The following contains spoilers from all eight episodes of Netflix’s Bridgerton — proceed at your own peril.
If there are any similarities between Nicola Coughlan and her Bridgerton character, Penelope Featherington, it’s that she knows how to keep a secret.
When coyly asked about anything she can share regarding the lush, Regency-era London drama’s guaranteed-but-still-not-official Season 2, Coughlan swears she and her costars know very little. This includes whether or not the series will begin shooting in March, as rumored.
“They’re keeping everything super, super secretive so I don’t really know yet,” the Irish born Coughlan, whose previous credits include Derry Girls and Harlots, tells TVLine convincingly. “Trust me, the cast, we’ve been speculating heavily. I text Claudia Jessie (who plays her onscreen bestie Eloise) a lot and ask, ‘What do you think is happening?’ I’ve been speculating a lot about storylines and just trying to apply logic where I don’t know if logic works.”
Just like us, Coughlan wonders about Penelope’s fate now that she has been revealed — once again, SPOILER ALERT, lords and ladies! — to viewers as Lady Whistledown, just as her family’s fortunes have changed. (Though as we saw, times being what they were then, Lady Featherington as a woman did not by default inherit her husband’s estate.)
“She is surely wealthy because of Whistledown. But what is that going to mean?” Coughlan wonders. “I don’t know who’s taking over the family estate and my dad, has he really been killed? Is Eloise going to figure out who Whistledown is? I know none of that stuff. I’m honestly just as curious as you. Hopefully, they’ll say yes [to Season 2].”
Touted by Netflix as one of the service’s biggest launches to date, Bridgerton is projected to be sampled by 63 million households in its first four weeks, and is the first project from Shonda Rhimes’ Shondaland deal with the streamer. Chris Van Dusen created and showruns the sexy and racially inclusive sudser, which is based on author Julia Quinn’s wildly popular book series of the same name.
As for Coughlan, who turns 34 this weekend and barely looks older than her character who is exactly half her age, the actress is grateful she and her family are healthy and happy during a pandemic — adding that she can’t wait to get back to work… whenever and however that comes to be.
TVLINE | You’re active and rather funny on Twitter. Have you tried to steer clear of social media?
I’m terrible. I will dive right in unlike some of the others. Like to Phoebe [Dynevor], who plays Daphne, I was like, “Have you been looking?” And she’s like, “No, I stay away from my phone.” And I go, “Yeah, me too” — but no, I didn’t. I’m just looking at absolutely everything. I swear to God, on Christmas Day [when Bridgerton was released] I was checking Twitter and thought no one’s watching it then, which is fine. And then the day after Christmas, it became pretty evident that a lot of people were watching. When the numbers came out, I started looking and I can’t comprehend it. Sixty-three million is not even a number I’m sure that I could write down. Like, what? I’ve tried to take it all with a pinch of salt. I think it all feels very much like it’s happening in the ether.
TVLINE | It’s also nice to see your real hair. That was a wig on the show?
Yeah, it took some amount of time. Especially in January and February, when we did a lot of the studio stuff — which was like the Featherington house and the Bridgerton house. I was getting picked up at 4 in the morning, driven about an hour to set, and then the process would start. I’d get my hair all pinned down and then the wig cap and then the lace and styling… and putting in the embellishments and then the corsetry, and then the makeup. It was a serious process. I would say it took 2 hours 15 [minutes]. I had a lovely hair and makeup artist, Lou Bannell, and that’s the nicest thing you can have. If it’s someone you can chat to, it makes the time go a lot quicker. And there were puppies in the makeup trailer. Not for our enjoyment, they were just owned by the crew. But sometimes, if you were very lucky, you could get a puppy on your knee to play with.
TVLINE | Was the auditioning process strenuous?
I had thought that it was going to be, because my agent said it’s a Shondaland/Netflix show and that sounds like a huge, big deal, before you’ve heard anything else about it. I thought, “Oh no. This audition process is going to be terrible. It’s going to be months and months and it’s going to be meetings with executives and this and that.” I had like two days to prep for the first audition with two or three short scenes. I read with the casting assistant and then the tapes went to America. And I thought, ‘OK, bye-bye. I’ll never hear from you again.’ Then I got a call two weeks later offering me the role, and I was so shocked. I said to my agent, “Are they sure? They haven’t met me. And what if I’m not the right person?” Then you get to the table read and it’s Chris Van Dusen and [Shondaland’s] Betsy Beers and all these people from Netflix, and you’re scared to open your mouth. What if I open my mouth and they say, “Oh no, actually. Sorry”? You hear horror stories like that. So, I was fearful.
