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Lady Whistledown Speaks

Nicola Coughlan Masters Her Main Character Moment

The "Bridgerton" star steps into a well-deserved spotlight and discusses her journey with IndieWire: "You can't wish for this forever and then go ‘Oh, it's really hard.' You gotta go, 'You're lucky.'"
Actor Nicola Coughlan wearing a white off-the-shoulder dress and long gloves while posing in front of a 'Bridgerton' backdrop.
Nicola Coughlan attends Netflix's 'Bridgerton' Season 3 World Premiere in New York City.
Jamie McCarthyGetty Images

Dearest readers: It’s Bridgerton Week at IndieWire. We’re celebrating the new season by diving deep on one of the best romance shows on TV.

A few days before “Bridgerton” Season 3 premieres worldwide, an eager fan muscled her way through the small crowd hovering around star Nicola Coughlan at the world premiere in New York City.

That fan would be this author’s mother, delighted to see her favorite character from one of her favorite shows (and she said as much in the moment). When Coughlan arrived at the IndieWire offices a couple days later, I expected the confident, funny, and affable actor now in month four of an international press tour — but I had also already witnessed her attentiveness and compassion firsthand in the best way.

“I believe strongly that everyone needs to do a year in retail,” Coughlan said as we discussed her journey to “Bridgerton.” “That’s the best thing training could ever get for doing six months of press, which is what we’re doing right now. You will respect people and you’ll respect their time, and you’re not going to leave a carpet and not answer someone’s questions because they’ve taken the time to be there with you. But I wouldn’t have learned that at drama school, I wouldn’t have had that same work ethic.”

Plenty of actors don’t walk the walk with ideas like that, but Coughlan isn’t most actors. At the premiere, she made sure to speak with everyone on the red carpet, eventually joining the screening close to halfway through the episode. It was her first “Bridgerton” premiere (Season 1 debuted before any COVID vaccines, and Coughlan herself had COVID for the Season 2 celebrations), and it was “a completely overwhelming experience.”

“It’s very different to what you see online,” she said of the massive fan response to each character and moment. “It was just so amazing to sit there with fans and hear how involved they are, how much they care — they were screaming cheering, gasping! It was everything. It reminds you why you make it and why you do a world tour, even if you’re super tired. It’s worth getting on the flight, worth all the early mornings. It’s incredible.”

Coughlan does not use “super tired” frivolously; we speak on May 15, and she has been doing “Bridgerton” press since January 5. She was in Italy mere days before New York, posed on Juliet’s balcony with costar Luke Newton, and there’s talk of Brazil as her team exits the building for another packed day of interviews.

“You can’t wish for this forever and then go ‘Oh, it’s really hard,’” she said. “You gotta go, ‘You’re lucky.’ You can say you’re tired, I will say I’m tired. But I’m like, ‘You are so, so lucky.’”

Coughlan is the youngest of three children and grew up in Galway, Ireland — not far from Derry, a city that would change her life, but far enough that the cultural specificity of Channel 4’s “Derry Girls” sometimes confounded her. (“I didn’t think it would travel,” she admitted of the series which found a global audience on Netflix.)

“I’m a total anomaly,” she said. “[Acting] is not a thing that anyone in my family does, but they supported me. I was the youngest, which I think means you get away with a lot more, — they already had an engineer and the solicitor in the family, so they were like, ‘She can kind of go and do whatever.’”

But “whatever” proved elusive, as it does for so many. Coughlan began auditioning as a child, with a drama teacher who functioned as her agent, attended university and drama school, and then found herself adrift in the vast, harsh landscape of professional acting.

“I realized I was an adult,” she said, describing the harsh reality check. “Life is so planned out for when there’s school … It’s such an awkward transition and awkward moment, and then the realities of it start to get a bit embarrassing. You’re essentially saying you think you can support yourself financially for your life through acting. You think you have enough talent and determination, that’s what you’re saying. And when you don’t feel a hundred percent, that is a very hard thing to keep believing or keep justifying, because people understandably worry about you.”

“I felt like such a failure because I made this gamble that I could do this, and I haven’t done it.”

