Nicola Coughlan, who some will know better as Clare from Derry Girls, claims that it was her line from series one, episode one, “I’m not being an individual on my own!” that really attracted her to the script. But from chatting to her on a quiet Friday afternoon, it becomes apparent to me that Nicola is every bit the individual. Her bubbly personality radiates even through the scratchy telephone line, as she fills me in on her background in drama. It’s in the family, it seems. “I remember seeing my sister (she was in secondary when I was in primary),” she tells me, “and she was in Calamity Jane, and I thought that’s amazing, I’d love to be doing that, it’s so glamorous and exciting!” We both chuckle at this statement, because as we’ll see later on, the acting world can be anything but glamorous at times. Nicola had her first professional job at 9, “I was an extra in a movie and I was feeding swans, and I thought ‘this is great, I get to miss school, this is class.’” As is the norm for many budding dramatic artists, she was involved in Dramsoc, and the Musical Society while in college in NUIG. After that, “I did a foundation course at the Oxford School of Drama, and following that I did my Masters at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. So it was a long process.”
Moving on to the most pressing matter at hand, I’m keen to chat to Nicola about her best known piece of work, the hilarious Derry Girls. Set in Derry in Northern Ireland during the 1990s, the show follows the exploits of Erin and her friends as they navigate the most pressing problems of teenage life, all with the backdrop of the Troubles. Nicola explains that when she first got the script in 2016, she knew right away who she wanted to play: “I was always up for Clare, it was never a possibility that I would go for any of the other roles . . . I remember reading ‘’I don’t want to be an individual on my own’, and I thought that is so funny, and it’s very rare that [a script] jumps out at you like that . . . but I thought that really encapsulates what it’s like to be a teenager, there was something about that writing that was so sharp and clever.” Clare is a very relatable character for many; but Nicola was attracted to the role because she reckons that she’s nothing like Clare. “It’s fun because I like playing characters that I’m very different to, so when I went back to playing her for series two, it was brilliant because at some point you put everything [the costume] back on and you don’t look like yourself any more . . . and Clare feels like a friend to me in a kind of a strange way. But it’s fun to be back because you’ve only seen 6 episodes with these characters, and there’s so much more that you can imagine them doing, that you can see them doing this time round, but it’s really exciting.” She knew when she read the script that Derry Girls was the job that she had “most wanted, ever”, but even then, nobody could have predicted what a runaway success the show would become. According to The Belfast Telegraph, Derry Girls was the most watched show in Northern Ireland since the beginning of records in 2002, with “an average of 519k viewers in Northern Ireland and 64.2% share of the audience.” The series has also been streaming on Netflix, and series two is now running on Channel 4, and is as popular than ever.
She knew when she read the script that Derry Girls was the job that she had “most wanted, ever”, but even then, nobody could have predicted what a runaway success the show would become.
Nicola reckons that the success of the show is down to a number of things. “Well, I think that you’re never going to have a good show without a good script – it was so solid, you couldn’t poke holes in it.” She also says that “Carla Strong, our casting director, she always makes sure just get the right combination of people, because they saw a lot of different people for all of the different roles, and spent a long, long time casting, making sure that all the characters seem like they’ve been friends for years and years.” The casting has been a huge element of the show’s popularity, as well as the vividly written and portrayed characters that Lisa McGee, the show’s writer, has created. “What she has done so well is that she hasn’t written them as stereotypes, they’re all very well rounded characters; the fact that Clare didn’t come out until episode six, it really gave you time to learn who she was. It’s not like ‘oh here’s the gay character.’ And the characters are based on Lisa McGee’s real life friends, and I think that gave it a certain depth.” Ultimately, she believes that it comes down to the fact that “everyone loves working on the show; from the cast to the crew, to hair and makeup, we all really care about it and I think (I hope!) that comes across when people watch it.”
