Netflix pulled out all the stops for Shondaland’s debut scripted series “Bridgerton,” a bonnet-busting take on the period drama that follows the society debuts of the Bridgerton and Featherington clans of Regency-era London.
Most fans of the show, which is based on the best-selling series of books by Julia Quinn, will agree that when they weren’t lapping up the messy drama between Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor) and Duke Simon Basset (Regé-Jean Page), they were relishing in the low-key feminist icon that is Penelope Featherington, played by scene-stealing “Derry Girls” star Nicola Coughlan.
Though something of an afterthought in an ignoble family of human highlighters, Penelope’s kind yet self-deprecating nature makes her one of “Bridgerton’s” more relatable characters. It’s all the more gratifying when, in the show’s final moments, she’s revealed to be Lady Whistledown, the “Gossip Girl”-style truth-teller whose acid-tongued newsletter wreaks havoc on high society, which nonetheless clamors to buy every copy — making her one of the only independently wealthy women in the ton.
Coughlan broke through in U.K. broadcaster Channel 4’s hit comedy “Derry Girls,” which follows a group of friends at a Catholic high school in Derry, Northern Ireland, during the end of the Troubles. The show gained a global fan base after it premiered on Netflix in December 2018, and it’s continued to be one of the U.K.’s most successful comedy exports in recent years.
Here, Coughlan talks with Variety about potential plans for “Bridgerton” Season 2 and what we might expect from Penelope as Whistledown; the rabid fanbase behind the “Bridgerton” books; her thoughts on Daphne and Simon’s turbulent relationship; and what’s next for “Derry Girls.”
Did you know that Penelope was linked to Whistledown, going into the role?
When I went for the first audition, I only had a couple of days to prepare; I didn’t have time to read the books or do anything like that. I just thought, “I’ll give this a go and if I get a second call, then I’ll read everything.” But that didn’t happen, I just got the job. So then it was like, “I’d better read these books and figure out who this character is.” I also went to a lot of the fan forums online, because these books have been out for 20 years. People adore them and have such a connection to them. Penelope is really close to their hearts. It was on a forum that I realized she was Lady Whistledown. When I saw it, I thought, “No, no, no, no, that can’t be right.” I kept re-reading it, because it didn’t make sense: [I’m] being given this amazing role in a Shondaland-Netflix show, and it’s that role. It’s quite mind-blowing.
I suspected Whistledown was Penelope. I felt vindicated seeing you in that carriage!
It was so much fun. We had to film that in the middle of COVID. I had to be super, super secret. I had to be flown over from Ireland, and tested and tested and tested, and do the fitting. It was hyper secret; I couldn’t let anyone know I was there or what was going on. But it was so much fun to film that.
How much was filmed in COVID times?
Just that one scene. We wrapped at the end of February. We were so lucky because the scale is huge on the show, especially the balls. There’s hundreds and hundreds of people.
Why didn’t Penelope, as Whistledown, reveal her cousin Marina Thompson’s secret pregnancy sooner?
We didn’t get all the scripts at once so [I could see] it was sort of leading there, but I kept thinking, “Penelope’s never gonna do it. She’s too nice; she’s too kind.” But then, part of the Shondaland [philosophy] is they’re not afraid to write complicated women that are unlikeable and make bad decisions sometimes. We don’t have to present this level of perfection. I was thinking of [“Breaking Bad” character] Walter White and whether we’d ever see a woman written like that, where they’re so uncompromisingly terrible and yet people still root for them.
I know people are really angry at Penelope, but she’s 17 years old. And she’s someone who’s so ignored in her life. Whistledown is her way to have some power in the world, but she hasn’t realized in Season 1 how much power she actually has. That’s why I hope we get Season 2 because I’d love to see what that does to her. It would have to give her some confidence because, in a way, she’s the most powerful woman in London while being the least important person. That dynamic while playing her was always so interesting to me.
What’s the latest word on Season 2?
We all really hope [it will be renewed]. It’s a real joy to make and the response has been beyond our wildest dreams. But until the Netflix gods come down and bless us, we don’t know. If it goes the way the books go, logically Season 2 would be more about Anthony Bridgerton’s story and I’d love that because it would make the show so fresh and a totally different perspective. Anthony’s such a different character to Daphne.
Has “Bridgerton” creator and showrunner Chris Van Dusen given you a sense of how big a role you might have if there’s a Season 2?
The only things are things I’ve surmised myself. Surely she’d be quite rich, because the first Whistledown newsletter was free but then she starts charging, so it fascinates me to think she’s the only independently wealthy woman in the ton at the time. She’s making her own money. But it’s like, what is she doing with it? Where is it going? I also don’t know who’s taking over the Featherington estate. Does Colin go away? How long is he gone for? Eloise coming out in society, what would that mean?
