final moments of the breathless first season. No one suspects that Penelope, with her awkward demeanor and canary silk dresses picked out by her fearsome mother (Polly Walker), might be the one terrorizing polite society. Like her best friend Eloise Bridgerton (Claudia Jessie), the youngest Featherington daughter dreams of a life where she can escape the narrow confines of what society expects from women of her time. But where Eloise enjoys the protection of a loving and close-knit family, not to mention conventional good looks and wealth, Penelope has only her wits to rely on. Ignored by her family and her crush, Colin Bridgerton (Luke Newton), she’s free to skirt the walls, observing and noticing all. But even then, she’s not totally in control of her newfound power. As Whistledown gains influence, Penelope uses her alter ego to lash out against those who she has perceived as slighting her, with sometimes devastating results.
At 33, Coughlan now finds herself somewhere between Penelope and Lady Whistledown. She, too, is the youngest of three sisters — “the very textbook youngest child,” she jokes over Zoom ahead of the show’s Christmas Day premiere — although they’re very different from the vapid Philipa (Harriet Cairns) and Prudence (Bessie Carter) Featherington. A natural-born actress, Coughlan used to recreate episodes of Friends for the camera in her home (she played Monica). She made her film debut at the age of 15 in Tom Collins’ 2003 short film, The Phantom Cnut, but fame didn’t come right away. Coughlan has experienced the crisis of confidence that comes with the scary low points of a burgeoning acting career. Just five years ago, she left London, broke and with no job prospects, to move back in with her parents in her hometown of Galway, Ireland. It was a difficult moment, and Coughlan has been candid about her struggle with depression during that time. She got a part-time job as an optician, and slowly found her way back to her first love: the stage.
After answering an open casting call on Twitter, Coughlan was cast as the titular Jess in Jess and Joe Forever at the Old Vic Theater in London. In 2018, she fulfilled a lifelong dream by appearing in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie at the prestigious Donmar Warehouse, a performance which earned her a place on the Evening Standard’s list of rising stars of 2018. And then came Derry Girls, the unlikely Netflix sensation created by Lisa McGee for Channel 4. As neurotic Northern Irish teen Clare Devlin, Coughlan developed a loyal fanbase almost overnight.
When we speak over Zoom, Coughlan is laid back and self-deprecating, eager to share her own Lady Whistledown tendencies and love for all kinds of gossip, a far cry from the overly media trained celebrities who have learned, for better or for worse, to toe the company line. Like Penelope, she’s now juggling a double life: After a very quiet couple of months in lockdown with her mother in Ireland — ”I’ve become her personal assistant” — Coughlan was back in her London apartment for the mostly virtual Bridgerton press tour, a whirlwind of on-camera interviews, photo shoots, and social media blitzes, all bewildering symbols of the powerful platform she’s earned.
I never think about any Irish people as celebrities. I don’t think that we’re very good at it. We’re too awkward, and Ireland’s so small and everyone’s your cousin.
Refinery29: Let’s get right into it. Why do you think Penelope started the Lady Whistledown newsletter?
Nicola Coughlan: “It’s a desire to hit back at the people that are cruel to her, and also gain some control. Penelope has this whole world going on inside of her, and she’s so mistreated by so many people in her life. She’s most herself around Eloise, but she’s really envious of Eloise’s life and her relationship with her family and how outspoken Eloise can be. I don’t think Penelope realizes how much power she has, and you see that at the end of season 1.”
Should people be mad at Penelope? I felt bad for her throughout the entire season, and then when I realized that she’s Lady Whistledown, I remembered she ruined Marina’s life!
“I think people will be mad. I was mad with her. It’s not only Marina’s life that she’s basically condemned, but also her sisters’. She’s playing with fire. I always think of nature and nurture with Penelope. By nature, she’s very sweet. But she hasn’t been nurtured in her family. Her mom is super judgy and bitchy. I think there’s a lot of Portia Featherington in Lady Whistledown. It’s an amalgamation of how Penelope has heard women speak and gossip.”
As I’m sure you’re aware, a lot of people are comparing this show to Gossip Girl.
“It’s never become more evident in my life, but I have never seen Gossip Girl. Now I’m wondering if I should watch it. I know who [Gossip Girl] is — just by osmosis. The Bridgerton books actually predate Gossip Girl. These gossip sheets and scandal sheets have been around for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years. The Featheringtons and the Bridgertons were the celebrities in Whistledown’s time. There’s always been that thirst for secrets and information about people.”
When did you first hear about Bridgerton? What was the audition process like?
“My agent sent me through the audition script, and I think I had like two days to prepare. I’d never heard of the Bridgerton books or anything, but she said that it’s Shondaland’s first show with Netflix. I figured that meant a really painful audition process that would take months and months and months, and then you’ll never hear back. But in reality, I got one audition with the casting assistant. I went to L.A., and I got a call about two, three weeks later offering me the role. I found out afterwards I was the first actor cast. Our showrunner and Shonda knew me from Derry Girls.”
Have you been surprised by how wide the reach of Derry Girls has been?
“When we were making the first season, the script was really impeccable. I’d never seen young women written like that, that were that funny, allowed to be crass, and bold, and unlikeable, and obnoxious. But it was so specific, I didn’t see it traveling very much.I’m from two hours away and I didn’t get the references — how is someone in Australia going to get it? But I went to New York with Louisa Harland, who plays Orla in the show, about three weeks after it launched on Netflix. Everywhere we went, people knew us. I remember being in the Strand bookshop, and every three minutes, someone would come up. You Americans love to send over shots. Which is lovely, but your shots are a lot more substantial than we have on this side of the pond. This tumbler comes that’s full of whisky, and you think, Did you want to see me on the floor?”
