Jennifer Coolidge has been making movies and television in Hollywood for 30 years. Still, it feels like the comic actress, perhaps previously best known for her role as manicurist Paulette Bonafonté in Legally Blonde or as Stifler’s mom in the American Pie franchise, was only discovered by America last year.
That’s mostly because of her spectacularly funny, Emmy-winning performance as the rich, kooky, emotionally unstable Tanya McQuoid in HBO’s The White Lotus. “You’ve reached the core of the onion,” Tanya says throughout the first season, infusing the statement with lopsided humor and pathos at the same time.
At first, Coolidge wasn’t sure she should go to Hawaii to make The White Lotus. “It was the pandemic, and I wasn’t in good shape. I was incredibly insecure during COVID, and I blame a lot of that on not having a big world,” she explains.
When she got the call to play the part, “It was as if you’re mud wrestling and someone says, ‘You know, there’s a church that’s open if you want to get married,’” remembers Coolidge, who regularly uses this kind of non sequitur in conversation. “You’re in so deep. At the time, it didn’t even seem possible to get on a plane.”
But a friend pushed her on it and said, “Jennifer, you can’t pick the timing of something cool that happens to you.” “And I thought, Well, yeah, I can. But she said, ‘You’re out of your mind, you’re out of your gourd.’ And somehow she convinced me I was insane, so I called up Mike and said that I was doing it.”
Mike is Mike White, the creator of The White Lotus and a longtime friend of Coolidge’s, at least since he played her dreadlocked, snake-friendly boyfriend in the 2009 movie Gentlemen Broncos. White has visited her in New Orleans and thrown parties with his fellow Survivor cast members at her house. They’ve even traveled to the Serengeti together on a “mindblowing” trip.
“But it’s not like I asked Mike for a big fat part that would change my life. It was like, ‘I hope you can make it to my Halloween party,’” Coolidge says, referring to an annual party she throws at her “big, scary house” in New Orleans.
The White Lotus was originally meant to be a standalone miniseries, but because it was so successful, White called on Coolidge, 61, to reprise her role in a second season, this time in Italy. The seven-episode season begins in late October on HBO.
“We couldn’t go to Italy without Jennifer. It seemed like bad karma,” White explains, adding that he envisioned Tanya’s arc this season as “kind of like How Stella Got Her Groove Back with some gay guys.”
“Jennifer literally said to me once, ‘I’ve always wanted to be on a Vespa wearing some iconic dress and some guy is trying to light my cigarette,’” White says. “I was just giving her this Italian dream to go on a yacht and stay in nice palazzos and have sex with some hot guy.”
Jon Gries, who plays Coolidge’s love interest in both seasons of The White Lotus, was driving the Vespa. It may not have been exactly what Coolidge expected. “That was a little scary. We were really doing it, and there were no knee pads in case we wiped out,” she says.
Gries describes Coolidge as an “alchemist.” “Working with Jennifer has been a gift—a welcome, fun challenge to play so closely with her. She is a gardener at play, weeding out the so-so and cultivating good invention. She augments as much as she acts,” Gries writes in an email. “We both used to hike to the top of the mountain in Taormina, Sicily, and feed the stray cats hanging around the old church. We talked about so many things, which allowed us to enjoy a deeper bond that seamlessly translated into our on-film relationship.”
For Coolidge, the trip to Italy was “beyond my expectations in every way. It was a real adventure,” she says. “My regret is not knowing Italian, you know, to just be able to say ‘Where am I?’ and get directions.” Coolidge also hints that she had an Italian fling on set, or “something like that”: “It was sort of a fleeting thing, but it gave me an incredibly hopeful feeling for the future.”
It doesn’t hurt that Coolidge also brought home an Emmy this year. Though award prognosticators predicted she would win, “I thought there was no way that was going to happen, even a second before it was announced,” Coolidge insists. (She was up against three of her White Lotus co-stars.)
Didn’t her friends tell her to be prepared? Yes, says Coolidge, “But how can you really believe them? Friends tell you a lot of things. Friends tell you your clothes look good, and you know they don’t. I didn’t expect it at all. Maybe that’s why I got it.”
