When the trailers for Bridgerton first released, the Internet immediately pointed out an obvious comparison: This looks like Gossip Girl for Regency England. Sure, the new Netflix series from Shonda Rhimes takes place nearly 200 years prior to the famous teen show and is based on a book series by Julia Quinn, but one driving element is still the same: An anonymous gossip column exposes the doings and secrets of high-society families, stirring up drama among its readers. For Bridgerton, however, the rumor-spreading medium is a widely circulated scandal sheet penned by the so-called Lady Whistledown (voiced by Julie Andrews).
“It was a funny thing, because I’ve never seen Gossip Girl, and that’s never become more evident than in the last month or so, because people have been asking about it,” Nicola Coughlan, who plays Penelope Featherington on the show, tells BAZAAR.com. “But it might be a fun binge for me, post-Bridgerton,” she adds.
Commenting on balls, romantic pairings, and more, the juicy Whistledown pamphlet is read by everyone from townspeople to noble families, including the titular Bridgertons and the rival Featheringtons, from which the often-overlooked Penelope hails. Through the season’s romances and scandals, Whistledown’s identity remains secret until the show’s final moments, when the gossip takes off in a carriage under a heavy cloak. After ultimately removing her hood, it’s revealed that she’s Penelope after all.
“I think the reveal was done so well,” Coughlan says. “I mean, it was one of the most satisfying things in the world to shoot. It was amazing. And that big cloak and the carriage and everything, I think it’s the perfect ending. When I watch it, even though I know, I was still like, ‘Ahh!’”
Here, the Irish actress, who’s starred in Derry Girls and Hulu’s Harlots, opens up about becoming Penelope (and Whistledown), working with Rhimes, and our inherent love for gossip. “I’ve had to carry around this secret the whole time while we’ve been filming, and it’s going to be a relief when the show is finally released, so I don’t have to keep that secret anymore,” she jokes.
People already knew that Penelope is Lady Whistledown from the books. Were you expecting the reveal from reading the books beforehand, or did you think there was going to be a different ending, given it’s a screen adaptation? How did you react when you read the script?
So, in my first meeting with Chris Van Dusen, our showrunner, I had to awkwardly slip in the question in some way, “Am I her? Are we doing that thing?” Because it changes the character completely, it changes how I would’ve approached her, and it gives this whole other layer. And how I find out was really strange. I just had one audition for this show. I thought it was going to be months and months, but it was just one, and the tape went to L.A., and I got the call with the offer, and I was so confused as to how I’d gotten it like that. I was like, “Are you sure this isn’t a mistake? And they really want me?” And then I ended up starting to read the books, and I went to book four, which is Penelope’s book, which is actually 10 years post-Season 1 scripts.
While reading the book, I was also on fan forums, lurking and trying to find out who they wanted cast. And then I read on a fan forum, when Penelope is revealed as Whistledown. And I went, “What?” And I started rereading and I was like, “Oh, my God.” So it’s not even that Shonda and Chris had entrusted me with an amazing part in this amazing show. It was like, “Oh, that’s big. That’s a big, big, big deal.” And it was overwhelming. And then Chris confirmed, “Yes, you are Whistledown.”
The script was being written while we were filming, so at one point, they thought of doing a red herring. But I always thought it was best to reveal it, because the books have been around for 20 years, so someone could just Google it.
So did the whole cast find out at the same time, or did you know before everyone else?
No, I’d skipped ahead with the books because I wanted as much information about Penelope as I could get, but it was quite fun on set. People would be like, “I wonder who Whistledown is.” And I’d be like, “Do you want to know?” People’s reactions were really funny. They were like, “No, it can’t be.” And I was like, “It is her! Can you believe it?”
How did that play into your performance as an actress? Because you have to plant it in a way that it makes sense when you find out at the end, but you don’t want to give it away.
It was so much fun, because what I always think about Penelope is that she’s sort of the lowest-status person in any room she’s in, while also being the highest status because she’s the most powerful woman in London. She can make or break someone. She controls things. She can break up a match or a marriage or someone’s reputation.
I think Season 1 is all about her gaining this power, but really not knowing what to do with it. I think that becomes evident towards the end, especially with Marina, because I really didn’t expect her to go as far as she did. I was like, “Penelope is not going to risk her family’s reputation, she’s not going to ruin Marina’s life, just all for Colin.” And I was like, “Oh, my God, she did it. Oh, that’s pretty big.”
It was a big thing, in my mind, shooting the ball scene, because I would think, “What’s the Whistledown column? Is something happening?” And I would say to the directors, whose main focus would be on the duke and Daphne, because that’s what the scene was about, “Would you mind if I sort of planted myself and just was here just to witness this?” I don’t need to be there with binoculars or with a pen writing things down, but I do need to take all that in. I couldn’t be overt, but I think it will be fun for people to watch Season 1 back and spot Penelope, like Where’s Waldo, around the ballroom.
I want to go do that now. What I find really interesting are Penelope’s conversations with her best friend, Eloise Bridgerton. They’re the ones usually talking about what it might be like to live without a husband and make a life on your own.
She’s so fascinating, because she has so many sides to her. When she’s with Eloise, you do see that she’s really intelligent and has these desires, and probably does want a career, but also wants a husband too. I can’t admit that to Eloise, because Eloise is so anti all of that. I think the way that Penelope has grown up, she’s used to keeping secrets, because she doesn’t really have anyone in her family to confide in. Her sisters are this double act, that they just get on really well. Her mom and dad don’t really know she’s alive. I think it’s her coping mechanism, it’s not necessarily a healthy thing, but I think it’s interesting because she’s so young too. That was the big thing I had to think about a lot, because why is she doing this? This is so silly, and she’s going to get herself in so much trouble.
