Not long before lockdown, Nicola Coughlan was filming Bridgerton in Britain’s historic estates, swaddled in the garishly-hued Regency-era dresses forced upon her character, Penelope Featherington, and tiptoeing around the sets’ very real heirlooms. (“They do spend a lot of time when you’re not filming being like, ‘Don’t touch that painting. It’s 800 years old.’”) Six-odd months later, as fans finally got their first glimpse of the show’s opulent world, Coughlan herself was in a more familiar one.
“I’ve been at home during lockdown with my mom in Ireland,” the actress tells me in late November. “So I still have to do all the grocery shopping. I had to paint her bedroom and do the hoovering.” (Hoovering, according to the internet, is British slang for vacuuming. Apparently the Irish use it too.) Her mother’s bedroom, Coughlan laughs, was transformed dramatically: from blue to a different shade of blue. “It took me like three days. And I am short. I am like 5’1″. So the ceiling was patchy; we did have to get someone in to do the ceiling. But the rest of the walls, I did it.”
If not the kind of task that well-off Penelope Featherington would be saddled with, struggling to paint the higher reaches of a wall does feel on-brand for the actress’s other beloved character: the endearingly neurotic Clare Devlin, one of Derry Girls’ titular teenagers. After its UK debut and subsequent Netflix bow in 2018, the show became something of a surprise hit. Turns out, its highly specific, heartfelt, and hilarious depiction of coming of age in Northern Ireland amid the Troubles translates well, in America and beyond. “You get messages from people in Pakistan, people in Kuwait, people all over the world saying, ‘This reminded me of how I grew up,’” Coughlan says. Nothing, not even an international violent conflict, can stop hormones from raging.
The magic of Derry Girls is in its pitch-perfect performances, but even in such a talented group, Coughlan is a standout. The actress manifests Clare’s nerves and occasional emotional outbursts with empathy and brilliant comedic timing.
Coughlan is so good, in fact, that when Queer Eye star and general icon Jonathan Van Ness saw her wearing a sweatshirt with their face printed on it, they cried: “I’d never seen someone make a shirt with my face on it. And then, I also was a big fan of Derry Girls so it was just like, ‘I can’t take it, it’s too surreal.’” Van Ness and Coughlan are now close friends; in February, Van Ness flew from L.A. to the UK to surprise her at her birthday party—sort of. “I told her early,” Van Ness admits. “I just get too excited and I can’t handle it.” (The party lived up to Van Ness’s expectations. They met Great British Bake-Off winner Briony May Williams, and had so much fun that they haven’t been able to drink prosecco since.)
Derry Girls also helped the actress earn a role in Netflix’s Shonda Rhimes-produced Bridgerton, a new show based on a much-loved series of romance novels by Julia Quinn. Showrunner Chris Van Dusen, an avowed Derry Girls fan, saw Coughlan’s audition tape for another part in the show—that of Penelope’s best friend, Eloise Bridgerton, he thinks—and made the decision then and there to bring Coughlan on. “The moment she popped on screen, we immediately knew we had found our Penelope,” he says.
It was a no-brainer for Bridgerton showrunner Chris Van Dusen to cast Coughlan as fan-favorite character Penelope: “The moment she popped on screen, we immediately knew.”
Like Clare, Penelope is an unsure teenager (albeit with a very different temperament), and Coughlan again manages to humanize an era often historicized beyond recognition. “Our historical advisor showed us pictures of young women properly lounging on sofas and having their feet up. At first, they really blew my mind,” she says. It just didn’t fit with the restrained, needlepoint-loving Jane Austen women she was used to seeing—but then, Bridgerton isn’t your grandmother’s period drama. The cast is refreshingly diverse at all class levels, up to an imperious Queen Charlotte played by Black, Guyana-born Golda Rosheuvel. (Many historians believe that Charlotte had African ancestry.) And though flirtations might start with a meaningful look or a touch of the glove, the characters don’t stop there. For a show in which so few young women know how sex works—for Coughlan’s Penelope and equally un-streetwise pal Eloise Bridgerton (played by Claudia Jessie), the cause of pregnancy is a mystery that never quite gets solved—there is a whole lot of sex. It’s a Regency-era romance only Shondaland could create.
Coughlan has long been a fan of Rhimes, having found some much-needed inspiration in the TV legend’s book, The Year of Yes, when she was struggling, unemployed, and living with her parents. “To be part of that world—what Shonda has done for television in terms of representing women, difficult women, unlikeable women, complicated women, in terms of diversity, in terms of representing LGBTQ characters and stories—it’s a dream,” Coughlan says.
But, that said, Coughlan never chased fame, and finds it curious that anyone would. From the jump, she has made a point of sectioning off parts of her life that aren’t for public consumption, and fiercely protected her friends and family. Sometimes “you just want to wrap them in cotton wool” and protect them from overzealous selfie-seekers, she says.
It helps that she entered the industry at a (relatively) late stage, as a fully-formed adult rather than an impressionable youth. Despite landing her first acting job at nine—as the uncredited “Little Girl Feeding Swans” in a James Brolin-directed movie, filmed in her hometown of Galway—Coughlan’s big break wouldn’t come for two more decades.
