It should be known that Coughlan is no stranger to a buzzy Netflix project. Two years ago, she made her U.S. debut playing fan-favorite Claire Devlin in the series Derry Girls. The show, which follows a set of teens in Derry, Northern Ireland, during the country’s nationalist conflict in the 1990s, originally kicked off as a huge success in the UK, earning a slew of awards, and then shortly thereafter became an international hit with Netflix. The show served as a launchpad for the Irish actress, who that same year joined Lesley Maville, Liv Tyler, and Samantha Morton in the acclaimed period drama Harlots and later caught the eye of television heavyweight Shonda Rhimes. And as if the relationship with Netflix couldn’t get any sweeter, earlier this month, Coughlan—alongside her Derry Girls castmates—debuted serious kitchen skills in this year’s The Great British Baking Show holiday special.
The Irish actress was rightfully giddy when we connected. She’s been eager to talk about Bridgerton for months and is just days away from the show’s virtual press tour for which she and stylist Aimée Croysdill have prepared a handful of joyful looks, sprinkling in Irish and Northern Irish designers for good measure. She hints they are her best ones yet. With 25 minutes at our disposal, we dive deep into what makes Bridgerton such a delightful watch, discuss finding creative outlets in quarantine, and end with a little fashion show-and-tell session.
I’ve been telling everyone Bridgerton is like 1800s Gossip Girl, but I’m curious to know how you are describing the series to friends and family?
I say to them, “It’s not what you expect.” It’s really snappy, fast-paced, and dramatic. The world feels big and sprawling. If I see a woman cross a moor on a damp day in a gray dress, I’m like, “Okay, great.” But this is in technicolor. It’s like opening a box of chocolates. A lot of the Eloise and Penelope stuff really reminds me of Little Women because it’s young women who have a lot of ambition but are completely constrained by their positions in society and what society expects of them. Someone else—who said this to me?—said it looks like a period drama made by Baz Lurhman because it looks so lavish and lush. It’s funny, I have never actually seen Gossip Girl. I feel like I just missed it. I was slightly too old when it happened. But I’ve had to remind people the Bridgerton books predate Gossip Girl, so we came first!
Were you familiar with the Julia Quinn book series prior to getting the script?
Not at all. I was sent the audition, and when you hear “Shondaland” and “Their first Netflix show,” that’s a big deal, obviously. But then I thought, “This is going to be a painful audition process because it’s going to be months.” I kind of just told myself [it was going to be like that]. I went in and read with a casting assistant, and the tape went to L.A., and then I got a call a week or two later being like, “They want you for it.” I was like, “What does that mean?” And they said, “No, you got the part! You are in the show.” I was like, “Why?” You feel such crazy imposter syndrome because Shonda Rhimes is the most powerful woman in television. She has changed the landscape of TV forever, so you’re like, “Why does she want me?!” But they were so amazing and supportive. Chris Van Dusen, our showrunner, said to me, “When we watched your tape, we said, ‘Oh, it has to be her.’”
Aside from Shonda Rhimes and Netflix, what were some of the major selling points of the project for you early on?
That it felt really fresh. For any project, it has to start with a good script. If it doesn’t, there is nothing you can do to fix it. You can get the best actors in the world, the best cinematographer, the best director, everything, [but] it doesn’t make a difference if you don’t have a good script, and Bridgerton had an excellent script. The characters were really complex, and that’s something I’m always drawn to. Penelope starts off as this real innocent kid who has been pushed into adult society way too young. She knows it. She doesn’t want to be in the marriage market. She wants her best friend Eloise by her side. She has no allies. With Eloise, you can see Penelope is witty. She’s smart; she has a lot to say. Then when she’s around Colin Bridgerton, she’s a lovestruck puppy. She’s a romantic. I think that’s what Shondaland does really well—they write women who are complicated and are not one thing or another. People would say to me, “[Penelope] is really sweet,” and I would say, “She is, but she has a lot more to her than that. Things get really complicated for her really quickly because she’s not equipped to deal with the things she thinks. She’s clever, so she takes 10 steps ahead, but then she’s in trouble.”
