We’re beginning at an ending. When I meet Nicola Coughlan, she’s on a schedule: a couple of hours with me, then she’s straight on to catch a plane back to the set of Derry Girls, where she will shoot her final scenes. The beloved Channel 4 sitcom made her name, and still clearly has a hold on her heart. ‘I always find it hard to explain to people about playing characters, that they feel like your friends,’ she says, ‘and I’ve been paying Clare now for five years. So it’s like saying goodbye to a friend I know I’ll never see again.’
If it’s playing on her mind, though, you’d never be able to tell. She’s the perfect lunch date: instantly, effusively warm, bringing an absolutely top-tier accessories game (would it have been so wrong to have ‘accidentally’ left with her Chanel bag, I now wonder), and very happy to point out interesting things happening around us on the top floor of London’s Shoreditch House. ‘There are two people absolutely sucking face behind you,’ she says at one point. ‘You have to look, you have to look.’ We watch the display of ardent affection for a moment or two. ‘Aw, they’re having a nice time,’ she says, happily.
And of course, as well as endings, other things are just around the corner. She – like the approximately 82 million viewers of the original series – is waiting for the arrival of Bridgerton season two. The difference between now and Christmas 2020, when the first series aired, is that then it was just an interesting-looking trailer with the name of uber-producer Shonda Rhimes attached. Now, it’s a global phenomenon. And the fact that, at the end of series one (spoilers ahead, though if 82 million people have watched it and you haven’t, perhaps it’s time to get involved), it was revealed that the enigmatic Lady Whistledown – the acid-nibbed diarist who chronicles the comings and goings of London society for her clamouring readers – is none other than wallflower Penelope Featherington, as played by Nicola Coughlan. So now not only is she part of one of the biggest shows on Earth, she’s also its central axis: the point around which all the other plotlines turn.
‘Oh, you’re going to love it,’ she says. ‘I came back [from Derry, where she was filming Derry Girls] to watch a screening of episode one with the cast. And at the end we were shouting and cheering and jumping up out of our seats. Which doesn’t happen. But it was like, Oh, this is even better.’
It’s hard to remember now what a glorious surprise Bridgerton was when it arrived just over a year ago. Even readers of the eight-part novel series by Julia Quinn (which are fun, funny, quasi-feminst Regency romances, each centring on the self-actualisation – and, more importantly, the love life – of one of the eight Bridgerton siblings), or fans of Shonda Rhimes (responsible for Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal) couldn’t have predicted the explosion of melodrama, seduction, saturated colour palettes, fake flowers, smoking-hot sex scenes and frankly amazing wigs that detonated in our lives in that first long winter of the pandemic, at once utterly sincere and brilliantly self-aware. In the UK, it began streaming less than a week after we’d all been sent into our third lockdown and Christmas had been cancelled. And we all fell on it like the box of delicious treats it was.
‘I was like, OK, great. People are watching,’ Coughlan says of her experience of that time. ‘And then it was like, It’s number one in Turkey. It’s number one in Canada. Number one in the US. I started compiling a list just to try to make it real in my head. And then it was like, It’s the biggest show that’s ever been on Netflix, 80 million people, and it’s like, What? It just was surreal.’
Did she have any inkling what was to come? ‘I didn’t think it was going to be the biggest show on Netflix, I didn’t think that level,’ she says. ‘But I had lunch with Phoebe [Dynevor, who plays Daphne Bridgerton, the focus of much of series one] maybe about two months before it came out. And I said, “I think your life’s going to change.” And she was like, ‘No, I don’t know. I’ve done things before that people thought was going to be huge and it hasn’t worked out.” But I just had that instinct about it.’
And now she’s locked in – for as long as Bridgerton keeps rolling, presumably the wheels of Lady Whistledown’s carriage will too. As well as that (more spoilers here), her love life is the focus of one of the novels – the thus-far platonic connection between Penelope and Colin Bridgerton is well- established, but in the book series they become (much) more than friends – so she’ll get her own steamy sex scenes to rival the Duke of Hastings and Daphne in the library (or in the folly, or on the desk, or on the stairs or, oh if you must, in bed).
‘Oh god, yes, it’s going to happen! We [she and Luke Newton, who plays Colin] used to joke about it, really inappropriate jokes, like, “Wouldn’t it be funny if we did this when we do it?” And then as time goes on it becomes more real. Now it’s not funny anymore! Everyone’s like, “You’re going to have to kiss Luke! On the lips!”’
Does she know how long she’s got until she has to face the music, so to speak? ‘I do. I do know. I’ve been told. Yeah.’ She presses her lips together and widens her eyes, the perfect picture of someone very well acquainted with the non-disclosure clauses in her contract.