Personally, I would love to see a show about Penelope’s friendship with Eloise Bridgerton over the constant drama between Daphne and Simon.
Claudia Jessie [who plays Eloise] is just the light of the world. She’s a properly wonderful person. We met at the wrap party for a show called “Porters” a year before we were in “Bridgerton.” She’s a ray of sunshine. Penelope has a hard time with her family a lot of the time, but when she’s with Eloise, you see most of her true personality. I think she finds Eloise so entertaining and she says all the things Penelope is too frightened to say. I’m all up for more Peneloise.
I heard you were the main person everyone came to when they wanted to understand what the fans were saying, because you were all over the forums.
The fans are like MI5 detectives. [The show] was super secretive. We couldn’t share a single thing until it came out, in terms of pictures or storylines or anything. But a crew member took a picture of a floor tile, which you’d think is pretty innocuous, but the fans figured out exactly where we were filming from that floor tile. Don’t ask me how, but they did it. At one point, I had tweeted, “Can we all just agree that Christmas is happening right after Halloween this year?” and the fans read that and said [the show] would be released Christmas Day, with the trailer out Nov. 1. And they were right, but it’s not what I was saying, so I had to tell my publicist to tell Netflix I didn’t leak it.
They were finding official pictures before we were even getting them from Netflix.
Simon and Daphne’s relationship is really strained due to his not wanting to initially get married and then have children despite her ambitions for a family. The way it plays out is hard to come to terms with for some people. What are your thoughts on their dynamic and how it’s been brought to screen?
It’s difficult because with all these characters, when you read a script, you come to it first with your perspective and the time in which you live and how these things would apply. But these women, at the time, were like property. They had no agency of their own. Daphne is her family’s best prospect to make money, in a way. You have to think about all the constraints of society at the time and how much the patriarchy was screwing everyone over. It’s very obvious what it did to women, but even characters like Anthony Bridgerton, he doesn’t live up to the masculine and patriarchal ideal of being the head of the family.
In Daphne and Simon’s relationship, she’s a complete innocent going into this, with the awakening of her sexual desire, and with him being more worldly than her, there is a power imbalance. But I think, with all those things, the show is better for it because you’re not presenting these cookie-cutter Disney princes and princesses. They’re very flawed humans. You have to welcome all discourse on it because it’s all relevant. People are going to feel what they’re going to feel. But do I feel like Simon needs therapy? Yes.
How do you think British audiences, who are used to more traditional period dramas from places like the BBC, are taking in the show?
It’s a bit of a shock for the traditionalists. But “Pride and Prejudice” has been done. It’s been perfected. We’re not going to do that. I saw someone complain that the wisteria [in the show] had been in bloom for too long and I thought, “This is a fantasy show. They all have straight teeth and there’s no poop on the streets.” It’s a fantasy Regency London. It was “read the rulebook but throw it out the window.” Our costume designer was like, “There are no bonnets in this world.” She just didn’t want any bonnets!
This is Shondaland’s first major show for Netflix, and it’s filmed in the U.K. It also comes at a time when Netflix is investing heavily into the country. What do you think about their plans?
I think it’s phenomenal. I graduated from drama school in 2011 and it felt like there were so few roles at that point. You think about the hierarchy: it’s white men who get the most roles, and then it’s white women, and then it’s women of color and it just goes down and down. But I think we’re slowly addressing that balance and Netflix being in the U.K. is a huge part of that.
In the U.K., the industry goes back to the whole system of who went to RADA and who did this, but then you look at the cast in “Bridgerton,” some people went to drama school and some didn’t. They come from all different backgrounds. I think that’s something Netflix does really well. You don’t have to be part of that hierarchy. Because I didn’t come from an acting background; I came from the west of Ireland, I didn’t know a single actor. I just worked my way in. A number of years ago, there was pressure on actors to go to L.A. and do pilot season and all that stuff, but in a way, pilot season has come here. There’s such a wealth of talent here.
So did you meet the show’s narrator, Julie Andrews? Will you meet her?
I hope so, but also it’s so terrifyingly intimidating. When I found out she was cast, I burst into tears because that was the first indication of the scale of the project. I thought, “Oh they’ve got Julie Andrews doing this. This is no am-dram production.” We thought she’d be able to come to set but she did all her recording in the U.S., remotely.
What’s going on with season 3 of “Derry Girls”?
It’s written and ready to go. It has been for quite a while. We were meant to film in May 2020, which didn’t happen. We had another two dates where we tried, but things [in the U.K. and Ireland] were getting better and worse, better and worse. It’s been a bit of a waiting game, but it’s definitely going to happen [in 2021] at some point, come hell or high water.
Do you think you might be able to shoot in the spring?
We’re not really sure yet, because we do the majority of our filming in Belfast in Northern Ireland, so it’s about seeing how the situation is there. Everything is set and ready to go.