Nicola Coughlan and Camilla Whitehill talk about Channel 4’s Big Mood

Coughlan, who plays Maggie, a 30-year-old writer with bipolar disorder, first met the show’s creator at Oxford drama school, and they were friends at first sight.

“I thought you were very funny,” Whitehill said.

“I thought you were very funny tooechoed Coughlan. “Everyone else in our class was very serious, and I just found Camilla so funny. We made each other laugh” so much so that they always thought about working together.

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“I didn’t know what it was going to be, but when I first saw Camilla’s writing on stage, she wrote a little play about an atheist choir, and it was so funny, and so she, I knew we had to do. There are people like that who can’t put it on the page afterwards, but she did. Her voice was there and I said, ‘Oh, she’s going to be a famous writer.'”

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“And I always thought Nicola would make it as an actor because she had something different to other people,” Whitehill said. “And that’s what you need. You can’t be the same as everybody else. There was something about her acting style that I found really unique. I would always have her do these unpaid short plays. I always said, “Nic, come and do this silly thing.”

And now we find them here, having graduated from “silly stuff” (in Whitehill’s words) to Big Mood, even though Coughlan was “never asked to do the show”.

“It was never an argument, it just happened,” he explained. “And then I had to say to my agent, ‘I’m going to do this Camilla project, and it’s not commissioned.’ And she said, “Okay… there are other things people want you for.”

“It’s crazy that I have to sell this to anyone, because I know Camilla is a brilliant writer and I had full faith in her before I’d even read a word of it, but that’s how it is. a lot hard to sell it to an agent.”

Nicola Coughlan as Maggie in Big Mood.Channel 4

Maggie is a far cry from Claire’s “little lesbian” in Lisa McGee’s Derry Girls, Coughlan’s standout role and shy, insecure Penelope Featherington in Netflix’s hit Bridgeton, which catapulted her rising star to astronomical heights .

“I’ve never played a character like this, and also just a fully grown adult woman,” she said. “It was liberating to play her in a lot of ways. She’s very confident, she doesn’t really care what people think, whereas I really do, and I wish I did less.”

In the show’s opening scene, Maggie walks down the middle of a residential London street on an electric scooter, donning a scarf, sunglasses and a cherry red velvet tracksuit while waving to passers-by as if was Lady Gaga.

“And it was also the hardest part I’ve ever played because he goes through the journey of his mental illness, and that’s tricky to portray on screen,” added Coughlan. “I really loved it, it was a very special experience.”

But amid the bare, heavy subject matter, which describes Maggie’s manic and depressive episodes in unflinching detail, it’s also deeply funny, courtesy of Whitehill’s “comedy first” approach.

“I’m not much of a message person, I don’t really know what the message is,” he added. “I was more focused on trying to make the best and funnest show possible.”

But even with this emphasis on making viewers laugh, crucially, it never laughs at maggie

“Just don’t punch,” Whitehill said when discussing how to strike the right balance between entertaining an audience and making sure you don’t demean the subject at hand.

“When comedy writers or comedians say you can’t talk about anything anymore, you can’t be funny, it’s actually extremely easy, you’re just not good at being a comedy writer.

“You don’t have to diminish anything, but you can mock and make fun of anything, as long as you do it with love and care.”

Maggie and Eddie sat side by side on a couch

Nicola Coughlan as Maggie and Lydia West as Eddie in Big Mood.Channel 4

This isn’t the first time a darker and often mythologized mental illness has been tackled on screen. Anne Hathaway plays a woman with bipolar in the excellent episode Take Me as I Am, Whoever I Am of the Prime Video anthology series Modern Love.

In 2019, Channel 4 aired Pure, a comedy that explores what it’s like to live with obsessive compulsive disorder that manifests as sexually explicit thoughts. But these conditions have yet to pierce the public consciousness in the same way that depression and anxiety have.

“We don’t talk about it enough, and we’ve left some people behind,” Whitehill said. “We’ve left a lot of mental illness out of the realm of mental health.”

Why do you think this is so?

“People are kind of afraid of what they can’t understand. With depression or anxiety, those are extreme versions of feelings that we all have. So not everyone has depression, not everyone has anxiety, but people understand feeling anxious, people understand the feelings. sad.

“But if we’re not talking about it, then how are we ever going to understand it? Maybe when it’s something where you can never imagine doing it or feeling it, maybe it’s a little confusing and scary.”

The conversation again explained why comedy is, despite prejudice, the perfect vehicle to examine what it really means to exist with bipolar disorder.

