Derry Girls made Nicola Coughlan a household name, but Bridgerton made her a global star. As the hit series returns, she talks about showing more sides of her character, being embraced by the high fashion world and why she’s taken a step back from social media
When the first series of Bridgerton launched on Christmas Day 2020, Nicola Coughlan was at home with her family in Galway. She hadn’t seen her fellow cast members since the previous February, and was vaguely nervous about whether Netflix’s mega-budget, Shonda Rhimes-produced period drama would even find an audience. “I was like, ‘I don’t know if anyone’s gonna watch it’, because you get the fear; you just don’t know,” she recalls. “And then, on Stephen’s Day, people start messaging you and you’re like, ‘OK…’ And then it was number one in Turkey, number one in Colombia, number one in Brazil. It just doesn’t feel real, because it all happened in lockdown and everything was happening behind a screen.”
It wasn’t until she arrived back in London to start filming the second series last spring that it hit her what a phenomenon the series had become. On a trip to get her AirPods fixed in Covent Garden, a woman in the shop stopped her to ask about her character on the show. “Then, when I went out into the plaza, people started going ‘Ah!’” — she mimes shocked gasps and pointing — “and I was like, ‘Oh, that hasn’t happened before’. I got a bit freaked out and I started to think, ‘I might not have realised how big this show is…’”
“Big” is putting it mildly. According to Netflix, Bridgerton was the biggest series the streaming service had ever released at that time, with a reported 82 million viewers tuning in — a record topped only by Squid Game last year. For 35-year-old Coughlan, the show marked a new high in a rapidly flourishing career.
In 2016, she was working part-time at an opticians in Galway. In the last two years, she’s had Kim Kardashian in her DMs, attended Elton John’s Oscars party with close friend Jonathan Van Ness of Queer Eye fame, and appeared as a guest judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race UK in a custom Alberta Ferretti gown. As we speak, she’s preparing to go to Paris Fashion Week, where she’ll take a front-row seat at the Miu Miu show and have the final fittings for her Bridgerton premiere look.
Add to that the third and final series of Derry Girls — which is due for release later this year and in which Coughlan plays the scene-stealing “wee lesbian” Clare Devlin — and she’s about to have the most exciting year of her career to date. But even with anticipation running high for the latest instalment of Bridgerton, she is unfazed.
“When you get back to work, you’re not thinking about the viewership figures,” says Coughlan, wearing a cotton-candy pink Miu Miu bomber jacket and stacks of gold rings. “You’re just thinking about doing the job, and it’s really labour-intensive. It’s like making four movies without a break, so you don’t have time to think.”
If you haven’t yet finished watching Bridgerton’s first series, beware of spoilers ahead. The final moments revealed Coughlan’s character, Penelope, had a much greater role than the unassuming, overlooked, youngest sister of the Featherington family: she was, in fact, Lady Whistledown, the society columnist behind the notorious scandal sheet chronicling high-society gossip, and voiced by Julie Andrews.
Netflix has ordered a further two series, and the show could potentially run for up to eight, the number of books in the hugely popular Julia Quinn series on which it is based.
Like the original novels, each series tells the story of a different Bridgerton sibling’s romantic pursuits. The first focused on Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor) and the dashing Duke of Hastings, played by breakout star Regé-Jean Page. The leading man this time around is Daphne’s eldest brother, Anthony Bridgerton (Jonathan Bailey), who sets his sights on a new arrival in London, Kate Sharma (Simone Ashley).
While the central couple changes each series, Lady Whistledown recurs throughout, cementing Coughlan’s role as the real star of the show.
“As an actor, you can’t really ask for more because you get all this stuff handed to you. I knew in series one that she was the shy wallflower, and it was an interesting challenge to play a character like that, because a lot of it is going on underneath the surface.
“Whereas this time, the doors get blown wide open. I got to play her as this bratty teenager at home with her family, as this businesswoman, as this second persona, as this girl who loves her best friend but is lying to her — every day, there was something different. As an actor, that’s what you love to do, so it was brilliant.”
The new episodes give viewers an insight into how Lady Whistledown operates — and gave Coughlan an opportunity to do an Irish accent, when Penelope disguises herself as a Dublin housemaid. “It was so funny. When I got the script, it said, ‘She speaks in the perfect Irish accent.’ I was like, ‘I think I can manage that!’”
