Nicola Coughlan’s moment of Bridgerton glory crowns a refreshingly different rise to the top

In the spotlight: Nicola Coughlan’s ascendancy is the result of talent and hard graft  (Netflix/Channel 4)
In the spotlight: Nicola Coughlan’s ascendancy is the result of talent and hard graft (Netflix/Channel 4)

When Nicola Coughlan was a young girl, she “wanted to be one of the gay icons”. A bold, brash, unapologetically OTT character – like the ones played by Bette Midler or Liza Minnelli – was, she thought, so much more fun than the classic love interest. But in the latest season of Netflix period drama Bridgerton, Coughlan proves that she can still play the romantic lead to perfection, too – without dialling down her characteristic wit and warmth.

Since 2020, the 37-year-old actor, who first won over audiences in Channel 4’s sitcom Derry Girls, has been a much-loved member of Bridgerton’s sprawling ensemble cast. She’s donned a series of acid-hued Regency ballgowns to play Penelope Featherington, bookish best friend to proto-feminist Eloise Bridgerton (Claudia Jessie), the fifth child in the show’s central family. At the end of season one, Coughlan’s wallflower character was unmasked as Lady Whistledown, the anonymous author of a high society scandal sheet. In season three, which concluded this week, it’s finally Penelope’s, and Coughlan’s, turn in the spotlight, as she vows to find a husband – and grapples with her not very platonic feelings for longtime friend Colin Bridgerton (Luke Newton) in the process. And although reviews have been mixed, there’s one thing that critics have agreed on: Coughlan is the main reason to keep watching. The Independent called her a “superb screen presence”, while The Times hailed her “luminous, showstopping performance”. “Be in no doubt… this is Nicola Coughlan’s series,” their critic added. “You are basically here for her.”

Coughlan’s moment of glory has been a long time coming. Her steady ascendancy is the result of talent and hard work alone – making her something of an anomaly in an industry seemingly populated by nepo babies. “I’m happy to say that I had no ‘in’ in this industry,” she recently told Refinery29. “I come from a small village in the west of Ireland. I had no connections … It took me until I was 30 to get a good job on television.” She grew up in Oranmore, in County Galway on Ireland’s west coast, with her parents (her father was in the army, her mother was a stay-at-home mum) and two older siblings; when Coughlan was four, her sister introduced her to The Wizard of Oz, which left her “mesmerised” and made her think: “That’s what I’m going to do.”

When she was nine, she landed her first film role, as “Little Girl Feeding Swans” in the thriller My Brother’s War (she earned £35 and got to miss a day of school). As a teen, she took on voiceover work: “If there was a tiny frog or a little princess, I was like, ‘I will do that voice!’” she told chat show host Seth Meyers earlier this month. Then, after doing a degree in English and Classical Civilisation at the University of Galway, she headed to England to train as an actor, studying at the Oxford School of Drama and Birmingham School of Acting. Like so many aspiring performers, she moved to London after graduating, with hopes of breaking into the industry. Instead, she found herself working constantly – serving frozen yoghurt in Westfield, selling beauty products, picking up any other odd jobs – in order to pay her rent, with no time to pursue auditions. Essentially, she was “spending all my money to live in a place where I [was] not auditioning” as she put it in an interview with CBS. She moved back to Galway after less than a year; over the next few years, she would relocate to London and then return home three times. “My twenties were such a struggle – it’s really hard not to be doing the thing that you want so desperately,” she told Radio Times. “I lived a whole life before any of this [success] happened. I worked a million different jobs, lived in different places, lived in terrible house shares with mould on the walls.”

The continual knockbacks took a toll on Coughlan’s mental health. When she moved back home for the third time, she struggled with depression. “I couldn’t get out of bed,” she said. “I felt like I failed at everything. I felt like I had nothing, and I had let my family down.” Eventually, after a “very slow recuperation”, she got a part-time job in Galway at a local opticians. While working there, she saw an open casting call for Jess and Joe Forever, a play at the Old Vic, and decided to give it a shot – out of the 1,500 actors who auditioned, she was one of just seven to get a part.

Her performance in the coming-of-age story eventually landed her an agent; when asked about what sort of roles she wanted to try out for, Coughlan said she’d love to be in a Channel 4 comedy. As luck would have it, the broadcaster would soon look to assemble the cast for Derry Girls, Lisa McGee’s riotous sitcom about four teenage girls (and one wee English fella) growing up in Derry against the backdrop of the Troubles in the Nineties. To prepare for her audition, she watched and re-watched an old clip from Irish talent competition Popstars, in which a 16-year-old Nadine Coyle – actual Derry girl and future member of Girls Aloud – lied about her age and feigned losing her passport to try to secure a place in the band. “The only person I could think of from Derry was Nadine Coyle, and the only thing I could think of was her losing her passport on Popstars,” Coughlan explained.

