Introduced as a pitiable side character in the early Julia Quinn novels, Penelope seizes control of her own destiny in later books and becomes one of the most fabulous characters in the whole series. Bridgerton Season 1 not only plays with Penelope’s journey, but puts it front and center in a brand new way. It is through her eyes we see the chaos unfolding inside the Featherington house, where matriarch Portia Featherington (Polly Walker) struggles with the stress of juggling three maiden daughters and a house guest with a cumbersome secret. While Penelope quickly befriends her family’s visitor, Marina Thompson (Ruby Barker), that relationship is tested when Marina sets her sights on the love of young Pen’s life, Colin Bridgerton (Luke Newton).
Decider caught up with Coughlan earlier in the month and we talked about all things Bridgerton, from wearing those insanely over-the-top Featherington gowns to what she makes of Penelope’s decision to meddle in Marina and Colin’s romance. Not to mention the challenges of researching for the role when key characters in Penelope’s world — like Kate Sheffield — haven’t been introduced in Bridgerton‘s timeline yet…
Obviously Bridgerton is based on a series of books. I’m curious: what was your first introduction to the Julia Quinn novels? How far have you read in preparation for the role?
Well, it was mad, actually. Because when I first got the audition, I think I had a day to prepare. There was no chance to read the novels in that time. But also, I so did not expect to get cast. I thought, when you hear a Shondaland Netflix show, that made me think, “Oh my god, that’s gonna be months of auditions. It’s gonna be painful. I’ll never hear back.” But I actually just did one audition with a casting director, and then got offered the role two weeks later. It was a total shock to me.
Then I started reading the books. I went to Book 4 first, which is the book predominantly about Penelope. And then I went back to Book 1, went into Book 2 but I started getting really confused. I started annoying everybody because I started being like, “What about Kate?” And they’re like, “Kate doesn’t exist yet! Stop.”
And also, there’s eight hours of Bridgerton script, so I was like, “I need to just pause. Focus on the script. And then I’ll be able to leisurely go back and read them again.” [Laughs]
Yeah, I was really curious about your read on her relationship with Marina. In some ways, you think about Pen and Eloise (Claudia Jessie) being this twosome, but it’s almost a deeper, more naughty friendship with Marina. What do you think it says about Penelope that she ultimately chooses Colin over Marina, it seems?
That relationship is really fascinating. Because I think in the beginning, she is so thrilled for Marina to be there. Because Penelope doesn’t want to be on the marriage market and have to deal with all these suitors and stuff! She’s genuinely thrilled for Marina to get all this attention. The one person Marina can’t have is Colin, according to Penelope. Even though Penelope doesn’t really have the right to decide that, she thinks she does.
But I think Marina fascinates her in the beginning, because she’s an outsider. She doesn’t belong in the ton, and she feels more worldly and more experienced than Penelope. I think Penelope desperately wants to have a friend with her, but Marina has such adult problems going on. She doesn’t really have time for that with Penelope. It really shows a darker side to Penelope’s personality, and how she deals with that.
And I think, yeah, by the end, she feels absolutely terrible. As she kind of should do. But I think she’s been in love with Colin since she was a little girl. She saw him fall off a horse and her heart just burst into a million pieces. There’s no one else for her, really.
Totally shifting gears, you get to work with Polly Walker in this.
She’s one of my faves from Rome, and so many other things. Is she as intimidating in real life?
She is not remotely intimidating. Do you know what? It’s always funny that they say that the nicest people make the best baddies, and she is absolutely true to that. I was really into Line of Duty when I got cast in the show, and then I saw Polly was playing my mom. I was really excited. I don’t know if you’ve seen her in that, but she plays such a badass lawyer. Very morally questionable. And then you’re kind of intimidated to meet her — you think, “Oh, she’s going to be…” But she’s just sweet and warm and lovely. I loved acting with Polly.
We live relatively near, so we used to take our cars home together, chat about interior design. [Laughs] Actually, she brought me a lovely candleholder. It’s right over there.
The clothes are obviously what make the Featherington sisters stand out. Can you talk to me: how did you feel in them? Because obviously Penelope hates them. Are you waiting for Penelope to seize forth and wear something like blue?
Well you know what’s really funny is: Penelope hates them, but I love them. [Laughs]
Because I saw them being created from scratch. Ellen Mirojnick, who designed the costumes, is a true genius. Because the show feels like it’s quite punk in its own way, it’s going, “Yeah, it’s Regency, but we can do what we want. Because we’ve invented this world.” So it’s Regency where the rules don’t apply. It means that there’s so much color, and there’s so much embellishment. There was an embellishment room where they made the costumes. There were Swarovski crystals and hand-sewn flowers. I thought each piece I wore was so beautiful.
You go into the fittings, and you feel like a little girl. I always think of that scene in Pretty Woman where she’s in the dress shop, and they only treat her nicely when all of them come in. It feels like that. “Here’s your jewelry, here’s your —” I got so excited every time there was a tiara. I lost it. It doesn’t leave you. You’re like, “A tiara! Yes!” Yeah, I thought they were just phenomenal.
There’s one really over-the-top one at the ball with the Prince, where Daphne dances with the Prince. You don’t really see that dress on screen for very long, but it was lined with a silk ribbon that just felt like butter in your hands. All of them were just works of art. They were outrageous. They were amazing.
Written by Meghan O’Keefe
Published December 28, 2020