Jessica Madsen on Cressida Cowper, 'Bridgerton' Season 3 Fan Theories & Coming Out


Spoilers for Bridgerton season 3 part two ahead.

Jessica Madsen always imagined that the viscous exterior of Cressida Cowper the Regency-era “mean girl” she plays in Bridgerton, was masking the pain of the immense pressure she felt from her parents to find a husband. Like self-described wallflower Penelope Featherington (Nicola Coughlan), who took center stage in the third season of Netflix’s hit romantic period drama, Cressida is entering her third season on the marriage mart with few prospects. After her attempts to win the favor of Lord Debling (Sam Phillips) fall flat, Cressida’s parents threaten to marry her off to a dismal suitor thrice her age who has designs of confining her to a life of solitude.

But when Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel) offers a £5,000 cash reward to whoever can unmask the identity of Lady Whistledown, Cressida sees a path to freedom and rashly declares herself to be the ton’s pseudonymous gossip columnist.

“She’s snatching at anything she can, and the first thing is, ‘Coming out as Whistledown will give me the money to get away from my family and start a new life,’” the 32-year-old English actress explains. “I don’t think it even dawns on her that it’s essentially stealing from the queen—and then she actually has to write the Whistledown [papers].”

Things go from bad to worse for Cressida; not only is she unable to produce a convincing edition of Whistledown’s society papers, but she fails to blackmail Penelope after discovering she is the true columnist. Below, Madsen breaks down her approach to playing Cressida and whether the ton has truly seen the last of her character.

How much of Cressida’s behavior can be tied back to her parents?

I don’t think she’s been given much of an opportunity to figure out who she is; she had a lot of rules to abide by and tried to please her parents. You get stuck in this pattern of pleasing your caregivers because that’s your only way to survive. Her blueprint is something she has to battle with, and it’s only through Eloise that she finds a way of opening herself up to a different way of seeing things.

Cressida says that Eloise is the first real friend she’s had in a very long time. Why do you think they were so drawn to each other?

Cressida always admired Eloise for being her own person, but I think it was a matter of Cressida going, “That one!” [and singling her out]. She saw Eloise without anyone else around her, and because Eloise has been spoken about [in Whistledown], she’s like, “Ah, that will stir something. People will talk. That will look good.” And then, they realize that they have things in common and open a completely different perspective of life to each other.

Cressida (Jessica Madsen) and Eloise (Claudia Jessie)

Netflix

What is going through Cressida’s mind when Eloise decides to break off all contact with her? Eloise obviously knows that Cressida is lying about being Lady Whistledown.

I think it breaks her—and her way of breaking is to tighten up again. [Cressida’s] way of coping is to go on the attack. When Eloise walks away, there are things that are so much more terrifying for [Cressida] that she can’t really feel that pain too much because she’s got to get back and figure out how to get herself out of this mess.

In episode six, Cressida seems to be posturing, like she’s proud that she has revealed herself to be Whistledown. But underneath the surface, it’s a different story.

She’s leaning on her mother to find how she feels. She’s not thinking with her gut, which is probably screaming at her: “What is actually going on?” It’s a fake-it-till-you-make-it [situation]. She is good at that—we see her do that with Lord Debling, where she just switches on the flirt. She’s quite good at numbing what she feels and presenting herself as okay.

You’ve previously talked about how you think Cressida and Penelope were friends as children, because their mothers were clearly friendly as well. Do you have any theories as to why there is so much animosity between Cressida and Penelope now?

Nic and I have spoken about it, and we never pinned anything down because you never know what the writers might incorporate into the story. They are quite similar, so there’s that competitiveness. We know Penelope is a gossip queen—but she’s not vocal about it, she writes about it, whereas Cressida is the other way. They both had this need to know more information, and they had it out for each other when they were younger, but we like to think that they were friends to begin with.

Cressida (Madsen) and Penelope (Nicola Coughlan)

Netflix

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Do you think there is a path to reconciliation for Cressida’s friendships with Eloise and Penelope?

Absolutely. In the second half of this season, they’re still in the storm of [Lady Whistledown’s identity being uncovered]. We don’t see the storm’s aftermath. With some processing and time, there’ll be a lot of reflection and a way back to each other.

The last time we see Cressida, she is being led away in a carriage—ostensibly to her aunt’s estate in Wales. What do you think Cressida’s happy ending would look like?

We’ve seen her open up and that there is a beauty and a kindness to her. I would really love for that to be her happy ending—for her to be able to fully be herself and figure out who she is. Even though I love to play a villain, I would like to see her happy.

You’ve been sharing quite a few fan theories about Cressida. What have you made of the theories that Cressida is “queer-coded” and maybe even in love with Eloise?

What is lovely is that, obviously, the chemistry I have with Claudia has shone through in the work that we’ve done, and I don’t think we ever anticipated anyone to feel like it was queer-coded in any way. But I do love that people have such a hunger and desire for a queer romance to be on the show. We send each other the videos, and we’re like, “Hey, if only…” [Laughs.]

Earlier this month, you posted on Instagram that you are “in love with a woman,” and you received overwhelming support from your Bridgerton fans and costars. Why did you decide to come out with that post?

I do like to be private and feel that is incredibly important, but at the same time, I felt a responsibility to be proud and to share that. My life may have been a little easier in certain ways had I seen more visibility growing up. I so admire Jonathan [Bailey] and Golda [who are openly gay], and it’s such a beautiful, safe place that we have on the show that it’s lovely to feel everybody’s support, and they’ve all seen my journey and many different versions of me. We’ve been together for five and a half years, so we’re very, very close. I was very moved by everyone’s response.



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