Nicola Coughlan isn't letting her laurels grow old


Coughlan discusses the strange side of fame ("or whatever you want to call it"), "Derry Girls," and Penelope's journey in "Bridgerton" season two.

Nicola Coughlan was 25 years old ten years ago, roughly a year out of theater school and working in a soap shop in London's Covent Garden, a very touristy location. Soap, to be precise. She was looking for work as an actor, but it was proving difficult.

"Back then, things were a lot different!" Coughlan, the breakout actress of Derry Girls and a returning co-star of Bridgerton, plays Penelope Featherington, who moonlights as anonymous gossip columnist Lady Whistledown, as we all know.

"It's a little bit of a mix now," she explains. "I get outright offers, but I audition anyhow." It's not like they're saying, 'Here, take whatever you want.' And it's great to still be hungry for parts and willing to battle for the roles you want. It happened only a few days ago. And there's no such thing as making it' in this business. You are only as good as your most recent position. And I'll always want to be in charge of my own destiny."

Coughlan and Penelope, as well as her alter-ego author, share this go-get-'em attitude. Coughlan wrote, pitched, and cast a podcast with writer Camilla Whitehill, Whistle Through the Shamrocks, even during a pandemic and national lockdown, just as we see Lady Whistledown flourish in season two despite the stakes getting worse.

"You should never rest on your laurels," she advises.

For Coughlan, though, stardom has proven to be a difficult beast to control. Her status and, presumably, her online presence have developed in tandem with the Bridgerton fandom. She's more cautious about what she shares on social media than she used to be, and she truly wants to use her platform for good. However, this has attracted unwanted attention, regardless of whether those who are offering it believe they are being kind or are deliberately being cruel.

"No one believes me," Coughlan explains, "but I am not a bossy toilet... a bozzee positee... a body positivity warrior." I'm not even sure how to say it! I'm not one of them. And it's something I never want to be. I often say that if I want to play a gymnast, I'll have to radically transform my body. So, if the major reason you admire me is because of my body, I find that disheartening. Growing up, that was never my ambition. I'm a performer. And I put forth a lot of effort to get to where I am now." Women's challenges a century ago appear to be not all that, unlike the struggles we face now, huh?

After meeting Peneloise on the first season of Bridgerton, we get to know Coughlan a little better on her own. She tells us what to expect from her character(s) — no spoilers, promise — and how important friendship is both inside and outside of Bridgerton, as well as on Colin and Pen's will-they-won't-they relationship.

VALENTINA VALENTINI, VALENTINA VALENTINI, VALENTINA VALENT What is it that Penelope is having trouble with this season, and what is it that she is excelling at?

NICOLA COUGHLAN: She's in an odd situation in that you might think she's the same girl we met last season when we first see her at the start of the episode. However, you immediately realize that you'll be peering beyond the curtain. Even in the first scene, you see a different side of her that you've never seen before, and you learn how she gets away with what she's doing. The pen is in an intriguing place right now, since, in season one, she was this quiet girl who was accumulating all this power. Season two reveals that she is a little enamored with her power, and you can see it flow into her every day. She's still the wallflower, but Whistledown emerges more, and the lines between them blur at times. That was a lot of fun to play.

VV: Her arc is also pretty large this season.

NC: From episode one to episode eight, she clearly matures. She's still Penelope, but she's growing up and learning the consequences of her behavior. That's exactly what she should be doing.

VV: How about her most important relationship, Penelope?

NC: This time around, Eloise and Penelope are in a real tug of war. Penelope would be overjoyed to learn that Eloise had left the London season if she didn't have a secret double life and a duty to do. It was especially amusing for me to film the ballroom scenes with Claudia [Jessie], which I was looking forward to having a friend around for those lengthy ballroom days. But I realized I couldn't do what I normally do as Penelope in those scenes — silently observe and listen in on other people's discussions — since Eloise is physically right there. And she's a great talker, so when I'm trying to hear the gossip as Penelope, it's like, "Oh, absolutely." This is going to cause some friction," she says because Eloise would be jeopardizing her career.
Nicola Coughlan as Penelope Featherington and Claudia Jessie as Eloise Bridgerton in season two of Bridgerton.LIAM DANIEL/NETFLIX

VV: Without giving anything away, aren't you required to use your native Irish accent in this season?

