A little over five years ago, Nicola Coughlan (Galway, Ireland, 35 years old) worked in an optician’s shop in London. She now continues to live in the British capital, but with her sights set on America and the status of a new promise of fiction that she has given her to embody Penelope Featherington in The Bridgertons, the phenomenon of Shonda Rhimes that premieres a new season. At the time we talked to her, she was worried about her because she had just promoted a campaign to raise funds for Ukraine on her digital profile and it seemed very important to her that she had made the right decision. «I have been talking for hours with a friend of my sister who is a volunteer who has guided me. I am terribly afraid of sending money to the wrong people and sharing information that is not correct. Since I am more famous I have a very big responsibility and I want to do it well », she says perky, with a very accentuated Irish accent that joins a rushed and very fast way of speaking. In the end, she opted for the Red Cross: “They are people who are on the ground, in direct contact with the Ukrainians. That seems very important to me”. Coughlan, who plays anonymous hack Penelope Fetherington in The Bridgertonswhose second season premieres on the 25th, became known thanks to Derry Girlsthe series in which she plays a student at a convent school in Northern Ireland in the 1990s, where the climate was not exactly peaceful.
He grew up in Ireland. How close were you to the conflict in real life?
It’s strange because when I got the script for Derry GirlsWell, sure, you realize that Ireland and Northern Ireland are two very different places and actually I grew up seeing all of that on the news, it wasn’t like living it in real life. You heard about the IRA attacks in London and all that, but come on, you basically saw it on the screens. It wasn’t like being a part of it. So when I did the casting for that role I totally knew what the story was about, but at the same time I didn’t know anything. Nor was this type of conflict totally foreign to me. My father worked for the Irish Army, which was completely neutral, but he spent time in the Middle East on peacekeeping missions. My family, in fact, lived in that area before I was born, in the late seventies, and he was also stationed in Croatia and Honduras, from where he sent us a lot of photos. Although we were children and we still did not know much, we were always aware of these situations. Obviously it is not the same as living it but let’s say that it has always been part of my family environment.
And was there a lot of talk about politics in your house?
My parents have always been people with a very strong sense of morality and they educated me in those values and in the Catholic faith, although I no longer have any interest in religion. I hated going to mass when I was little. I remember with real horror Ash Wednesday, when they told you that you came from dust and to dust you would return. I am like a sponge and that kind of thing left me quite dismayed [risas] So as soon as I turned 16 I told my parents: “I’m not going back, it’s not my thing” and they were fine with it, which I’m very grateful for because I have friends with very religious and conservative parents who told them who they had to vote for, with which was not so in my case at all. Then I went to university, where you meet people of all kinds, with different ideas, traditions and cultural baggage and form your own criteria. The Irish public education system is not perfect, of course, but it is very egalitarian and allows people from different backgrounds to mingle. There are very few fee-paying colleges there. And then at university you meet people from all over the world. And on top of that, I was lucky enough to do an Erasmus in Malta, which gave me the opportunity to be part of a kind of miniature United Nations. In fact he lived with a Spanish girl. There was also a Belgian, an American and a Russian… we used to go to clubs together.
In England a huge number of actors come from the upper classes, is this also the case in Ireland?
This is funny because I come from a comfortable middle class background: we lived in a house that was okay, I went to the local school, we didn’t go on vacations to very exotic places, but hey, we did go to good places. And then when I came to England to study, I was met with the perception, among a lot of people, that I had to be working class, just because of the accent that I have, without knowing anything about me and without any kind of context. It was a very strange thing. I mean, I had gone to diction and ballet classes, I didn’t have to pass myself off as someone from another social class…
And you thought you could make your way through it all?
It is true that when I arrived at the Oxford School of Drama I suddenly met people who had friends within the royal family. At first I loved it, because it was very innovative, but when I entered the labor market I began to get angry because you began to realize the difficulties in finding a job. I took a loan to go to acting school and my parents helped me, but still, I was alone in danger and that scares you. Then you understand that luck plays a very important role and even if you trust that you have talent and that you can make a living as an actress, well, that was not my case for a few years. So I had a debt, I was working for a living and I was thinking of those stories about famous producers picking up actresses from their schools and I was like, “Well, no one picked me up from my school in Galway.” . If you don’t have to pay your rent or worry about putting food on your table, everything is much easier.