Aside from keeping Lady Whistledown’s identity a secret, Penelope is still yearning after her childhood crush, Colin Bridgerton (Luke Newton). Their romance forms the basis of the fourth book, and likely fourth series. One of the aspects that caught viewers’ attention in the first series was its unabashed steaminess, which established the show as definitely not your grandmother’s period drama. How does Coughlan feel about the prospect of her upcoming love scenes?
“Luke Newton, thankfully, is the sweetest person in the world, and I actually was texting him last night being like, ‘Oh my god, it’s gonna be so mad that it’s us one day’,” she says, praising the show’s use of intimacy coordinators, which broke new ground on filming sets and is slowly becoming an industry standard. “I have such trust in them. And I’ve definitely thought about it. It’s mildly terrifying, and also, I feel like Colin and Penelope’s series is going to be quite racy! I don’t know anything really, I just have a feeling. That’s a big part of it for the fans of the book as well — I know the scenes the readers want. Don’t worry, I’ve been sent the fan art!”
Though Coughlan describes the Bridgerton fandom as “the sweetest people you would ever come across”, her role on the show and the real-world public interest in her castmates has given her a fresh perspective on the gossip industry. “It’s exactly the same way we relate to gossip today, in a way,” she says of Bridgerton’s portrayal of gossip, adding that she follows anonymous Instagram gossip account @deuxmoi just like the rest of us. “We all love a scandal or a new random celebrity relationship, and there is part of us, that voyeur, that when something goes wrong, you’re like, ‘Oh my god!’ and you do want to know more.”
She adds: “What’s been really weird is seeing paparazzi pictures of people on the show. That really hit home with me, that I went, ‘That’s really weird and so intrusive’, in a way that I should have realised before.”
As her profile has risen, Coughlan has taken a step back from social media. She had previously gained a reputation for her outspoken commentary on Twitter, where 300,000 people follow her witty observations, political musings and sharp retorts to critics, earning frequent headlines as “epic clap-backs”.
“It’s definitely changed, and I think there’s a multitude of reasons for it,” she says of her approach to social media. “It’s such a polarising place — you’re either the best person in the world or the worst person in the world. And I began to see people who I had admired start listening to that. That’s really dangerous, because you are drinking your own Kool-Aid, and you need to step away. That put a real distaste in my mouth. Also, I started to realise, as more people follow you, what you put out there has weight, whether you want it to or not. It doesn’t mean that you are in any way intelligent or have an important opinion, it’s just that people will write about it.”
Now, she prefers to “pop back in briefly”, saying, with a grimace, “It just doesn’t appeal any more. I think people get so wrapped up in it. Like, what are all these hot takes doing?”
When she does pop back in, it’s to promote her work or share her outfits from the press tour. Coughlan has become a style star in her own right, named one of Vogue’s best-dressed women of 2021. Where others treated the Zoom era as an opportunity to ditch glamour for loungewear, Coughlan and her stylist Aimée Croysdill rose to the challenge. Her bold, exuberant wardrobe was a masterclass in waist-up dressing, filled with eye-catching puff sleeves, high necklines and pearl embellishments from Simone Rocha, Emilia Wickstead and Batsheva, and complemented by whimsical jewellery, vibrant make-up and colourful hair accessories.
Coughlan’s red-carpet looks have been even more striking, in particular the dreamy yellow tulle Molly Goddard gown she wore with a cropped cardi and hot-pink make-up for last year’s virtual Golden Globes, and the show-stopping tangerine Valentino dress with electric-blue eyeshadow to the 2021 Baftas — fun, flamboyant looks that took up space and did so unapologetically. Coughlan credits Bridgerton with giving her a new appreciation for fashion.
“I think a massive part of it was being in these costume fittings, seeing how they put a garment together and saying to myself, ‘I love this, and I love this creativity’. I had sort of shied away from it when we used to do Derry Girls press. I used to very much throw on whatever, think about it last-minute, not feel great, and then I was like, ‘I’m not going to do that any more. Why, if I enjoy it, am I denying myself the joy of partaking in it?’”
Coughlan explains her work with stylist Croysdill is all about collaboration. The Alberta Ferretti look for RuPaul’s Drag Race was the product of such a back-and-forth, starting with a Pinterest board Coughlan had created with pictures of host RuPaul, drag superstar Alaska, and Shirley MacLaine in the 1964 musical What a Way to Go!, and resulting in a dramatic pink gown with an oversized satin bow, matching pink hair and contrasting scarlet pumps.
“That was a good example of how we come at it from our own angles. She comes at it from the fashion world. She’s got this incredible knowledge about design and shape and colour and everything, and then I come at it from my world, so I talk about it in terms of characters or moments in movies or things like that.”
