Nicola Coughlan’s Bridgerton story begins in Hollywood.
It’s funny to imagine that anything to do with this lush, glossy Netflix period drama, filmed across England in the most English of locations and set in the most English of time periods—Regency-era London, when Jane Austen ruled the roost—could begin anywhere else. But that’s where it started with Coughlan, or rather, that’s how it started.
Because Coughlan, the 34-year-old star of Derry Girls, thought she had the measure of Bridgerton when she went into her first audition. “When you hear Shondaland is making their first show with Netflix and it’s going to be this big budget, incredible period drama, that translated in my brain to: ‘20 auditions minimum, in and out.’ It’s America: you hear about all these scary executives,” Coughlan muses to Vogue over Zoom from her cosy flat in London.
“I thought OK, audition one is going to be routine. Go in and read and maybe they’ll call you back.” Which meant that she went into her first audition for the role of Penelope Featherington, ginger of hair, yellow of dress and unlucky of mother, with absolutely zero trepidation. She did some readings, had a chat with the casting director and that was that. “I thought, we’ll see if I ever hear back,” Coughlan says, laughing.
Spoiler alert, reader, but Coughlan got the job. In fact, she got the job off the back of that one audition—and herein lies the Hollywood rub. “I got a call about a week or two later from my agent saying, ‘They want you for it,’” Coughlan recalls. “And I said, ‘Well what does that mean?’ Thinking it was some fancy Hollywood lingo I didn’t understand.”
“And she said ‘No, no, they want you to do it. The part.” Coughlan says, laughing. “I didn’t know what to say! I was confused, more than excited, because I didn’t know how I would get it after one audition, it was so genuinely unexpected.”
Coughlan was the first actor cast in the production, which meant that over the months she spent ferrying back and forth to wardrobe fittings and screen tests, she saw the arc of this phenomenally successful Netflix series take shape. She chats to Vogue about loving her character Penelope, costume fittings and the “ace detectives” otherwise known as Bridgerton superfans.
That audition process—how did you feel after going through that?
NICOLA COUGHLAN: “You think about Shondaland and Shonda Rhimes being the most powerful woman in television—well, when I met Chris van Dusen, our showrunner, he said Shonda and I saw your tape and she turned to me and said ‘It has to be her.’ All of those things make it very hard for me to even believe that it actually happened. Even though I’ve made the show, and I’ve seen the show, and I know that it did happen! But it’s real pinch yourself territory for sure.”
Is it true that Shondaland is a fan of Derry Girls?
“That’s a show that, as well as Bridgerton, has been a joy to make and be involved in. They’re both things that if I weren’t in them—I’d be jealous! Chris told me that Shondaland had used Derry Girls as a reference for how well to introduce a world and characters. It’s lovely to have been part of things that have inspired people and touched their lives.”
How much did you know about the book series and your character Penelope before you got the role?
“It was funny because getting the role was so unexpected and I didn’t do a huge amount of research—that came after the fact. That’s when I looked up the fan blogs. I’m a real online creeper where I’ll try to find out information and what people think. And the more I read I realised that Penelope is this really beloved character. The books have been around for 20 years and Penelope has lived in a lot of people’s lives for so long. Then I instantly felt that this was pressure and I don’t want to let the fans down because she really means something to them… There are some huge Bridgerton fans online, let me tell you. And they follow our every move. They honestly know things before we know them. They figured out every filming location we were in, they figured out costumes, they linked storylines together. They’re like, ace detectives. It’s incredible.”
What did you love about Penelope?
“She’s fascinating, because there’s so many different sides of her. She’s very naive and shy and not ready to debut in society. Her sisters are thick as thieves, and she’s not in that group. And her mum really judges her and her dad ignores her. But then you see this totally other side of her with Eloise, her best friend, where you see that she is this sparky girl with opinions, but she can’t be like that all the time… As an actor, it’s just a complete treat, because she’s so many things. She’s not good, she’s not bad. She’s a mix of everything.”
How do you feel about the colour yellow now? Is it ruined forever for you?
“That’s really funny that you say that, because my costume fittings started a few months before we began filming, and then I found myself going out and buying a lot of yellow… The dresses were so ridiculously over the top, but I thought they were beautiful! I was dressed like a Christmas cake every day, it was wonderful.”
Did you enjoy wearing the period costumes?
“I didn’t realise—my very first fitting, my agent said can you go in for a fitting today. And I said yeah, I’ve got about half an hour here. And she said no, they need you for four hours! And normally costume fittings are like, they measure the basics and off you go. Try on this jacket, you know? That’s when I started to realise what the scale of the project was going to be. Everything was made from scratch, it was all hand-embellished, there was a jeweller on site. They literally filled a full warehouse full of fresh new clothing. Everything was so beautiful and it was a real feast for the eyes.”
Are you a period drama fan in general?
“As an actor I feel like I always want to do everything so I watch everything. I’m such a mad, avid TV watcher. But what you want to do as an actor as well is just play make believe, too. So getting to do something like this—you feel like you’re in the past. You’re in these ballrooms with carriages and princes, and it feels like magic.”
Written by Hannah-Rose Yee
Published January 31, 2021