Bridgerton. Nicola Coughlan as Penelope Featherington in episode 301 of Bridgerton. Cr. Laurence Cendrowicz/Netflix © 2024

Coughlan speaks a lot about this time in her life, in her 20s, when she worked multiple jobs to stay afloat financially and moved home amid thankless auditions. At 26, someone in the industry told her she was “too old” — not for a specific role, like the multiple teens she has portrayed successfully since that time, but just in general — and that she should age herself down. She considered it, especially if it meant getting more work, but ultimately dismissed the suggestion as “complete misogyny.”

“Unless we hold our hands up and go, ‘We’re complicit,’ it will never change,” she said. “There’s no shame in me having to do a shit ton of retail in order to afford to go to auditions, and yeah, I didn’t get a good TV job till I was 30. I’m not ashamed of that, because I had no hand in the industry, I had no connections. I had to do it myself and I feel really proud of that fact.”

Star of a global phenomenon or not, Coughlan hasn’t forgotten the feeling of watching from the sidelines — like a certain Miss Featherington — and her grit and gratitude persist. She filmed “Bridgerton” Season 3 concurrently with Camilla Whitehill’s “Big Mood,” a dark comedy (streaming on Tubi in the U.S.) about the bipolar Maggie and the relationships in in her life, especially with her best friend. There were times when Coughlan was Penelope during the weekdays and Maggie on the weekend, the roles and shows intertwining bizarrely into one of the most fulfilling experiences of her life.

“I just I had to say to myself, ‘No matter how tired you are, or how challenging this is, this is what you always wanted. And it’s a fucking privilege to be playing both of those roles,’” she said. “I still have the same mentality I’ve always had,” Coughlan said. “I don’t like resting on my laurels. I’m very driven and I’m ambitious. And I’m not afraid to say it at this age. People are so afraid of ambitious women.”

Big Mood
Lydia West and Nicola Coughlan in ‘Big Mood’Chris Baker

Coughlan and Whitehill have known each other for years — “Big Mood” was written with Coughlan in mind — and she says they share a sense of humor which was critical to the series. She commends how “honestly and unflinchingly” Whitehill wrote it, and appreciates the small cast experience in tandem with the massive scale of “Bridgerton” production.

“I’m a worrier,” Coughlan said. “The less time I have to think about stuff generally the better for me, but I had a long time to think about [‘Bridgerton’ Season 3]. The way I counteracted that was: just work really fucking hard. Put your everything into this, have your head in the script the whole time, have everything planned out.”

It helped that Newton was in the same boat, moving from the sidelines to the spotlight this season, and that they’ve worked together for years and invested in the characters and story. “We cared! Life’s too fuckin’ short not to care about stuff. I just think of myself pouring the frozen yogurt and dreaming of doing it… I’ve never committed to anything on the level on which I did both ‘Bridgerton’ and ‘Big Mood.’”

Coughlan is admittedly self critical, but not this time as she examines the finished product. She’s content to move back to the sidelines of “Bridgerton” and let new love stories have their turn, recognizing the show’s unique position in representation and wish fulfillment. She’s passionate about positive working environments and working on good scripts with good people. “When people are like, ‘Ugh, why am I here? I could be doing [something else],’ I’m like ‘Go do it then.’ I just don’t have any time for that.”

“It sounds very unromantic, but you have to understand there’s a practicality there,” she said. “You are but one person on the set of — 300 people can be the case on Bridgerton… I’ll do the creative work in my own time, but then come to set and this is my job, and these people want to go home and they have families. They don’t want to watch an actor doing a vocal warmup for an hour.”

It’s month four or five or ten of “Bridgerton” press (I asked a Netflix publicist if the end was in sight and she said simply: “No.”) but Coughlan is happy to sit in it for the moment.

“I’ve actually really been able to soak in this experience in a way I wouldn’t have been able to a couple of years ago,” Coughlan said. “I’ve been able to sit in [it] and go ‘Fucking hell, wow.’”

Sounds like the kind of full-circle fantasy that would be right at home on a certain regency romance.

“Bridgerton” Season 3 – Part 1 and “Derry Girls” are now available on Netflix; “Big Mood” is available on Tubi in the U.S.

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