Why Nicola Coughlan would ‘just start crying’ while filming ‘Bridgerton’

Like her "Bridgerton" character, Nicola Coughlan has a penchant for the spread of information.

"Gossip is life," she tells TODAY.com at the "Bridgerton" Season Three New York premiere May 13.

Coughlan takes over as the romantic lead of "Bridgerton" in Season Three, stepping out from the yellow floral walls she once quite literally blended into and "into the light," as the episode titles alone convey.

Before "Bridgerton," Coughlan was best known for her role in “Derry Girls," a Channel 4 comedy set to go down as a cult classic. Her character, the high-pitched, neurotic, anxious Clare is the opposite of wry, kind, charming Penelope Featherington, who's revealed to be moonlighting as gossip columnist Lady Whistledown in Season One's cliffhanger.

"Bridgerton" brings a new level of fame for the actor. Part One of the Season Three, which hit Netflix May 16, drew more than 45 million viewers in its debut weekend, per Deadline.

But Coughlan was ready.

"Nerves are good if you can live with them," she tells TODAY.com in an interview. "If you let it be a bubbly feeling in my stomach, it can mean that you just want to do a really good job."

The ‘Bridgerton’ scene she was most nervous for

"Bridgerton" has a devoted fanbase, bringing together loyal Netflix viewers, fans of a good period drama and, the most passionate, lovers of the show's source material, Julia Quinn's eight-book "Bridgerton" series, first published in 2000.

Given the fandom, Coughlan concedes some scenes had higher stakes than others. Coughlan and Luke Newton, who plays Penelope's love interest, Colin, agree on which.

"The carriage," Newton says in a joint interview with Coughlan.

"The carriage scene" has become a shorthand for a pivotal scene in the fourth "Bridgerton" book, "Romancing Mister Bridgerton." In both the show and the novel, Colin finally admits his feelings for Penelope, and the two have sex for the first time in a moving carriage.

"I think any (scenes) that were both book related and steamy," Coughlan says. "We definitely felt — it was not like so much of pressure, it was like a nervous energy. And I would liken it to the feeling as an actor right before you're going to step on stage."

It's unusual for Coughlan to feel that "nervous energy" while filming TV and movie projects.

"That's actually not, for me anyhow, a common feeling filming something because you don't have an audience watching you. But those days it felt like we were about to step in front of an audience," she says.

Nicola Coughlan (Netflix)
Nicola Coughlan (Netflix)

Filming 2 lead roles at the same time

For three weeks, Coughlan worked on both "Bridgerton" and the Channel 4 comedy, "Big Mood," which hit Tubi on April 19.

"As actors, I think our worst enemy is scheduling. Because even if you get offered something brilliant, you may not be able to do it at all," she says.

In "Big Mood," Coughlan plays Maggie, a woman with bipolar disorder, trying to hold onto her career as playwright and maintain her friendship with Eddie (Lydia West).

She says the production companies for "Bridgerton" and "Big Mood" "worked around each other" to make it possible — but it was still "crazy."

"Towards the end of 'Bridgerton,' I would just start crying," she says. "I'd be saying like, 'There's nothing wrong with me.' ... I've never given as much in any job as I did in these two. So they are always linked in my brain."

Newton says right after filming on "Bridgerton" wrapped in March 2023, he went "on holiday." While away, he recalls checking in with Coughlan.

"I was like, 'How you are doing?' and you were like, 'I'm still going,'" Newton says.

"He was living his best hot boy summer," Coughlan says. "And I was like, I have no makeup on. I'm in a stinky pub in East London. I'm dressed as an octopus."

Coughlan says her brain was "fried" while learning the scripts for "Bridgerton" and "Big Mood" at the same time.

"Learning the 'Bridgerton' dialogue is not easy because it's not super naturalistic. It's very stylized. And then 'Big Mood' is incredibly colloquial. One of my best friends wrote that show, so it's how we speak. But trying to do both of those at the same time...."

One thing provided comfort: "Vanderpump Rules."

"The only thing that I could watch when I came home in the evening was 'Vanderpump,'" Coughlan says. "And there were 10 seasons there. And I know there's this huge scandal at the end. It was the perfect show. It's a perfect, perfect reality show."

How Nicola Coughlan relates to Penelope

Coughlan doesn't identify as a "natural extrovert," like many might suppose actors to be.

"That couldn't be further from the truth," she says. "I know a lot of actors, and I think we're often like, the kind of odd kid that felt we could best express ourselves through performance. I was quite quiet in my own way, but then I used to put on these plays for my family where I'd play all the characters."

Penelope's character's arc in Season Three involving trying to make herself marriage material — a plan that backfires — until she finds herself more comfortable living "a life out in the open."

Penelope's development towards true confidence comes from "learning to love herself," "loving Colin," "becoming a woman" and yes, "having sex," Coughlan says.

The back half of Season Three takes a more dramatic turn, forcing Penelope to decide how Lady Whistledown relates to her identity.

The answer (spoiler alert), is that she and Lady Whistledown are inseparable. Penelope makes the observations, leverages her wit and wields the pen that Lady Whistledown gets the recognition for.

Whistledown is how Penelope expresses herself. Coughlan feels the same about acting.

"I can relate to that," Coughlan says. "And I have more empathy for (Penelope). Because I can go and do this performance or speak in front of a big crowd of people, but I actually really like my own space and quiet."

Bridgerton (Liam Daniel / Netflix)
Bridgerton (Liam Daniel / Netflix)

Coughlan says she didn’t realize how “big” Season Three would be until a month before the Part One premiere.

“We’re starting to realize now how big it is and what the scope is,” she says. “You think about it, but then, the trailer coming out and everything going crazy and it being everywhere, you’re like, ‘Oh gosh. It is a thing.’”

She says she came into the "Bridgerton" phenomenon feeling "really blinkered."

"I'm going, 'This is going to be our lives for this amount of time,'" she explains.

But she didn't want to leave things how she normally does: with regrets.

"I normally watch myself back and have so many notes on like, 'Why did I do it that way?'... Whereas this season, I don't want to feel like that at all," she says.

She wanted to feel like she had given Penelope "everything" and left absolutely "nothing."

"I really felt that watching it back," she says. "It's difficult because it means that you don’t have much of a life for that long period of time. But I watched it back and I can really see the work that I put in in a way that I’m very proud of."

This article was originally published on TODAY.com

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