Nicola Coughlan is calling for more complex female roles in television.
In an essay penned for The Guardian, the 34-year-old actress reflected on her career and expressed her hope to see more "complicated" female characters on screen.
Before she played Penelope Featherington on Bridgerton, Coughlan portrayed Clare Devlin on Derry Girls. The star recalled reading the script for the first time and thinking the characters were exactly what she'd been waiting for: "properly funny, obnoxious, unlikable at times." But she also remembered the show's creator, Lisa McGee, receiving a note to make the character Michelle (played by Jamie-Lee O'Donnell) "a little softer, less in your face and more palatable" and asking why.
"So much television allows for, even centers on, deeply flawed male characters, far less so women," Coughlan wrote in the piece. "Would anyone give a note asking that Breaking Bad's Walter White, one of TV's best villains, be a little sweeter? Of course not. It made me wonder how many complex women have been toned down, or removed from our screens, on the basis that women have to be likable above anything else."
Coughlan worried viewers wouldn't like the show—especially after reading the reviews for the 2016 Ghostbusters starring a female-led cast. As she put it, "Seeing my comic heroes Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy get trashed online made me fear how the 'women aren't funny' brigade would react to our show."
But after seeing Derry Girls become "Channel 4's most successful comedy in 13 years," Coughlan quickly realized "there was a hunger for stories about women and girls."
"During filming, we worried about making performance choices that were too 'big,' or 'going full Rik Mayall,' as I like to call it," Coughlan added. "But our director, Michael Lennox, encouraged us to 'go there,' which I think is a huge part of the reason people responded to the show. These girls were free to be 'a gang of dicks,' as McGee lovingly calls us. Fans tell me that they're the 'Clare' of their friendship group, and their best pal is the 'Orla.' Women were able to see themselves in these characters."
After starring on Derry Girls from 2018 to 2019, Coughlan went on to act in Bridgerton and "explored the complexity and depth of female friendship" between her character Penelope Featherington and Claudia Jessie's character Eloise Bridgerton. The show became Netflix's biggest series ever.
At one point in the essay, Coughlan reflected on some of TV's other big hits and the friendships in these programs, including between Fleabag and her sister Claire on Fleabag, Arabella and Terry on I May Destroy You, Abbi and Ilana on Broad City, Leslie and Anne on Parks And Recreation, Rue and Jules on Euphoria and Candy and Lulu on Pose.
She then championed for more of these roles in the future. "The best moments on the sets of Derry Girls and Bridgerton came when the young women were allowed to be unapologetically themselves, never worrying that they might not be appealing," she concluded. "I, for one, am excited by all the difficult, brilliant, complex women to come, who have yet to grace our screens. Long may the sisterhood reign over us."