In the final moments of the first season of the historical romance (now streaming), it’s revealed that Penelope (Nicola Coughlan), seemingly an unassuming wallflower, is actually the most powerful person in the upper echelons of London society. Overlooked Penelope is the notorious Lady Whistledown, author of the gossip paper that sweeps through the ton like wildfire and captivates the attention of everyone, including the Queen herself (Golda Rosheuvel).
Whistledown has the power to make and break lives, exposing secrets of high society in her scandal sheet. Voiced by Julie Andrews as a cheeky narrator for much of the Shondaland series, Whistledown is unmasked in the finale. The mysterious woman nestled safely in the carriage, whom Eloise (Claudia Jessie) helps escape with her secret identity intact, is none other than Penelope.
It comes as a shock not only because Penelope has always seemed kinder than Whistledown’s acidic writings, but also because of her determined indifference in comparison to Eloise’s obsession.
We called up the woman behind the poison pen, and Coughlan opened up about the machinations of Whistledown, why Penelope might have sought refuge in this secret identity, and why they’ve dubbed the Featherington family the “Regency Kardashians.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How early did you know the truth about Penelope and Lady Whistledown?
NICOLA COUGHLAN: When I auditioned for the show, I didn’t have any full scripts, [and] I hadn’t read the books. I got offered the job after that one audition, which was so unexpected. So then I started to dive into the Bridgerton books, and I went to book 4, which is the book that’s primarily about Penelope. I started reading about it, and then I went on the fan forums, because I realized pretty quickly what a huge fandom there is behind these books. When I was reading through those, I read a synopsis of one of the books that said, “When Penelope is revealed as Lady Whistledown.” And I thought, “What?!” But then I didn’t know, because it’s an adaptation, so that’s not guaranteed. They could have changed that. When I finally sat down with our showrunner, Chris Van Dusen, and I said, “Am I her?” He said, “Yeah, you are.” But they didn’t even know at that point if they were going to reveal it, or if they were going to do a red herring or whatever.
But for me to know that was really important, because it changes everything about her. It means that she’s this crazy active listener all the time. She’s the most low-status character in any room, but she’s the most high-status as well, like she controls all of London society while being looked down on as this total wallflower. It hugely informed how I played the part. Also, it was really fun when people didn’t know, and they wanted to know.
So did your costars not know? Did you have to keep it a secret from them?
Not so much a secret, like I didn’t have to, but sometimes people would say, “I wonder who Whistledown is?” And I’d go, “Do you want to know?” I wouldn’t spoil it for anybody who didn’t, but then it was so fun seeing people’s reactions. They go, “Penelope?!” “I know, right? Isn’t it crazy?”
But it’s been funny because it’s become a real-life secret for me, having to not tell people.
What do you think Penelope’s motivation for this is? Outwardly she seems kind and goodnatured, but the things Lady Whistledown writes are quite vicious and have the power to ruin lives.
See, that’s the fascinating thing about her. She’s really hard to describe in a couple of words, because she’s complex, but then human beings are. Real life is not Disney, where there’s the goodies and the baddies. Penelope is all the things. She is really sweet, but then she’s super-conniving, and she obviously has learned to keep secrets. I have to look at her family dynamic. She’s such the outsider in that family. Her sisters have one another, her mum is very independent, her dad doesn’t pay attention to her, so I think she was used to just internalizing her thoughts. Also because she’s been bullied essentially her whole life, she tried to find an outlet. She is so witty, and caustic and all these things, but I don’t think she necessarily has the confidence levels to say those things out loud. I think she’s a real classic writer as well, because often you meet writers, and they write these huge over-the-top characters, and in person they’re so quiet. It’s a release for her. But you see through season 1, she’s not really coping with it that well. She’s a smart kid, and she thinks, “Well, I can do this, and I can control this,” but it totally gets out of hand for her. I hope we get to do season 2, because I want to see what effect that has on Penelope’s every day.
What was your reaction when you discovered Julie Andrews would be voicing your inner thoughts?
I lost it completely. I was in the kitchen with my mum and she was cooking, and I was just scrolling through Instagram, and I saw Julie Andrew’s face, and then I saw Shonda and I saw Whistledown, and it was like too much information at once, so I just burst into tears. It’s so special being in a show with an icon like Julie Andrews, but there’s an extra level for me. It’s a big thing to take in, honestly.
Did knowing that influence your performance?
Partly, yeah, because Julie Andrew’s voice is iconic; we all just know it from childhood. I feel like Penelope writes her as an older woman, and there’s shades of Portia Featherington in there, and she’s heard all this gossip going on throughout her life. She also looks at Lady Danbury, and how impressive she is, and how much agency she has, and I think she really looks up to that. Julie Andrews is this sublime being that’s above everybody else. Julie Andrews is the God of Bridgerton, essentially. So it was the perfect choice, and really informed a lot of what I did.
How difficult was it for her to decide to betray Marina (Ruby Barker) and expose her? Do you think it was a decision made rashly or impulsively in some ways?
She always knew it was the ace card she had in her back pocket, but it’s such a huge thing to do. It’s funny because we didn’t get all the scripts at once, so I was reading it going, “I can see where this is going, but Penelope is not going to do that. She’s too sweet and she’s too kindhearted, and it would be too bad, because it would not only destroy Marina’s life and her prospects and her children’s life, it would destroy her sister’s prospects for marriage, her prospects for marriage.” It just had so many knock-on effects that I went, “She’s never going to do it.” So when I got the script, and she did it, I couldn’t believe it. I was so shocked. I talked to Claudia Jessie about it, who plays Eloise, and I said, “How has she done this? It’s so bad.” And Claudia said, “She’s a child. She’s 17, and that’s not like a 17-year-old nowadays. She’s so innocent, she’s so protected, and she hasn’t fully realized the extent of the power that she’s garnered by being Whistledown.” But she feels tremendously guilty. It really eats away at her, because deep down she is a really good, kind soul. But she’s just desperately in love with Colin [Luke Newton], and sees him being tricked, and she feels out of control, but then she has the most control of anybody, and she utilizes that.