After graduating from acting school, she moved to London with “Walter Mitty ideas” of making it, and struggled when reality wasn’t keeping pace with her dreams. She ended up moving back home, but couldn’t find it in herself to give up acting: “It felt like it was in my bones, and it kept me going.” To make ends meet, she “did every job under the sun,” working as a waitress, a receptionist, and the person who notifies optometry patients that they’re due for an eye test.
It’s these years of unglamorous work that Coughlan credits with her down-to-earth attitude. “Now, when I’m on set, and I’m getting driven there, and I’m getting people bringing food to me, you need to know that’s not everyday reality,” she says, adding that she’s always conscious of treating those around her with respect. “I cringe when I hear stories about diva actors.” Television is a team effort, she explains: “It’s not just about you.” (She is happy to share the experience with others, though; Van Ness notes that they visited her on the Bridgerton set.)
Given Coughlan’s attitude, it doesn’t come as a shock when her Bridgerton collaborators say she’s a joy to work with. Van Dusen, after noting that she’s “very focused” and “very thoughtful,” says that she’s “a riot, and she had a cast and crew laughing in-between takes.” Jessie says that filming with her “didn’t really feel like work,” adding, “What’s wonderful about her is that she’s so enthusiastic about being on set, so pleased to be there.”
Pleased to be playing Penelope Featherington—who, it turns out, approaches the boundary between the public and private very differently than Coughlan herself. As is revealed in the season finale, Penelope is the one behind the notorious “Lady Whistledown” gossip sheet, and personally responsible for outing high society’s best-kept secrets. The actress assures that for those who take the time to rewatch, and for viewers who’ve already read the novels, it’ll track. No “10 Times It Made No Sense That Dan was Gossip Girl” to be written here. “There’d be certain things where the director would say, ‘We want to stand you here and do this.’ And I’d think, ‘I can’t, because in my column, I write that they meet at this point.’ So, if you went back, you’ll spot me in a couple of scenes like Where’s Waldo,” Coughlan says.
Van Dusen credits her for planting the easter eggs. “It was one of Nicola’s ideas to be spread throughout the background of these larger scenes in the earlier episodes,” he says. Thanks to her, during Daphne Bridgerton and Simon Basset’s first encounter, “if you watch closely, you can see Penelope’s eyes there in the corner of the screen.”
Playing Whistledown’s alter ego comes with another, somewhat unexpected perk: having the inimitable Julie Andrews voice your character’s counterpart. When Coughlan found out that Andrews would play Whistledown, reading Penelope’s pseudonymous writings in voiceover, she cried. Though she hasn’t had a chance to speak to Andrews—or at least, at the time of our interview, she hadn’t—Coughlan is dying to connect. “I’m like, ‘Maybe she knows who I am. Maybe she’s seen a picture of me. Maybe she’s watched.’” And it’s dumb because she’s the voice on the show. So she knows who’s in it. But I don’t know. It’s Julie Andrews!” she exclaims. “It’s a bit overwhelming.”
Though some might be surprised to learn that publications like Whistledown’s were circulated in the early 1800s, Coughlan wasn’t—and not just because gossip sheets make an appearance in her other period show, Harlots. “It shows you how long the appetite for gossip has been there,” she says.
Being on the other side, as a public figure, has made her realize how odd celebrity culture really is. “Sometimes if I see a paparazzi picture of an actor I know, that makes me go, ‘Oh, that’s so weird,’ because in the past, I would’ve just looked at them, and I would’ve never really thought about it,” she says. “And you think, ‘Oh, no. Everyone’s a real person. Oh my god.’ I would be mortified if someone took a picture of me buying milk in the corner shop.”
Part of the struggle is losing control over your own narrative. Once in the public eye, that’s for the Whistledowns of the world—or journalists like me—to write. And when Coughlan tries to wrest it back, it only partially works.
After a critic described her performance as Joyce Emily in a 2018 production of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie as “the kind of overweight little girl who will always become the butt of her fellows’ immature humour,” the actress fired back, demanding an apology from the publication on Twitter. She got the apology—but also unwittingly became something of a body positivity advocate, which was never her intention. “There are incredible body positivity activists online, and they’re really vocal and incredible. But that’s not me,” she says. “People trying to take ownership over your body’s really uncomfortable. And often it’s not meant in a bad way, but I think it’s not the defining thing about me.” As Coughlan wrote in the Guardian shortly after the Twitter brush-up, the praise for her perceived body positivity, paradoxically, had a similar effect to that critic’s odious words: “The focus was on me, not my acting.”
If Coughlan were able to write her own story, perhaps she wouldn’t have mentioned that ordeal at all. And if she did, she surely would have done so differently—only she is able to articulate her own experiences from a place of authority. The rest is just gossip.
Luckily for Coughlan, the gossip about her is overwhelmingly positive. Gushing, even. “She’s just so fun,” Van Ness stresses, “And I love her sister, her childhood best friends, her mom. I just love being around her. I love meeting her friends. Maybe Ireland is like the Midwest of Europe, because everyone is just so nice.”
Niceness? Childhood best friends? Try spinning a Daily Mail headline out of that. Lady Whistledown is shaking in her boots.
Town & Country
Written by Chloe Foussaines
Published January 1, 2021