Jennifer Coolidge Is Coming Into Her Own
In the early COVID days of 2020, who among us didn't use pizza to satisfy our hunger, boredom, and decision fatigue? "We had stacks of pizzas in the freezer," recalls Jennifer Coolidge, who spent the first several months of quarantine at her house in New Orleans with an assistant, genuinely convinced that the world was ending. The pizzas, she notes, were vegan. "But every time we were trying to make a decision about what to eat, starting at 8 a.m., we'd say, 'Should we just do the pizza?'"
This continued until she got the offer for the most challenging role of her career: adrift heiress Tanya McQuoid in HBO's dark summer 2021 hit The White Lotus. Shooting was to start in a few weeks. Coolidge considered pretending she was gravely ill and rejecting the offer. "I just looked like crap and didn't want to be on camera," she says. But she took the job, and as a result she's now relishing her first-ever awards season, with a slew of accolades for her performance, including a Golden Globe nomination for best supporting actress.
For Coolidge's fervent (if esoteric) fans, the recognition is decades overdue. An unfailing scene-stealer in films like American Pie, Legally Blonde, and Best in Show, Coolidge has turned the thankless task of playing the kooky, horny blonde into an art form. Her characters tend to wear too many rhinestones and/or boas, and their spacey, squinty grins hint that they've just downed too much tequila and/or cheesecake. You crack up even before Coolidge speaks, but it's her inimitable delivery — the dazed sighs, the searching pauses — that gives the characters a poignant, human dimension. Still, it's one thing to be a meme queen and TikTok favorite, as Coolidge has ever since Ariana Grande cast her in the 2018 "Thank U, Next" video. It's another thing to be a remarkably gifted actor, which Coolidge is now showing everyone she has been all along.
In person, Coolidge, who turned 60 last year, is a chronic self-deprecator. Whether she's lamenting her perpetual single status or speculating about why the Gen Z crowd has been stanning her ("Pity?" she wonders), she's openly self-conscious in a way her characters rarely are. But she acknowledges that the near universal praise for White Lotus has given her a bit of a confidence boost. These days, she says, "I don't have to work as hard when I walk into a room."
Late blooming, it turns out, is one of Coolidge's lifelong specialties. Though she seems like a natural-born jokester, Coolidge says she didn't develop a real sense of humor until she was in her mid-20s, around the time she started taking improv classes. Growing up in the Boston suburbs, she was not a theater kid or a cheerleader but a spaced-out oddball who spent long hours staring out the window. Her parents wondered if she had a mental disability and took her into the city for cognitive tests. "The questions were like, 'Which one of these things is a tree, and which is a spoon?'" Coolidge recalls. (She passed.) "Later they took me to a hearing doctor. They thought I was deaf, because they'd call me and I wouldn't answer." One day during a family ski trip, Coolidge was feeling cold and tired while sitting in the lodge, so she leaned against a woman and took a nap, without bothering to check whether the woman was her mother. "My mother came over and saw that I had picked another family," Coolidge says. "I just wasn't, you know, present."
After moving to New York in her early 20s, Coolidge spent many years feeling guilty for calling herself an actress while knowing that "waitress" was a more accurate term. For half a decade she worked the dinner shift at Canastel's on lower Park Avenue, where she briefly overlapped with Sandra Bullock. At one point she studied drama with teacher Julie Bovasso. "I wanted to be a serious actress and play amazing roles that changed people's lives," she says. The problem: She could never manage to tap into her emotions. One day a classmate, who'd noticed how good she was at imitating her fellow students, suggested she try comedy, so she auditioned at Gotham City Improv and got accepted.
Meanwhile Coolidge was throwing herself into the 1980s New York party scene, going out nightly and developing a coke addiction. "Palladium, Limelight, Area, Save the Robots, all those clubs," she remembers. "I was going nowhere fast." Why was cocaine her drug of choice? "Well, I was born low-energy," Coolidge says. "So there was this drug that was invented for people like me. It made me very alive, you know? Unfortunately, it's a terrible drug." After she ended up in emergency rooms a few too many times, Coolidge checked into a rehab facility in Minnesota and got sober at age 27.
Things got better after that, and Coolidge eventually made her way to L.A. and joined the Groundlings, but she soon discovered a new form of self-sabotage: screwing up auditions. She envies today's young actors who are asked to submit videos they record at home. "The auditioning process ruined my ability to get jobs," Coolidge recalls. "The minute I would go in and meet everybody, I'd be having a full-on anxiety attack. You're in these tiny rooms and the people are one foot away, and you can literally see their shoe bouncing because they're so bored. It's just murder."
