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Stories, Weekly Interviews, things to see and footnotes.
Stories, Weekly Interviews, things to see and footnotes.
Stories, Weekly Interviews, things to see and footnotes.

December 25, 2020

In Conversation

Bridgerton’s Nicola Coughlan: "People deserve joy and romance and beauty" 12 minute read

Photograph courtesy of Nicola Coughlan. Dress by Batsheva
Photograph courtesy of Nicola Coughlan

Shonda Rhimes’ Regency-era romance Bridgerton lands on Netflix on Christmas Day. Based on Julia Quinn’s hugely successful historical novels, the series follows the fortunes of the women and men entering London’s high-society marriage market.

A period drama featuring a sprawling, diverse ensemble cast, a fondant-fancy colour palette and Julie Andrews as narrator sounds like an enticing proposition any time of the year – but with most of us confined to our homes this winter, Bridgerton promises to provide a much-needed dose of escapism.

Derry Girls actress Nicola Coughlan is Penelope, the book-smart, people-shy daughter of the brash Featherington family. A couple of days before Christmas, Nicola joined Violet from her mother’s home in Galway to talk playing Penelope, Twitter trolls, and the joys of costume.

Olivia Gagan

Author Olivia Gagan

Well, the thing I really loved about it is that it didn't read like a period drama. I think sometimes people feel like they need to set a certain checklist of things that need to be done in them. Bridgerton felt like it threw that rule book out somewhat. It felt fresh and pacy, and they felt like real women. It’s coming from a feminist lens and really examining society and pushing boundaries. They felt like women of today. It felt like the conversations me and my friends would have.

OGI’ve just been reading all the reviews starting to trickle in for Bridgerton, and they are glowing.

NCThank goodness. It's so scary. If you got terrible reviews just before Christmas, you'd be an absolute Grinch on Christmas Day. I’d be like, ‘don't talk to me’. But actually, they've just been absolutely lovely. I think people have really gotten what we were trying to do, which is such a nice feeling.

It feels like the show could not have come at a more perfect time. All the things Bridgerton celebrates – fun and froth, socialising and glamour and dancing and flirting…even families mingling with each other. They're all things that are completely off the table right now.

When we found out it was coming out on Christmas Day, I thought, yeah, that makes so much sense. It feels like such a piece of escapism. I think that's exactly what people need. Especially if they're going to be stuck away from home at Christmas and dealing with all of the things everyone's contending with.

We wrapped two weeks before the first lockdown, so we got it in just on time. It's strange to watch it back, because it does feel like another world. But I think but that's the real joy of the show. It looks so insanely beautiful. Each of the costumes were made completely from scratch. They made 7,000 pieces for this show. So, it doesn't look like anything anyone's ever seen before. 

People who make costumes like that, they’re just artisans, aren't they? It must've been a treat to experience that.

The costume designer, Ellen Mirojnick, had Mister Pearl on her team, who made my corset. He is just a complete artist. There's nobody up to his level in the world. There was a room that they hand-embellished all the floral pieces for the clothing. They had a jeweller. They had someone making headdresses. It's amazing seeing people that talented working at that level, being allowed to have complete creative freedom. It's amazing. It's a massive privilege, too, because how many people in the world can say they've had a corset made by Mister Pearl? And oh, cheers.

[clinking cans over Zoom]


That corset's not even seen on screen, it's just underneath my dresses. But every day you go in and you think, "That was made for me." The amount of measurements they take. They made a body cast, all these things. It's just phenomenal.

It felt like Derry Girls just landed and exploded. No-one was waiting for it – it just arrived, and it was a hit. Whereas with Bridgerton you've got a ready-made fanbase of people who already have their own idea of who your character, Penelope is. What was your take on her? Who did you want her to be?

I've never done anything like this before, where there is that weight of expectation and an existing fandom. So, I went on the fan forums [to see] what they think of Penelope, who they wanted to be cast. And they really wanted someone like Emma Stone. I was like, "Oh, my God, I am not Emma Stone. What are they going to think?!” And the fans have a really strong connection to the character too – I realised she was very beloved. 

 She's difficult to describe, because she's many, many things, as human beings are. She is very sweet and innocent and hopeful. But then when she meets her cousin Marina her life changes very drastically. Because she's smart, she gets involved in adult things that she's not ready to deal with yet. 

 As the season progresses, she does things I would never do. But you have to try and rationalise that and think, how did she get there? What was the journey? And what family did she come from? I think it was amazing to have the books as a framework, because it gives you lots of little pieces of information that help ground the character and build up the background. But I think the script has to be your bible, because they're just brilliantly written. 

What is it about the scripts that make Bridgerton a Shondaland production, versus the original text? What are Shonda’s stamps on it?

