Ten years ago, Nicola Coughlan was 25 years old, about a year out of drama school and working in a shop in the very touristy area of London called Covent Garden, selling soap. Yes, soap. She was trying to find work as an actor, but things were not going very well.
“[Things were] quite a bit different back then!” says Coughlan, the breakout star of Derry Girls and a returning co-star of Bridgerton, where she plays Penelope Featherington, who, as we all know by now, moonlights as anonymous gossip columnist Lady Whistledown.
“Now, it’s a bit of a mix,” she says. “I get outright offers, but then I still audition. It’s not like, ‘Here, have everything you want.’ And that’s good to still have the hunger for parts and the desire to fight for a role you want. It happened just the other day. And there’s no ‘making it’ in this industry. You’re only as good as your last job. And I will always want to be making my own opportunities.”
This go-get-’em attitude is something Coughlan clearly shares with Penelope and her alter-ego author. Just as we see Lady Whistledown flourish in season two despite the stakes getting higher, Coughlan, even during a pandemic and national lockdown, wrote, pitched, and cast a podcast with playwright Camilla Whitehill, Whistle Through the Shamrocks.
“You never want to rest on your laurels,” she says.
But fame has been a weird beast to tame for Coughlan. As the Bridgerton fandom has grown, so has her status and, naturally, her online presence. She’s careful about what she posts on social media in a way she didn’t have to be before, and she really does want to use her platform for good. But that has brought some unwanted attention, regardless of whether the people giving it think they’re being nice or are intentionally being mean.
“No one ever believes me,” says Coughlan, “but I am not a bossy potty … a bozzee positee … a body positivity activist. I can’t even say it! I am not. And I never want to be. I always say, if I am going to play a gymnast, that will require me to change my body completely. So, if the main thing you look at me and admire me for is my body, I do find that disappointing. That was never my desire growing up. I’m an actor. And I worked really freaking hard to get where I am.” It seems women’s struggles of a century ago are not all that far off from the struggles we’re still facing today, huh?
After our introduction to Peneloise last year on Bridgerton season one, here we get to know Coughlan a bit better on her own. She tells us what to expect from her character(s) — without any spoilers, we promise — how friendship both inside and outside of Bridgerton is of the utmost importance, and about that will-they-or-won’t-they relationship between Colin and Pen.
VALENTINA VALENTINI: What is Penelope struggling with this season, and what is she flourishing with?
NICOLA COUGHLAN: She’s in a weird position in that when we see her at the very beginning of the show, you might think that she’s the same girl that we met last season. But you quickly realize that you’re going to see behind the curtain. In the opening scene, even, you see a whole other side to her that you’ve never seen before, and you find out how she’s getting away with what she’s getting away with. It’s an interesting time for Pen because in season one, she was this really shy girl who was accumulating all this power. In season two, you find that she’s relishing in that power a little bit, and you see it bleed into her every day. She’s still that wallflower, but Whistledown pokes through more, and there are moments where the lines get blurred. It was really fun to play that.
VV: Her arc is quite a large one this season too.
NC: She definitely grows up from episodes one to episode eight. She’s still the same Penelope, but she’s maturing and realizing the weight of her actions. As she should be doing.
VV: And what about when it comes to her most important relationship — Peneloise?
NC: There’s a real push and pull between Eloise and Penelope this time around. Eloise is out on the London season, which should be great news for Penelope, did she not have this secret double life and a job she needed to do. It was even funny for me filming the ballroom scenes with Claudia [Jessie], which I personally was looking forward to, having a buddy there for those long ballroom filming days. But what I would normally do as Penelope in those scenes — quietly observing, listening into others’ conversations — I realized I couldn’t because Eloise is literally right there. And she is a big talker, so when I, as Penelope, am trying to hear the gossip, it was like, “Oh, yes. This is going to create some tension,” because Eloise would be ruining her job a little bit.
VV: Without giving anything away, you’re required to use your native accent from Ireland in this season, aren’t you?