But would you say that nepotism is a problem in your industry?
There are so many different types of people in the film industry and you find people with great talent, whose parents happen to be famous, and then you also find others who have opportunities that better people will never get. It is not a fair industry nor is it a meritocracy. It is very difficult to enter. But once you do, amazing things can happen to you.
There is one thing that is particularly curious about this new stage of The Bridgertons and that is that there is hardly any sex…
It’s a very different dynamic. The first season was more Daphne in a kind of love triangle, which could lead one to think that the second season is going to be explosive…
What was the most exciting thing for you then about working on this second season??
I find it such a privilege to be part of a series again that you know people enjoy so much. And then it is also that it is a wonderful team, very kind and very sweet people. I love working with Claudia Jessie, who is a brilliant actress but she is also generous and hilarious. She is passionate about her work and I have always really liked hard-working people who care about what they do. It seems to me that her role in the first season was a challenge, always so quiet and so shy. For me as an actress, it’s hilarious when the scripts come in and she’s like, ‘Oh my gosh! I have to bring that scene to life!”
And are there as many intrigues in the filming itself as in the series?
Let’s see, it’s hilarious to play all those things and sometimes I find it weird. Once I was watching an episode with my mother and she sees an action and she says to me: “But Nicola! Why did you do that?!”. And I had to explain to him that that person was not me [risas] I wouldn’t do all those things!
I have read that when he left his last conventional job, in an optician, to work in Derry Girls, she thought to herself: “This is the last time I do a normal job”. Why was she so clear?
I was already 30 years old and had worked in a lot of places, in fact the other day I was with my agent in New York and I couldn’t believe the amount of normal work I had done. And I don’t know, I just felt it, I had a feeling that this role was going to be special. It is also that I was signed by a very good agency, Curtis Brown, who represent actors that I have always liked, because they are fresh and there is something very particular about them, like Florence Pugh or Robert Pattinson and I signed for them at that moment, just when I decided to leave optics.
Do you notice London very changed by Brexit?
You know what? I came to London in 2011 and it was such a different time and place… when I moved to the city I worked in shops and there were a lot of non-English people in them. I had many Spanish and Polish colleagues, for example… also Brazilians. There was an incredibly interesting mix. When the Brexit debate started I thought, who do you think is going to do that job then? It was and is so frustrating for me and it makes me so angry because I feel that I was very privileged to do an Erasmus and after being part of that great community of Europeans. It is such an incredible privilege to be able to be close to people from different countries and travel freely to visit them. Who would want to close themselves to all that? It is something that divides us, that only serves to separate us. It seems to me an absolute disaster, I have always been against it and I have always spoken out against it.
But imagine that you have to explain to someone who hasn’t been in the city for two years what has changed… what would you say?
It has definitely changed a lot: there are many places that have closed and all those workers that you used to see are gone. The truth is that for me, as an Irish, all this has a very strange point. I remember after the referendum there was a lady on TV saying: “The Irish have to swallow this, period.” And I was so angry that I couldn’t vote. We are neighbors, our commercial ties are very important, our relationship is very close… there is an English border on our island! And well, another thing I’ve noticed since Brexit is that there’s a lot less funding for the arts. When I arrived in the UK it was much easier to go to the theater at good prices. The sector received much more subsidies. That has also changed a lot.
And all this has made you think about moving to the United States?
I always tell myself that wherever there is work, I will go. I like to have an open attitude. And I think it’s crazy to make plans, because at the moment I’m thinking that I want to move to Portugal, they still call me to go to Colombia. I’ll probably always be based in London, but hey, I’ve been to Los Angeles and I’ve been to New York very recently. I love that city. His energy blows me away. I found it hilarious and I also really like the people there. It is always the people who make the places. People are always the most important, right?
Especially if one is Irish…
Yes! In Ireland we have a saying: “We talk to the casts” [risas].
* Styling: Aimee Croysdill. Makeup: Neil Young (Premier Hair and Makeup). Hair: Hally Brisker (The Wall Group). Manicure: Michelle Class (LMC). Set designer: Terry Palamara. Photography assistant: Matthew Aland. Styling assistant: Prudence Fisher. Props: Max Stranger.
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Nicola Coughlan: “I had to explain to my mother that I’m not to blame for what my character from The Bridgertons does” | Celebrities, Fashion | S Fashion THE COUNTRY