“I have a nice list,” declares Nicola Coughlan. She pauses, perhaps to catch her breath at the end of another mile-a-minute answer, or perhaps for dramatic effect. “Of celebrities!” The disclosure comes somewhat out of nowhere, 40 minutes into our Friday-afternoon interview on Zoom. I’d asked the star of Derry Girls and Bridgerton about her public love-in with Kim Kardashian – not the tabs she’s been keeping, privately, on her new famous friends.
In fact, Coughlan explains, “ideally” her nice list is of names she hasn’t met herself. “People are always going to be nice to you, aren’t they? This has to be evidence from several sources that they’re nice.”
Margot Robbie is on it: “I’ve heard wonderful things about her.” So’s Kardashian – “my bestie Kim”, Coughlan jokes, who in fact sent her the shearling hoodie she’s wearing now. “And there was someone else…”
Coughlan can’t remember. But, she tells me, she’s adding to it all the time.
What about a naughty list, I ask.
“Oh, yeah, that’s incredibly long,” she says immediately. “But everyone wants to know who’s awful. Don’t you want to know who’s nice?”
Coughlan welcomes me into her London flat as if I’m an old friend, apologising for “being the world’s messiest bastard”, her robot vacuum cleaner fighting a losing battle against the chaos not quite concealed behind her. She turns her camera to show me three half-unpacked suitcases: “Like, what university fresher lives in this?” (She’s 35, but easily could pass for early 20s.)
Coughlan has just returned home after a month-long “mega-hol”, split between work and play in New York, Austin and Hawaii. Next week she’ll be going back to New York, with the third and final season of Derry Girls due later this year, and Bridgerton returning to Netflix in March.
Shonda Rhimes’s spin on the Regency England marriage market was, until recently, Netflix’s biggest-ever original, watched by 82m households in early 2021. (It’s since been overtaken by Squid Game.) At the time, Coughlan points out, spirits needed lifting with candy-coloured costumes and uncomplicated plots. “It was such an escape, and unapologetically joyful – there’s no cynicism to it. I love a dark, moody drama as much as the next person, but there was a real gap for something like Bridgerton.” That said, she adds: “We certainly didn’t think it was going to be the No 1 show on Netflix… How do you process that? You don’t, I think, is the answer.”
Skip the next few paragraphs to avoid spoilers for the season one finale – although such is the industrial internet Bridgerton complex that you’ll have been hard-pressed to avoid them already. The show concluded on a cliffhanger, with the Gossip Girl-esque society columnist Lady Whistledown (narrated by Julie Andrews) revealed as Coughlan’s character, the bookish Penelope Featherington.
Coughlan knew from the start, but had to be careful not to give the game away with her performance. “It had to be very subtle,” she says. “Selfishly, as an actor, I got to have so much fun – there was so much more given to me this time that I could play with.” Indeed, it’s a win for wallflowers everywhere: the bookish, always-the-bridesmaid type is shown to be the linchpin of the plot, with hidden riches and all of polite society in her thrall. Who cares if she gets the guy?
There are parallels between Coughlan and her character, I suggest: an outsider on the A-list, a self-styled infiltrator of the elite, reporting back on the powerful and privileged to an eager public. Coughlan often shares her own star-struck encounters with her 1.3m Instagram followers (and a further 300,000 on Twitter).
But pride comes before a fall for Penelope, Coughlan hints: “She’s sort of letting herself run away with it.”
Part of what makes Coughlan so engaging on social media is that she’s excited by other people’s celebrity and unfazed by her own. She and Queer Eye’s Jonathan Van Ness became friends after she made a hoodie with his face on it. She and Kim Kardashian struck up a correspondence late last year after Coughlan revealed on Twitter that the Kardashians were the basis for the Featherington clan in Bridgerton. (“WHAT?!?! I am freaking out!!!!!!” responded Kim.)
Coughlan has not only met her heroes, but won their acclaim: “RuPaul told me I was funny, so I can die happy now.” Saturday Night Live’s Kate McKinnon said she was her favourite Derry Girl, “and I’m sorry to the others, but I’m not going to not tell people that”.
