Jennifer Coolidge’s White-Hot Comeback: Hollywood Didn’t Get Her, Then She Landed the Role of a Lifetime

Photographs by Peggy Sirota

In 2011, Jennifer Coolidge’s agent came to her with an offer: A theater in London was putting on a production of the musical “Legally Blonde,” based on the 2001 film in which Coolidge played the lovably dizzy manicurist Paulette. (The seductive “bend-and-snap” move Paulette practices on film? In the show, it’s a whole number.) And the theater wanted her to audition.

“I said to my agent, what do you mean, audition?” she recalls. “It’s not a straight offer?” He reiterated the request: Would she be willing to fly to London to try out for a part she’d already played? “My agent said, ‘I think they just want to see if you can sing and dance.’ Look, if I got up onstage and farted, and that’s all I did, it would still be the lady from the movie!”

Here on the coast of Sicily, where Coolidge is filming Season 2 of HBO’s “The White Lotus” (which Variety can exclusively reveal will premiere in October), we’re a quick flight from the West End. But the downturn in her fortunes she’s recalling — “I’m still angry about this,” she says, “that’s why I brought it up!” — couldn’t be farther away. (And that agent no longer represents her.) After decades in film and TV as a secret weapon the industry didn’t quite know how to use, Coolidge has just landed her first Emmy nomination, for her performance in the anthology series’ debut season.

“The White Lotus,” about the war of wills between the guests and staff of a luxury hotel, is an ensemble show — so much so that eight of its performers are Emmy nominees this year. But it’s Coolidge’s portrayal of childlike heiress Tanya McQuoid, shrouding wounded humanity in bad behavior and big appetites, that sticks in the memory. Audiences have known Coolidge as a comic ingredient that makes middling projects better and good ones great, whether she’s hunting for guys with Reese Witherspoon in “Legally Blonde,” striding through her son Stifler’s classmates like a sexual colossus in “American Pie” or trying to justify her relationship with her catatonically unresponsive husband in “Best in Show.”

Those films — all released between 1999 and 2001 — ended a dry spell for Coolidge, one that crystallized her thinking about Hollywood. “Ten years of my life of auditioning,” she says, “none of it added up to a job. The fear is gone when you’re so used to losing. There’s some freedom in that.”

Part of that freedom comes from knowing yourself, and there’s nothing goofy about the precise, considered Coolidge, despite her reputation as willing to go anywhere for a joke on-screen. Going anywhere is freeing too, as Coolidge punctures her characters’ egos while we revel in the fun of seeing them be their delirious selves.

To do a Jennifer Coolidge impression — as Ariana Grande popularized in a 2018 “Tonight Show” appearance — is to first squint a bit, less to match her appearance than to convey her quality of seeing a reality a few degrees away from ours. Even between lines, she keeps viewers guessing, and watching. “If someone doesn’t speak, the audience will naturally be riveted to that person,” says director Christopher Guest, with whom she has made four films. “Just her looking out at the camera or looking wherever she wants to look. That becomes the magnet. And she understands that.” Audiences know what Coolidge brings to the table, and directors have wanted a certain thing from the actor: She has been, for decades, the lady from the movie.

Now, at 60, Coolidge is close to the center of the frame, so much a part of the “White Lotus” phenomenon that she’s the only major cast member to make the jump from Season 1’s Hawaii resort to the show’s next location in Italy — no audition needed. Lodging at the first White Lotus to find comfort after her mother’s death, Tanya alternately sulks and rages, drawing a service worker (played by Natasha Rothwell) into the orbit of her narcissism. Coolidge may be a supporting player, but she’s nobody’s comic relief. Her majestically unhinged performance is like nothing she’s done before, and unlike any experience she’s had on set too. “I feel like the coach asked the other actors to let me dribble the ball more. Give the ball to Jennifer once in a while,” she says. “I get to shoot now.”

Coolidge arrives at dinner at her hotel’s restaurant on a May evening in the midst of shooting, but the indulgent and indulged Tanya is nowhere to be found. She’s more soft-spoken than her characters and genially embarrassed as our sommelier rattles off the details of “one of the most interesting Bourgognes” on the wine list. Coolidge quips, “Then he says, ‘Two thousand dollars!’” when the litany concludes. (The star seems increasingly flattered by the onslaught of vegan hors d’oeuvres sent out, as if, at the hotel where much of the production is staying, she isn’t a guest of honor.) Some of her quiet affect may be due to the pace of shooting. During a tiring shoot the day before, she confesses to having “25 cappuccinos, and then you can’t ever come down.” Before our meal, she’d been in bed, “lying there, thinking about all the things I could do.”

