Jennifer Coolidge: ‘I was fatalistic… I assumed Covid was going to win’

The Hollywood star on almost saying no to her new hit HBO drama White Lotus, doing sex scenes in her 50s – and pretending to be a Hemingway

Boston-born Jennifer Coolidge, 59, trained at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and joined improv comedy troupe the Groundlings. She’s a regular in director Christopher Guest’s mockumentary films, including Best in Show, A Mighty Wind and For Your Consideration. She broke into mainstream Hollywood comedy with American Pie and Legally Blonde, while her TV roles include sitcoms Joey and 2 Broke Girls. She now stars in HBO drama The White Lotus, which comes to Sky Atlantic on 16 August.

You’re talking from your house in New Orleans. The decor is quite unusual, isn’t it?
From my movies, people assume it’ll be all pink couches and fluffy rugs. They’re surprised I live in this very old, dark house with creepy oil portraits on the walls. It’s gloomy and cavernous. I have an antique automaton called Signor Blitz. When people come round for the first time, they feel like they’re on a haunted house tour or a fairground ride. Sofia Coppola shot [southern gothic film] The Beguiled here. I throw a Halloween party every year. But hey, it’s good to confound expectations.

You’re getting rave reviews for TV drama The White Lotus, but you were reluctant to accept the role. Why?
I was really affected by the pandemic. It was an incredibly sad time. I was reading tragic news stories on a daily basis, had a fatalistic approach and assumed the virus was going to win. I knew people who lost their lives and was convinced we wouldn’t make it through. I wasn’t thinking about work, because I didn’t think we’d be alive. But then [White Lotus creator] Mike White called. His show about rich people on vacation had been picked up by HBO and he’d written a role with me in mind. I said: “OK, when are we doing it?” He said: “What do you mean? We just got green-lit. We’re doing it now. You need to get on a plane to Hawaii.” That was an impossibility to my mind. I’d been gorging and self-destructing at home for months, eating pizza all day. There was no way I wanted to be on film unless they shot me from the neck up. I’m sort of vain, so there was no fucking way.

How did he talk you into it?
Mike texted me at 2am one night and it just said: “Are you afraid?” It was like he could read my mind and sensed that I was trying to get out of it. Then a great friend of mine told me to own my mess and just do it. I can’t tell you how close I came to ruining this whole thing for myself. It’s such a great lesson in life. I’d never have forgiven myself. I would’ve sat down to watch The White Lotus and said: “What the hell was I thinking? I’m an insane person.” A lot of us actors are so insecure and scared of failure, we blow our own chances.

It’s been hailed as one of your best performances. Are you pleasantly surprised?
Totally. Did I feel like I was nailing it on any level? No. Acting’s so weird. You can never tell when you’re in the midst of it. What helped is that my character, Tanya [a wealthy woman grieving her mother], had parallels to me personally. I’d been incredibly depressed during the pandemic. I lost my own mother at an early age. A family member passed away during Covid and we couldn’t hold a proper memorial. So I had all that going for me.

Tanya eventually finds a love interest. What’s it like doing sex scenes now, compared with earlier in your career?
It’s weird during a pandemic, that’s for sure. Gee, I’m making out with someone. Hope I don’t die afterwards [laughs]. I’m just glad Tanya found somebody, for Christ’s sake. It would’ve been a tragic journey if she hadn’t. A lot of other people were getting some, why shouldn’t she?

Watch a trailer for The White Lotus.

Received wisdom is that meaty roles for middle-aged women are hard to find. Are you finding the opposite?
I’ve been very lucky. I don’t want to analyse it too much in case they dry up. I think certain things helped: Ariana Grande putting me in her video [for thank u, next] and Emerald Fennell casting me in Promising Young Woman. People assumed I could only do certain kinds of role – that lady who comes in, opens a door, says something funny, then closes it. You get put in a box as comic relief, but those things helped get me back in the game and I’m so glad.

You played protagonist Cassie’s mother in Promising Young Woman. How was that experience?
What a great movie. I felt in awe of [director] Emerald Fennell and [leading actress] Carey Mulligan. Both those girls are so advanced and accomplished. Emerald is a wise head on young shoulders - phenomenally bright, with such a smart view of the world. I felt like a novice by comparison. At times I was like: “Oh my God, she thinks I suck.” The thing that saved me from totally tanking was a dinner scene where we could improvise. That was when I hoped we might end up all right and maybe Emerald didn’t think I was a total idiot.

Are Christopher Guest’s films your favourite projects?
It doesn’t get any better. They’re some of the funniest people in the world, and it’s mind-blowing when everyone’s improvising. Becoming part of that group was life-changing for me. Those movies, wow – you always want to get that phone call.

Who makes you corpse with laughter the most?
Christopher Guest himself. He comes out with things that are so funny but with such dry, serious delivery, I can’t keep it together. But what a group. I’m thrilled that Catherine [O’Hara] and Eugene [Levy] have had this incredible success with Schitt’s Creek. It’s so well-deserved. All that team are so normal and unpretentious. Everyone arrives in their beat-up cars. Eugene is so un-starry, I swear he thinks he’s the local dentist or something.

A third Legally Blonde film is in the pipeline, right?
Yes, we’ve done reunions on Zoom. Mindy Kaling is writing the script and obviously Reese [Witherspoon] is very involved too. I can’t wait.

Is it true you used to pose as Ernest Hemingway’s granddaughter to get into nightclubs?
Yeah, Muffin – the Hemingway daughter who wasn’t as well known as Mariel and Margaux. I had these thick black eyebrows and shoulder-length blond hair, so I looked the part. I’d turn up to New York clubs in high heels and a short dress and tell them I was Muffin Hemingway. You wouldn’t believe how well it worked. I got a lot of mileage out of that. Until I got kicked out of a few clubs, then it wasn’t so flattering for poor Muffin.

I saw someone on social media say you could play Melania Trump in a biopic. Would you fancy that?
What a compliment. Where do I sign [laughs]? Between you and I, though, I’m sure Melania would be bummed.

Are there other genres you’d like to try?
I’d love to go back to theatre and do a serious play. And then the Melania biopic, of course.

What will be the first thing you’ll do in a newly Covid-free world?
I’ve always wanted to throw a birthday party in Scotland, so that’s on my wishlist when this is all over. Do you play the bagpipes? If so, you’re invited. Even if you don’t, you’re still invited.

The White Lotus will be available on streaming service NOW and Sky Atlantic from 16 August


Michael Hogan

The GuardianTramp

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