NC: "Penelope speaks in a great Irish accent," it said on the scripts, which I thought was hilarious. I'm from Galway, and some people have told me that I don't sound Irish enough. But this accent is more of a Dub [Dublin accent] when I perform it. Jane Karen, our fantastic dialect coach on set, and I talked about it, and there were a lot of Irish servants in London at the time, coming all the way from the east coast of Ireland, the Dublin side. And it's possible that this accent came from someone who had been good to her as a child. I believe she would have received kindness from that individual rather than her acrimonious family. That was the scenario we made up for how she got her accent. Penelope also listens to everything, which is one of the most important aspects of acquiring accents as an actor. Bridget Bridgerton was her unofficial name. It wasn't officially sanctioned, but I called her that because I believed she would want to be a Bridgerton.

VV: The Penelope and Colin tale goes on and on, and it's always aggravating. How much information do you have about what's going on there?

NC: At the conclusion of season one, we witness Colin departing on his journey. It's simply so exhausting. They've been pen buddies since we last saw them, and their relationship has developed since we last saw them. That makes me very happy since I always think of Penelope as a true writer. She appears reserved and quiet on the outside, but she has all these voices in her head, remembers everything, and can be quite clever in her work, despite her troubles in person. I like how they've grown to know each other better through writing to each other. So when he returns, they'll be closer than they were before. Although the relationship has progressed to a new level, he is still preoccupied with Marina. And, more importantly, there is a power imbalance because she adores him. You can't be like, "Well, he's a god, and I'm trash," if you want to have a connection with someone.

VV: What are your thoughts on Penelope's outfits this season?

NC: [laughs] There's still a lot of citruses. They had discussed fading out the citrus and moving for a more pink look. Which, obviously, I adore, given I'm dressed entirely in pink right now. But it's fascinating to work on this program knowing that Penelope's love story will eventually unfold and she will develop into something. So I believe they simply concluded, "Yeah, no, we'll leave her in the citruses for a little longer." So, this time around, Sophie Canale, our costume designer [she was previously the associate costume designer for season one], gave Penelope a more sophisticated style. There are still some enormous hair accessories and fussy curls in the first few episodes, as well as a lot of frills on the gowns, but as the season progresses, there are fewer and fewer. And because Portia Featherington is concentrating her efforts on Prudence, Penelope thinks to herself, "OK, you're not paying attention to me; there aren't as many housemaids shoving hot things in my hair to make it crazy." As a result, I'll appear more sophisticated and self-assured." You can clearly notice her maturation into a young woman.
"You really do see Penelope progression to becoming a young woman."LIAM DANIEL/NETFLIX

VV: You were a big part of the story last season, and you're much bigger this year. Maybe there's a little more pressure on you? Did you feel differently about filming season two than you did season one?

NC: A lot of people have said things like, "God, you must have felt the pressure now that it's so successful," or "God, you must have felt the pressure now that it's so successful." But I believe we were just anxious to get back on set and see each other again because it all happened during Covid and we didn't see each other, so we never got to celebrate the show. I don't believe I was under any kind of duress. Because of Covid, we also had to be really strict. I had no social life, for example. I didn't want to put the brakes on production! The first day back, everything seemed unreal. We had a rehearsal in the Bridgertons' drawing-room, which felt more like the set of Bridgerton the TV program than the area where we'd previously worked. It had been so long since we'd been there, almost a year. But when you're on set and trying to do your job, you can't take it all in. All of it has to go out the window, and you must concentrate solely on the character.

VV: This season, friendship is a huge theme, and your friendships with Colin and Eloise are changing. Do you have any life-or-death situations in your life?

NC: Definitely. My buddies are really valuable to me. My best pals from home are people I've known since I was a child. I've known Maeve since I was seven years old, and she's like my Eloise in that we've always been inseparable. Though I was much more like Eloise, constantly speaking with her. Then there are the friends I made at acting school, such as Camilla. I ended up co-creating my podcast with her, which was a lot of fun. Then there was Jonathan Van Ness, who became one of my closest friends. People I've worked with on Bridgerton - Claudia has become one of my closest friends, and she's just so funny and intelligent. It's most likely the Penelope strategy of making friends with people that are funnier and smarter than you in order to level up.