She says of the red carpet, “It’s definitely nerve-wracking. I think I’ve become more comfortable with it over time. I used to just see it as such a separate world, like I don’t belong in it. And then I was like, ‘Well, what can I bring from my world and how can they marry?’ In photo shoots, I think of it as a character and it’s more comfortable. Also, I think, as Irish people, we are inherently embarrassed about our own existence — ‘Oh, god, I couldn’t!’” she cries in mock horror. “But if I’m playing a character that would wear this Valentino gown, I get away with it in my brain.”
Coughlan has spoken frankly about her discomfort with being branded a body-positivity advocate. In 2018, she wrote a column for The Guardian after a male theatre critic’s review of her performance in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie turned into a review of her body. Coughlan asked that the attention be placed on her work, not her appearance, something she reiterated in an Instagram post in January, which said: “If you have an opinion about my body, please, please don’t share it with me.”
She notes that, earlier in her career, it was challenging to find designers who would dress her for events, as she wasn’t a sample size. “At the beginning, there were definitely certain brands that wouldn’t loan to me, before I had a stylist. And my thing is, then you always remember. You’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, you didn’t loan me a dress for that thing!’” she says with a laugh. “Also, I think people assume that you have millions of pounds in the bank, but I can’t afford to spend £600 on a dress I’m going to wear once. So you’d ask, ‘Would you mind?’ and then they would, but it was a size six. So you’re like, ‘OK, cool’.
“Now, Aimée is like, ‘Whatever, you’re not a model, you’re an actress. An actress doesn’t have to look a certain way.’ She’s been like, ‘Who cares? Let’s just make interesting, fun choices’.”
These days, of course, Coughlan has the likes of Valentino creating custom looks for her, and she applauds creative director Pierpaolo Piccioli’s diverse casting for his latest couture collection.
“I think, sometimes, when the industry tries to become more inclusive, it becomes a bit patronising, and that [collection] didn’t feel like that. It just felt right, I think. When you look at brands that have sort of fallen by the wayside for not being inclusive, you’re like, ‘Well, that’s not what’s interesting any more.’ I can see how [lingerie brand Savage X] Fenty is the powerhouse it is now and why Victoria’s Secret looks really dated and boring.”
As well as a stylish Bridgerton press tour to look forward to, Coughlan will be busy promoting Derry Girls, which finally returns to screens more than three years after the last series aired.
“It was a mad experience — [filming] was delayed four times in the space of three years, so even the point of getting there was so stressful,” Coughlan says.
Her Bridgerton contract meant that she had to be on call to film whenever summoned, which limited her availability for Derry Girls. “There was nothing I could do, and I was so stressed about it, because I didn’t want people to think that I didn’t want to come back — that couldn’t be further from it. So yeah, there was an overlap and certain things had to be compromised. I cried about it at certain points. Trust me, I wanted to be there for the whole thing, but look, we did as much as we could.
“People think it’s so much fun shooting a comedy. I’m like, ‘Sometimes!’ The schedule was really punishing, but I think about it sort of like when a footballer says, ‘We left it all on the pitch’. It wasn’t like a fun, rollicking ride, but I feel what’s on screen is going to really do the final series justice.”
After that, Coughlan will be gearing up for series three of Bridgerton, and there’s also talk of developing her comedy podcast, Whistle Through The Shamrocks, for the screen. The six-part series, which Coughlan co-created with friend and playwright Camilla Whitehill during lockdown, is a riotous send-up of rural Irish stereotypes, featuring the voices of Van Ness, Stephanie Beatriz, Derry Girls co-star Louisa Harland and Coughlan’s Bridgerton castmate Ben Miller.
“That was one of the most fun things I’ve ever done, because it’s just so silly. I love that absurd side of comedy; like, I love 30 Rock so much. I feel like this year is gonna be pretty hectic, so I don’t know what’s gonna happen, but I definitely would love to [write more] in the future.”
For now, though, it’s off to Paris. Despite the glamorous trappings of her new life, however, Coughlan insists she’s no diva. “I haven’t got it in me! When I come home, my family don’t care — in the nicest way. Like I’ll babysit my niece and nephews and mop the floor in the kitchen and do the odd jobs. I don’t get any different treatment.
“I describe myself to people as the one elderly aunt at the wedding who is just really happy to be invited, going, ‘Isn’t this lovely!’ That’s how I feel every day.”
Season two of ‘Bridgerton’ premieres on Netflix on March 25