Nicola Coughlan stars as Penelope Featherington, the observer of all and friend of Eloise Bridgerton in Netflix’s Bridgerton. Nicola breaks down the levels of Penelope she was able to explore during the show. Plus, she reveals the excitement of what she gets to explore in season two. Finally, she talks about the way she stands up for what she thinks is right be it a nasty tweet about an outfit or social justice for a nation.
Awards Daily: Did you read the books to prepare for your role?
Nicola Coughlan: I read them after the fact because when I got the audition I only had, I think, two days to prepare. So I obviously Googled it and found out it was a book series, but thought that is not enough time to read eight books so I might as well focus on the audition piece and see where we go. I also thought I’d have, like, a million auditions for it. I didn’t think it would be just the one that it turned out to be. So when I got cast about two weeks later I was completely shocked, and after that came reading the books. I started with book four, which focuses on Penelope, and then I went back to book one, which is The Duke and I, and I reread book two again in preparation for Anthony’s story.
AD: Obviously this is a few seasons from now, but you have already read the book, so are you preparing for your main story with Colin?
NC: Oh gosh, yeah! I think there is a lot of groundwork being built. What is so fun about having the books behind you is that you sort of know where things are going and you have that little bit of insight into what your character develops into and also, already knowing who Colin is being played by, knowing Luke Newton and being able to discuss it with him. We talk about it all the time, about where it is going to go, and it is such a sweet story. I think that’s the thing about Bridgerton, that it explores so many different kinds of love. I suppose in the first season it’s the fake courtship, and the second season it’s the enemies to friends, then with Colin and Penelope it’s the unrequited love story. Somebody just really wants to see them find love and really deserve it. It’s a really special story; I can see why it’s such a fan favorite
AD: I read the book. So I agree..
NC: Oh, you have! It is a really good one!
AD: Did you talk to Julia Quinn at all about your character?
NC: Yes, actually I did, we had the privilege of her coming to set, which is a really special thing. Also, to get to see it through her eyes and being, gosh, this must be really strange to have invented this world in your head and then to see it play out in real life. She is so kind and so supportive of us and always has been. She said she now imagines her characters look like us in her head. She spoke to Claudia Jessie (who plays Eloise) and me and said, “The parts that I most like would be Eloise and Penelope. They are the two I relate most to and there is the most of me in.” So that is a really special thing, but to have her seal of approval is so wonderful.
AD: I read in a previous interview that your on-screen bestie Claudia Jessie and you click instantly in real life. How has that helped you develop your character last season and in the upcoming season?
NC: Well, it helps so so much. It’s funny. Claudia and I often say we are so different in lots of ways but we are similar in all the important ways: in that we both care so deeply about our jobs, we love to talk about it, and we both have a love of comedy too and share a sense of humor. But we talked about Eloise and Penelope’s relationship quite a bit actually, and especially the level of deception that is going on there that Eloise is not aware of. It’s fascinating how it develops in season 2. We filmed a scene the other day, which I can’t tell you exactly what it was, but I think a privilege of going into the second season of a show is getting to dig deeper into the characters and exploring their relationships more. We both worry about what will happen when Eloise finally finds out the truth not only about Lady Whistledown but the fact that Penelope is in love with her brother. There are a whole lot of secrets ready to come out.
AD: Well, Eloise should have picked up on that by now to be perfectly honest.
NC: I think she should. I think Colin should have picked up on it, never mind Eloise.
AD: No, no, the man is never allowed to pick up on it, that’s the rule in romance novels.
NC: That’s true.
AD: So, correct me if I’m wrong, I read you wanted to be an actress at the age of five. How did you know so young that you wanted to be an actress?
NC: Well, I don’t think I knew what the job was. I can just remember watching The Wizard of Oz, going I don’t know what that is but I want to do that thing. And just watching it again and again, and copying Judy Garland and dressing up as Dorothy. There was something magical about it and that magic is still there for me. I still feel it all the time at work and it’s worth all the early mornings and late nights and the rejection of auditions because that magic that you see doing this job is so wonderful. As I said, I didn’t know what the job was, I just knew I needed to do it.
AD: You have done some voice work as well as live-action. Do you prepare differently for that type of acting?
NC: Well, it’s funny. I did a lot of voice work when I was quite young. I used to voice quite a lot of cartoons. I think I started around the age of fourteen because I’ve always had this fascination with accents. So, in some ways I prepare in the same ways, but I like to listen to real people from the place that I’m about to do the accents from. I don’t like the actors doing their version of the accent so that is similar in ways. I mean there is something wonderful about doing voice overs that you just go in in your sweatpants and you can record and it’s done super quick. But I think that the real joy of acting is that going from voice over to screen to stage. Yes, it is the same job. but there are different sensibilities. It challenges you in so many different ways.
AD: Interesting. I always like to see the variety. When actors do both it seems like it’s such a different medium altogether.
NC: Definitely. I think it’s good to do things that scare you as well. I think when you’ve been in a television show for a while, and there’s different challenges in both in that, in television you just have to switch it on and go and be in a very emotional place right away, and then in theater you are completely exposed no one calling, “Cut;” it is just a full run. So there are easy parts and hard parts to both, but I think both sharpen each other up at the same time.