Well, the thing I really loved about it is that it didn't read like a period drama. I think sometimes people feel like they need to set a certain checklist of things that need to be done in them. Bridgerton felt like it threw that rule book out somewhat. It felt fresh and pacy, and they felt like real women. It’s coming from a feminist lens and really examining society and pushing boundaries. They felt like women of today. It felt like the conversations me and my friends would have. 

Who do you think Penelope would be today? What kind of life would she be living?

I mean, I think Penelope would have a much easier time today. It's much more acceptable nowadays to be the type of woman that she wants to be. She would be able to go to university, have a job, do all these things. But I don't know whether social media would help or hinder her. I think that she would probably have anonymous accounts and look at [love interest] Colin Bridgerton's Instagram every day. And then go and like every old picture, and then panic that she'd done it, and try and cover her tracks. But I think she would fit in much better today than in the time that she exists in Bridgerton.

The romantic intrigues drive a lot of the plot, but there's wider themes as well, right? Penelope doesn't really identify with her family. And her family is derided for being new money, nouveau riche. Obviously, Bridgerton is a lot of fun, it's a romance, but what are the wider ideas that get explored?

A big thing is about people's place in society, and who the patriarchy is really benefitting – and you can see it's not really working for any of them. With Penelope, she's this clever girl, who has a lot to offer. But she’s just a piece of meat on the marriage mart. She's the property of her father, until she’s the property of her husband. Then you see someone like Anthony Bridgerton, who has all these expectations on him to be a man. What does being a man mean? It gives more depth to the show, because it examines a lot of stuff. That's why I hope we get to make more of it, because I feel like we've just started really.

You’re exploring a lot of the sexual politics of the time. Which in a lot of Regency romances, is people barely touching hands, or it's all longing glances across a room. But Bridgerton is way more out there.

There's a lot of super-racy scenes in this show. It's not Pride and Prejudice, with someone coming out of a lake. It's pretty full on, but it's important because that was a huge part of the books. You couldn't tell those stories if you didn't include that.

It's a funny thing, because I think we imagine the past in such a funny, sanitised way. I think we also need to realise that a lot of that sense of propriety came from the Victorians, who came after the time we're talking about. People definitely had sex, because none of us would be here if they weren't! The show examines female desire in a really refreshing way. It allows Daphne in particular to be a sexual being, to have a sexual awakening, and discover what that means to her. 

With the Regency era, there was a lot of sheer clothing too. There's a lot of cleavage. It wasn't as demure as people sometimes think.

Yeah, it was the Victorians who were about more buttoned up and everything came up to here [points at neck]. There's a lot of heaving bosoms in Regency dress, and it's very soft and romantic. I think it's such a flattering era. You start looking at the men in their breeches and you're like... you start liking the sideburns! It was a very lovely looking era.

Costume decisions are just one of the ways that it's rebooted the Regency romance genre. Obviously with the diversity of casting, that’s a big shift as well. What do you think other shows can take from Bridgerton and some of the choices it's made?

I think one of the best things about the show is how diverse it is, because art should be about the world that we can create. We're not making a museum piece, claiming that this is Regency London as it looked, and exactly how it was. We're not saying that. We're creating a fantasy world. 

People like Golda Rosheuvel, who plays Queen Charlotte, she's so phenomenal in that role. It couldn't have been played by anybody else. Adjoa Andoh – who plays Lady Danbury, who's this formidable dowager in the show – said it's about more than the best actress for the best role, which is the theory that I always would've taken. 

Adjoa says, we have to fight for representation. We have to make these changes and make them consciously, because art should represent the world at large. And when you see things like Hamilton, which was such a huge hit, you see why it works. I want young kids to look on screen and think, ‘I can be represented in period dramas. If I want to do that, I could do it.’ There's no real excuse to have all-white casts anymore. I think that the excuses are running thin on the ground.

I guess that all-white casts are historically inaccurate as well. That isn't actually what London of that era was like.

No. I mean, there's some evidence to suggest that Queen Charlotte was a mixed-race woman. A character called Will Mondrich, who’s played by Martins Imhangbe, is based on a real-life boxer who came from the States. But then, within the dukes and duchesses – that is an imagined world. Regé Jean-Page, who plays Simon the Duke said, this is a story where black people get to be joyful. Not playing the slaves or the servants. They're getting to play the main people in the story and they’re playing joy, which everyone should get to do.

Has your perspective on Bridgerton changed since you were filming it? Has lockdown changed your take on it at all?

January and February this year, in particular, were really busy for me because we did the majority of our studio work for it then. It was just go, go, go. Getting up at 4AM. Not getting home until 8PM. Getting up at 4AM again. That was my life, pretty much. I didn't see anybody. I kept thinking, well, when February ends, I'll be free, and I'll have a social life again. And that just did not happen. Lockdown has been bizarre and strange. It's been such a strange year for everybody. 

