Kim Kardashian is a big fan of Nicola Coughlan. There are the tweets to prove it – an abundance of them. The 35-year-old Coughlan, who is from Galway in Ireland, is best known as Bridgerton’s Penelope Featherington, who was outed as the gossipmonger Lady Whistledown in the first season of the Regency spectacular. And ‘I am freaking out!!’ was Kardashian’s reaction to the revelation that her family served as a ‘massive inspiration’ to the arriviste Featheringtons; then came the news that Kardashian and Coughlan were united by the same corset maker. So there’s just a single degree of separation between the two mistresses of society.
‘It’s crazy to think that something you made has been seen by that many people in the world. It’s quite mind-blowing,’ says Coughlan. Indeed it is: the Duchess of Cambridge is also rumoured to be a fan. ‘We share a birthday, actually,’ she chuckles.
Coughlan couldn’t believe it when Bridgerton producer Shonda Rhimes – the undisputed Royal Highness of American TV, who has a nine-figure Netflix contract – chose her for the role of Penelope after a single interview. No doubt her star turn as Clare Devlin, a ‘nervous teenager’ in Derry Girls, helped.
And if Coughlan channelled Girls Aloud’s Nadine Coyle to get the right accent for Derry Girls, getting the correct, clipped Queen’s English notes for the high-society Penelope was somewhat easier: ‘I’ve actually been doing some form of an RP accent since I was, like, 14; I used to mimic them from the television, I’d sort of just be parroting as I watched’.
Coughlan, self-deprecating, funny and articulate, adores the gossipy realms of showbiz and isn’t averse to a red-carpet story. ‘I feel people perceive gossip as a negative thing and I don’t think it always is,’ she says, eyes twinkling. ‘I think there can be a lot of joy to be had when two people get together and you’re like, “Oh, that’s so exciting”, or when friends get a new acting job and it has to be secret for a while – that’s all positive stuff’.
What about gossip in the media? ‘It’s funny when you’re on the other side of things,’ she reflects. ‘But you can’t fight every battle and sometimes you just have to go with the flow.’ When it comes to scrutiny, especially with regards to social media, the key, says Coughlan, is being ‘authentically yourself ’. ‘I reassess my relationship with it all the time,’ she says, ‘because things are very different from when you have 800 followers to a million. You have to realise that your words have weight, and a lot of people will see them. It’s not just a random opinion about something, it might get taken very seriously.’
It doesn’t get more serious: she is, at the time of writing, brandished across a bill-board in Times Square as Penelope; she’s signed up to at least season four of Bridgerton (which will centre on her own love story, entitled Romancing Mister Bridgerton), and she’s co-written a critically acclaimed podcast, Whistle through the Shamrocks (which stars her on-screen dad, Ben Miller – aka Lord Featherington – among others). She’d love to return to the theatre soon (‘I don’t know whether it’s right or not, but I certainly judge actors on their ability on the stage because I think it’s such an important foundation and it’s almost like a completely different skill set,’ she says).
Coughlan isn’t afraid to speak her mind: in December she called for the PM’s resignation following that first incendiary Downing Street garden ‘cheese and wine’ photograph (and prior to any Christmas party allegations). ‘Yeah, I just think that if I was talking to little kids, and you see someone that’s maybe not telling the truth, you just say, “Well, you know, you have to own up for your actions.” I think it’s a good lesson; I think if I was misbehaving on the set of Bridgerton they’d probably tell me to go, too,’ she giggles mischievously.
In 2018, Coughlan wrote an article for The Guardian calling out a critic who called her an ‘overweight little girl’, in a review of her performance as a radicalised 12-year- old in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie at the Donmar Warehouse. ‘I was like, that wasn’t relevant. In a way, my point with that article was that it actually shouldn’t be important, unless it’s within the script. I know the world is very body-image-obsessed but I always hope that people will focus more on my acting than that. I also think your relationship to your body is so personal. If I decide to suddenly become a bodybuilder and [apply] fake tan and be covered in muscle, I can do that – because it’s my body and it’s for nobody else to own or decide what to do with.’ Yet Coughlan eschews the idea of her being a poster girl for body positivity: ‘It’s always my wish that I will not become known as a body positivity influencer and I’ll just be known as an actor.’ Deservedly so: Coughlan is a major player.
Written by Annabel Sampson
Published March 3, 2022