Coolidge is a rapid thinker — which served her well when she was part of Guest’s company for his largely improvised films, starting with “Best in Show” in 2000. Eugene Levy, who recommended Coolidge to Guest on the strength of her cameo in “American Pie,” says, “She can really jump by leaps and bounds from take to take. There’s not that many people that have the ability to do that.” On the “White Lotus” set, she “improvs much more than the other actors,” says creator Mike White. “I tend to just shoot what I wrote, but her ideas are genius, bizarro stuff. She’s dialed in.”

Her method can change the dynamic of a shooting day. “I lean into some sense of structure,” says Murray Bartlett, her Season 1 co-star. But because of Coolidge’s whimsy, he says, “you have to be spontaneous. If you go with it, it pulls fresh stuff out of you. The other side of it is that there’s part of me where I just want to watch her.”

But her tendency to consider things from every angle while others simply follow the script can weigh heavily. Coolidge almost talked herself out of “The White Lotus,” even though her friend White had written the part for her. Depressed at the height of COVID and feeling unready to work, she had to be persuaded to join the cast by “a really smart, savvy, very blunt friend.”

“I didn’t like the way I looked,” she says with a trademark understanding of her own sensitivities, and a willingness to poke at them. “But did I change it for ‘The White Lotus’ 2? No! I didn’t change anything!”

Jennifer Coolidge in an exclusive first-look image from season 2 of “The White Lotus.”Courtesy of Fabio Lovino/HBO

White says he became aware of Coolidge’s hesitancy only after reading about it in the press. “There’s times where she disappears, and you’re like, ‘Is there meaning behind this or is this just her?’” he says. “But there was just no way she was ever going to say no, because I would have forced her by her hair. The reason I was doing this was to do it with her.”

His encouragement — in the form of a role designed to amplify all Coolidge hadn’t yet done — led to a breakthrough. Before “The White Lotus,” Coolidge had bought into an impression of herself that she’s only now realizing isn’t true. “The saddest thing about life is that you just make decisions about yourself,” she says. “If I’m not getting great roles, I come to the conclusion that people think I’m incapable of that. And then I make the decision that I am incapable of that. You actually have to have a Mike White that comes in and says, I think you can do this.”

In Season 1, White pushed Coolidge in what she calls “this pivotal scene” — when Tanya, in mourning, hitches a ride on a boat trip with a pair of newlyweds (Jake Lacy and Alexandra Daddario). At sea in every sense, Tanya keens while scattering her mother’s ashes, so lost in grief that she’s oblivious to ruining a couple’s romantic moment. It was signature Coolidge, turned halfway toward drama: Her best characters have a defiant immunity to seeing themselves through others’ eyes.

Coolidge vomited throughout the scene, somehow finding the performance through extreme seasickness. “Mike was merciless. I told him to just get a boat on land,” she says. But he persisted. “The people that were stuck on that boat with me and the amount of vomit — it was just really scary.”

It wasn’t the physical discomfort Coolidge feared; it was letting the show down. Remembering the incident, her voice speeds up, and she’s almost breathless. “All I had was a bucket. And everybody had to know me in a different way.”

Says White: “Whenever I’m lying in bed thinking about what I want to make Jennifer do, I know it’s something that she would not want to do. One minute, she seems fragile, like it’s all going to fall apart, and the next minute she’s sturdy and doing hilarious riffs. Just when you think all hope is lost, she knocks it out of the park.”

More challenges lie ahead: “‘White Lotus’ 2 has something far more difficult in it than the throwing up,” Coolidge remarks wearily. She turned herself inside out — only occasionally literally — to transcend genre boundaries and casting expectations. She found the neediness behind Tanya’s indifferent exterior, on the boat and off it. The performance cemented a career renaissance, more nourishing for how long Coolidge waited to deliver it. “I have done one thing really right in my life,” she says. “I’ve picked great friends. If Mike was never successful, and we just did ‘White Lotus’ as a play in a little theater where everyone paid 10 bucks to see it, it would still be one of the greatest things that ever happened to me. Because it was a killer job that no one else thought I could do.”

