Bridgerton Star and Creator on Lady Whistledown’s True Identity

[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers through the Season 1 finale of Bridgerton, “After the Rain.”]

One of the biggest mysteries introduced by the first season of Bridgerton is the identity of Lady Whistledown, whose narration as supplied by Dame Julie Andrews drives much of the Netflix period drama. But while the character’s all-knowing presence has been compared to that of Gossip Girl‘s titular narrator, unlike Gossip Girl the actual person behind the Whistledown gossip pages gets revealed in the final moments of Season 1.

Those who have read the books by Julia Quinn already knew that Whistledown’s writings were actually the work of Penelope Featherington (Nicola Coughlan) — something which showrunner Chris Van Dusen told Collider was a factor in revealing the character’s identity at this point in the series.

“Going into the show, I knew there would be a large portion of the audience that knew who Lady Whistledown was, and there’d be a whole separate group of people who had no idea of Whistledown’s identity, who were not as familiar with the book,” he said. “So, for the scenes with Penelope, we really were aware in the writers room that everything with Penelope had to be approached by those two tracks: one for the group of people not familiar with the books. And we never wanted to be ahead of the mystery, and we never wanted to telegraph where we’re going.”

This ended up meaning, Van Dusen said, that “the Penelope scenes are some of my most favorite scenes… and I think that where that sets us up in success for the future is just so interesting, and fascinating. What now the kinds of stories we can tell for Penelope, knowing that she is Lady Whistledown?”

Image via Netflix

In a separate interview, Coughlin agreed, saying that while she found out her character’s big secret in a roundabout way during the lead-up to production, it was a major factor in her performance. Below, she explains the “very creepy” research she did to get into character for the role, how she feels about gossip personally, and how she thinks this reveal will affect future seasons.

To start off, when did you find out who Lady Whistledown was going to be?

NICOLA COUGHLIN: I found out in such a funny way, because when I got cast it was very unexpected. I heard it was a Netflix Shonda Rhimes show, so I assumed that meant months and months of really arduous, terrifying auditions. But in reality, I had one audition with the casting director. The tape was sent to LA, and then I got a call two weeks later offering me the role, so I had very little time to prepare for that audition so I couldn’t have read the book. I think it was a day, or two days I had. Then got to read the book after the fact, and I started with Book 4, which was Penelope’s book. And while I was reading it, I went online to the fan forums because I was really curious just to… I’ve been such an online lurker. I’m like, I want to know what people are saying, or who they want to be cast, and they wanted Emma Stone, and I thought, well, that’s going to be a disappointment.

But then I read one fan forum when Penelope is revealed as Whistledown and I thought, what have I just… What? And I kept rereading it and rereading, I thought that can’t be right. And I thought, just can’t. And then it just blew my mind even further. I thought being offered the role was incredible enough and then thinking it’s such a huge part of these stories. And then when I finally sat down with Chris, our showrunner, I said to him, “Um, am I Whistledown? Is that staying the same?” and he said, “Yes, you are her.” Because it completely changes how you approach the character, how you play her, because I always had to be cognizant of that other level, always. I feel like her brain must constantly be clicking. And I started to… it sounds very creepy, but I started to eavesdrop on people’s conversations, like on public transport or stuff, just to see how easy it was to do. And it is amazing the things that people will say when they think no one is listening, so it’s a very, very creepy bit of personal research that I did.

In terms of that, are you the kind of actor who in general wants to know everything before you take on a project like this?

COUGHLIN: I think so in a way, I think you have to, because I think you could know it all, but then you partly have to leave it at the door a little bit when you go in. I mean, it was incredible having the books to draw from because it feels like a little secret tool that you have of clues to why they act a certain way, and something really out of character can happen, but then you can link it back in like, oh no, at this time they did this. Right. That makes sense for me. And you also want to do it justice because the books have been around for 20 years and have such an ardent loving fandom.

Image via Netflix

You want them to watch and think about the Penelope I know on screen and not something really different. But yeah, no, I think I like to prepare, but then I think a lot of it is just about making it feel fresh and that you have to go in approaching like that these are real people and this is their world, and letting it live and letting it breathe and finding what happens in the moment I think was a big part of the show. It didn’t feel stilted or slow in the way a lot of period dramas do. It was a delight to be sparky and alive and fresh.

