Jennifer Coolidge Didn’t Think She’d Live to Hear Your Raves About ‘The White Lotus’
The “Legally Blonde” star’s showcase in “The White Lotus” is earning career-best reviews. It’s a surprise for her, especially after this year. “I really thought COVID was the end.”
Just prior to our phone conversation, Jennifer Coolidge received a surprise gentleman caller.
“An incredibly handsome guy showed up to the gate. Just really a stunning, stunning guy,” she coos in that instantly recognizable rasp of hers: a little warm, a little sensual, a little lacerating, and a little loopy, like the vocal equivalent of a spiked sweet tea. “I was like, ‘Oh! Who’s this?” she says. “And then he’s like, ‘I’m here for the COVID test...’”
The actress, known for making like a bandit with memorable roles in Legally Blonde, American Pie, and Christopher Guest’s comedies, was gearing up for her first big premiere since the world turned the lights off on such revelry over a year ago. It’s to celebrate the HBO dark comedy The White Lotus, which premieres Sunday and has already earned Coolidge the best reviews and most adoring media attention of her career.
“And the next thing is, he pulls out a swab and wants to go up my nose, both sides,” she says, pausing for perfect comedic timing: “It just takes the romance right out of it.”
That a potential meet-cute could be accompanied by invasive trauma tracks. Coolidge has, in some regards, been reckoning with that tension all year.
She was lucky to escape her lonely pandemic prison during the chilly fall months of 2020, traveling to Maui to stay at the Four Seasons, and, unlike so many of her actor colleagues, actually work when the rest of Hollywood was shut down. But she didn’t want to go to Hawaii and isn’t sure she was happy to be there.
Her good friend Mike White (Enlightened, Year of the Dog) wrote a sensational role for her: Tanya, a woman who travels to the fictional White Lotus resort to spread her mother’s ashes, grieving both the loss and the bitter, haunting emptiness she feels with no family or love in her life. For someone so reliably funny, it’s the kind of showcase that earns the hallowed whisper of reverence: “a revelation.”
Coolidge is a proven comedic genius, a maestro of dialogue capable of turning a syllable into its own, peculiar concerto.
In a short video that went viral on social media this year, a camera pans mysteriously up from her shoes to her face, at which point she simply says, “Hi.” One syllable becomes an aria. It was similar to her delivery of the final word in Best in Show’s “we both love soup” scene or, as quoted many times this last weekend, the Legally Blonde 2 line, “You look like the Fourth of July. Makes me want a hot dog real bad.” The undiagrammable, unplaceable roller coaster of vowel sounds in “bad” is the kind of unusual brilliance that embeds itself into your brain forever.
Because of this ability, it’s a trip when Coolidge’s first dialogue scene in The White Lotus shows her baffling the resort manager (Murray Bartlett) with the bizarre pronunciation of the two syllables in her character’s last name, “McCuid.” Obviously, Coolidge can make that funny.
But there’s more to her entrance, too. There is something immediately distressing in the way that she carries her body and unleashes her antagonizing lack of self-awareness on the staff as she begs—even insists—on receiving a massage, immediately. It’s unsettling, but also empathetic. She seems so broken by sadness, she may have misplaced the part of herself that remembers social graces and boundaries.
When asked if she sensed that this was a more robust role, one that could allow her to be seen in a new light, Coolidge stammers and eventually laughs.
“To be honest, in a million years if you told me that I would get any response on this…” she says, trailing off to a giggle. “Because it didn’t feel like anything good was going on.”
It would be hard to believe if she wasn’t so insistent, though she admits, “I do feel like I had things going for me on this job because I did lose my mother at an early age and it was an incredibly, incredibly lonely time during COVID.”
“I really thought COVID was the end for all of us,” she stresses. “So I was preparing for the end.”
The whole experience of filming The White Lotus was an existential tug-of-war for Coolidge. She wanted the role but didn’t want to take it at that point in the pandemic. She’d fallen so deep down the rabbit hole of despair that climbing out without a rescue team—in this case, her friend Mike White—seemed like it would just take an unsummonable amount of energy.
Once she arrived, she couldn’t believe her good fortune to be surrounded by such cool actors—Connie Britton, Steve Zahn, Natasha Rothwell, and Jake Lacy among them—with whom she could go for swims in the Pacific after wrapping. How fortunate to be in that situation, especially at a time when everyone else she knew was still quarantined at home in freezing climates. Still, every day she felt “like I’m gonna keel over right now, it’s so hot.”
For all those magical, tropical experiences, the shoot was grueling. It was Coolidge’s first job after the global shutdown and she worried that she was going to be worn out—and, more, look like it on screen. To accommodate COVID testing, her call time would sometimes be as early as 2:30 am. “I’m like, I’m going to look like I was beaten by a shovel,” she says. She remembers pleading at one point, only somewhat jokingly, for co-star Fred Hechinger to shoot his scenes then. “He’s, like, 20!”
“I begged, hoping that they could fix me up in post-production,” she says. “But they don’t do that unless, you know, you’re an immensely famous superstar. Then they go in and they can fix things, but they’re not going to waste that money on me. So, yeah, it was mainly just not to look like I was 90 in the thing.”