“The White Lotus” Season 1 came about as HBO tried to design a show that could shoot in a single location during the uncertainty of early-COVID-era production. White, who had made “Enlightened” for the network, had seen a previous pitch for an HBO Coolidge vehicle, a half-hour called “Saint Patsy,” fail to move forward, but this time the stars aligned. “He’s fast, and that’s what we needed. When he locks into an idea, all you have to do is give him what the parameters are and let him run with it,” says Francesca Orsi, executive VP of programming and head of drama for the network.

The six scripts were delivered in six weeks, with White thinking of Coolidge throughout. “When he talked about Tanya McQuoid, it was almost like they were one and the same for him,” Orsi says. Coolidge’s reputation preceded her: “What I’d heard about her is that she’s not afraid of putting it all out there, the way that she’s human and totally imperfect. And that’s how she works artistically as well.”

And casting Coolidge was White’s choice to make. “When you get to work with Mike White, and he’s going to deliver something at $3 million an episode, he gets to call the shots,” Orsi says.

Coolidge hadn’t taken too seriously her friend’s promise that he would write her a script: “I’ve been in Hollywood for like 30 years now,” she notes. “Everybody says that.” But when she learned about his “Saint Patsy” pitch, she realized he really had been trying to create a project for her.

On the Season 2 set a few days before our dinner, Coolidge’s twin tendencies — to improvise and to disappear — are both in evidence. “The White Lotus” is an anthology series, rebooting between iterations to cover different locations and themes. Now, she’s shooting a scene in which she and new castmate Tom Hollander plot an adventure together. Between takes, crew members bustle about, smoking or grabbing iced desserts to beat the late-spring Italian heat. Hollander whistles and pumps his fists to get his energy up. Coolidge, meanwhile, tends to be perfectly still; with bouffant hair atop a head slightly tilted to the side and in a salmon dress with drapey sleeves, she is downright meditative. “Jennifer is like a heart without any body around it,” Hollander tells me during a break, “so she’s very easy to relate to.” Coolidge’s contemplative mien breaks once the scene she and Hollander play kicks off; something clicks into place as the social chaos begins. She delivers her lines in a reedy voice, infused with status anxiety and a need to be the center of attention.

Coolidge inserts long pauses into her lines, and subtly alters the words, finding within them a vulnerability that’s practically primordial. White gives her gentle but clear notes about where to place emphasis, new things to try. This makes for a refreshing contrast to past gigs: “The problem I have sometimes,” Coolidge says later, “is that I don’t get directed. You’ll do a whole show and the director doesn’t give you notes. I feel like it’s a guessing game. I get very insecure as I go.”

Jon Gries, who plays Greg, Coolidge’s love interest, describes White as “the mad scientist messing with the dials” as he calibrates what he wants from an actor who can go anywhere. “He’s written this for her. He knows her. So, intrinsically, when he talks to her, it’s not like the way he talks to other actors.”

Between takes, she remarks, “I like the awkward dialogue, but I also like when we have nothing to say, and it’s just awkward silence. Moments where —”

White finishes her sentence: “— where we are just looking.”

The joke from “Best in Show” springs to mind: In character, Coolidge could not talk or talk forever. But the next couple of takes are infused with a more melancholy silence.

If this setting — on a hillside villa overlooking Sicilian grandeur, with fancy clothes and new friends for Tanya — seems escapist, well, Tanya has plenty to escape. Over the course of the first “White Lotus,” she falls into a transactional friendship with Rothwell’s hotel spa manager, Belinda; Tanya promises to work with Belinda on starting a business, but that ends when she decides to pursue Greg instead, handing Belinda an envelope of money and walking out.

“I thought I had $75,000 in that packet,” Coolidge says. “That was the decision I made.” It would be enough money to improve Belinda’s situation but not enough to launch her own spa. The etiquette of tipping has been a conversation topic for Coolidge and White since the pair went on safari in Tanzania in 2018, and it found its way into the show.

“She has a paranoid streak: She really is afraid of people not liking her, or not doing the right thing, or somehow insulting someone,” White says. “She’s very kind and she’s very generous. But underneath it is fear. She’s sensitive to everyone. It makes her a beautiful person. But it makes her a little bit fragile too.”

Coolidge’s emotions are close to the surface; old hurts, like her ex-agent’s faux pas, come vividly alive in conversation. And she feels for Tanya: “She’s an oblivious, very wealthy person who suffers a lot, more than most people.” The character’s willfully avoiding the opportunity to help bothers Coolidge. “Oblivious doesn’t get you off the hook,” she says.

