Bridgerton is the period drama that ripped up the rule book and turned Regency England’s high society into the perfect breeding ground for love, lust and steamy sex. Forget shy glances across ballrooms, this is a series punctuated by desire – male leads in billowy shirts climbing out of ponds (dripping wet, of course) and couples who can’t keep their hands off each other (whether it’s in the library, the dining room, the garden…).


The racy goings-on have captivated global audiences: the first season broke records when it was viewed by more than 82 million households in its first four weeks, and the second surpassed that as the most watched English-language Netflix series.

Now in its third instalment, this season will focus on Colin Bridgerton (back from his travels with a six-pack, tan and noticeably buffer) and Penelope Featherington (the overlooked spinster and secret author of Lady Whistledown’s gossip sheet). Set on finding her match, Penelope ditches the gaudy, citrus dresses and goes about reinventing herself.

Stepping firmly into the limelight as Penelope is Nicola Coughlan, the 37-year-old Irish actor who landed the role after just one audition. “I met the casting director’s assistant – I read for him and I thought I did a fine job,” she explains. “But I knew it was a Shondaland show for Netflix and thought, ‘This is going to be months of auditions. It’s going to be so protracted and terrifying – you’ll meet the execs, get to the table read and then get fired!’ You hear all these horror stories. So, I certainly didn’t expect anything from that first audition. Two weeks later I got a call offering me the job. I thought, ‘Where’s the catch?’”

Fans of the show have long been obsessed with Penelope and Colin’s will-they-won’t-they relationship. When it was recently teased that the actors had broken furniture while shooting an intimate scene and that Coughlan had a clause in her contract that means her parents get sent a PG-version of the show, it sent the internet into a tizz. Was Coughlan apprehensive about filming sex scenes with Luke Newton, who plays Colin?

“Oh my gosh, it was definitely intimidating,” she confesses. “Hundreds of millions of people watch the show – not five. That’s really scary. But it was one of the things I enjoyed most. Luke and I had a real hand in what we did and how it came across. We decided what we wanted to show and how we wanted to choreograph the scenes. People often imagine intimacy coordinators saying, ‘Put your hand here’ or ‘Do this’ – and certain people do it like that, but I can always see it on screen.

“We had agency and we could let it flow. Thankfully, we had that physical comfort with one another – so it ended up being a really beautiful thing. Luke is a dream to work with. We really had each other’s back. Having now watched those scenes, I’m so proud of them.”

Nicola Coughlan as Penelope Featherington, Luke Newton as Colin Bridgerton standing next to each other in regal attire
Nicola Coughlan as Penelope Featherington and Luke Newton as Colin Bridgerton in Bridgerton. Liam Daniel/Netflix

Part of Bridgerton’s success is down to its focus on the female gaze; it portrays sex that prioritises women’s pleasure. Are we in an era where content can be unapologetically female? “Romance is the most read genre of fiction in the world – but people always undermine it. This show broke so many records when it came out. People were asking, ‘What could be [behind its success]?’ Well, it’s really angled towards women and what women like to watch.

“It’s funny because people just don’t seem to want to get it. They’re like, ‘Barbie was good,’ so maybe we should make another doll film? It’s not about the dolls!” she exclaims – having had a small role in the film as ‘Diplomat Barbie’. “It’s about women’s stories in whatever guise they present themselves! It’s just bad business sense not to invest. The proof is in the pudding!”

Bridgerton might be set in the 1800s but there are still many similarities with today’s society. Although the series celebrates female sexuality, the women are still consumed by finding a match, while the male characters are afforded much more leeway with their promiscuity. Is that still relevant?

“It’s more insidious now. Men can sleep with as many women as they want, but women can’t do the same. It’s not seen on an equal footing. We like to think that we’re so liberal and open, but I think the world is still far more judgemental towards women having agency with their sexuality than it is towards men.

“Penelope’s also the most modern heroine we’ve had because she doesn’t just want marriage and love – she also wants a career. I think everyone can relate to the love story – but for women it’s hard to have it all. There should be no shame in her wanting everything.”

Coughlan has, in the past, taken to social media to ask fans and press to stop commenting on her body. Does she feel pressure to look a certain way? “I feel very lucky for all the different roles I’ve got to play. I put that down to having an incredible female team around me.

“I have a brilliant agent who never wants to pigeonhole me. I think that’s the way forward and how we’ll break through boundaries in this industry – women buoy other women up.

“This industry can be very narrow-minded. Within reason, anyone can play anything. I would never feel like I couldn’t do something. You can change your accent. You can change your hair. You can change your build! If I’m going to play a bodybuilder, I’m going to go to the gym and get hench! People can feel hemmed in – but I feel like I’ve refused to be thus far and I’m going to continue to do so.”