Yes, things unravel for her a bit as the season goes on. How would you say you and Penelope are similar?
I think in ways we are similar. I have definitely been that lovestruck puppy. I have definitely seen the boy I liked dancing with other girls, and I remember that, and it’s heart-wrenching. [Your] first love is so intoxicating and it takes over everything. She’s loved Colin Bridgerton since she was a little girl. In the novels, she fell in love with him when he fell off a horse when she was nine years old. He is so kind to her and sees in her what a lot of people don’t. She is this wallflower that fades into the background. I’ve had that in life where I say, “I want to be an actor,” and people go, “Really? Do you think you are going to make it as an actor?” People can underestimate you, and I’ve felt that. I think in ways that we are different. Penelope internalizes a lot more. I think she is a real observer. She takes everything in, but I say this to friends as well: You can’t internalize forever because it’s going to come out. I think for her, it does come out, and in a major way. I am also terrible at keeping secrets. Penelope can keep endless secrets. I am rubbish. I’m not a bad friend telling my friends’ stuff, but for myself, when something happens, I’m like, “Okay, but I have to tell my sister.” Also, I’m very close to my sister and Penelope is not so much with her sisters. That’s another big difference.
Let’s talk about the beautiful costumes. I wouldn’t describe the Featherington family aesthetic as subtle. Penelope is often wearing yellow, much to her chagrin. What was the story behind that?
It was a big part of the books, actually, and it was something that I knew even before going into my first fitting. There has to be a lot of yellow because Lady Featherington has three daughters to get married, and that’s a big pressure and a financial burden. I think in the books, it’s like, “happy colors make happy girls,” so the girls are all in yellows and oranges and greens. They wanted a real contrast with the Bridgertons. I always think of the Bridgertons as Chanel and the Featheringtons as Versace. Everything was made from scratch as well, so literally every costume that you see on screen was made for that person. It’s a level of detail that is mindblowing. I loved it.
The thing is, I know my looks were really over-the-top, but I thought they were beautiful because there would be little details in them that you don’t even see on screen. One of them had this silk ribbon lining it, and it just felt like butter. It’s the most beautiful materials, and then you have these feather headdresses and the tiaras. It’s fun to watch the show back. You can spot the Featheringtons a mile off because we were just, like, in these big bright colors. It’s a very important part in the show because it was so integral in the books.
Do you have a favorite look of Penelope’s, one you wish you could take home?
There is one stunning one that is literally on screen for a millisecond. It’s a ball where a prince arrives and you would have to zoom in to see me, but it’s this pink dress that is hand-embellished with flowers. I even said to one of the costume designers, Sophie [Canale], “If we get to do a series two, please can we use that dress because it’s the most beautiful thing I have ever seen and it was on screen for no time!” That one I just loved so much.
There is an interesting reveal at the end, which leaves things open for a second series. What do you hope to see for Penelope in a second chapter?
The thing is, the first book I read was book four, which is 10 years on from series one that we shot, so it got very confusing at certain points. I would go into costume fittings and talk about characters and they were like that character doesn’t exist yet. I had to stop reading the books at a certain point because I started to get incredibly confused about timelines and people. Penelope changes so much from that first little girl you meet. She becomes—I won’t say too much—but she evolves so brilliantly. Julia Quinn, who wrote the books, says that she is a mixture of Eloise and Penelope. The stories are about romance and romantic relationships, but that’s the main friendship that underpins the whole series, so it feels really special to be part of that. A really interesting thing about the books as well is that the protagonists change each year. It will be Anthony Bridgerton’s story the next time, which I think will be fascinating because it completely changes the dynamic of the show.
This isn’t your first period piece. You also starred in the BBC series Harlots, which much like Bridgerton, features a diverse cast. What do you love about this type of narrative?
I think what both Bridgerton and Harlots do really well is going back to history and telling the untold story. In terms of Harlots, it was more the story of the women that never got told. I think in Bridgerton, it’s a little more fantasy because the casting is so diverse. It’s one of the great strengths of the show. It’s going back and saying “What if we had Black people that were royalty, dukes, duchesses, all of that stuff. What would that look like?” And it’s so fascinating. It’s like you saw with Hamilton. It just gives it a fresh feel. I’ve said this to people a million times, but people can accept dragons on Game of Thrones, so they can totally accept a Black duke. Harlots was incredible like that too with diversity. It was just an amazing show to be part of because of the acting in it. Like, Samantha Morton and Lesley Manville, they are both Oscar nominees. It was like free acting classes every day going onto the set.