NC: It was really funny when I got the scripts, and it said, “Penelope speaks in a perfect Irish accent.” I’m from Galway, which even sometimes people say I don’t sound Irish enough. But when I do this accent, it’s more of a Dub [Dublin accent]. Me and Jane Karen, the amazing dialect coach we have on set, talked through it, and there were a lot of Irish people who were servants at that time in London, coming right over from the east coast of Ireland, the Dublin side. And maybe this accent came from someone who’d been kind to her when she was a kid. I feel like she would have gotten kindness from that person rather than from her family, who are quite acerbic. That was our self-developed backstory for how she has this accent. Also, Penelope listens to everything, and that’s one of the big parts of learning accents as an actor, is just listening. Her very unofficial name was Bridget Bridgerton. It was definitely not sanctioned by anyone, but that’s what I called her because I thought she might want to be a Bridgerton.
VV: The Penelope and Colin saga is ever continuing, and ever frustrating. How much can you tell us about what’s going on there?
NC: At the end of season one, we see Colin leaving to go off on his travels. When he returns in season two, there’s such a sweet moment I think we all can relate to that shows this unrequited, first big crush type of love that you have. It’s just so all-consuming. The relationship has progressed from when we last saw them as they’ve become pen pals. I really love that because I always think of Penelope as a real, true writer. She’s so reserved and quiet on the outside, but she has all these voices in her head, she remembers everything, and she can be so witty in her writing even as she struggles to do it in person. I love that they’ve gotten to know each other a little better through writing to one another. So, when he comes back, they’re closer than they were. The relationship has definitely stepped up a level, but he’s still very much in his head about Marina. And more importantly, there’s an imbalance because she just reveres him. If you’re going to ever have a relationship with someone, you can’t be like, “Well, he’s a god, and I’m trash.”
VV: How are you feeling about Penelope’s wardrobe this season?
NC: There’s still a lot of citrus [laughs]. They had talked about phasing out the citrus and going more pink. Which, clearly, I love pink, as I’m wearing all pink right now. But it’s so interesting to do this show knowing that Penelope’s love story will happen one day and she’ll blossom into something. So, I think they just decided, “Yeah, no, we need to keep her in the citruses for a little bit longer.” So, Sophie Canale, our costume designer this time [she was also the assistant costume designer for season one], gave Penelope a much more refined look. In the first few episodes, there are still some big hair accessories and fussy curls, lots of embellishments on the dresses, and then it gets less and less as the season goes on. And you know, Portia Featherington is putting her attention much more on Prudence, so Penelope is kind of like, “Okay, you’re not paying attention to me; there are not as many housemaids sticking hot things in my hair to make it crazy. So, I’ll look a bit more refined and a bit more myself.” You really do see her progression to becoming a young woman.
“You really do see Penelope progression to becoming a young woman.”
VV: You were an integral part of the story line last season but are even more so this season. There’s a little bit more pressure on you, perhaps? Did you feel that going into filming season two as opposed to season one?
NC: A lot of people have asked that, like, “God, you must have felt the pressure now that it’s so successful.” But I think because it had all happened during Covid and we didn’t see one another, so we never got to celebrate the show, we were just excited to get back on set and see each other again. I don’t think I felt that pressure. We also had to be super-strict because of Covid. Like, I had no social life. I did not want to shut down production! It was all quite surreal, the first day back. We did a rehearsal in the Bridgertons’ drawing room, and it really felt like the set of Bridgerton the TV show rather than the place that we’d worked. It had just been so long, almost a year since we’d been there. But you can’t take in the enormity of it when you’re on set and there to do your job. All that needs to go out the window; you need to focus on the character.
VV: Friendship is a big theme this season, with your friendships with Colin and Eloise going through some changes. Do you have some ride-or-dies in your life?
NC: Very much so. My friends are super-important to me. I have my best friends from home who I’ve had since I was a kid. I’ve known Maeve since I was 7 years old, and she’s like my Eloise — we were joined at the hip. Though I was much more of the Eloise, chatting at her all the time. Then I have my friends I met at drama school, [including] my friend Camilla. I ended up writing my podcast with her, and that was really fun. And then Jonathan Van Ness has become one of my closest friends as well. And people I have worked with on Bridgerton — Claudia has become one of my closest friends, and she’s just so hilarious, so smart. It’s probably the Penelope approach of making friends with people that are funnier and smarter than you because then you want to level up.