Claudia [Jessie], who plays Eloise, said, “Look, she’s 17.” And she’s not a modern-day 17. She’s not worldly. She doesn’t have access to information. She doesn’t know what sex is. She is so unsure. … I think sometimes her smartness is a little bit of her Achilles’ heel, because she thinks that she’s able to play in this world, but it gets on top of her so badly, because she’s become really respected and she has money too. I hope we get Season 2 for many reasons, but I’m like, “What is she going to do with all that money? What does Penelope want to buy, and what is that going to do?” Because I feel like that’s going to have some influence on her confidence levels.
If Season 2 happens, what would you like to see more of? And where is Penelope going in that carriage!
One of the big things that I am really looking forward to is that, logically, Eloise would be entering into society. And I’m really excited, both in real life and in the story, to have a friend at the balls. Just to let Penelope have a bit more fun, because I feel like she doesn’t get to. She has little moments and glimpses of fun, like dancing with Colin, but I think she thinks the Marina relationship is going to go one way and it goes totally the other way. But I’m excited to see her be a young girl and have fun, and hopefully get a little bit more confident. But having started connecting with her—she’s like 28 in book four—I’m fascinated to see where that goes for her, how it develops and changes.
There’s so much stuff. Because this is a big world, there’s a lot of characters in it. We really just started to scratch the surface. There’s a lot more there to kind of dig into. And then, the audience knowing that she’s Whistledown, that’s going to be amazing, because it’s like they’re in on the secret.
What is it like having Julie Andrews be your voice?
Well, I had a meltdown when I found out. I just started crying. In interviews, prior to the release, I couldn’t say why I had such a visceral reaction. I would have been, of course, crazily excited anyhow, but this was another level. And it was like, trying to explain to my mom, I am her, she is me, we are the same, we are connected, and it’s Julie Andrews and it’s Maria Von Trapp and Mary Poppins! She’s someone who’s been part of all our lives since we were kids. She’s just this mystical, magical creature. And she’s so wonderful in the show. She gives Whistledown such a level of cheekiness, and they couldn’t have gotten anyone better. They said we have someone iconic for it, but I truly never thought that. You don’t get better than that.
And speaking of icons, how was it working on a Shonda Rhimes project like this?
It’s overwhelming, and it’s amazing. And I know I keep saying it, but I didn’t expect to get this job, because when you hear Shondaland, Netflix, you think, “That’s huge, but that’s going to mean so many auditions that will be painful. I’ll never get it. It’ll be on Netflix, and I’ll be annoyed.” And so getting cast was the craziest thing. Chris, our showrunner, said to me, “When your audition tape came in”—they’d seen me in Derry Girls, the other show that I’m in—and then my audition tape came in, and Shonda turned to him and said, “Oh, it has to be her.”
My audition tape came in, and Shonda turned and said, “Oh, it has to be her.”
And when you hear that, I don’t think you fully can compute that, because Shonda is the most powerful woman in television, maybe the most powerful showrunner on television. Within her work, she’s done so much for women on television, portraying complicated women, unlikable women; for championing diversity on television and setting a standard, which people have to look up to and go, “Okay, well, if they’re doing that, then we should be reaching up.” And I think one of the most amazing things about Bridgerton is that Chris Van Dusen started as an assistant for Shonda, and now he’s one of her showrunners. She’s someone that pulls people up behind her. And also, Shondaland as a company stands for such amazing things. Representing queer characters on television, supporting Black Lives Matter and trans rights and all these things. It’s the dream, basically.
In Bridgerton, we get to see women take agency over their lives in this time period. How did you navigate through this storyline with this kind of feminist lens, especially with how Penelope experiences it all?
It was really fascinating, because I think we’re in a really exciting period of making art right now, in that we’re going back and telling stories that haven’t yet been told and women’s stories that have been neglected. And, yes, Bridgerton is a fantasy and these women … It’s hard to know. Are they more outspoken? There’s definitely this feminist narrative, but I think there was something sort of sad. Claudia and I used to say it all the time that Penelope and Eloise, had they lived nowadays, what could they have done? They were property of their fathers until they were property of their husbands. It’s really sad for them. But then, we’re looking at it from a Western view, and that’s still a reality in a lot of the world. There’s still a lot of women that don’t have that choice.
In this age of social media, how do you think Lady Whistledown would exist in 2020?
I feel like she’d be good for zingers on Twitter. I could see Penelope totally stalking Colin’s Instagram. I always think that. Her scrolling back and liking a post from two years ago and freaking out. I feel like she would have so much power in this time, because there’s a lot of those sites that now are the anonymous gossip sites and blind items. Human nature, we do have a desire for gossip and scandal. It’s just within us. It’s innate. So I feel like, yes, she would still make a big splash on social media.
Are you a big fan of the gossip sites?
I mean, it’s terrible, but I totally am! [Laughs.] I want to pretend that I’m like, “No, no, I don’t read any of that.” But I think that’s why I watch reality TV, because it’s free offered gossip, and it’s like, people are fully consenting to say, “Here’s my life on a platter.” I think sometimes, with actors, I’m like, “Oh, I wish I kind of didn’t know that,” when they become mega celebrities. I’m sort of pro celebrities for celebrities’ sake. But gossip, the desire for it is long-standing in human nature.
Written by Erica Gonzales
Published December 28, 2020