Bridgerton. Nicola Coughlan as Penelope Featherington in episode 204 of Bridgerton. Cr. Liam … [+] Daniel/Netflix © 2022
Dearest gentle reader, unless you have been living under a rock for the past two years, you probably know that season one of Netflix’s Bridgerton is one of the streaming giant’s biggest series to date, having a total of 82 million households tuning into the series in its first month between Christmas 2020 and January 2021. With this rather steamy series now back for seconds on March 25, expect twice the extravagant balls, twice the all-consuming romance, and twice the Lady Whistledown. And if you have yet to catch up and wish to dodge spoilers, perhaps your reading should stop right here, as you have been warned.
Set in Regency London during the early 19th century, Bridgerton largely centers around the Bridgerton family, as they navigate through the pressures of tradition, marriage, and social class status in an ever-changing society that lives for knowing everyone else’s business. Luckily for “The Ton” as this community calls itself, Lady Whistledown somehow knows all, sees all, and pretty much shares all.
Nicola Coughlan and Claudia Jessie in a season two poster for “Bridgerton”
During a time when social media was still about 200 years away from invention, the way that gossip got around in this fictional world was through the mysterious columnist known as Lady Whistledown. And at the end of season one, to the shock of many, Bridgerton viewers learned the identity of this all-knowing persona being none other than the shy yet sharply ambitious Penelope Featherington.
Played by Irish actress Nicola Coughlan, Penelope returns in Bridgerton season two continuing to pen the pages of Lady Whistledown. Before we get ahead of ourselves, however, I had to first ask Coughlan how she initially realized that her Penelope character would ultimately become the unmasked (at least to Bridgerton audiences, but not within the Bridgerton world) ghost writer for Lady Whistledown.
Nicola Coughlan as Penelope Featherington/Lady Whistledown in season two of “Bridgerton”
“I found out in a very bizarre way,” Coughlan reveals. “I found out on like a Reddit fan forum about Bridgerton. I mean, it was so strange. I auditioned, I had like two pages of script. I knew barely anything about it. I googled it, found out it was a book series but I was like Okay, she’s this shy wolf, sure. And then when I got cast, I was like Oh my God, she’s way more than I ever would’ve imagined, so really, really exciting and terrifying but also made coming to season two extremely fun and extremely exciting because I knew we were going to get to explore that whole other world.”
Strategically or not, Coughlan’s Penelope finds herself thick in the trenches of the Bridgerton family drama, being best friends with forward-thinker Eloise Bridgerton while also quietly in love with eligible bachelor Colin Bridgerton. So, in what ways will Bridgerton fans notice a change in Penelope this season?
“She is so many different things. She’s contradictory in a lot of ways because I do think she is really shy, I do think she is very sweet but also, she’s got this hardness to her. I think she’s been buoyed by the fact that you know she knows she’s the most powerful woman in London. That is going to change you. That is going to change how you’re going to relate to the world and there’s definitely a certain level of arrogance to her this time around.”
Bridgerton is brought to Netflix by way of Shondaland, the American television production company founded by Grey’s Anatomy mastermind Shonda Rhimes in 2005. With show creator Chris Van Dusen leading the Bridgerton charge with Rhimes and their creative team, Coughlan has nothing but praise to say about her ongoing working relationship with Shondaland.
“I have to really give props to Shondaland – they’re so insanely supportive,” Coughlan continues. “They really are, like they put their money where their mouth is. They’re there for you because filming with Covid is no joke. You can’t really have a social life because the fear of shutting down the production is like really, really crazy. And then I had another project that I was due to go onto, Derry Girls, and you know there was timing conflicts which happens in the normal world. Then, when you have Covid delays on top of that, it’s not easy but Shondaland was so behind me and were like ‘We’re going to do everything we can to make this work’ and [Shondaland executive producer] Betsy Beers got on a call with me and not every production company would do that. In fact, it’s really rare that they would but they’re not just these abstract figures in LA – they’re really people that are involved every step of the way. It has been a dream working for them, genuinely it has.”
On a series where gossip and public presentation mean everything to most, I wondered how Coughlan stays grounded and authentic in these more modern times when she chooses to share parts of her real world on her own social media pages.
LONDON, ENGLAND – MARCH 13: Nicola Coughlan, wearing Tiffany & Co., attends the British Vogue and … [+] Tiffany & Co. Fashion and Film Party 2022 at Annabel’s on March 13, 2022 in London, England. (Photo by David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images)
Dave Benett/Getty Images
“I think you always have to try and be yourself as much as you can. It’s difficult drawing the line – you’re like How much do I want to share and how much do I want to keep to myself? In fact, how I used it before Bridgerton is different to after because it’s just a lot more eyes on you and you have to realize that what goes out there can have weight and meaning and that’s scary at some points because people can share anything online with a number of followers. I do try to be aware and to also remember that it’s not real life.”
Being a leading actor on the hit Netflix series, you might expect Coughlan to be in long-discussions often about her salary and negotiations to continue on for Bridgerton season upon season. That, however, could not be any further from her truth.
“I think a lot of actors, especially this side of the pond, the sort of business side of it is one of the last things we think of. I’m just like happy to be doing it. Especially theatre in London, it’s not the most well-paid thing but I would 100% go back and do a play whenever I had a chance because I don’t like follow the paycheck. I’ll follow the job, really for what it is, and I think you have to lead with that.”
And though Coughlan may play the physical presence behind Lady Whistledown, beloved Hollywood icon Julie Andrews has narrated Lady Whistledown throughout the Bridgerton series. So what does Coughlan think about embodying Lady Whistledown beside the likes of Andrews?
“I mean, it’s amazing! It’s absolutely bonkers. When I found out it was going to be her, I cried. I was so excited! And then when you hear her voice, it just elevates the show to another level. Like sometimes, I joke and say to people they go like ‘What do you do?’ and I’m like I job-share with Julie Andrews.”
As I wrapped up my conversation with Coughlan, I wondered what she would like to say to her Lady Whistledown/Penelope Featherington character on Bridgerton, if only she could.
“Oh my god, so much,” Coughlan says with a laugh. “I could never live my life the way that she does. I’m honest to a fault. I would have too much residual Catholic guilt. I’d be like I did it, I’m sorry! I would just say to her know who the important people are in your life and the truth always comes out, so you have to be aware of that. See, this is the conflict that she has. It’s not that easy. Is there a way of doing what you love to do and it not sort of ruining people’s lives? But there isn’t! She can’t just go on and become a writer. This is Regency London. It’s not straightforward why she is doing what she is doing, but I’d be like Lying is not good!”