VV: Have any of your friendships changed because of your career trajectory over the last two years?
NC: The friends who were my closest friends before are still my closest friends. But fame, or whatever you want to call it, is a strange thing. It can be isolating, and it might change certain people around you, but then you’re like, “Well, they were never my friend to begin with.”
But I think anyone will tell you that fame doesn’t change who you are; it changes how people react to you. I’m still the same person, but then sometimes there’s someone who doesn’t know me that well who suddenly really wants to hang out, and I’m like, “You did not care about me before! I was nothing to you.”
VV: Derry Girls is coming to an end. And actually, that is a weird twist of circumstances because the third season was delayed in production for three years. What’s it like going back to that and then having to say goodbye to that?
NC: I was so scared that I wasn’t going to be able to film both [Bridgerton and Derry Girls]. And I got worried that people will say that I didn’t want to do it. Like, “Oh, you’ve done Bridgerton now, and you don’t want to go back.” And that was so not the case. They are like my children; I really care for them both, and I want to give them both attention! But it was so difficult to balance it out. And I’m not just saying this to say it, but Shondaland was amazing at helping to sort it out, and some clever things had to be done to the Derry Girls scripts in order for it to work, but they really pushed for me.
VV: That must’ve been such a weird overlap.
NC: It was bizarre. We were three years between season two and three of Derry Girls; I’d already filmed two seasons of Bridgerton between that, so my life, like, really, really changed. I had this fear of going back and not knowing how to play this character anymore. The decisions I made about her back in 2017, were they still going to be something I knew how to do in 2021? And it was such a quick turnaround. I filmed the final scene of Bridgerton, and we wrapped at like 5 a.m. on a Friday. I went home, packed, flew on the Saturday, and arrived in Belfast. On Sunday, I was in wig and costume fittings, and on Monday, I was on set. It was, like, so stressful. And I just kept going, “What if I have no idea what to do?!” But I didn’t really have enough time to freak out about it. I just went and did it.
VV: You had a moment recently on social media where you asked people to stop commenting on your body — good, bad, didn’t matter; you just wanted them to stop. What was it like having that viral moment?
NC: It’s a wild thing. I’d thought about writing that for a while. I don’t post on social media impulsively — because that would be a crazy thing to do — so I had thought about it. But people are always going to take their own perceptions of whatever you say. It doesn’t matter if you say, “I love the color blue.” People are like, “Well, you mean purple-blue? Or do you mean blue because you’re sad? Is blue connected to the sea?” That’s just how it is. And, look, I didn’t think I was going to change trolls. I didn’t think I was going to stop people from writing mean things, that some terrible troll was gonna go, “You know what? I was going to tell her she’s disgusting, but, no, I won’t today!” It’s just such a difficult thing to talk about because body positivity is amazing and whatever, but then I think it’s the reclaiming of certain words. They say that a certain word isn’t an insulting word; it’s just a descriptor. And I think that, actually, it’s completely individual. If you describe me in a certain way, that does hurt me. It’s a minefield.
I went to see one of my favorite comedians in New York, Catherine Cohen, and she was like, “I’ve gained a lot of weight in the pandemic. It’s not good. It’s not bad.” You can’t win with this.
VV: Well, on a lighter note — what’s the wildest or nicest thing a Bridgerton fan has done for you?
NC: I love the fan art so much!
VV: Ah, so it hasn’t changed since the last time we talked!
NC: Well, I mean, the thing is, we haven’t been out in the wild very much. We haven’t gotten to meet the fans. The fan art is one of the very few reasons I still have Twitter. They always send such sweet stuff, and they’re so supportive. It will be lovely if we have a premiere and actually get to see people in the flesh to thank them for supporting us.
I was in Austin, Texas, on holiday with Camilla. We were in a coffee shop, and there were these teenage girls there kind of looking over. I thought they were looking at my friend Camilla because she’s 6-foot tall and covered in tattoos with bright-red hair. And I didn’t really think about it until we got out to the car and the girls had followed us and pressed up against the window, and they were squealing and waving. I was like, “Oh, God. Oh, yeah. They were looking at me.”
Written by Valentina Valentini
Published March 16, 2022