Coughlan grew up in Galway, with her stay-at-home mum and father who was in the army. She fell in love with acting after watching The Wizard of Oz and secured her first professional job, aged nine, when her drama teacher sent her to an open audition of a James Brolin movie. What did her parents make of her career choice?

“I’m sure it was slightly baffling for them! I went to university, which was the sensible thing to do. Then I applied to drama school. That’s when it got very real – drama school is expensive and there were loans to be taken out. With my English degree I could have gone into teaching – but I knew in my heart of hearts I couldn’t do that. My passion for acting was too strong. I’m sure there were points where my parents were thinking, ‘Why is she still trying to do this?’”

And breaking into the industry was no small feat. “Moving to London was hardcore because I was really broke. I was in debt. I had to work every hour of the day to afford to live there – but that meant I had no time to audition. I didn’t last terribly long that first time in London – probably six to eight months.”

Hannah Dodd as Francesca Bridgerton and Nicola Coughlan as Penelope Featherington in Bridgerton standing at the side of a room covered in flowers, both wearing ball gowns and looking nervous.
Hannah Dodd as Francesca Bridgerton and Nicola Coughlan as Penelope Featherington in Bridgerton Laurence Cendrowicz/Netflix

Coughlan moved back to Galway and worked at an optician’s. It was only when she saw an open casting call for a play at the Old Vic in London that things started to change. Out of 1,500 actors who auditioned she was cast. Did that feel like a breakthrough at last? “I had thought it many times before – what if this is the one that turns everything around? I was insanely lucky. There’s always the neat way of telling things – but in reality, it was a year from doing the rehearsal reading, to the play being put on, to me then signing with my agent, to then getting Derry Girls. I had to go back to work in the optician’s in the gaps! Nothing happened quickly.”

Coughlan invited every agent in London to see her performance – but only one came, a representative from Curtis Brown. “She decided to sign me!” she beams. “It felt like a huge turning point. It opened doors for me that had never been opened before.”

When her agent asked her what kind of roles she’d like, Coughlan suggested a Channel 4 comedy. Soon afterwards, she was cast in Lisa McGee’s hit sitcom Derry Girls as nerdy Clare. It was the role that made her a household name.

“The scripts were absolutely incredible on that show. When we were making it, it felt like something special. But, there’s sometimes a lot of backlash to women in comedy – so I didn’t see it being the big thing that it became. It happened so quickly – it captured the zeitgeist and my life changed overnight.”

Does she keep in touch with her Derry Girls pals? “Yes, I’m obsessed with Renegade Nell. Louisa’s amazing. I love Big Boys – Dylan is doing brilliantly. And then for Siobhan to win her BAFTA, that was just so mega.”

The fame that came about from Derry Girls must have been a precursor to the heights of celebrity she would reach with Bridgerton. What does that feel like? “There’s no handbook for that. Losing your anonymity is a really odd thing to experience. Mostly it’s lovely – people are so kind – but it’s [tough] if you just want to go to the shop on your own or to the doctor! I remember once taking a friend to A&E and someone came up and asked for a picture and I was like, ‘Not today!’ I never normally say no. It’s hard because there’s no off switch.”

That constant noise is amplified by social media – and the proximity it has provided for fans to reach their favourite celebrities. “It’s a very difficult balancing act with social media. I feel very grateful to the fans, and I want to try and give back – whether it’s with behind-the-scenes pictures or by noticing fan art!

“I used to put my day-to-day life out there but I don’t do that any more. I’ve realised what’s precious to me and what needs to be private – like my family and my friends from home. I used to love Twitter and then I really got the ‘ick’ from it and left. I didn’t think it was a nice environment. Some people said I was bullied off of it – but I wasn’t.”

Perhaps it was finding fame in her 30s that has enabled Coughlan to have such a strong sense of herself and her priorities. Despite her huge success in Derry Girls, Bridgerton and the recent Channel 4 comedy drama Big Mood with Lydia West, Coughlan seems entirely grounded.

“My 20s were such a struggle – it’s really hard not to be doing the thing that you want so desperately. But I think fame then would be hell, so I wouldn’t go back and change it,” she says. “I’m sure 22-year-old me would kick me for saying that – but you get to live your mistakes. Scrutiny is difficult but it’s easier when you get older to shut certain things out. I lived a whole life before any of this happened. I worked a million different jobs, lived in different places, lived in terrible house shares with mould on the walls.

“It’s funny because people see you at fancy events and think you must be fancy. No, no, I was making frozen yogurt in Westfield not long ago. This is not normal for me!”


Bridgerton season 3 part 2 premieres on Thursday 13 June on Netflix.