VV: Has your friendships changed as a result of your job path in the last two years?

NC: My closest pals from previously are still my closest friends today. However, celebrity, or whatever you want to call it, is an odd beast. It can be lonely, and it may cause certain people in your life to alter, but you quickly realize, "Well, they were never my friends to begin with."But, as I'm sure you've heard, fame doesn't change who you are; it just affects how people react to you. I'm still the same person, but every now and then someone who doesn't know me well expresses an interest in hanging out, and I'm like, "You didn't care about me before!" To you, I was insignificant."

VV: The series Derry Girls is coming to a close. Actually, that's a strange turn of events, given the third season was three years late in production. How does it feel to return to that and then have to say goodbye to it?

NC: I was terrified I wouldn't be able to film both [Bridger Ton and Derry Girls]. And I was afraid that if I didn't do it, people would think I didn't want to. "Oh, you've done a lot of Bridger now, and you don't want to go back," for example. That was far from the case. They're like my children; I love them both and want to give them my undivided attention! It was, nevertheless, quite difficult to strike a balance. And I'm not just saying this to brag, because Shondaland was incredible in assisting with the situation, and some clever changes to the Derry Girls scripts were required in order for it to work, but they really pushed for me.

VV: That had to be such a strange overlap.

NC: It was a strange situation. Between seasons two and three of Derry Girls, it had been three years, and I'd already recorded two seasons of Bridgerton, so my life had altered drastically. I was terrified about going back and not being able to play this character. Was it still possible for me to make the same decisions about her in 2021 as I made in 2017? And it was all done in such a short amount of time. I finished filming the final scene of Bridgerton at about 5 a.m. on a Friday. I returned home, collected my belongings, and flew to Belfast on Saturday. I was in wig and costume fittings on Sunday, then I was on set on Monday. It was quite stressful. "What if I have no notion what to do?" I kept thinking. But I didn't have enough time to get worked up over it. I simply went ahead and did it.

VV: You had a recent social media moment where you requested people to stop making comments about your physique — good or terrible, it didn't matter; all you wanted was for them to stop. What was it like to have your video become viral?

NC: It's a bizarre situation. That has been on my mind for a time. I don't post on social media on the spur of the moment - that would be insane — so I had given it some thought. However, people will always interpret what you say in their own manner. It makes no difference if you say, "I adore blue." "Well, you mean purple-blue?" others ask. Or are you saying you're blue because you're sad? "Does blue have anything to do with the sea?" That's just the way things are. And, to be honest, I didn't believe I'd be changing trolls. I didn't imagine I'd be able to prevent people from posting hurtful things, that some evil troll would say, "You know what? I was going to tell her she's repulsive, but I'm not going to do it today!" It's just such a difficult topic to discuss because body positivity is great and everything, but I believe it's about reclaiming certain phrases. It's been said that a word isn't an insulting word; it's simply descriptive. And I believe that it is, in fact, entirely unique. It hurts me if you describe me in a certain way. It's a minefield out there.

I went to see Catherine Cohen, one of my favorite comedians in New York, and she said, "I've gained a lot of weight in the pandemic." It's not a nice situation. It's not too shabby." This is a lose-lose situation.

VV: On the lighter side, what is the most unusual or thoughtful thing a Bridgerton fan has done for you?

NC: I'm a huge lover of fan art!

VV: Ah, so nothing has changed since we last spoke!

NC: Well, the point is, we haven't spent much time out in the woods. We haven't met any of the fans yet. One of the few reasons I still use Twitter is because of the fan art. They always send such nice things and are so encouraging. It would be wonderful if we could have a premiere and meet folks in person to thank them for their support.

Camilla and I were on vacation in Austin, Texas. We were in a coffee shop, and these adolescent girls were peering over our shoulders. Because Camilla is 6-foot tall, tattooed, and has bright red hair, I assumed they were looking at her. I didn't think about it until we got out of the car and the girls had followed us, pressing up against the glass, squealing and waving at us. "Oh, God," I exclaimed. Oh, sure. "They were staring at me," says the narrator.

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Hasanul is a Slate senior editor and the editor of Slate’s culture blog, Brow Beat.

Anchorage, AK

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