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Bridgerton’s Nicola Coughlan: “Hope felt like a foreign feeling for so long”

Nicola Coughlan, star of Derry Girls, Harlots and new Netflix smash Bridgerton, looks ahead to 2021 with new hope

The year 2020 is drawing to a welcome close and Nicola Coughlan – star of Derry Girls and Harlots – is finding reasons to be hopeful. She is speaking from Galway, where she has spent most of 2020 in lockdown back at her mother’s home. Like so many of us, she has been “mainlining TV shows”.  

“I got completely obsessed with Euphoria,” she says. “Also, and this is not so highbrow, I’ve been watching a lot of The Real Housewives. 

Good news for anyone wishing to join in the binge-watching fun is the arrival on Netflix of Bridgerton – a brilliant new Regency romp, based on the bestselling romance novels of Julia Quinn and made by super-producer Shonda Rhimes and her Shondaland team. 

The Big Issue: So there is a triple whammy of hope for the New Year – a new US President, vaccines being rolled out, and Bridgerton!

Nicola Coughlan: I like those all being linked together. I’ll take that. Hope felt like a very foreign feeling for such a long time. But it just shows you to always have it. It’s been such a tough year for so many people.   

What sets Bridgerton apart from previous period dramas? 

It’s a very fresh take on a well-worn genre. It’s based on romance novels, which haven’t been done on a grand scale like this before. People refer to Julia Quinn as a modernday Jane Austen and you can see why – it pokes fun at the rules of society and the institutions from the inside. 

Tell us about Penelope Featherington. 

It’s her first year out in the London season and she feels too young to be part of it all. They have to go to these balls  it’s the marriage market, so essentially they’re like cattle looking for husbands. Penelope doesn’t know what to do with herself – she’s awkward and shy. Nowadays we have Tinder and all these dating apps that are essentially the same thing, just packaged in a different way – so it’s actually very relatable. 

There’s a wonderful line: “Penelope, put down that book at once. You will confuse your thoughts”… 

There’s a dynamic with Penelope and her best friend Eloise that reminds me of Little Women – these women ahead of their time being constrained by society. I was lucky enough to speak to Julia Quinn when she visited the set and she said the books are about romance but they’re also about female friendship. And one of the biggest love stories is Penelope and Eloise. 

You auditioned for six months before being cast in Derry Girls – what was the process like here? 

I did one audition and got offered a role! Which is completely unheard of. I was honoured because Shonda Rhimes is one of the most powerful woman in television. She’s incredible. She’s broken down so many barriers in terms of gender representation, in terms of race on television. I thought, Why has she picked me for this? I had imposter syndrome times 100. Then when I read about Penelope, I was like, ‘Oh God, people love her and want Emma Stone to play her. They’re going to be so disappointed that it is me.  

Joe Biden is a proud Mayo man

It’s nice to see such a diverse cast – which isn’t always the case in period dramas – and, whaddaya know, it works and it’s brilliant. 

I’m delighted you say that. And there was huge diversity in the writers room – so the diversity in the show spreads beyond what you see on screen, which is something everyone is so proud of. It’s important to see yourself represented. All the cast are fantastic, but I do have a favourite – Golda Rosheuvel as Queen Charlotte. She’s phenomenal. I’m excited for people of colour to see themselves represented on screen in this in a really joyful way, because it’s way overdue. 

Going back to our triumvirate of hope, were you glued to the US election coverage this time?  

I was completely glued to it, after lying to myself and saying I wouldn’t pay attention because I remember 2016 so vividly, thinking Hillary Clinton was going to win and it would be a new dawn for women. I didn’t let myself believe, so when positive results started coming in, it was overwhelming. And it means a lot for Ireland in terms of the Good Friday Agreement. Joe Biden is a proud Mayo man! 

In Derry Girls, you’ve been part of educating, or reminding, so many people outside of Ireland about the importance of the Good Friday Agreement and what is at stake if it is undermined. 

I remember really distinctly the Good Friday Agreement being signed and thinking, is it over? The constant reports of shootings, bombings – is that going to be finished? It’s been funny with Derry Girls and people saying they didn’t know all that happened. That’s a huge gap in people’s knowledge – Ireland is Britain’s next-door neighbour. We’re its closest trading partner. We’re so inextricably linked. Next door neighbours should know what’s going on.  

Do you have a date for filming the next series of Derry Girls yet? 

We’re still waiting. Because it’s integral to the show that we film in Derry. And we can’t do anything involving a crowd right now, so logistically, it’s really tough. But I spoke to Lisa McGee [the show’s creator] recently and she talked me through the storylines. They’re so brilliant, which doesn’t surprise me – she’s just incredible – but it made me want to do it right now. But we also want to do the best version of the show we can. By hell or high water, we all want to make it work – if they said we could go tomorrow, trust me, we would all be there.  

Apart from filming more Derry Girls, what are your big hopes for 2021? 

Oh, gosh. I have a lot of friends who are shielding, so for them to get the vaccine and have that peace of mind would be amazing. And I would love for my mom to get it. And I’d love to get back to work. Selfishly, I’d also love to be able to travel again. When I finished Bridgerton there was a gap where I wasn’t working, so I planned to visit friends in the US. For those possibilities to be taken off the table – it just made the world such a tiny place.

But mainly I hope with Biden coming in it will usher in a new dawn of people being more understanding. There’s been a lot of hateful rhetoric for the last four years. I hope this will make people a little more empathetic and understanding of one another. I think we could all do with that. 

Bridgerton is available on Netflix from Christmas Day. And Nicola Coughlan is on Taskmaster on Channel 4 on New Year’s Day at 9pm