I think the more I think about the show, I feel like I'm really glad it's coming out now, because people deserve an escape. They deserve to celebrate joy and romance and beauty. I feel like this show is really unashamedly that. I [want to say] ‘look what we made! It's this beautiful world and welcome, come in!’ I really am not grateful for the year we've had, obviously, but I’m grateful for when Bridgerton is going to come out. 

How have you found living life online this year? I mean, I'm assuming you’re pretty Zoom-ed out by now.

I feel like I only exist on Zoom now. But you know what? It's been a lifesaver. I moved to the UK in 2008, so the majority of friends I’ve made as an adult are in the UK. And then I had come back to Ireland to stay with my mum this year, so she wouldn't be on her own. So Zoom quizzes were such a saviour for my sanity to see people, and to feel like you were socialising. I think it's underpinned the importance of human connection and how much your friends mean to you. Because you go, who are the people that I really need, and I really want to talk to? 

How about social media? You've always voiced your opinion on social media over the years. As your profile has risen, have you wanted to adjust or moderate that? Have you changed your attitude towards it this year? Because if you say something, you're almost guaranteed someone's going to have a go.

Yeah, it's mad. Like you said earlier, when Derry Girls came out, there were no expectations attached. The way it blew up was amazing. But I got this influx of people following me, and I would treat social media the same way I'd always done. And then you're getting all these responses. It sounds stupid, [but] I think it took me a while to realise a lot more people were reading the things I was saying. 

There are a lot of causes I'm really passionate about – women's rights and LGBTQ rights, which I'll try and speak up for. But I think during lockdown, I realised people were angry, totally understandably. Especially on Twitter. If I say, ‘I love the colour red, it's amazing.’ Someone will say, ‘why do you hate purple?’ Or, ‘Clearly, you're intimidated by green and you have a problem with orange.’ And it will go on and on.

I used to try and just explain myself […] I've definitely drawn back from that, because I feel like I know who I am. I know what I stand for, and I'll still fight for the things that I care about. But you can't endlessly shout into the void, trying to say, "This is what I meant!” I don’t want to do that. There's no point. You see people destroying their legacy on Twitter, and what for? I don't want that. My job makes me so happy, it's so important to me. I think some people could do with stepping away from the laptop.

Have you felt particularly creative this year?

I mean, it's been tough, hasn't it? I've definitely felt the need to do stuff. I'm actually in the process of making something. There's something me and a friend of mine have been talking about for years and years and years. And it's, oh, this is the perfect time to do it. But I think, partly for me, the creative process is enriched by being around other people. Because they inspire you to be better, and they spark something in your brain, and it gets you going. I've really missed that. 

What's on the slate for 2021?

Derry Girls season three will be happening, we're just not sure when yet. There's already been three filming dates that couldn't work because of COVID. It's hard, because you see those dates come and go, and I desperately want to get back to doing that. Even more so because I actually know what the storylines are. That dynamic between the five of us is a really special thing. I don't know if I'll ever work on something again where we'll have that. 

If everyone else is chilling out watching Bridgerton on Christmas Day, what's going to be your Christmassy relaxation? Have you got anything you're looking forward to?

Me, my mum and my sister take different parts of the Christmas dinner to cook. I’m doing the starters this year. I've been officially informed. 

What’s your starter? Have you got it planned?

I'm making veggie sausage rolls and I'm going to make Arancini. And I think I'm going to do smoked salmon blinis.

Oh, classy.

My niece and nephews are not going to eat any of them. So I'm not sure who I'm making them for. I'm making them to show off for myself.

I'm making a really old school prawn cocktail starter. I don't know why I've decided to do a prawn cocktail.

It's so good though.

I haven't had one in years, but I feel like it's time to bring it back.

Yeah, the iceberg lettuce!

Have you had the chance to watch all of Bridgerton yet?

I've watched it an embarrassing number of times, actually. We had to keep it secret that we've seen it for ages. The first time I watch something that I'm in, I'll just be horribly self-critical and go, ‘why did I do that?’ Or, ‘oh, if I went back, I would change this.’ So, I had to get over myself. But yeah, the final edit of it is just so good. All the music just works. They've modern songs played by string quartet. They've got songs like Bad Guy by Billie Eilish. It's a period drama, but there’s a twist, it's not what you expect.

I can't wait to watch it all.

Oh, I hope you enjoy it. Don't watch it with your parents, by the way. I think it's more of a solo viewing.

Noted. I'm going to let you go – are you done for the day now?

Yeah. It's funny because my mum is like, "You have to be finished for Christmas!" But it doesn't really work like that. I [can’t be] like, “I'll just tell Netflix I’m done now.” It's just because she has a list of jobs that she wants me to do. 

I'll let you crack on with those and relax. 

Thank you, Olivia. Great to chat to you.