Nicola Coughlan is, without a doubt, one of our favourite people. Thanks to her standout performance as Clare Devlin in Channel 4’s Derry Girls, Coughlan has won critical acclaim – and she’s used her position in the spotlight to do some seriously brilliant things.
Over the years, we’ve seen her stand up for the LGBTQ+ community, challenge trolls to #BeKind on social media, fight for reproductive rights in Northern Ireland, call out bullying tabloids for body-shaming celebrity women, and raise awareness of climate change wherever and whenever she can.
Ahead of this important event, we sat down with Coughlan to discuss social media activism, modern-day misogyny, and the #BeKind movement that launched online shortly after Caroline Flack died by suicide. As well as these important topics, though, we also found time to talk about Bridgerton – aka her exciting new project with Netflix and Shonda Rhimes – and, of course, what we can expect from the new series of Derry Girls.
Here’s what everyone’s favourite “wee lesbian” had to say…
Could you tell us a little bit about the new season of Derry Girls? When do you start filming, and what can we expect from Clare?
We start filming this summer, and I’m really, really excited to go back to it. I haven’t seen a single script. Actually, I haven’t seen anything yet, but I totally trust Lisa McGee and know she has so many things still she wants to do with that gang. I’m just really excited to read them really.
This TV series has made you really famous on a global scale. Do you feel a sense of responsibility in how you use your platform?
Massively. I think if you’re lucky enough to have the kind of privilege which I’ve been awarded, then it’s only right. A big problem faced by charities is that they don’t get enough publicity, so if you can use your voice to amplify good causes, then I feel like you should do it.
You’re obviously very outspoken about political and social issues on Twitter. What role would you say social media plays in modern day activism?
I think it plays a huge role. I campaigned for marriage equality in Ireland, and I did door-to-door campaigning, but I think social media is a really great way to start conversations and connect people.
I’ve met so many people through Twitter, and I often use it to fundraise for LauraLynn, which is an Ireland-only children’s hospice. We raised over £7,000 for them just before Christmas. It was so incredible and I was so touched by people by how kindly they gave, especially at that time of the year.
There is so much good to be done. I think if we just try harder to be good then we can do a lot.
While we’re on the subject of social media, a lot of people are speaking about digital citizenship and the need to be kinder online. What do you make of the #BeKind movement?
I lost my dad three years ago, and the one thing everybody said to me at the funeral was how kind he was. And I thought, what a nice legacy. So that need to be kind has always been in the very forefront of my mind, if I’m honest. I think that we forget that others on social media are real people sometimes, and a lot needs to be done to crack down on anonymous trolling accounts.
Twitter is such a lovely resource and I’m very grateful for the people that watch the things that I’ve been in and support me, so I like being able to speak to them and thank them and write to them online. But I think it would be a real pity if trolling got to such a bad level that I couldn’t do that anymore. We all need to be a bit more responsible with what we’re putting out there.
Obviously you’re taking part in this year’s March4Women on International Women’s Day. What made you want to get involved?
I was really honoured to go and speak. It’s always such an incredible event, and the focus this year is climate change. We are all aware that this is a huge crisis, but it really needs to be put at the forefront of our minds: it affects everything and underlies absolutely everything, so if we’re not taking care of our world, we are not taking care of anything. This planet is our home. It’s the only one we have. And, unfortunately, this kind of climate crisis puts many women at their most vulnerable all over the world.
Every year on International Women’s Day, the phrase International Men’s Day begins trending because some men (not all men) fail to understand that they already have their own day. What would you say to those people?
I think people need to look at facts and statistics. Even the industry I’m in, which is very progressive and open, is still so far behind in terms of equality for women. And in terms of the amount of abuse that transwomen are now getting online as well… we’ve sort of taken a step backwards. So we need to be able to have open discussions. We need to look at these men and be like, “OK, why do you feel like this and why is it affecting you and why do you feel like it’s negative?”
Let’s have a conversation about things rather than getting angry about them. It’s the only way to make it clear that women are still earning so much less money in terms of government figures. There is a lack of balance that needs to be addressed.
There’s also the #GoWokeGoBroke movement on social media. Do you think this is having a negative impact on viewing figures?
One of the worst times I got attacked on Twitter was over something that I did not even anticipate. I was filming a scene for Derry Girls and there were 13 actors in it, and only one of them was a man. I was like, “It’s amazing to have 12 women in a scene in a mainstream comedy show on Channel 4” and I tweeted it and left my phone and then came back to a barrage of abuse.