Speaking of Colin, that decision comes out of just not being able to bear him being tricked into this marriage. So if we do get a season 2, what do you think or hope might come there? Is Penelope going to keep carrying that torch? Is he really that blind?
I’d love to see how it progresses, because being Whistledown is going to have to give her some level of confidence. In season 1, she’s contended with Marina, that whole situation, and then losing her father, so she’s going to have to grow up a little bit. She’s so innocent when we first meet her. And there’s such a power imbalance with her and Colin. Colin’s a lovely person, but he’s a god to her, and she’s just totally besotted by him, so I’d like to see her come up a few rungs. I think there’s always a point when you are desperately in love with someone who doesn’t know, that you go, “I’m over it. I’m totally over it.” I don’t think that she would be, but I’d quite like to see how that works. Also, aside from the Whistledown secret, she’s not telling her best friend she’s in love with her brother, so that’s a pretty big stumbling block I feel like she has to overcome as well.
Eloise is so obsessed with Lady Whistledown and finding out who she is, so how hard is it for Penelope to keep this a secret from her? Do you think there were times where she was tempted to tell her?
I don’t think she was tempted to tell her, because I think she gets most of her information from Eloise. It’s such a terrible betrayal, because she’s writing about Eloise’s family. Penelope, on a certain level, is quite obsessed with the Bridgertons. She wants to be one because there’s such love and warmth in that house that she never had growing up. She’s really good at compartmentalizing, but she just internalizes all of these things that happened, and they’re going to come out eventually. Penelope can’t endlessly shove everything down and keep the secret; it will at some point come out. With Eloise, I’d be interested to see whether that obsession fades, because I feel like Eloise could be a really phase-y person — that this is her thing that she’s really into at the time, and then she’s over it and it’s onto the next thing.
I’m just excited at the prospect of Eloise and Penelope being at the balls together, both in fiction and in real life, because I’ll be able to hang out with Claudia during the long ball scenes.
Well, they are best friends. On the surface, Eloise seems far more enamored with the boldness and freedom of Whistledown than Penelope does. Do you think that Penelope, in her heart, feels the same way as Eloise and she just can’t show it?
Yeah, definitely. There’s many reasons why Penelope loves Eloise, but that’s a big one, that Eloise is so able to express herself, and have these wants and desires, and she’s funny, and she’s so free in a way that Penelope could never be. But then it’s such an interesting dynamic, in that Penelope is doing a lot of the things that Eloise wants to do, like she has financial independence, she’s admired, she’s a great writer. She’s just fascinating to play, because it’s never what you see on the surface.
You and Claudia have such amazing chemistry as friends. Did that arise naturally on set?
It honestly really did. Claudia is one of the kindest, nicest people you could ever come across. We’d met super-briefly prior to Bridgerton, about a year before at a party, and she just lights up any room she’s in. You meet her and you instantly want to hang out with her. I ended up being the first one cast in Bridgerton. I started reading the books, so I was like, “Who’s Colin going to be? Who’s Portia Featherington going to be? Who’s Eloise?” Eloise is the love of Penelope’s life, aside from Colin. It’s this beautiful friendship. And when it was Claudia, I just thought, “Oh, thank God,” because when you feel that connection with somebody, you can’t manufacture that. I’d love to see how their friendship progresses. Because Julia Quinn, who wrote the books, said to us, “The books are about romance, but they’re also about the love which exists within female friendships.” And that’s the most important friendship within the books as well, so it’s a special thing.
Bridgerton has been heralded for its inclusive casting, but one aspect of that that hasn’t been talked about as much is body diversity. We usually have a really narrow definition of who we get to see in love stories. This isn’t Penelope’s love story yet, but overall, what your thoughts are on that, and Penelope’s role in furthering that conversation about who we include in these types of stories?
It’s definitely a feature in the books. For me the thing is, you’re just playing the character, so that just comes with all the things, so it’s not like that was a big focus for me, necessarily. Like, how her sisters speak to her about her body is really unkind. But what I really liked about the adaptation was that it wasn’t the main feature of her as a character, she was a fully rounded young woman. And I think that’s the pitfalls that certain shows have fallen into before, of just being like, “Let’s make it about this one thing.” Whereas Penelope is complex, and smart, and funny and daring, and duplicitous. So I think I would’ve found it disappointing had it just been “Penelope looks this way, so let’s do a certain thing.” But it’s good. Actors are just playing human beings, and human beings look like a million different things. There’s not just one type of person, so I don’t see why there should just be one type of actor on screen either.
Who dislikes the color yellow more, you or Penelope?
Penelope definitely dislikes it more. I don’t dislike it. I actually found myself buying yellow clothes. But it’s funny because the dresses are meant to be gaudy and over the top, but because I saw them being made, and the amazing craftspeople that put hours into, I feel really defensive about them. When someone goes, “Oh, they’re really tacky,” I’m like, “But they’re all beautiful. They’re all works of art.” It’s so much fun to be a Featherington too, to step into the balls where everyone’s in stunning blues, and greens and pinks. And then you wear bright yellow, with the most hair, with the hair clips, and the tiara, and the necklace and everything.
You’re like Cinderella’s stepsisters almost.
A little bit. Well, they did call us the Regency Kardashians. There’s the three daughters, and then the pushy mom. That’s what they called us on set.
Written by Maureen Lee Lenker
Published December 28, 2020