But some aspects of “The White Lotus” resonate with her on an elemental level. There’s the fact that Tanya has lost her mother, a turning point in Coolidge’s life when it happened to her in 1994. And the show depicts vacation as a competition for resources among the guests, who have every advantage, and the staff, who do not. The idyll of Hawaii — in the pre-vaccine era — prompted complicated emotions. “Sometimes it’s really hard to enjoy, when you’re in the most beautiful place in the world,” she says. “You’re thinking about how many people aren’t really getting your experience at all, and never will.”

Yet the bubble of the set, what Bartlett calls “a fever dream” outside society, was sustaining: “The greatest thing was that no one knew if it was going to be anything!” Coolidge says. Within the complexities of the script, White trusted Coolidge to find her way forward, a process she compares to flying. “It’s like a really good friend,” she says, “that takes you for a ride up in an airplane and they just let go of the wheel — ‘I just want to see you fly this thing.’ There’s some salute he gives you because he thinks you can do it.”

Bartlett remarks that “sometimes, you don’t get to see this in her characters, but she’s super smart and has a self-awareness of anything she’s doing. There’s a wink.” In the years prior to “The White Lotus,” Coolidge had some big looks; she was featured in the 2020 film “Promising Young Woman” as the mother of Carey Mulligan’s heroine, and had a flattering moment of Zillennial fame, appearing in Ariana Grande’s “Thank U, Next” music video. The Grande clip, especially, drafted off the Coolidge image, sanding away some of that skewed wit.

“Everybody in her orbit adores her, and at the same time it doesn’t seem to have translated into work that she’s always proud of,” says White. “Sometimes it’s hard to know whether she leans into the humiliating anecdote, but it has this Rodney Dangerfield quality where it doesn’t seem like she’s getting the respect.” (To wit: The internet has made Tanya McQuoid a GIF-ready icon; in 2016, however, BuzzFeed ran an article headlined “Just Want to Let You Know That the Actress Who Played Stiffler’s [sic] Mom Is Not Dead.”)

“The White Lotus” reemphasized Coolidge’s gift at deflating her characters’ delusions. But before that, some only saw the delusion, not the deflation. “Some directors really don’t want to see what you have,” she says. “They have an idea of what you’re supposed to do, and they don’t want to see your version of it.” Other work has fallen below the radar. Coolidge cites a play she did in 2015 in the Boston area to be near her father, who died two days before opening night; White came, and wrote her agent a letter asking him to see the production. “There’s no money there,” Coolidge says. “The agent did come. He came, of course, at the second act.” The heartwarming anecdote comes with a stinger.

The Coolidge who’s worked with Guest and who brings endless variation to her line readings on “The White Lotus” is loved for her complications, and at times despite them. Guest recalls seeing a live audience explode with applause at a 2003 promotional stop for “A Mighty Wind,” before Coolidge and costar Bob Balaban had even said a word. “The audience is so drawn to her. It really didn’t matter that they didn’t say very much at all, they were just joyous to see this person walk out there. And I don’t know if Jennifer is comfortable with that. A part of her is always battling, as a lot of actors are, that idea of the response that people have to her.”

That response can all too easily be reduced to treating Coolidge as the very image of cluelessness. “I think people see you in a certain way and it’s impossible to undo it,” she says. “I can hear the people in the pitch meetings saying, ‘Oh, what about Jennifer Coolidge for this? Oh, no, she’s like …’” she trails off. And Coolidge herself has felt doubt at times during the project, when the shorthand she and her collaborator White share flickers out of range. “There’s days where I feel like I’m not giving him what he wants,” she says. “But later, it somehow resolves itself.”

Having been through “The White Lotus” once already gives Coolidge a new role: den mother. At one point, a group of younger actors burst into the restaurant where we are dining, back from an afternoon of swimming, and drop by our table. As I absorb the kinetic energy of stars-in-the-making celebrating being young and employed with beach access, I gradually notice that Coolidge has put the full force of her attention on one member of the group — the only one who seems downcast, describing work as, at times, “a dead end.” “Mike will always be very hard on you,” Coolidge remarks, “until he gets it. In other words, he wouldn’t let you walk out the door if he didn’t get what he wanted.”

Coolidge matches White’s style by being tough on herself. During the first season, Gries says she “was truly under such duress about the election,” but would cope by plunging into work. “We’d both be tired, and she’d say, ‘My call’s at 5. Can you come here at 3?’ So I’d show up at her room at 3 in the morning, and we’d run lines until she went into makeup.”

