How have you been dealing with the overwhelming response to ‘Bridgerton’?
It’s hard to sort of compute the fact that 63 million people have watched the series. It’s beyond any human brain’s comprehension. It’s funny because I’ve been in lockdown at home in Ireland throughout all of this, so nothing has changed for me day-to-day. It’s all really exciting, though!
So, how much did you rely on Julia Quinn’s novels when developing the character of Penelope Featherington?
Well, the fourth novel in the Bridgerton series really focuses on her character. There’s a scene in it where you learn that a friend of Lord Featherington spotted her writing as a young girl and encouraged her – helping her to find a press and all of that. I also imagine that [after she’s nearly caught in the finale] she distributes the Lady Whistledown papers in the same way that she does in the book, which is going to church and leaving them in a pew – with someone from the press later coming to get them. I honestly thought so much about how she managed to pull off this double identity as a member of the Ton, and the reality is that she’s such a wallflower that it really would have been feasible for her to just duck out of those balls without anyone noticing.
What sort of research did you do on 19th-century society papers ahead of filming?
Just by coincidence, I’ve worked on another period drama, Harlots, which also deals with gossip papers, so I had an awareness of them beforehand. I’ve always been fascinated by how inherently nosy people are, and how we’ve always had this thirst for gossip. There’s this widespread belief that it’s a modern obsession, but it really isn’t. So, I did read quite a lot of the original papers, which were fascinating. What’s interesting is that the real papers only name their subjects as Lady A and Lord B, whereas Lady Whistledown sort of blows things up, naming and shaming.
How did you feel about Penelope betraying Marina Thompson by exposing her pregnancy?
Honestly, completely shocked! The scripts were drip-fed to us, and I never thought that she would actually pull the trigger until I read episode six. I felt like, she’s too sweet, too good, to do that! All I can say to try and make sense of it is that she’s only 17, and she’s incredibly sheltered and privileged. She has no idea about the realities of the world, and she’s desperately in love with Colin in that intoxicating way that you can only be with your first love. I definitely believe that she has a conscience, that she feels guilty about what she’s done, though – as she should.
Speaking of Colin, how do you feel about their romance, especially given the number of fans out there who are besotted with the idea of them as a couple?
Well, in the books, Penelope falls in love with Colin as a little girl. The two of them are actually fairly similar, but he’s much more confident and has a lot more agency over his own life. He just sees Penelope as his younger sister’s friend, and when he dances with her at the ball in that capacity, it just makes her infatuation stronger. One of the main reasons that I hope the series continues is because I’d love to explore the power dynamic – or, really, imbalance – in Colin and Penelope’s relationship more. I hope that she finds more confidence in herself – as it stands, she’s just in awe of him. It would be good for her to realise that nobody’s perfect, not even Colin. Everyone can relate to that first crush though, how it just destroys your heart and takes over your entire world.
Some of the hardest scenes to watch in ‘Bridgerton’ involve the female characters being presented to the Queen or standing on the edge of a ballroom, waiting to be asked to dance. How much research did you do into the debutante season, and how did you prepare for those cringeworthy moments when Penelope is overlooked?
Well, Dr Hannah Greig worked as our historical advisor on set – she’s just incredible. Any question that I had, I asked her. For example, I spoke with her about how ladies from that era would have really behaved at home. In all of the most famous portraits, you see them bolt upright, doing their needlework – but she showed us paintings with girls lounging on couches, which made them feel more human. In terms of the pressures on the debutantes in Bridgerton, I feel like we’re still going through a lot of the same challenges, just in a different guise. These girls had to dress up and present themselves to Queen Charlotte to be scrutinised. Today, you do that for social media rather than for royalty. That being said, I definitely have so much sympathy for Penelope and Eloise, who would have been able to live much freer lives today.
What are your thoughts about Penelope keeping her identity as Lady Whistledown a secret from Eloise?
The fact that she hides it from Eloise makes me feel absolutely terrible! Personally, I cannot keep a secret from my friends. With Penelope though, she’s someone who really has no one at home. Her sisters are thick as thieves, and her mother hardly ever pays attention to her. Whatever frustrations she has in her life, she just bottles them, and transfers them onto Lady Whistledown. Then, when she’s around Eloise, she sort of disassociates herself from that character. Julia Quinn told us that the relationship between Penelope and Eloise is one of the most important love stories in the novels, and I definitely get that.
And what about jeopardising her own family’s reputation in her dispatches?
In my mind, it’s as if she struggles to understand her own power. She started writing this dispatch – and in a way she’s become the most powerful woman in London while simultaneously being the most overlooked little girl in the Ton. So, there’s this really strange dichotomy there. I spoke about this with Claudia [Jessie], who plays Eloise, a lot, and she would reiterate that both of these characters are teenagers, and it’s hard for them to see beyond any given moment. In terms of exposing Marina and her family, Penelope is just concerned with keeping Colin from slipping away, no matter what it means for her friends or her sisters’ prospects. She’s just blindly in love. That’s what it all comes back to for her.
Written by Hayley Maitland
Published January 9, 2021