After another laugh, she returns to the original point. She is shocked—not humbly so, but truly baffled—to be receiving such raves for this.
She’s not sure what she did differently this time, other than being preoccupied to the point of distraction with the inescapable darkness of the world.
“It doesn’t feel like a performance,” she says, punctuated by another quiet giggle. “Maybe that’s a lesson in life. Maybe you should just be so consumed with other things beside acting, and it will all work out. It will work out better than when you really obsess about it.”
Of course Jennifer Coolidge is kooky.
In the last few weeks of adoring, gorgeously written press and profiles pegged to her work in The White Lotus, fans have learned about her historic New Orleans mansion, for example, replete with a mausoleum that houses an 1850s family heirloom: a Parisian automaton named Signor Blitz. She has been painstakingly restoring the home one room at a time, partly out of passion and partly to keep some modern flipper from buying it and “[putting] a jacuzzi in there.”
Then there are stories like the time she and a friend were late to a bridal shower. He suggested stopping for a gift card. As Coolidge recounted to Bustle, she insisted on procuring a “hundred-pound bronze statue of an erect penis” she had seen at a thrift shop, “and then they needed to find the appropriate wrapping paper for it.”
As she told Vulture, during her clubbing days, she went by the name of Ernest Hemingway’s (entirely made-up) daughter, Muffin. When she’d be thrown out, the bouncer would bark, “Don’t ever come back here, Muffin!” One time, she pretended to have an identical twin so she could date two guys at once.
There is the story about the 12 pigs sitting on wooden chairs in her house. She couldn’t purchase just one because she couldn’t stomach separating the dozen. There is the story she tells about how, if she could come back in another life, she’d be gay because, she thinks, “I’d be good at it.” There are so many stories about her generosity, over-tipping, zealous praise, and being a consummate host.
These are anecdotes that mirror the lovable character actress who can leave an audience in stitches with a single look on screen. But they’re not the whole picture. That may actually be what makes her work on The White Lotus so poignant. When Tanya makes her obtrusive entrance, you might expect her to be the show’s running joke or crack comedy. Instead, a devastating portrait of a woman desperate for affection and ravaged by grief subverts those expectations.
In one scene, she lets out a bottled-up wail of angst that is indescribable in its sound, other than to say it sends a shiver up your spine and then inward to shatter your heart—and that, in any other “Jennifer Coolidge” project, it might have instead seemed so over-the-top you’d start laughing.
“The only other serious role I’ve had in my career was The Bad Lieutenant, which Werner Herzog directed,” Coolidge says. “Maybe now people are just like, ‘Oh my God, she can walk.’ They’re just surprised that I could do it.”
She’s also quick to point out the reason she’s almost exclusively done broad comedy roles. “To be honest, that’s all that's been offered.”
If you want a role that you haven’t done before, she says, you have to make it yourself—write it, direct it, produce it. “I would love to do it but I haven’t been successful at creating my own, some credible thing that would get me out of what I was locked into all these years. I just hadn’t done that, so I don't know why people would be willing to take a risk. That’s why you have to kind of have a friend do it.”
Enter Mike White.
The White Lotus begins with Tanya and the other rich, white guests arriving and being greeted by the hotel staff. Hotel manager Armond (Bartlett) is gay. Spa manager Belinda (Rothwell) is Black. If the script wasn’t so clever, you might be able to choreograph the dance between the entitled and the marginalized that follows.
But White, who wrote and directed each episode, finds sharp humor in the insufferable. He also mines the darkness of the pristine paradise, to the point where it can seem like a hellscape set for an apocalyptic thriller. Psychologically, at least, it becomes just that. The beauty becomes menacing. So, too, do the unhinged emotions of the guests.
It’s a fantastic showcase for Coolidge. And it’s an indictment of some of Hollywood’s systemic failings that it took this long to exist.
Her unmistakable pout is capable of morphing into both cinema’s greatest grimace and its most alluring come-hither curl. And when was the last time a movie star’s eyelids, of all things, were a marketable feature?
Maybe because her breakout role as a cougar mom in American Pie spawned decades of roles in that type—and even a sitcom version on the CBS series Two Broke Girls—there’s an instinct to assess the Jennifer Coolidge image and put it in a box. But when you really scan and consider her body of work, the breadth is astounding.
To be so adept at projecting confidence, a la Stifler’s mom, and the insecurity of a character like Legally Blonde’s Paulette? After a conversation with Coolidge, it’s no surprise she’s so skilled at playing the spectrum of the human experience. She’s effortlessly funny and a little eccentric. But she also seems to feel so deeply it’s as if, at any given moment, the weight of the world’s problems might drive her into the ground.
A discussion about The White Lotus becomes a therapist’s chronicling of the ways we now carry the emotional scars of the last year, a time that, she says, she wasn’t sure she would survive.
“I didn’t want to do this job at all, to be honest,” she says. She felt like she needed at least three more months to surface from the funk of the pandemic, but that wasn’t possible.