Many might have lost themselves in an ascent as rapid as her. But Coughlan says it’s the opposite – she has not been part of this world long enough to take it for granted. “Literally, I was working part-time in an optician’s five years ago. So for me, if anyone is tuning in, if anyone makes a connection to me – that’s amazing…All my life, I feel like I’m a competition winner. Like – how did I end up here?”
Coughlan’s childhood in Galway was nothing like Derry Girls. She also had little in common with Clare, the anxious “wee lesbian” she plays. “I had these grand notions that I wanted to go off and be an actor… I was always roping my friends into making my own movies and plays.”
She scored her first job at age nine, as “Little Girl Feeding Swans” in an action thriller named My Brother’s War. She would have abandoned school right then, had her parents entertained the notion; as it was, Coughlan went on to do a foundation course at Oxford School of Drama before finally starting at Birmingham School of Acting.
In acting, she found an effortless, obvious outlet for her lifelong exuberance and sensitivity. “It fed my soul. It just felt so right… Like when people meet their soulmate: you just know.” But she was not prepared for the reality of being an actor.
Just before graduating in 2011, students were made to come up with a “business plan” for acting success. It was a sobering moment for Coughlan, then 24. “I remember looking at it like: ‘This is bollocks, this makes no sense.’ I don’t come from money; I have to work a full-time job; how do I go to an audition with a full-time job? All of it hit me.”
The years after drama school were “horrific”, Coughlan says, a test of not just her love for acting, but her livelihood. For nearly a year, she did not audition at all. “I was desperately trying to be proactive, but it’s just oversubscribed.”
With the odds against her, she fell into depression. “It was horrendous. I was in a really bad place. There’s a lot put on people to make it overnight, and Derry Girls, in a sense, was an overnight success – but I’d got my first job at nine years old,” she says. “It was really a long time for me.”
In four years, Coughlan moved to London three times, then back in with her parents in Galway. “I just felt like the worst failure in the world, like I’d wasted time. I was pitying myself: ‘Why did you think you could do this?’”
She had no savings, and often no money. “That’s not an exaggeration: my bank account was dry.” She was also in debt, having taken out a loan to pay for drama school. “I say all the time: ‘Yes, money doesn’t make you happy’ – but unless you’ve been really broke, you don’t know the stress, how it takes up all of your time, and sucks the joy,” says Coughlan. “I still get scared to check my bank account, I still have that fear in me. It’s not that long ago that I couldn’t afford a cup of coffee.” She found a job working two days a week at an optician’s and remained there for 18 months, practising her autograph on appointment letters.
Her break, when it came, could not have been more serendipitous: she responded to an open casting call posted on Twitter, then landed the part of Jess in Jess and Joe Forever at the Old Vic.
Coughlan’s colleagues at the opticians farewelled her with macarons, prosecco and a card reading “Goodbye and Good Luck”. “I remember saying to myself: I’m never going to have a normal job again,” says Coughlan. She still refers to a photo from her last day at the opticians as a reminder of how far she’s come. As sliding-door moments go, she knows that she just slipped through. “It’s so rare that someone actually gets to do this as a job… Everything I’m ever doing, I think: ‘Imagine if that hadn’t happened.’”
Five years later, Coughlan has two hit shows and transatlantic name recognition. Derry Girls was a surprise hit for Netflix in the US, with no marketing and hyper-local humour – proof, to Coughlan, of a universal truth: “that teenage girls can be fucking hilarious”.
Now, Coughlan’s celebrity sheen – one of Vogue’s best-dressed women of 2021, with an access most-areas pass in Hollywood – is tempered by her novelty as a “small Irish acting person”, to quote her Twitter bio. She’s easy to root for as the gal from Galway, infiltrating the A-list. She tells me about crashing Elton John’s Oscars party in February 2020, hosted by Van Ness. “We took our own pictures on the red carpet because no one was gonna take pictures of us… We were pissing ourselves laughing, like this is the funniest thing. I compare it to being like that really old aunt at a wedding, who’s very happy to get an invite.”