Nicola’s talents extend beyond playing a jittery teenage girl from Derry, as she has starred in the Hulu original show Harlots, a drama set in 18th century London, where she worked with big industry names such as Samantha Morton, Liv Tyler and Lesley Manville. “I was lucky,” she says, “because you worry that when you get one really great job that that’s going to be it, and you kind of think ‘I’ve tried my luck here, and I guess that’s it now’. I was lucky, I got cast in Harlots before Derry Girls had come out, so it was reassuring to me that I could play a different character.” After finishing playing Hannah in Harlots, she then moved on to working on a play, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie at the Donmar Warehouse Theatre in London, which she says was “amazing.” “I’d always wanted to work somewhere like that, so get that opportunity was incredible. I’ve been very, very lucky.” The mention of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie brings us to a topic that I really wanted to chat to Nicola about: the issue of body-shaming in the acting industry.
The casting has been a huge element of the show’s popularity, as well as the vividly written and portrayed characters that Lisa McGee, the show’s writer, has created.
In 2018, Nicola wrote an article for The Guardian in which she called out a theatre critic for constantly commenting on her physical appearance. When I ask her about this, her tone of voice noticeably changes, and the inflection indicates how strongly she feels about this subject. “That blew up in a way that was very unexpected. The reviewer had come to a show I had done before in Edinburgh, called Jess and Joe Forever, and had written a similar review where he didn’t review my acting whatsoever, he only reviewed how I looked . . . then when it happened again at the Donmar (during The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie), I thought ‘this is so reductive;’ I’d had to work way too hard to get to the point where I’m at . . . and I thought how disappointing it is to have a man come and then only say ‘well she’s a fat character, that’s why I don’t like her.’” Nicola took to Twitter in order to call out this behaviour, and says that the reaction it received was “a bit overwhelming”, because “when you stand up for yourself, you run the risk of people turning around and being very cruel, and there was that, but there was so much more support.” When The Guardian approached her about writing a piece for them, she decided that was the ideal platform to raise the issue. “I didn’t want it to be turned into something it wasn’t; what I’m trying to say is that the size of my body doesn’t have any relevance to my talent or my work . . . I think that people need to know what’s ok and what’s not ok – and just come and review my acting! If you thought my acting was terrible that’s perfectly fine, I wouldn’t be able to take issue with that, or if you thought my accent was off, of course you could say that, but it doesn’t matter if I was 20 stone or 5 stone, it wouldn’t make any difference to what kind of an actor I am.”
Nicola continues to use her social media platform to discuss a variety of social issues and topics close to her heart, and I asked her whether she feels that it’s important to use voice in an age of influence. “I think we’ve been given an incredible platform – we never anticipated the level of success that Derry Girls would have, we couldn’t have dreamt it really. That comes with a lot of pressure on the side; people are looking at you for what you’re going to say. I try to make a rule for myself, I won’t comment on anything that I feel I haven’t informed myself about. I went from 800 followers on Twitter to 38’000 in a year – and I thought that if I could try and use that for positivity and if I can stick up for people; it’s very tough for people who are part of a marginalised group in society, and they’re being shouted down, but if I could add a positive voice to that mix, I’ll try.”
If you thought my acting was terrible that’s perfectly fine, I wouldn’t be able to take issue with that, or if you thought my accent was off, of course you could say that, but it doesn’t matter if I was 20 stone or 5 stone, it wouldn’t make any difference to what kind of an actor I am.
Nicola’s success has rocketed very rapidly, but she’s not taking any of it for granted; she’s too aware of how much work it has taken to get here. “You’ve got to be very hungry in this job, if you don’t really want it, there’s 10 people standing behind you who want it more, so you have to be very tenacious,” she muses. “But rejection is also such a part of it, but I don’t know if people see that enough. I get rejected from jobs all the time. People always say ‘oh you must be fine now’, and no, it’s constant, there’s no ‘making it’. I remember hearing Judi Dench saying that she was just happy that people were still hiring her, and that’s Judi Dench!” Despite this, something tells me that we’ll be seeing lots more of Nicola on the stage and screen in the future.
Derry Girls series two is showing on Channel 4 now.