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Jennifer Coolidge Wants You to Know Mike White Is a Genius

Four episodes into HBO’s buzzy miniseries ‘The White Lotus,’ we catch up with Coolidge to talk about playing a romantic lead, surfing, and surviving on a deserted island

Getty Images/HBO/Ringer illustration

There are no weak links in the all-star cast of The White Lotus, the six-episode miniseries from creator Mike White now more than halfway through its run on HBO. There are, however, some standouts—chief among them Jennifer Coolidge, the veteran character actress who’s made The White Lotus a showcase for her many talents.

Coolidge is best known for comedic roles in movies like Best in Show and Legally Blonde, in which Elle Woods taught her (and the world) how to bend and snap like a pro. Lately, she’s earned plaudits for her role in Emerald Fennell’s Oscar-winning Promising Young Woman, where she plays Carey Mulligan’s quiet, concerned mother. The film was a noted change of pace for Coolidge; her muted sorrow was a marked contrast to the peppy space cadets she often portrays. With The White Lotus, Coolidge continues to surprise as Tanya McQuoid, a wealthy woman who’s come to the titular Hawaiian resort to scatter her mother’s ashes.

Even before she unzips her suitcase, Tanya’s brought a ton of emotional baggage to the hotel. She wastes no time offloading it onto the staff and her fellow guests. In the show’s third episode, she brings spa manager Belinda (Natasha Rothwell) on a sunset cruise, where she proceeds to melt down in front of both her companion (who was enticed to join in part by the promise of a Tanya-funded spa of her own), and a pair of newlyweds trying in vain to enjoy a romantic dinner. It’s a low point for Tanya, who’s still grieving a parent she clearly loved but never liked, and a high point for Coolidge, who screams, cries, and murmurs her way into something like closure. “She told me I’d never be a ballerina,” Tanya moans. “And that was when I was skinny!” The monologue is a bravura performance—all the more so when you learn Coolidge was violently seasick the whole time she was giving it.

Shot at the Four Seasons in Maui in late 2020, The White Lotus is the product of a lightning-fast turnaround after HBO commissioned White to pitch a story with a quarantine-friendly location. But it’s also the result of a decade-long friendship between White and Coolidge and White’s inclination to cast the actress slightly against type. In the fourth episode, Tanya goes on a date with a Bureau of Land Management staffer she mistakes for a Black Lives Matter activist, a misunderstanding that still leads to a connection. The subplot gives Tanya yet another perspective Coolidge rarely gets the chance to explore: that of a romantic lead. It’s just one more way The White Lotus allows the actress to show off her full range. Last month, Coolidge got on the phone to talk about what makes The White Lotus so special to her, her history with Hawaii, and her friendship with White.

We’re going to be running this right after the episode where your character meets her love interest. Was it fun to play a more romantic role?

Yeah, definitely. I mean, The White Lotus has let me sort of play the gamut, fortunately. I don’t think until we really started filming did I realize just what an extravagant part I got. When you’re there and then you’re opposite the other actors and stuff, you start to realize the complicated story Mike is trying to tell. You start to sort of see how the pieces of the puzzle come together.

Although, you know, you read the script a bunch of times and you make these decisions, you don’t really know what you’re getting into until you show up. And then all these cool things happen! Cool things happen on every job, but for The White Lotus, everything sort of flowed very well. Even when we shot scenes out of sequence. And I don’t know if I’ve really had that experience before.

Everyone sort of bonded together. We were doing this scary thing and shooting during COVID, but even though it was incredibly difficult, with the heat and all of that, there was something kind of magical about it going on, I can’t explain. It was a very unusual feeling I had on it.

Did that feeling of camaraderie come from filming in a bubble?

Yeah, I mean, you’re all in this boat. A lot of people left their families behind; some of the actors left kids behind. It definitely gave a purpose to the job, and it really made it seem to have higher stakes. And then, of course, although it doesn’t say so, The White Lotus is happening during COVID. It is sort of parallel to what’s going on, although people aren’t wearing masks and stuff.

Sometimes, your experience in a movie or series, matches what you have going on. Sometimes you just get that lucky. Not that I wish for anything bad to happen to anybody; I’m just saying you get lucky as far as your feelings. The feelings that you have sort of match up with what’s going on in the movie or, you know, within a series like this.

Do you mean Tanya’s loneliness and isolation mirrored what was going on in the rest of the world?

Yeah, of course. And you know, I’ve been living it since the beginning of March. I was living in my house in New Orleans and it was extremely lonely and it really did feel like the end. And so it was sort of a good send-off to experience that right up until the beginning of filming The White Lotus. I was incredibly skeptical about this whole pandemic thing; I didn’t think we were going to survive it. I was sort of a fatalist. I had a fatalistic approach to it all and I just was watching way too much of the news and reading way too many of the sad stories. Knowing sad stories that were happening right outside my house and down the street, people passing away and people getting really sick—that sort of propelled me into this job.