AD: So, this is something I found researching, about the Daily Mirror making a comment about your outfit being not flattering and then your perfect Tweet back: “I mean incorrect @DailyMirror I look smokin’, sorry bout it.” What gave you the confidence to hit back so well?
NC: I think it’s just a little bit silly, in this career there’s a lot of scrutiny and that can be tough. I have dreamed my whole life about going to the BAFTAs and getting there. I actually shared a picture last night of me outside the BAFTAs ten years ago trying to take a picture over the fence and not being able to do so. But still excited to be in the vicinity and I thought no, I’ve worked too hard and too long to have this experience torn down by someone who’s just going to insult my dress. You know I bought that dress off the rack and then two years later I got to go back in a custom Valentino dress and I thought well, it didn’t really matter what they thought, I feel like I’m doing okay.
AD: So, you have dreamed of going to the BAFTAs for a long time. What is the award experience like for you right now with Bridgerton being pushed for Emmys?
NC: One of the nicest parts of this job actually is the award circuit. It sounds like such a fancy thing but what it is in reality is you being in a room with your peers and getting to speak about their work. People who have inspired you, and people that you’re, like, oh, my gosh, I’d love to work with you. One of my favorite things about this industry is the sense of community within it, and people who love their jobs and are excited about what they do. I have missed that. That’s one of the biggest things I missed during the pandemic, not being able to create things and being around other people. Because they make you want to be better and make exciting stuff. That part is genuinely one of my favorite parts. Also, I like to dress up so it’s a mixture of a lot of things!
AD: That is great that there is so much support going on. You don’t hear about that as much.
NC: It truly is. I think it’s funny. I was speaking to someone recently about this and I think this new generation in the industry there’s a lot of people who work so hard and are so lovely and are brilliant at their job and with it the idea that you have to be difficult to be an actor is being thrown out the window right now. Which I really welcome because I think that’s not true. There are people like Paul Mescal and Jodie Comer who are such lovely people and brilliant at their job and it’s really gratifying to see people like that doing so well. It’s very heartening.
AD: Can you share any details about how you feel about Penelope internally and anything different from the books that you feel about her?
NC: I find her a fascinating character to play and it’s quite a challenge in a way I didn’t expect. You read the scripts at first and you think you know who she is, that she is this shy girl who is put down by her family. But then you think, when she’s with Eloise she is quite quippy and she’s clever, and then when she is with Colin she comes out with these barbs that you do not expect and then, oh, by the way, she’s Lady Whistledown. So there are so many different sides to Penelope and I used to think about it and go, what is the real her? Then I have to go, well, it is all her, human beings are complex. We are very different around a friend than how we are with an enemy. We are different from how we are from our grandmother to our boyfriend. It was challenging to play, because she holds a lot of things back. It’s not about presenting all up front and that was a brilliant challenge. But then to play the Lady Whistledown side of her in little ways and give little nods to it without it being overt, because you don’t want to give away the secret too early. But that’s been the real joy of going back because this time around there is so much more going on in her world and it’s been really fun to play and not what people are going to expect. I think it’s going to shock some people when they see her. When I got the scripts I went, oh yes, this is exactly what I wanted and more.
AD: You have done a lot of charity work before you were famous and are still now promoting causes. What has been inspiring you to go out and do that?
NC: Well, I think when you’re privileged enough to do what you love as a job and be recognized for it and be able to pay your bills doing it, you should have the goodness in you to give back because you’re getting so much goodness from the world. In Ireland we were the first country in the world to vote in marriage equality by a public vote and that was something I felt really really passionate about and I thought we have this opportunity, this referendum to go forward and speak to people and they did door to door campaigning for that. It was such a wonderful experience because I think nowadays (and I have definitely fallen prey to it) but it is so easy to voice your opinion on the Internet. To go out there and say this is black, this is white, there is no grey, we have all done it. But I think in those kinds of experiences when you have to face real people and knock on their front door and ask them, “Do you support marriage equality?” “Why and why not?” “Can I give you some information that may help change your mind?”
I think that stuff’s important. Also I play a gay character on the other show I’m on, Derry Girls, so I wanted to acknowledge that by working with a charity in Northern Ireland called The Rainbow Project because, at that point marriage equality was still not a reality in Northern Ireland, and I felt, I don’t know if I can play this character and not address that and try and help and amplify their voices somewhat. Then I’m lucky I’ve been appointed ambassador to an amazing charity called LauraLynn Hospice, which is the only children’s hospice in Ireland, and they rely desperately on the public for their funding. They make 70% of their funding from the public and it’s the only place in the country that provides an important service. That came from being an auntie who is obsessed with her niece and nephews and I just think there could be nothing worse than losing a child. So it comes from that, but I think it comes from me being so, so grateful, and seeing my parents being very generous and kind with their time. I just think if you can it’s something you should definitely do.
AD: Was there anything you wanted to leave us with?
NC: I am just genuinely so excited for season two. It’s going to be painful to have to keep all these secrets for all the months because there’s so much that I know now that I’m so excited to talk about! But I’ve had to get better at keeping the secrets even from my friends, because when I was cast in Bridgerton I was, like, I’m playing Lady Whistledown, and so they had no surprises and they were livid with me. So this time I can’t tell anybody what is going on. It’s going to be a hard few months for me to be quiet but I will do my best!
Bridgerton streams exclusively on Netflix.