“The White Lotus” has begat more work for Coolidge: “People that I could never get in the door — all of a sudden they’re asking me to be part of their things,” she says. Beyond “Legally Blonde 3,” about which she knows “not a drop of information,” there’s Ryan Murphy’s Netflix series “The Watcher.” Coolidge spent time observing her co-star Naomi Watts: “It was just so effortless for her to work. I know she’s a big yoga girl — maybe you have more energy when you’re doing yoga? Some actors don’t need any recovery. I do.”

And September brings the Emmys, at which Coolidge will be up against four performers from her own show, as well as two from Hulu’s “Dopesick.” Coolidge is considered the favorite, which she sees as due to how much baggage she shed becoming Tanya. “Maybe I got this special attention because people saw me as Stifler’s mom or the ‘Legally Blonde’ woman. So if they see something else …”

Prior to her nomination, Coolidge resists engaging in speculation. (The day of the announcement, White later remarks, she was “fixated on the people that didn’t get a nomination. That’s just where she lives.”) She only notes that she may have the “unfair advantage” of having broken out of the box Hollywood put her in. “My friends are all surprised that this fluky thing happened,” she says. “My life was going a certain way for a very long time. I’m afraid if I analyze it too much I’ll ruin it.”

Perhaps the instinct that scrutiny will ruin the experience extends to “The White Lotus.” After hours of conversation and some wine, we return to the way Tanya left things in Season 1 as we prepare to part ways ourselves. “I told Mike that I was very upset that Tanya screws over Belinda,” she says. “I just said that really bums me out, because — it really wasn’t based on me, but a lot of what I am, he pulled out. So I just didn’t like that.” She pauses.

“I don’t know if Mike really thinks I would do that. But he writes real people, and people do crappy things.” Tanya’s actions make a certain sense to Coolidge: “My weakness in life has always been men, and — a lot of women do this — you sell out for a guy. A lot of my life was chasing unattainable men, and it got me nowhere. I think Mike saw me.”

White describes Tanya’s heel turn as a nod to the actor’s “mixed signals” — her ability to throw her conversation partner off. “It’s fun to lean into the likability of Jennifer,” he says, “but there’s this other part that’s more complicated. She’s a mystery.”

White’s careerlong goal, as Coolidge puts it, is to show the unflattering side of human nature. In navigating that, she can find an unexpected lane. It was Coolidge’s idea to have Tanya return to the room to pick up the sunglasses she left behind after destroying Belinda’s hopes. “It’s an awful thing,” she says, “but people do shit like that. It’s just that shallow, shitty thing.” Later, she told White she thought the moment was too awful to remain in the final cut. He left it in.

It was something new: Coolidge has played obtuse countless times, but never to such devastating effect; her gift for weaponized self-delusion now has a blast radius. “When someone presents something you’ve done a million times, maybe you don’t have the will to do it justice the way you do when it’s something really cool,” she says. “Some jobs, I’m sort of going, ‘Wow, this isn’t worth working for.’ What Mike wrote, I was staying up late every night.”

The next years of Coolidge’s career promise to be among her most productive, vital and alive. But the future lies a long way from Sicily, along with an Emmy campaign and, perhaps, some recovery time as well. For now, she is in the moment — having been pushed to a place she might not have ever planned to go. “Whatever Mike White did for me, I would wish that for every actor,” Coolidge says. “Even if they fail. We all want a challenge — something really scary that we might not be able to succeed at. I think we all want that opportunity.”


Styling: Gaelle Paul/A Frame Agency; Makeup: Lottie/Forward Artists; Hair: Marc Mena/Exclusive Artists Management; Manicure: Emi Kudo/A Frame Agency/OPI; Set Design: Francisco Vargas; Look 1 (cover and on pink lounge): Dress: Black Halo; Earrings: Jennifer Fisher; Rings: Jennifer Fisher, Le Vian, Delfina Delettrez; Bracelets: Le Vian and Jennifer Fisher; Shoes: Stuart Weitzman; Look 2 (holding cocktail): Dress: Sante Grace; Earrings: Saule; Rings: Le Vian and Grace Lee; Look 3 (holding large flower): Dress: Self-Portrait; Earrings: House of Emmamuele; Rings: Delfina Delettrez and Grace Lee; Shoes: Sophia Webster; Look 4 (white dress seated in chair): Dress: Badgley Mischka; Earrings: Jennifer Fisher; Bracelets: Le Vian; Rings: Delfina Delettrez, Grace Lee, Le Vian and Jennifer Fisher