Jennifer Coolidge on Channeling Her Pandemic Anxieties Into the Sharp Satire of ‘The White Lotus’

There’s a sense of delayed appreciation in the way actor Jennifer Coolidge is receiving much-deserved acclaim for her performance in HBO’s “The White Lotus.” Since the late ‘90s, Coolidge has been known for light or farcical comedies, raunchy teen romps and memorable TV stints. Quite a bit of her work has attained cult classic status, including “American Pie” and “Legally Blonde.” Her TV appearances range from “Frasier” to “Sex & the City” and “Glee.” Now there seems to be a great shift beginning to take place, one in which Coolidge’s range is being allowed to reveal itself in the dark edge of satire. The signs were there in late 2020 when she played the mother of Carey Mulligan’s hunter of sexual predators in “Promising Young Woman.” 

Yet it is in “The White Lotus,” a six-part limited series created by Mike White, that Coolidge steals the show. She plays Tanya, one of the privileged denizens of The White Lotus resort, a lush getaway in Hawaii that entraps all the insecurities, obsessions, desires and rages of the show’s ensemble. But unlike the unhappily married couple Shane (Jake Lacy) and Rachel (Alexandra Daddario), or the Mossbacher family, composed of CEO mom Nicole (Connie Britton), oddball dad Mark (Steve Zahn), son Quinn (Fred Hechinger) and college-age daughter Olivia (Sydney Sweeney), who is bringing along friend Paula (Brittany O’Grady), Tanya is here in mourning. She wants to scatter her mother’s ashes. A portrait of loneliness, Tanya’s journey will include a blooming, if quirky, friendship with spa manager Belinda (Natasha Rothwell) and possible romance with another guest. It’s a wonderfully subtle, memorable performance from Coolidge, who is empathetic in a terrain where everyone else might tear each other apart. Coolidge talked about the experience with Entertainment Voice.

In “The White Lotus,” Tanya is a subdued force of nature. She’s in mourning, but still seeking companionship, and is good-hearted, but can be clingy. When you first read her character, what stood out to most and how did you bring to her life?

It’s interesting. This wasn’t like any other job I ever had. There was no preparation. There was very little time to prepare. Mike had told me he was going to write this thing, it was in the middle of the pandemic. He was kind of vague about it. He just told me, “I want to write about these rich people on vacation.” But after being locked up for eight months, you know, being cooped up, he calls me and says, “Hey, I’ve got the green light.” I go, “what do you mean?” He says, “You know, the show about rich people on vacation.” I couldn’t believe it. So there wasn’t much time to think about it. To be honest the first thing I thought about was how I had been cooped up eating all these pizzas, here with this girl I know, we were cooped up together. I didn’t look very good. I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, but I didn’t have time to get into shape. So I didn’t have a lot of thoughts about this job because I was trying to get out of it right until the last minute. I don’t know how I ended up doing it. I felt bad trying to come up with a lie that sounded believable. Mike is a very smart guy. He texted me one night and said, “Are you afraid?” After that text, I had to do it.

I guess the way I ended up doing it was that I brought out all my feelings about the pandemic, all the sadness. I was one of those people who really didn’t think we were going to survive. All of that worked for Tanya. My favorite thing about her is how truly alone that character felt. I definitely felt I could do that section of who she was justice. We are all alone on this earth, and you can’t take anyone with you (laughs). The pandemic felt like one big moment of that, when we realize how vulnerable we are. And it still is sad. I’m glad I didn’t bail. It’s the best role I’ve ever been given.

Shooting took place during lockdown last year at a stunning Four Seasons locale in Maui. What was it like for you being at a dreamy getaway while capturing this vicious idea of high society tearing itself apart?

It was weird (laughs). We were in this very extravagant location but you could feel what was going on in the world. You were very aware of what was going on out there and how awful it was for many. At the same time, I think when you’re in a very surreal setting it gives you permission to be oblivious. My character has that going for her to survive. She’s an incredibly sensitive person but she’s also oblivious to things that if she were aware of, she would go up in a puff of smoke. If she was too aware it would be bad. I felt like everything that was happening at that resort, all the elements at play, made it feel real and made the acting job easier. The heat was very oppressive, that’s one thing I’ll never forget. But there was always the loneliness. I could relate to that because I had lost my mother early. That was certainly a traumatic moment in my life. I felt like I had never really recovered from that. I felt unprepared and in some weird way that kinda helped. There were days when I felt like such a weirdo. The actors were all so fun to hang out with. At the same time there was this incredible camaraderie. You could feel the sadness of the world through the airwaves in Hawaii, but the cast was so wonderful.

In the series, Tanya bonds particularly with two characters, the spa manager played by Natasha Rothwell, and a romantic prospect, who she hilariously mistakes for a BLM supporter, played by Jon Gries. How was it working with them to build the unique chemistry between all three?

I once worked with an actress who told me that if you have chemistry with someone it might not come across on screen. But I felt I hit it off with Natasha. I had met her on a plane during another movie I had done with her and everything just fell into place. I can’t even explain it. I felt very in sync with her during filming. I felt the same way with Jon. I was totally in sync with him and I can’t explain why. I really can’t (laughs).

Tanya could be called a likeable snob. She’s as privileged as everyone else, but is also very empathetic. After working around every corner of Hollywood, was there ever a moment where you found yourself projecting people you’ve met or seen into this character?

I have some people in my family that have passed away that were not oblivious, but they had this element of kindness that I don’t witness nowadays so much. My parents were incredibly kind people, but they were also incredibly naïve. I sort of feel like it’s a childlike quality, it is hard to explain. Of course when you have a lot of money you have so many things to handle and sometimes you don’t do it gracefully. But at the root of these people that I knew there was an incredible kindness and genuineness. There’s nothing phony about Tanya. She just has this enormous wealth that keeps her separated from the world. As Mike White writes it, it creates this “separateness.” It does this damage. It causes these barriers. 

You have been in quite a few comedy films that are now cult classics like “American Pie” and “Legally Blonde,” but does your work in “The White Lotus” and last year’s great “Promising Young Woman” signal a new turn towards darker satire?

Yeah I do! I think the door has sort of been opened. Unfortunately people sometimes just see you a certain way because of your past work. It’s hard for them to take a guess and figure you can do something different until you show them you can go a different route. It’s my fault for not writing something for myself earlier. I could have speeded up the process to get here. So I’m eternally grateful for Mike White for doing this and “Promising Young Woman” has also helped change things. It’s a lot of fun, this was a very different thing. It’s a gift and very unexpected. To think, I almost blew it because of vanity!

Speaking of “Legally Blonde,” a third sequel has been announced. What can we expect for you to bring to the return of Paulette Parcel?

They’ll have to show me a script. I wish I knew what Paulette is up to. I don’t know what they have in store for me. It’s still being tinkered with in the laboratory. I heard that writer Mindy Kaling and her partner have been working on it with Reese Witherspoon. I hope it’s something really fun and a crazy adventure. Reese has such an incredible knack for turning stuff into gold. I have a feeling whatever she has in store is good. When you know, let me know.

The White Lotus” premiered July 11 and airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.