I don’t know if I’ve really discussed that with other actors, if they felt that way on The White Lotus. I felt it very strongly as the most vulnerable I’ve ever felt in my life. I think it carried on into the making of White Lotus, just because it still wasn’t over. I mean, we were filming when there were still, terrible things were happening outside our gates, you know. Really sad stuff.

What was your experience with Hawaii like before filming this show?

I’ve been to Hawaii quite a few times, and I’d been to quite a few of the islands. You know, I had a girlfriend who lived on Maui for like seven years. She was a New York City girl, and then her husband wanted to move to Hawaii so they got a place up in the hills. He was an emergency room doctor in the emergency room right there in Maui.

I got to go and fly in and visit them quite a bit, because I have a house in California and so I had some really good experiences on Maui. For a birthday present, my girlfriend got me private surfing lessons with this very famous surfer, Buzzy Kerbox. One year I just happened to time it right with Jaws, that giant set of waves that comes into Maui. Those, 50-, 60-foot waves come in and, you know, Laird Hamilton, those guys go out and surf those giant waves. Buzzy Kerbox, took me out there. You can sit right outside the giant waves. They call it, like, the canal or whatever.

The giant waves are so close you can almost reach out and touch them, but you’re not part of it. It’s sort of this safe zone, so these giant waves are coming up and these guys are getting on them but you’re not affected. You can just sort of sit there on a Jet Ski and see the point of view from the side. It’s the most mind-blowing experience, I think in my top five experiences in my life.

Did working on The White Lotus change your perspective on Hawaii at all?

It did. You know, when you go on vacations, you stay two, maybe three weeks max. I would say the longest I’ve ever stayed in Hawaii was probably two and a half, three weeks. When you stay longer … I can see why vacations end at a certain point, you know?

The thing that was so great is, we had each other. At the end of the day, a lot of us really did end up in these beautiful waves, swimming when it got dark. It was a very unusual experience. It all felt so surreal. I remember thinking that all the time. I remember the water looked so dark; I’ve seen too many shark movies, so I’m always sort of paranoid. But for some reason, there I was in the waves, staying way too long with everybody, because I couldn’t get enough of that part. I couldn’t get enough of that camaraderie.

Just because, when you’re on these jobs, usually the job ends and you go back to your apartment, wherever, the housing they put you in and you go to bed. But this, somehow, if you end up in the waves at the end of the day, you can go longer. You’re not going to bed; the waves sort of get you going again. Then you stay up too late.

You mentioned earlier that you didn’t realize the depth of the script as much until you were working with the other actors. Your character’s relationship with Natasha Rothwell’s character in particular is so essential to the show and its themes. How did you guys develop that connection?

I don’t know why that came. That was a really cool thing. I mean, I had met Natasha on another movie. I met her on Like a Boss; we met there and we had some great conversation. Oh yeah. One day I was flying back from filming in Atlanta on that job and she was on the same flight and we actually sat next to each other on the flight, too; we had like four hours of a conversation. You know, that was sort of great, knowing her on the set when we were there.

But also, that’s the thing—there was this weird sort of magical thing that happened with that job. I felt like I knew Natasha my whole life when we were filming those scenes; I felt like I really, really knew her well. And I don’t know, I can’t explain that. That’s really what I’m trying to describe. When you read the script, you know the story, but when you show up to the set ... I mean, you don’t really know the director’s story until you actually watch it on film. Like, you never know their perspective, really, until you see the film and then you go, “Oh my God, oh, this is the story you wanted to tell.”

Even though you’re there for a lot of it, by the time he’s edited it and everything, you’re like, “Oh my God, this is it.” But when you’re there, you know, when we showed up for The White Lotus ... I don’t know, I just felt like there was some centrifugal force or something that was involved, something in the atmosphere that was trying to help the story be told. There were so many things that, like I said, just fell into place, as if Mike could have predicted it all or something, that it would all work. Tash and I, I really just didn’t feel like I was acting in scenes with her. I just didn’t feel that way, I didn’t feel that there was any acting going on. And I felt that way with Jon Gries, too. It had this sort of weird, mystical feel to it.

When you say there’s no acting going on, does that mean you really identified with Tanya?

I guess what I’m saying is, it feels like you’re just sort of improvising the whole thing. Even though Mike’s written it, you feel like you’re coming up with it on the spot rather than anything you’ve read before. I have to say, I’m not that kind of person where I’m like, “Hocus-pocus.” I’m not very, I don’t really go like, “I had like an epiphany! This golden man came down from the ceiling and he spoke to me!” I just don’t have that kind of thing.