But as excitable as Coughlan is about others’ celebrity, she is more ambivalent about her own. She recently likened the experience of being famous to being a dog on the Tube. She has “an important addendum” when I bring it up now: “Some people hate dogs.”
The sheer size of her following has forced her to revisit her relationship with social media. Last month, Coughlan posted a mirror selfie to Instagram and Twitter, above a heartfelt request: “If you have an opinion about my body please, please don’t share it with me… It’s really hard to take the weight of thousands of opinions on how you look being sent directly to you every day.”
Coughlan had considered the post for a while, she says, motivated not so much by criticism of her appearance, but by the scrutiny. “I’m not naive enough to think I can change trolls; it was more people just offering comments that they felt were fine. But, actually, that’s worse to me.”
She’s reluctant to share specifics, if only so as not to extend the hurt. “It’s just the language that’s used around women’s bodies – words have meaning. If you’re saying specific things about how someone looks, you can say, ‘This is just a word’ – sure, but it’s not to me.”
Her post was friendly and firm, with comments turned off so as to make clear she was not inviting a dialogue – and Coughlan says she has noticed the difference in discussion since. But it is telling that her polite request for respect was written up as a celebrity clapback, and her boundaries ignored to make a broader point about body positivity. Coughlan’s mum saw the headlines and called her, concerned her daughter was under siege.
“Like, ‘She slams critics! She drops the mic! Thank you for speaking out!’ – but no,” says Coughlan, “that was literally, selfishly about me as a human… It was misconstrued by a lot of people as me ‘taking down the haters’. Nope: this is me trying to tell you directly how I feel. I don’t mean it in a mean way; I’m just saying I would prefer this way going forward.”
It is not the first time in Coughlan’s relatively short career that she has had to counter scrutiny of her body: in 2018, she sought (and received) an apology from the British Theatre Guide over its male critic’s attention to her weight. But, though she is an active feminist, she is wary of being painted as a trailblazer of body positivity. Her wish, Coughlan says, is for attention to be focused on her acting.
“I don’t want people to think that they own that part of me,” she says. “If I want to turn around and become a hench-ass bodybuilder, if I want to shave my head or cover myself in tattoos, I’m going to do that… If I had a role to play, like, an Olympic gymnast, I will alter my body for that part, if that’s the part I want to play.”
She’s likewise stepped back from Twitter, finding herself “bored by the lack of nuance” and “sanctimonious responses to jokes.” She likens social media to a classroom of kids, joking around, jostling for popularity. “When you become a known person, you’re like the weird teacher saying, ‘I’m still in on the joke!’ And they go: ‘You’re not any more. Actually, all this stuff is wrong with you.’ Most people are not trying to be cruel, and I would hate to completely shut down that dialogue. But your mental health has to come first.”
It reflects Coughlan’s reckoning with her new status as an insider, not an everywoman – of coming to terms with her cachet and considering how to spend it. She takes none of it for granted, though Bridgerton has been confirmed for at least two further series. “I’ve heard young actors talk about buying sports cars and I just think, ‘Oh Jesus Christ please don’t.’ You just think: nothing is guaranteed.” She models herself after Judi Dench, who’s said she’s just glad to still be working.
Coughlan is even grateful, now, for her slow start. “I’ve seen it go the other way, where people get amazing opportunities really young and they are full, wide awake nightmares” – which returns us to her naughty list.
“There’s lots of terrible people, of course,” she says, cheerily.
Name me one, I say. Coughlan pauses, and for a moment – convinced that she’s a competition winner and I’m her best friend – I think she will. Then she affects a lofty voice and regal bearing, befitting of Lady Whistledown. “They will out themselves in time,” she declares, nose comically upturned. “I hope. I hope and pray.” Then she dissolves into giggles.
Written by Elle Hunt
Published February 27, 2022