Breakout role: Coughlan, far right, with her ‘Derry Girls’ co-stars (Channel 4)
Breakout role: Coughlan, far right, with her ‘Derry Girls’ co-stars (Channel 4)

She ended up delivering the entire monologue in her Derry Girls audition – and clearly her research paid off, as she was cast as Clare Devlin, the gang’s resident overthinker and “wee lesbian”. The show was an instant hit. The first season, released in 2018, was Channel 4’s most-watched comedy since 2004; it was also the most-watched show in Northern Ireland that year, and won over viewers around the world when it later aired on Netflix. For Coughlan, however, the success was bittersweet: just five days before she got the part, her father died suddenly. “The first time we were at the Baftas and won these incredible awards [for Best Scripted Comedy], it’s always that tinge of sadness he’s not here to see it,” she told Laura Whitmore’s Castaway podcast.

Shortly after Derry Girls first aired, Coughlan appeared in the Donmar Warehouse production of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. The show earned praise from critics – but a critic from the British Theatre Guide used his review to comment on Coughlan’s size rather than her performance, describing her character as “the kind of overweight little girl who will always become the butt of her fellows’ immature humour”. The critic, it turned out, had form. In a 2017 review for Jess and Joe Forever, he had branded Coughlan “a fat girl”. She called out his comments on Twitter/X, asking the publication for an apology. “He was meant to review my work,” she later wrote in a powerful op-ed for The Guardian. “Instead he reviewed my body. That is not acceptable.”

Coughlan was praised for how she handled the incident – and for her sharp response when the Daily Mirror called her Baftas dress “unflattering” the following year (“I look smokin’, sorry ‘bout it,” she wrote on Twitter). But she also struggled with how these episodes had shifted the focus to her appearance, rather than her acting. “I’m not a body positive activist, I’m an actor,” she tweeted in 2021, after a few years of being repeatedly asked about her body in interviews. “I would lose or gain weight if [it was] an important role requirement. My body is the tool I use to tell stories, not what I define myself by.”

Empowering: Coughlan chose to be ‘very naked’ in her ‘Bridgerton’ sex scene (Netflix)
Empowering: Coughlan chose to be ‘very naked’ in her ‘Bridgerton’ sex scene (Netflix)

When the time came for her to film one of Bridgerton’s much-discussed sex scenes, which features in the second half of the third season, Coughlan saw that she had a chance to shrug off all of this discussion. “There’s one scene where I’m very naked on camera, and that was my idea, my choice,” she told Stylist. “It just felt like the biggest ‘f*** you’ to all the conversation surrounding my body; it was amazingly empowering. I felt beautiful in the moment, and I thought, ‘When I’m 80, I want to look back on this and remember how f***ing hot I looked.’” When she watches the series with her family though, they certainly won’t see that particular scene – because it is “literally written into [her] contract” that Netflix will provide her with a PG version of the show. “I grew up Irish Catholic,” she told SiriusXM. “That’s just not how we vibe.”

Off screen, Coughlan isn’t afraid to stand up for the causes she believes in. In 2019, she and her Derry Girls co-star Siobhán McSweeney (who played no-nonsense nun Sister Michael on the show) were part of a group of 28 women who marched on Westminster to call for the decriminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland. When Channel 4 was at risk of privatisation in 2022, the actor made her feelings on the matter clear, sharing a photo of her sticking her middle finger up. And more recently, she has spoken out in support of a ceasefire in Gaza, despite being told that she could potentially lose work over her stance. In an interview with Teen Vogue, she revealed how her father’s work with the United Nation’s Truce Supervision Organisation had shaped her beliefs. “He would go into a lot of wartorn regions after the conflict and try and help rebuild,” she said.

Beyond her activism and Bridgerton, Coughlan has had a sparkling cameo in Greta Gerwig’s Barbie (the biggest film of last summer) and gave a raw, nuanced performance as a young woman with bipolar disorder in millennial comedy Big Mood for Channel 4. She’s also filmed a Doctor Who Christmas special, which will arrive on our screens in December. She says she “would die at the chance” to collaborate with Gerwig again, and has her sights set on working with A24, the in-demand studio behind films such as Past LivesMoonlight and The Iron Claw. Just don’t expect her to acquire any Hollywood airs any time soon: after all, she still doesn’t feel “any different to the girl who used to ring people up and tell them they’re overdue for their eye test”.

‘Bridgerton’ season three part one is out now on Netflix. Part two arrives on 13 June

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