I was very depressed through COVID. Up until we got to The White Lotus and even during The White Lotus, I had some depressing moments, just dealing with sad stuff, and I felt like something incredibly optimistic happening at the same time.

Maybe it’s just that every actor was just giving it their all, and of course Mike was. Everyone was just so focused on just wanting to tell a story and delivering it well. But I just remember it being really profound. I mean, it was very hard. Some days it would just feel like it was too hot to work. Some of them I’m like, “Oh my God, are we going to make it through this day?” And the 3:30 a.m. calls really were so painful to do.

You know, I can’t do any boat at all. I can’t even be on a paddle board. I just get so immensely seasick and we had to shoot some stuff on a boat. I got just deathly ill on the boat. The boat was too small, so they didn’t really have conditions where you could go down and use the restroom, so they just gave me a bucket. The rest of the rest of the cast members were on the boat and I was right next to them delivering lines and then heaving into my bucket! But it was all worth it.

You and Mike White have a long-standing relationship. What kind of friendship do you have?

Mike is, of course, a true genius. He really is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. And so, whatever Mike is creating, it’s far more advanced than what I’m … like, when he’s shooting off his mouth at something, I’m listening to his thoughts and just going, “Oh my God.” Mike will tell me a dream he had, and it’s the most advanced, complicated dream I’ve ever heard in my life. And I’m like, “God, I just get chased by a shark every time!”

And he has these elaborate stories, like four or five things going on at once and he’s speaking in different accents. He’s a fascinating person. He and I, we really come together on the animal thing. He and I are incredibly passionate about animals and we’re worried about them all the time. So that’s why we ended up in Africa together, because he had this trip and at the last minute, his boyfriend couldn’t go. So he invited me and that was such an incredible adventure. We’re worried about all the animals being slaughtered. There’s some really sad stuff happening. And then there’s the good guys, the conservationists. They’re all trying to save the animals there and they host these safaris. Half of the plane is the hunters and half of the plane are the good guys trying to serve.

That was a trip where you fly to the Serengeti and you get to see all these incredible animals. You start to believe that there is good in the world, because there’s all these people trying to save the Serengeti and the animals, you know. When you see it all in motion, how much work, people just devoting their lives just to saving the animals. That’s all they do all day. And it’s hard, it’s incredibly hard work. It’s way more than a vacation. You become full of hope together.

Mike is one of those people—the reason why he does so well on Survivor and stuff is because Mike can handle ... He’s sort of Superman in a weird way. He’s able to handle many things at once. He’s able to process many things at once in his head. He’s so bright and he’s just so smart. So it’s not like we’re the same. We’re very different people in a lot of ways. One of the questions we had on the red carpet was like, “If you were going to be stuck on a deserted island with someone, who in the cast would you pick?” And then the interviewer said, “Would you pick Jennifer?” And Mike said, “God, no! I would want to survive. I would want to be with someone who knows how to use a compass and could help chop the firewood.” He would never pick me to be his partner on The Amazing Race or any of that stuff, because we’re very different.

When you meet someone in life, especially when you’re on acting jobs and stuff, you don’t know who’s going to end up being your friend because these jobs last for a month or two, and then you go on. You’re hopping around; it’s kind of a hard way to live, especially if you’re not married and you don’t have a family that sort of grounds you. But then there are these friends that don’t let you go. That’s Mike White. He was always the steady Eddie, great friend that would just call up and say, like, “Hey, I’m coming to New Orleans,” just out of the blue.

I was in a play in Boston once and my father had just died. [Mike] was just like, “Hey, I’m coming to Boston for your play.” It’s hard for actors to stay in touch all the time. It’s hard to get any sort of continuity with acting friends because it’s just this unpredictable life. But I’ve been very lucky to have Mike, and then, because of this year and because of The White Lotus, we really got to hang out more than ever. I’m sure he burnt out on me.

I doubt that.

He is one of those people who can do more than most people in the world. He can do a lot of things at once and make it all seem possible. I remember just watching him being barraged by all these people on White Lotus that needed answers. It’s in the heat, in summer where it’s really, really hot out and you feel like you’re going to faint. And then to have to handle all this stuff at once! Having to make these last-minute decisions and all of that. I think of Mike, where he’s on Survivor and he hasn’t eaten anything for four days and he’s still able to make good decisions and try to outsmart the other people.

That’s just a different kind of person. He’s like a major athlete. He’s just a high-performing individual on every front. The lines that come out of Mike’s mouth, they seem like they were prewritten, they’re just such zingers, but you know they’re not. He’s just really exceptional. One in a billion.