Overcompensating for her nervousness, Coolidge would talk nonstop or blurt out inappropriate things. "There's this weird temptation to just be a Mack truck and run over everybody, and ruin the moment for yourself," she says. "I don't know what that is. I mean, I do know what that is, but I'm fascinated that it still happens, even as we get older. It still lives in there."
Humiliating auditions are now a thing of the past. Coolidge's turn in White Lotus had reviewers calling it one of the best TV performances in years, praising how subtly the actress conveyed the tragic under layers of Tanya's rich-lady misadventures at a Hawaiian resort. Audiences also responded in a way Coolidge isn't used to. "Usually you'll do, like, a girl movie, and only girls will call you," Coolidge says. "This was a job where every person I've met in my life called. The guy at the gas station somehow got my address and sent me a letter."
But it's the reaction of directors and producers that may have the most lasting impact for Coolidge, who's getting offers for the kinds of complex dramatic roles that she dreamed about 40 years ago. "The floodgates have opened," she says. "It's a completely different realm now — a lot of really interesting stuff." Already in the can are Ryan Murphy's Netflix series The Watcher and this summer's action thriller Shotgun Wedding, co-starring Jennifer Lopez and Josh Duhamel; Coolidge is also set to reteam with White Lotus director Mike White for a second season and with Reese Witherspoon for Legally Blonde 3. Meanwhile, Coolidge is eager for a meaty role as a villainess. "I would love to play someone really horrible," she says. "What a gift that would be. Someone who is just rotten to the core."
OK, so is Coolidge's current career surge giving her love life a boost? Too soon to tell. She mentions a trip to Paris that she took with another single friend just before COVID hit. Coolidge had a psychic premonition that romance was imminent — "a really weird feeling that I was going to meet the man of my dreams. I felt it so strongly." It turned out she was right about the romance but had gotten one key detail wrong: "It was my friend who fell in love with a guy — a brilliant musician who's really handsome. She married him five months ago."
Does Coolidge consider herself a romantic? "Yes," she says, "and I don't think that's good. It doesn't fit in with today's society." Still, "I want to remain hopeful, because it would be so cool to be really madly in love with somebody again."
In social situations, Coolidge acknowledges, she sometimes relies on her comic persona as a defense mechanism. It's a bit too easy to slip into schtick in order to keep from being too real, too vulnerable. Especially when she's doing TV or presenting an award, she says, "I hate to just be…me. I think I put on a little something just to survive. There are tricks I've learned where I don't have to be 100% myself."
For the photo shoot accompanying this story, Coolidge did an extravagant riff on the idea of pleasing crowds and keeping up appearances. She was channeling the Duchess of Cambridge and other royals who dutifully fulfill their proper roles — until they don't. "This was sort of a Kate Middleton fantasy [shoot]," Coolidge says. "I think she's a beautiful and very sexy woman, but when you're a future queen and everything, you have to contain your sexuality in public. When those big parties are over and Kate is saying goodbye to the last guests, I bet she sometimes goes into the castle and just takes off all her clothes and starts dancing."
As for Coolidge's own willingness to let loose, off screen especially, she says she still has some progress to make: "It's really weird, but I'm…shy, you know?" Lately she's been trying to take cues from some of her younger, bolder friends, including one particularly fearless 22-year-old woman. It was this friend who urged Coolidge to reach out to Ariana Grande in 2018, after Grande did a spookily on-target impression of Coolidge on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. "I was saying that it was really freaking accurate, and my friend said, 'Well, you should tell Ariana.'" Coolidge hesitated since she'd never met Grande and "didn't have the gonads." But finally she shot off a DM on Instagram. "And the next thing you know I was in her video," she says.
It's a lesson Coolidge hopes to remember often in the coming decades. "You know, I might only have, like, 20 years left on this earth," she says. "So I'd better just go for it.
Photographs by Beau Grealy for Pippa Mockridge. Styling by Sam Broekema. Hair by Serena Radaelli for Cloutier Remix. Makeup by Rachel Goodwin for A-Frame Agency. Manicure by Brittney Boyce for Star Touch Agency. Male modeling by Issac Silva for Idell Casting. Child modeling by Zipporah Dantus, Elizaveta Kazakova, Chloe Lamonica, Ronan Leeder, Enzo Nguyen-Lai, and Azarius Pierre-Louis for Idell Casting. Set design by Cooper Vasquez. Production by Kelsey Stevens Productions.
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