Were you a Shonda Rimes fan before taking on the job?
“Massively so. One of the biggest things I think of when I think of Shonda is actually her book, The Year of Yes. For most of my twenties, I was desperately trying to work as an actor, but I had to leave London because I couldn’t afford to live there. I was living back with my parents, not really doing anything. That book was a turning point for me. There’s no BS with Shonda; she just says it like it is.”
Bridgerton strives to show what could be, rather than faithfully depicting what was. Do you remember the first time you felt represented on-screen?
“When I was younger, the people that I identified with on screen were not the Disney characters that a lot of my friends were really into. I liked them, but because I had older siblings, I was also watching Beaches and Death Becomes Her. I never wanted to be an ingenue. I wanted to be Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli. I knew I wanted to be a complicated woman, even though I didn’t have the vocabulary to say so at that age.”
You kept the secret of Clare’s coming out at the end of the Derry Girls’ first season from the cast the whole time you were filming — did you know that Penelope was Lady Whistledown the whole time?
“It’s so funny playing these two characters who are so dissimilar, but then are carrying these huge secrets with them. It became a real-life secret, too. For Lady Whistledown, I started reading book four [before shooting], which is the book that focuses on Penelope. And then I was lurking on online fan forums just trying to see what they thought. I found out they really wanted Emma Stone to play Penelope, and I was like, That’s going to be a big disappointment to a lot of people. But then it said ‘When Penelope was revealed as Whistledown…’
“She’s fascinating to play because she’s the most low-status person in any room. But then she’s also the most high-status person because she controls everything. It changed everything about the character, and I kept it in mind all the time. [Say we’re shooting a] scene about the Duke and Daphne meeting, I would say to the director, ‘Would you mind if I were somewhere around here? Because I write about this in my column.’”
Did the rest of the cast know as well?
“Some people read all the books and they knew, but it was the most fun getting to tell people who hadn’t. I didn’t spoil it for anybody, but if anyone wanted to know, I was more than willing to tell them.”
Gossip gets dismissed as frivolous, but Bridgerton shows that historically, it’s been a way for women to wield power in a world where they have little recourse.
“Women had so little agency at that time. They were property of their fathers, until they were property of their husbands. They couldn’t go and study elsewhere, and they couldn’t have jobs. But they did wield an enormous amount of power within that. You can see why Penelope — a really smart person who has all these desires — finds an outlet somehow, even if it’s not maybe the healthiest. And I think we all love gossip a bit, don’t we?”
I live for it. Lady Whistledown’s newsletter really reminded me of modern-day blind items — do you follow those at all?
“I read those, but I can never figure out who they’re about! I follow DeuxMoi on Instagram. I love that. But I want something juicier than, ‘I saw this person get a coffee!”
If you could write about a celebrity scandal as Lady Whistledown, what would it be?
“I had never really watched Real Housewives until lockdown; I’d always thought, “Damn, they’re so mean,” But quarantine just changes everything. I found myself doing deep dives on Reddit. I would like to uncover Puppygate like Lady Whistledown. Like Lady Vanderpump was seen at Pump Restaurant with a little gentleman. I have many theories.”
Penelope’s main relationship in the show is with Eloise, and she also appears to become a confidante for Marina — with Derry Girls and now this, you’ve made a career out of female friendships.
“[Bridgerton author] Julia Quinn said to Claudia and me: ‘Look, these books are about romantic love, but a huge part of them is about female friendships, and that love. This is the friendship that underpins the whole series.’ This year especially I think we’ve all realized how important our friends are and how much they are a part of us.”
Have you heard any hints about a second season?
“I’m so nosy; I’m always asking, ‘Anyone know anything?’ Bridgerton already has such an established fanbase, especially in Brazil. I feel like they will know before I will. They are master detectives. They’ve figured out every filming location we had. Someone once shared a picture of a floor tile, and they figured out where we were from that floor tile. Do not ask me how they did it because I don’t know.”
It still feels significant to have a main character in a show be plus-size without her entire arc being about it.
“I had a situation in which I was doing a show at the Donmar Warehouse in London, and it’s the theater I’ve always wanted to work in. It’s really prestigious and I was just so proud to be working there, and a reviewer came and just reviewed my body. It wasn’t right. It’s not a part of the play. It’s not part of the story. I don’t want a young person to look up to an actor and think, I have to look this way to do this. Your relationship with your body is so personal that it feels intrusive, I think, at that level. You can’t control what people say about you online, but what I want to do is act. Penelope’s body is a part of her, but it’s not all of her.”
Do you feel like you’ve been thrust into this body positivity advocacy role that you didn’t ask for?
“I know people mean in the nicest way possible, but I always say to them, ‘I am not a body positivity activist.’ There are so many incredible people who are, and I admire them and think they’re wonderful, but that’s not my focus. I’m an actor. That’s the bottom line for me.’ If I was playing a ballerina or an Olympic gymnast, I may have to lose a bunch of weight. If I’m playing a sumo wrestler, I may have to gain a load of weight. If it’s relevant in the script, then it’s relevant to me.”
Are there roles that you want to manifest here?
“I desperately want to play just a terrible WASP. I’m obsessed with Succession. I also like Jessica Walter in Arrested Development, which is the comedy version of Succession. I’m really lucky in that the jobs I’ve gotten have been really, really different because I went right from Derry Girls to Harlots, which was such a shift, and then Bridgerton is another shift again. I feel like I’ve just started, and there’s a million things I want to do.”
Written by Anne Cohen
Published December 26, 2020