I think, for some, equality feels like injustice, but we all have to check our privilege. And that’s why it’s important to go and see things in the cinema if you support women, like Little Women and Birds of Prey, or watch shows on TV, like Derry Girls.
And remember: no one’s not making those movies for men. It’s not like it’s taking a space away from them.
Of course, some misogynists aren’t keyboard warriors. Tabloid journalism is under a lot of scrutiny at the moment, particularly in the way in which it writes about women in the spotlight. I know you’ve received some negative commentary from the tabloids yourself, what would you say needs to change?
I came into the public eye at a certain age, where I was a little older and I kind of knew how to deal with this bullshit. But it made me really angry and sad thinking about a young girl, who wants to be an actor, seeing all this shit I’m getting and deciding not to do it. We have social media now, so we can’t afford to be scared. And I want people to feel like they absolutely should stand up for themselves.
The press really needs to be investigated in how it talks about women and reduces us solely to our bodies, our looks. I feel like I have far more interesting things to say about me than that: I work hard and I love my job. And look at the way the press treated Caroline Flack: it’s so horribly upsetting. Yes, that was tabloid power at its most extreme, but it does show the very real power they have.
It’s quite scary to deal with tabloids because you don’t want to get on their bad side, just in case they do something… although they tend to always write something regardless. But I really hope that some change happens. It desperately needs to.
How can we all strive to see the positive change we want to see. What four little things do you think we can all do to make the world a better place for women and girls?
1) Speak up for others
I really want to support trans people and non-binary people, and they have just got it so negative in the press and on social media. I try to speak up and be the voice that reminds them not everyone feels this way. That says, ‘We are here and we support you.”
2) Take responsibility for how you speak online
Social media has become part of our everyday, but it’s still new, and we still haven’t figured out a way to communicate properly, so there’s just so much cruelty. Yes, social media companies need to stop hiding in the corner and acknowledge that people are being horrifically bullied online and that they are not doing anything about it. But we have a lot of power, too.
3) Don’t @ me
I never search my name on Twitter: it’s just something I don’t do. But if you have a negative opinion about me, that’s fine. You can say it. Just don’t @ me. I got stuck in a chain of tweets the other day and I hadn’t even said anything. But they tweeted me relentlessly, the most abusive things, and I don’t understand why… because nothing is going to come from that. If you behave in a negative way it will only reflect badly on you and make you feel bad, so just don’t spread that negativity.
4) Just be kind
It sounds simple but it is such a true thing.
We are all VERY excited about Bridgerton. How did you land the role?
Oh my god, getting cast in that show was insane! My agent said to me, “This is Shonda Rhimes’ first show for Netflix, it’s going to be big, and you’re going to go meet a casting assistant”. I thought, OK, so that’s going to be audition one of about 500 auditions, as it’s a huge show. But I did one audition and got offered the role and I was sort of in shock. I didn’t really know what to do.
Then I spoke to Chris Van Dusen and he said my tape went to Shonda Rhimes and they had seen Derry Girls and she said, “Oh it’s her, that’s exactly who we are going to offer it to.” I didn’t want to question Shonda Rhimes’ judgement, she’s pretty good at what she does, but it was kind of insane.
What was it that drew you to the character of Penelope?
I like to think of myself as more of a character actor: I get more fun in playing people who are very different to me, as I can be myself every day and what’s the fun in just doing that all the time? So Penelope is really different to me, just as Clare is in Derry Girls. It’s based on a book series, a really romantic novel series, and Penelope is one of fans’ favourite characters. So, when I got cast, I started stalking all the fans online to find out who they wanted to play that character. A lot were like, ‘Oh, it could be Emma Stone,’ which will be so disappointing for them as it’s me!
Penelope is just a brilliant character and the show is so brilliantly written: it feels very fresh and very different. I’ve been shooting for seven months and everything is so secret, so I’m dying for it to finally come out.
I saw you recently tweeted about working with Julie Andrews on the show. Have you met her yet?
No, not yet because she is sort of our Gossip Girl. She’s the gossip columnist who narrates the show, but she records in LA, so hopefully at one point I get to meet her. I always forget that every time someone reads in the lines she’s doing. I always go, ‘OMG but that is going to be Julie Andrews’. It’s all very exciting!
Nicola Coughlan is joining forces with CARE International UK for the 2020 #March4Women, an International Women’s Day rally devoted to fighting the impact of climate change on women and girls around the world.
To join her, you can…
You can find out more about this year’s #March4Women event here.
Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.
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