You recorded an audio play called A Passion Play during quarantine. Can you tell me about that project?
I think in these times, everyone who works in the industry is trying to figure out ways to make work happen. I think you have to keep creating art and doing stuff. I miss interacting with people because everything—every project you do—is a collaboration between a lot of different people. They approached me with that script, and it was just this really beautiful simple love story. It felt really authentically Irish and it felt like it really captured a certain time. It was around the equal marriage referendum in Ireland and told this story of two young girls falling in love and finding out things about each other. It was delicate and beautiful. I got to record it from home, which, you know, the magic of modern technology. It was a really lovely experience.
What have been some other creative outlets for you this year?
I have been doing a lot of cooking, and it was a thing I couldn’t do for months on Bridgerton because we traveled so much making the show and you are eating on set a lot. I love to cook; I find it really therapeutic. I cook for my mom and she is like Gordon Ramsey telling me whether the food is good or bad. I actually did the British Bake Off [holiday] special. Baking is not so much my thing because the stress of that tent never leaves you, but cooking I’m good with.
I want to talk about your own style. How would you say it has evolved in the last few years?
It’s definitely massively evolved. I try to describe to you how stressful it is to stand [on a red carpet], especially at the BAFTAs. It’s just 200 photographers standing there. My agent used to say to me, “You need to get something to wear to that,” and I would let the stress get on top of me and maybe not necessarily wear things I would normally pick out [for myself]. But I met my stylist Aimée Croysdill, and she is so excellent. She actually picked out this look [I’m wearing now], which I’m wearing to another thing, but today, I was like, “I want to wear it because I love it.” It’s so comfortable. But she introduced me to Batsheva and Shrimps. I love Gucci. I got some tiny little bee earrings and a bee ring. It’s a big theme within the Bridgerton books, the bees. If we get to go to series two it’s a lot more in that book. The fandom of the books call themselves “The Little Bees.” I intended to get the earrings, but then I was in the store and I saw the ring and I was like, “I think I need that too.” It’s like my little good luck charm for talking about the show. I always have a little Bridgerton with me. I also love Marc Jacobs. The first designer thing I ever bought was a tiny Marc Jacobs little pouchette bag with a bird on it. I mean that’s old now, but I wear those things to death. I am trying to start investing more in stuff and stepping away from fast fashion if I can. I had no awareness of how bad it was and then I think when you become aware, you can’t unknow it.
Is there a favorite look you’ve worn for a red carpet?
I can’t really think. The thing is, I have a bunch of stuff coming up with Aimée that I haven’t worn yet and am really excited about. So I think they are yet to come. She has been so great in encouraging me to have more fun and I feel much more like myself now than when Derry Girls first came out and I was just going down to the market and being like, “Okay, well I guess I’ll wear this.”
The women in Bridgerton wouldn’t be caught dead going out in the same dress or look twice, but it’s 2020, and that’s not how things work anymore. I want to know about the pieces in your wardrobe that get the most wear.
I have this coat from a designer in London called Charlotte Simone. It’s proper powder pink and it’s got fluffy sleeves. It feels like a whole outfit when you wear it. I absolutely love that. I have the Marc Jacobs Vanity Bag in a really gorgeous blue-green [color]. The things I’m looking at, [I ask], “Can I wear this in a year, two years, five years?” I am way more aware of that. It’s funny, when I was the most broke was probably when I bought the most clothes. I would buy super cheap stuff, but you actually end up wasting money because you are not buying things that last. When I got Bridgerton, I got myself this little Mulberry bag, and it’s a thing I wear to death. I often go to set in a terrible ratty sweater and track pants and a really nice Mulberry bag. I look like some sort of old crazy eccentric woman.
Who What Wear
Written by Jessica Baker
Published December 26, 2020