‘Bridgerton’ Star Nicola Coughlan Explains That Shocking Whistledown Twist
The romance series’s Regency era “Gossip Girl” is... not the person we thought she’d be!
This post contains spoilers for Bridgerton’s Season 1 finale.
Netflix’s steamy new romance series, Bridgerton, might not necessarily have much interest in teaching its audience any big “lessons”—but if there’s one takeaway from its debut season, it’s that one should never underestimate a wallflower.
Fans of Julia Quinn’s original romance novels already knew what viewers of the TV series have just (or will soon) find out: The notorious gossip columnist at the center of Bridgerton, whose pen can make or break the reputation of anyone she likes, is none other than Penelope Featherington. How fitting that her nickname this whole time was “Pen.”
Speaking with The Daily Beast in a recent Zoom interview, Derry Girls actress Nicola Coughlan, whose take on Penelope is as lovable as it is crushingly relatable, said she was shocked to have landed the role—and that she only became more stunned after realizing Penelope’s significance within the series.
Coughlan had not heard of the Bridgerton series before she auditioned for the show—a process that turned out to be far simpler than she’d expected. “I went and did it, but thought because it’s Netflix and Shondaland, that’s going to mean like the worst audition processes; it’ll be months; I’ll never hear back and blah-di-blah,” she said. Instead, she got a call back within a couple weeks to offer her the role.
Coughlan was surprised at how quickly she heard back—a feeling that only grew once she started digging around on fan forums and realized that her character actually turns out to be the infamous town gossip.
Processing that reveal took a minute (and a couple re-reads on the forum), Coughlan said. Much like her at-times reticent character, the actress admitted she felt some trepidation as well. “The book fans are incredible,” Coughlan said, “but they had said loads about what they thought the adaptation would be like and who they wanted cast—and they wanted Emma Stone. I thought, ‘Oh no. That’s gonna be a terrible disappointment!’”
I have admittedly not read the books. (Although, after watching the show, I’m certainly considering ordering them all at once as a late Christmas gift to myself!) But to this non-reader’s eye, Coughlan was just the right choice to bring Penelope Featherington to life. In her hands, Penelope is more than the two-dimensional “wallflower” archetype that can sometimes plague quieter characters. She’s prim and charming and, yes, pretty passive at the balls—but in safer social settings, Pen can be passionate and even, at times, petty.
It’s that complex, at times idiosyncratic web of personality and circumstances that first enamored Coughlan as she dove into the books—particularly the fourth tome, which she notes centers on Penelope. And the reveal in the finale, in which Lady Whistledown evades capture while delivering her newsletter to the printers by carriage and removes her cloak to reveal Penelope’s face, was “the most satisfying thing in the world to film.”
In particular, Coughlan noted, she loves the juxtaposition between Penelope’s unenviable social status and the power she wields through her pseudonym. “She’s so overlooked and ignored,” she said. “In her own family at the balls... She’s just seen as, you know, a little girl—but then at the same time, she is the H.B.I.C. in London.”
Lady Whistledown slash Penelope Featherington’s status is doubly fascinating to consider within the context of the period, Coughlan adds, a time when women held little agency, personal or professional.
Between women’s circumstances at the time and the specifically crappy treatment Penelope has endured, Coughlan reasons, “you can see the motivating factors” behind her sharp, at times ruthless alter-ego. “She is both sweet and conniving,” Coughlan said. “And loving. And, you know, a bit of a B. She’s all of these things.” In other words: She’s the perfect Shonda Rhimes character.