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Bridgerton’s Nicola Coughlan: Why I hate on-screen vanity, in new show Big Mood

Bridgerton and Derry Girls star Nicola Coughlan loves getting glammed up for a big event, but is adamant about looking “really bad” for her latest TV series.

That’s lucky, because for her role as budding playwright Maggie in Channel 4 dark comedy Big Mood, she looks pretty bedraggled in some scenes.

In the show, Maggie is joined at the hip with her best friend, bar owner Eddie, played by It’s a Sin star Lydia West.

But their 10-year friendship is sorely tested when Maggie’s bipolar disorder makes an unwelcome return, pitching her from manic highs to deep lows.

When she’s severely depressed, she’s unable to leave the sofa, her flat becomes a tip, and she no longer cares about her appearance.

Eddie tries to coax Maggie out of it, but this doesn’t really work – it’s far more complex.

Coughlan, who plays the coiffured Penelope Featherington in Netflix period drama Bridgerton, says it was crucial to look “ugly and messy” to play Maggie properly.

“I really hate vanity on screen,” she tells the BBC.

“I always think as actors, we have the privilege of going to red carpet events and dressing up and having glam teams.

“I’m like, ‘Do that in your own time. Don’t bring that to the show’.”

Big Mood’s writer Camilla Whitehill has been friends with Coughlan since they met at drama school 15 years ago.

“No false eyelashes. And no make-up – don’t even think about it,” Whitehill laughs, recalling what she wrote in the script notes.

Whitehill wrote the series for Coughlan – they make each laugh a lot, cementing a friendship that is clearly still going strong.

The actress explains why she thinks it’s important to be real for the cameras.

“I really feel like audiences are a lot smarter than people give them credit for,” she says.

“They can sense authenticity, and I wouldn’t be doing Camilla’s script justice, or the show as a whole justice, if I came in with a level of vanity to play Maggie.”

That made it easier to get ready for work in the morning – because she made zero effort.

“There were moments I looked at myself and thought, ‘God, I look really bad’. But I was very comfy.”

Maggie spends a fair bit of time in pyjama bottoms and slogan T-shirts, and the pair enjoyed choosing which ones she would wear.

Although there are a lot of big laughs and deeply cringeworthy moments in the series, it’s also got a serious side. We see the huge impact bipolar disorder has not only on Maggie, but those around her.

Bipolar disorder is a mental health condition that the NHS website says affects your moods, which can swing from one extreme to another. It used to be known as manic depression, and symptoms include episodes of:

• Depression – feeling very low and lethargic
• Mania – feeling very high and overactive

Coughlan spoke in 2019 about her own mental health issues, telling Glamour magazine about a period of depression when she “couldn’t get out of bed”.

She was able to get through this period with “strong support” from her family and friends, and said at the time: “We need to stop the stigma.”

Working on Big Mood was new territory, though.

“When we were reading the scripts, I was like, depression – it’s really sad. But it’s something most people can relate to. It’s awful, but that’s just the way the world is.

“But the manic episodes are something I didn’t really understand, and then imagining how it must feel for her to go from the highest of the high to the lowest of the low, how difficult that must be.”

Coughlan stresses Big Mood is about Maggie’s journey, rather than just about her illness.

“She’s just a funny woman who happens to have bipolar disorder, so it was more important to me to make her fully feel real.

“It’s quite uncomfortable because anti-psychotic medication is a lot less palatable for people to talk about. But I think Camilla’s done a brilliant job.”

Whitehill says: “It’s great the conversation around it has started, but I can’t stand the term ‘mental health’.

“You don’t talk about cancer, saying ‘physical health’. It makes no sense.

“Aside from that, it’s great we’ve encouraged conversation around things like depression or anxiety. But there are other mental illnesses and their symptoms can be not as palatable.

“If we’re going to open up the conversation, then things should be getting better for very, very unwell people in our society that we’re still not helping.”

Another key theme in the series is female friendships, something Whitehill and Coughlan know a lot about.

Maggie and Eddie adore each other, but it’s not an easy relationship. We see the love and depth of their relationship, but also that it can get messy at times.

“They love each other, but it’s too co-dependent,” says Coughlan.

Whitehill focuses the show on her age group – millennials, born from the early 1980s through to the turn of the Millennium.

“I think female friends, friendships of any kind, just deserve more representation because the impact they have on our lives are huge,” she says.

“Maybe like in the past, you got married at 22 and then you stayed really family orientated. But now friendships remain a huge part of your life, in a way that I think they didn’t used to.

“And a rift in a friendship can be as devastating or exciting as in a romantic relationship to me.”

She calls it “a fun area to write about”.

“I take my friendships very seriously. I love my friends and it’s half a love letter to friendship, and half an exploration of how tricky it can be.”

Coughlan, who recently appeared in the box office smash Barbie as Diplomat Barbie, says its success shows how important it is to put women front and centre in the arts.

“It’s bad business not to cater to a mix of people – if you look at Barbie, which made $1bn, women want to see themselves on screen.

“When people were going in their masses to see it and wearing pink, it’s not just that we love movies about dolls, it’s actually about seeing women’s stories on screen.”

She talks about the success of huge entertainment events like Beyonce’s Renaissance tour and Taylor Swift’s Eras tour, saying: “Women want to see women doing stuff.

“We’re crying out for it, but there are a lot of men in suits going, ‘I don’t really know why people like this’.

“We’re like, ‘Well they do, so just invest in it’.”

For Coughlan, one of the best things about co-starring in Big Mood was it presented a fresh challenge after Derry Girls and Bridgerton.

“I feel really lucky,” she says.

“Maggie is so different. I’ve never played anyone like this. She’s really ballsy and strong and complex.

“It’s the kind of role I think a lot of actors who have writer friends really wish they wrote for them.

“I think people will actually take away an awful lot from it.”

Written by Helen Bushby
Published March 18, 2024