Of course, alongside the joy of being part of a show loved around the world, there is also the life-altering aspect of suddenly becoming incredibly famous. (Right on cue, a young man stops by our table to tell Nicola he ‘loves’ Bridgerton.) ‘Being famous is like being a dog on the Tube,’ she says. ‘It’s exactly the same energy. When you get on, everyone looks at you. Some people are so smiley, while some are afraid of you and don’t want to go near. Some people touch you without asking. I can still do the things I want to do, obviously, but it is different.
‘I went to the pub with my friend a while back and it was like being an animal at the zoo. People just watching and looking. And I remember one time I was taking my Invisalign [brace] out, and this person was staring me right in the eyes, which was quite weird. But, honestly, most people are so, so lovely.’
If that seems like an almost ludicrously well-balanced answer for someone who has gone from relative obscurity to sky-high recognisability, with a short-pit stop at medium-sized British sitcom levels of fame, that seems to be how Coughlan rolls. At 34, she’s older than the characters she plays, has experience of ups and downs, including a period working part-time in an optician back at home in Galway while still trying to make it as an actor and, probably most importantly, knows why she does the job she does.
‘I do think it feels like real-life magic,’ she says. ‘I used to be obsessed with The Wizard of Oz. And I’d watch it – and I was only four, so I didn’t know what it was – but I was like, I want that. I don’t know what that is. But I want to do that.’ And that feeling is clearly still in her. ‘On set there’s the moment when they call for quiet just before rolling. And everyone there is silent. There’s something about that I just love. And then on Bridgerton, walking into a ballroom, with hundreds of extras, all in custom-made clothes and the wigs and hair, it does feel like being transported back in time. It gives me joy, genuinely.
‘Whenever people say they want to get into this industry, I’m like, you’ve got to want it so badly. Because if you don’t, you’d be mad to do it, absolutely mad. I barely saw my family last year because of filming. There’s a lot of sacrifices to be made. In my twenties, I never went on holiday. I was so broke. So I never want to sell people this ideal that it’s all wonderful and fun. It’s hard work. But it’s amazing. I wouldn’t do anything else.’ At her heart, it seems, Coughlan was and remains a pure enthusiast. She overflows with love for everyone from Lin-Manuel Miranda (he recorded a question for her Ask Me Anything video that she shot for ELLE.com/uk – ‘I started crying when I saw it,’ she says) to her tiny London flat (‘I live in a literal shoe box’). You can’t come away from a conversation with her without a list of new podcasts to listen to (start with Dead Eyes), TV programmes to watch (anything with the words ‘Real Housewives’ in the title), Instagram accounts to follow (@bigdirtyfry, which does a daily round up of the best Tweets of the day, so you don’t have to go on the site yourself, ‘Because if Twitter was a party, I would leave’).
You can see why she attracts people – why she’s DM buddies with Kim Kardashian, and how she achieved what so many of us dream of: becoming actual best friends with Jonathan Van Ness. ‘Queer Eye had just come out and I had a hoodie made with his face on it,’ she says. ‘I put it on Instagram, and he saw it and sent me a message. Even then, he was still working in a salon in LA and they didn’t know [if the show was going to be a success]. He said that seeing someone on the other side of the world with his face on something made it feel real. And then we met up in New York in 2018 and just hit it off. We’re very similar. We exist on the same plane.’
As a good person who likes good people, it’s not surprising that Coughlan’s plans for the future focus most on good experiences. ‘I just want to work with people who are considerate and open and just love what they do and want to make great things,’ she says. ‘I have an allergy to difficult people. I’ve literally had stress rash from them. But I think a lot of it comes from real toxic masculinity. I met a young actor recently who had been filming a show, and he said that [when the director called “action”] the main actor actually threw a chair across the room into a bunch of extras. He was like, “It was amazing, because it’s what he needed to get into the scene.” And I was like, “It’s a pile of sh*t.”’
‘I think television – not just television, the world – has been so male-centric for so long. And, like with anything, we just want something refreshing and new – let’s just try that. But I get so much of, “Oh, my wife likes that.”’ But 82 million people is an awful lot of wives, and Bridgerton, with its centring of female pleasure and perspective, is certainly not old-school. Sometimes things that divert us change the world just as much as things that depress us.
For now, though, time’s ticking on and there are things to do: Derry Girls to finish, goodbyes to say, an epic American holiday to go on (New York, Texas, Hawaii, New York again, catching up with JVN high on the itinerary), more writing, perhaps (she co-wrote her first podcast, Whistle Through The Shamrocks – a very funny send-up of Irish drama tropes – with her friend from drama school, playwright Camilla Whitehill, last year), and making good things happen – both in the dreamy world of Bridgerton and in the here and now. This is only the beginning.
Written by Alice Wignall
Published January 28, 2022