TVLINE | Did you have to do a chemistry read with any of your castmates? You had great chemistry with Claudia Jessie, who plays Eloise.
No, I hadn’t met anyone except Claudia, but totally unrelated — we met through friends, briefly, and she was super lovely. People always say that Shonda has an instinct for actors and who is going to be right, and in terms of me and Claudia they just nailed it. She is the best person to work with. She’s just a delight and when you work with someone like that, it makes it easy. Claudia could have chemistry with anybody, to be honest.
TVLINE | Did you feel any of the backlash from fans who were mad at Penelope for revealing Marina’s pregnancy, as Whistledown?
Not too much, and I think you have to develop a thick skin about that and let people have their opinions. That’s OK, too, because people have had these books in their lives for 20 years, so you get that they have such a distinct idea about who the character is, and I was cognizant of that. I wanted to be sensitive to that too and go, “I’m the Penelope that they’ve chosen. I hope I can do her justice for you.” On set, I tried to leave all that behind, all the weight of expectation, and just do the job, you know? With social media, you could torture yourself very easily.
TVLINE | Did you find yourself reading the books to get a sense of what is going to happen next?
Definitely. I started on Book Four [Romancing Mister Bridgerton], which is Penelope’s book. However, that’s 10 years on from The Duke and I, Season 1. So, I would be in costume fittings talking about Felicity Featherington and they were like, “Who are you talking about? That character doesn’t exist.” She’s the fourth sister who’s in the book but not on the show. But I hadn’t had access to all the scripts yet, so I was talking about people who were not in our world but in the book world. And then I went back to Book One and read that. Then I went to Book Two [The Viscount Who Loved Me] and realized I needed to stop; I needed to not have my head be 10 years years ahead of these events. If we get confirmed [for Season 2], the first thing I will do is go back and re-read Book Two. One of the things that stuck out for me, is that the fans all have their favorite love story, and they connect to a certain couple. A lot of them talk about Gregory Bridgerton and who is going to be [playing him], and is it going to be somebody really hot? And he’s like 12. You can’t look at him like that. You can’t answer all of the questions.
TVLINE | What do you like about Penelope? She’s so different from Clare, the character you played on Derry Girls.
What I really loved about her is that she’s so complex. She’s not someone you can describe in three words. She’s a lot of things, and she’s a lot of contradictory things. Penelope is this really sweet, kind girl but she can also be really acerbic and do terrible things. She’s a woman with great ambition and who wants to have a career, but she also wants to have love and marriage and babies and all that stuff. She’s a really low-status character when she’s at the balls because no one pays attention to her. But then she’s a high status character in that she’s Lady Whistledown, the most powerful woman in London. All of that as an actor is a complete treat because it’s a bit of everything. There’s so much bubbling under the surface that you don’t see.
I would love to keep going with her on that journey to see what comes out and what changes about her. What I quite like is that the writers have allowed her to be flawed, like all the characters. I know that fans are really upset about what Penelope did to Marina. I was super shocked that she did that, and really didn’t think that it was going to go there — but it went there.
TVLINE | Not that you have a say with the writers, but what do you want for Penelope?
I would like to see Penelope mature a bit and have a little more confidence in herself. I’d like to see her be more honest, because the worst deception is to Eloise, her best friend. Eloise is totally upfront with Penelope all the time, but Penelope doesn’t tell her so much, and it stresses me out to think about when that finally comes out. What is it going to mean for their friendship? When a script has dimensions and levels like that, it makes your job as an actor really easy because it’s all there for you. I’ve never played a character before that keeps so much below the surface.
TVLINE | Did you watch Gossip Girl and do you see the similarities?
The O.C. was my jam, that was my era. I think I was at university when Gossip Girl came out and thought maybe I was too old. And then we were doing the press for this show and I kept getting asked about it, I thought, “I really should’ve watched Gossip Girl!” [Laughs] I know things about the show through osmosis because it was such a part of pop culture. I think there are definite similarities, but what’s also really interesting is that the thirst for gossip has been there for hundreds and hundreds of years. Human beings, we’re nosey and comparative inherently. We want to know what’s going on.
TVLINE | When Bridgerton premiered, had you had a chance to watch any of it before, and who watched with you?
I had watched it before and I’m really grateful for that. I’m really self-critical — “I shouldn’t pull that face. Why did I do that? If I were to do it again, I would do that differently.” Then I get to the “get over yourself” moment. And then I started to watch the show and appreciate everything else. By the time Christmas Day came around, I had fully gotten over myself and was able to enjoy it. I was in big trouble with my Irish mother. She was not happy with me. She was like, “What is that? What is going on?” And I told her it was not my fault. [Laughs] But she loves it now. She’s a proper fan now and that’s all I need.