Ignoring the forecasting meant Coolidge did not prepare an Emmy speech. If she’d believed the hype, “I wouldn’t have made a fool of myself,” Coolidge says. In her speech, she spoke about taking a lavender bath that made her swell up in her dress and said she was having a hard time speaking, before being played off by the band. Audiences at home weren’t clear if she was being real or doing a bit.
But that may be where her genius lies, says White. “It’s always a little bit of a bit, and it’s always a little bit true,” he explains. “She mines her struggle to find comedy.”
Speaking a month or so after the Emmys, Coolidge fears she truly botched her opportunity to thank all the people who have helped her along the way, including the Weitz brothers, who cast her in the American Pie movies, and Christopher Guest, who cast her in four movies, including, most memorably, as a trophy wife in Best in Show.
“Those people kept me alive,” Coolidge says. “I would never have survived without those jobs. Those people deserve huge thank yous.”
But when her category was announced, “I was in a state of shock, I couldn’t remember my own name. I felt like I was having a full-on anxiety attack. It was embarrassing that I didn’t whip out everyone’s name, but I didn’t expect to be up there. I was swelling up inside this dress, and I think I was having an allergic reaction. For all these years of not thinking something like this would ever come, it was all one big inarticulate moment.”
Ultimately, Coolidge is still scratching her head about the overnight success she’s now having, 30 years after moving from Massachusetts to Hollywood. “Jesus, I’ve been around a long time, and I think my odds for this moment were pretty slim,” she says.
After season one of The White Lotus, the calls started coming, including to star in Shotgun Wedding, a new Jennifer Lopez romantic comedy, and alongside Naomi Watts and Bobby Cannavale in The Watcher, a horror miniseries from Ryan Murphy on Netflix.
“She exceeded my expectations,” says Watts of working with Coolidge. “Every scene, you’re on the edge of your seat waiting for one of her signature golden moments that take you to a place that you never saw on the page. She beams light and empathy, as well as being wonderfully wacky and unique.”
Coolidge says that what she especially appreciates about Murphy and White is that they give their actors a wide berth to improvise way beyond what’s written. “These guys know who they are. They’re not threatened in any way by someone else’s ideas,” Coolidge explains. “They’re very generous. They let you try stuff out.”
It’s a long way from when Coolidge started out in Hollywood. Her first role was as Jodi, the masseuse girlfriend of Jerry Seinfeld on Seinfeld who won’t give Jerry a massage.
“I had grand thoughts. Massive. I thought I could come from my little town and have a lead in something like Pretty Woman,” says Coolidge. “I remember seeing that movie, thinking, I want that for myself. I truly believe you have to have insane thoughts like that to do well in this business. But I worked with a lot of people and those beliefs got squashed, and I didn’t try for anything bigger.”
Indeed, glancing through Coolidge’s filmography, you find roles with nonsensical names (“Roz Funkeyerdoder,” “Martha Kendoo,” “Principle Lonnatini”) and some with no name at all, like “White Bitch,” “White Faced Woman,” “American Designer,” “Woman at Football Game,” and, perhaps most famously, “Stifler’s Mom.”
“There are a lot of people that can really rain on your parade sometimes, and I haven’t been given a lot of chances,” Coolidge says. “I started to think, I’m really not going to be anything more than the third prostitute that gets turned down by the hideous cowboy at the brothel, which was one of my [early] parts. And I had to buy the airline ticket [to fly to set] in San Francisco myself.”
The whole thing snowballed. “You sort of silently agree to endorse the belief you think other people have about you. I didn’t really think beyond that,” Coolidge says. “Then you have Mike White, who says, ‘I think you can do more than that.’ I’m thrilled that this all makes Mike look like he was right, and people should listen to him.”
Playing Tanya McQuoid, the Emmy, working with Murphy, the fling she doesn’t want to talk about in Italy—it’s all helped Coolidge change her tune.
“I don’t think I’m a good fortune teller or a good judge of what’s going to be the big hit, but I also know you can’t believe their perception of you,” she says. “You have to go with your insane ideas of yourself. I’m going back to that way of thinking. Maybe expectations jinx everything.”