“I was eating because I thought death was around the corner. I was just going for it. I just felt like, we’re not gonna make it. I felt like COVID was just going to eventually get us all, and so I was just sort of living that way.”
She noticed all the people who used the lockdown as an opportunity to purchase Pelotons, design new diet plans, and rediscover their mental health. Not Coolidge. “I can’t relate to that in any way. I didn’t feel that way. I didn’t feel hopeful at all. If I told a friend, you know, to hang in there and be hopeful and stuff, it was me lying.”
Before COVID, she had dealt with the demons of depression in her past. But when the pandemic hit, “it was like someone dug up a grave or something,” she says. “It was like someone just dug me out and I felt everything that I felt before. Every sad feeling I was able to process before was back.”
Every time she turned on the TV or went on the internet, she was further traumatized. Just the darkest stories, coming at her constantly. “Do I feel like going in my backyard and playing volleyball with myself?” Of course not. “I just started to go to the refrigerator.”
At the start of the pandemic, she felt like she was going to drink more. But she was certain that COVID was it, and she realized that she wanted to remember her last moments. “I felt like, at least if I just ate myself to death, I would remember it all before I croak. I wanted to be conscious of the ending. I didn’t want to be obliterated.”
It takes me by surprise how readily Coolidge talks about the heavy feelings she carried throughout the pandemic and how astutely she is able to articulate them. To endure that pain and that certainty of death, not as a paranoia, but as a realistic inevitability is a harrowing experience. A person doesn’t come back from that so much as they learn to live with it.
It’s also clear she’s not wallowing, but simply explaining. More, she knows she’s not alone. I’m also struck by how curious she is about my experience. We talk about the drinking getting out of control, the sadness becoming unbearable, the assumption that people I love would die, and the reality that relationships I cherished were changed forever.
She’s kind and interested in all of it, especially about what changed. What got me to stop destructive behaviors? Was there a pivotal moment that made me think that things in the world, or in my life, would work out? That seemed to be what she struggled with, and at least partly why she was hesitant to film The White Lotus.
There’s a line her character delivers early in the series, a gorgeous, aching confession. “I can’t get rid of this empty feeling,” she says. “I want someone to figure it out for me.” I can’t imagine anyone not relating to that desperation. Tanya is speaking about her grief and her loneliness. I think dread also rings true, the suspicion that it may not ever go away.
In a year defined by death, it’s a heavy lift to portray a character in mourning. Tanya is middle-aged and overcome by the loss of her mother. Coolidge was in her twenties when her own mother passed. She filmed her big break, a role on Seinfeld, just before her mother’s death, a comfort for a parent thrilled that her daughter’s dreams were coming true. Her last words to Coolidge were, “I can’t believe it.”
“I do feel like, in your twenties, you’re just self-obsessed, especially if you’re an actor,” Coolidge says. She was depressed in her adolescence and tried to make up for it in her twenties by partying in New York City. She assumed that she’d have her thirties and forties to tell her parents how great they are. “But being self-obsessed and then your mother dying is just the worst.” There was no time to articulate everything she felt. Then, in a rush, she became incredibly lucid about everything she wanted to say or do. But it was too late.
Her father died four years ago at age 95. “When people’s parents pass away, you do feel like a lone wolf. Especially if you don’t have a husband and family and all that, I think you really feel alone in the world.”
It’s not just that everyone is too busy with their families and their own lives to notice your needs or your loneliness. A lot of her friends, she thinks, are too busy taking care of everything to even recognize or process their own feelings.
“I’m very fortunate because I’ve certainly spent a lot of time alone,” she says. “I’ve become a professional at it.”
Once in a while, she’ll go on a date. But there’s a lot of solitude. Tying it all back to the stellar reviews for The White Lotus and what was behind her performance, she says, “Maybe that’s what it is. It’s solitude and then COVID hits. And maybe it all works for this one role and I’ll go back to being Bozo.”
She laughs, but I wonder if there’s more to it. When that “Hi” video went viral on social media, she marveled to The A.V. Club in an interview that, “I feel like all my best stuff is an accident.” Throughout our conversation, she talks about how all the distractions and preoccupations left her shocked at having produced something worthwhile with The White Lotus. Might that be a freeing, maybe even profound realization? That brilliance comes by accident, so maybe don’t antagonize too much?
Of course, I’m wrong.
Sometimes, she says, people are just giving her too much credit. She laughs again. A person will compliment her for the way that, for example, in the middle of a speech, she disappeared from the camera frame to pick something up, a choice they think adds to the humor or the humanity of the scene. “Then you have to sort of go to the person and admit to them, ‘Well, I really did drop something…’”
That’s the situation she’s finding herself in now. She is thrilled—beyond ecstatic, she stresses—that she’s getting this attention at this point in her career. “But I don’t want to get too much credit. It’s sort of like when you’re dating a guy and he goes, ‘Well, Jennifer, that was really smart.’ Even if you don’t know what he’s talking about, you just want to go, 'Oh yeah, thanks. I did give that lots of thought.’”