Absolutely. I mean, I think there’s a very modern element to the way that they talk about Lady Whistledown — just in terms of how she’s a woman who’s supporting herself, and the awe that everyone seems to have of that basic fact.

COUGHLIN: Because she would have been the only woman within society with independent wealth, and that’s a fascinating thing. There’s Lady Danbury who is a widow who… She has a lot, but she’s still constrained a lot. Whereas Penelope, I’m fascinated to know what she’s doing with all this money. I would imagine she’s just squirreling it away. I don’t think she’s terribly interested in buying bows and things. Yeah, it’s interesting to think what that gives her because she’s a fascinating juxtaposition in being the most low status character in the room, but also the most high status because she controls everything. She can change someone’s fate by writing a tiny column. It’s just a joy. It’s really fascinating character to play.

And especially in a society like this, the role of gossip is just a very fundamental part of existence.

COUGHLIN: Totally. And it’s funny, it’s fascinating because I think in a way we view gossip as a very modern invention, but it hasn’t been. If you look way back… I did classics at university, so I’m going to be very nerdy for a second, but you look back at Pompeii and there was slanderous gossip written on the walls there, so human beings have always been messy and nosy and interested in drama, and those scandal sheets that Whistledown’s column are based on were really prevalent in society, but it was a lot more genteel and that it was Mr. M and Ms. K we’re seeing promenading at such and such, but Whistledown outright names them so you can see why that society would have been completely obsessed, and celebrity didn’t exist in the same way that it does now, so the celebrities were these very wealthy families that were hanging out with the Queen and doing things they shouldn’t have been doing.

How do you personally feel about gossip?

COUGHLIN: Oh gosh, I’d love to say I’m so above it and I just don’t, but I love it. Not something really terrible that would hurt someone’s feelings, but I think that’s part of the draw of reality television actually is. We want to know other people’s secrets. We can pretend we don’t, but I think we all sort of do. And in those situations where people are putting their relationships out, when people are cheating and people are doing this, it’s hard to be not enthralled by that because it’s real life and sort of… Yeah, I wish I were better and would say not at all, never, but that would be a lie.

Image via Netflix

So looking forward, there are so many more books that could become potentially adapted, and of course with the end of Season 1, there’s this huge element of your character that theoretically would be a big part of Season 2. What have the conversations been like with Chris and the writers about what you might expect going forward?

COUGHLIN: I mean, I would love to, because as you said, there’s eight books in the series, there’s so much more. Because I read Book 4 first, I saw Penelope 10 years on from what she would be in Season 1, so she’s very different in that. I think human beings, we mature, we’re inherently the same, but seeing her at that level of maturity was fascinating to me, so I’d love to carry on with that. But then with the Whistledown elements, I think I’d love to go into that knowing how they’d approach that, so the audience are in on the secret, so they get to go to the ball with and see the gossip happening. And I think because of the books too, the protagonist change every year, would be really interesting to see [Anthony] Bridgerton as badly behaved and naughty as he is. Whistledown would have a field day knowing all of that.

But yeah, I mean, I spoke to Chris about it and I think… He said because it’s sort of changed a little bit over time. [Lady Whistledown[ was always going to be Penelope, but they wondered about having a red herring ending and changing it. But then I think it’s the right thing to reveal it now because the books are there, you can Google who Whistledown is and find it. Because they were going to keep it as Penelope, I was like, it’s totally the right call and it’s such a satisfying ending to the series. I re-watched and re-watched that bit more times than I should admit because it’s embarrassing, but I think it’s so well done.

Well, she’s already such an easy character to root for — then you find out this other additional power she has.

COUGHLIN: Right? I know. It’s funny because you think, oh, everyone’s so terrible to her, it’s so… And then you’re like, you sneaky little minx, you were doing that the whole time. I was shocked by her sometimes. Truly. I was like, I can’t believe she did that. I can’t believe it.

Bridgerton Season 1 is streaming now on Netflix. For more, check out our interviews with showrunner Chris Van Dusen and star Jonathan Bailey, as well as the questions we hope Season 2 might answer.

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