“I really don’t think there’s much you can’t make funny,” he added. “And I think that when we categorize something that has to be handled very delicately and be really dramatic and sad, we’re really just contributing to its taboo. If we just bring it to light and treat it like anything else, that’s better for everyone.”

Nicola Coughlan as Maggie in Big Mood, in a black dress, lying on a sofa

Nicola Coughlan as Maggie in Big Mood.Channel 4

As well as engaging with Bipolar UK to ensure the writing was as authentic and responsible as possible, Whitehill also drew on her own experiences, although she “doesn’t really see writing as an act of therapy”.

“Mostly it’s my job,” he added.

Coughlan went on to explain why using a creative outlet to achieve catharsis can create an uncomfortable work environment.

“As a general rule, I don’t agree,” he said. “There’s a real danger in writing or acting as therapy because if you’ve ever been on screen with someone or on stage or worked with a writer who’s trying to solve problems, it’s a mess. It doesn’t matter what you’re trying. to deal with it I think you have to get enough out of yourself to deal with it because otherwise it can only be a disaster.

“It’s a professional environment. I know it sounds very strict to say that, but at the end of the day there’s a team to consider and your fellow actors. You can still deal with those issues, but you have to do it in an incredibly professional way , in a controlled, safe way. I think less so now in the industry, but that was very important, the actors going around, throwing chairs. And I’m like, ‘Who is this for, though?'”

“You just threw that chair away,” Whitehill said. “And he hit a guy.”

“I just threw a chair,” laughed Coughlan.

But Big Mood isn’t just what it’s like to live with a mental health disorder. The beating heart of the narrative is the friendship between Maggie and Eddie (It’s A Sin’s Lydia West).

When we meet them, Eddie has already crossed the threshold of a new decade, while Maggie celebrates her 30th birthday in episode 2 (disastrous, it must be said). But while their love is unquestioned, they are learning that life, with its many and varied demands, means that they cannot always show each other the way they would like.

“Meeting that age doesn’t necessarily mean we all reach those milestones at the same time,” Coughlan said. “Me and Camilla, when we left drama school, we auditioned to go on a full-time course and neither of us got in. And then Camilla went on a course somewhere else and I didn’t get anywhere. And for me it was very similar, where is my life going? I’ve hit a crossroads.

“And that’s just a different crossroads that Maggie and Eddie have hit, when you start to say, ‘I’m growing up, and you’re going this way, and our paths don’t line up anymore.’

“I remember in my late 20s, early 30s when people were getting engaged and having babies and you were like, ‘but what does this mean for us?’ It’s a selfish thing, but you also love your friend. You don’t want to lose that version of them.”

“But sometimes you will,” Whitehill added.

“Sometimes you will, absolutely,” Coughlan said. “It comes from a place of love and fear.”

Nicola Coughlan and Lydia West, side by side, looking worried

Lydia West as Eddie and Nicola Coughlan as Maggie in Big Mood.Channel 4

As the third season of Bridgerton quickly approaches, in which Coughlan is now the romantic lead while Penelope and Colin’s friend-lover dynamic takes center stage, the actor is feeling a different kind of dread.

“I always want to do my best work and not let people down, and it’s wild to be on a show that has hundreds of millions of viewers worldwide,” he said. “And also the character who went from a little girl in season 2 to a grown woman in season three, I was terrified.

“But this year, with Lydia West and Luke Newton, they were incredibly good people to work with, people I felt I could tell if I was struggling with, because it’s a challenge. It was an eight-month shoot, and Big Mood and Bridgerton they overlapped for three weeks of that, so you’re running in reserve. But having good people around made all the difference.”

Does Coughlan feel short-changed now that she’s a household name, not just here in the UK, but in countries around the world?

“I’m lucky in a weird way because I didn’t really have much success in my twenties, so it gave me a lot of time to live in the real world and be very grateful for where I am now,” she said. “Personally I don’t feel any different, and that’s because I have really close friends that I’ve had for years and years, even though it’s wild for me sometimes.

“Me and Camilla were on vacation in Austin, Texas and these girls were looking up, but I thought they were looking at Camilla, because of her tattoos. And then they started squealing and waving and I was like, ‘Oh yeah , for sure. .’ Because sometimes you forget.”

“So I’m grateful, I feel lucky. I’ve worked with really good people and on projects that I’m really passionate about. Bridgerton is a very joyful show, and I think it’s lovely that people see themselves reflected in it. And Shonda Rhimes has done a lot in terms of diversity on television and changing what a romantic lead can be.

“It means a lot to people to be represented, so I’m very proud to be a part of it.”

Big Mood can be seen on Channel 4 from Thursday 28 March at 10pm.

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