Jennifer Coolidge Has Finally Made It

The actress discusses her career-making star turn in The White Lotus, trying to talk Mike White out of that ending, and working with J.Lo for Shotgun Wedding.

by Ilana Kaplan

A portrait of Jennifer Coolidge off to the opera to see Madame Butterfly in the second season of The...
Fabio Lovino/HBO

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

Two weeks ago, Jennifer Coolidge could be seen on HBO Max’s hit series The White Lotus snorting lines of cocaine with an Italian bad boy at a villa in Palermo. The actress may have been in character as her on-screen alter-ego, Tanya McQuoid, but the fever-dream scene wasn’t too foreign to Coolidge, who spent the 1980s in New York City’s club scene, filling her weekends with nights at the Palladium and Save the Robots. “It didn’t feel like I was acting, it was just like I was back in time,” she tells W of the scene, laughing. There’s only one exception: “I don’t think I ever would have had a Stefano in my youth, someone that looked like that.” She got the clubbing out of her system by 27, but before that was “just a terror and getting in all kinds of trouble,” she recalls. Luckily, Coolidge was able to channel her late nights in New York to play Tanya—and it’s paid off. Ever since The White Lotus debuted in July 2021, Coolidge has been in the midst of a career renaissance, elevating her profile as a serious actor and getting the respect she always deserved.

And with the surprise ending of The White Lotuss second season, Coolidge’s role as the hapless Tanya has been enshrined as one of the most iconic TV characters. Tanya herself foreshadowed in season one that death was “the last immersive experience” she hadn’t tried, and in the season two finale, she left this earth in perhaps the most memorable yacht death scene since Big Pussy kicked the bucket aboard Tony’s boat on The Sopranos. It’s no surprise that people are mourning the passing of Tanya all over Twitter. After all, the daft socialite was so spectacular she was enlisted to star in not one, but two seasons of The White Lotus.

Courtesy of HBO

“Only Mike White can come up with all this stuff,” Coolidge laughs over the phone from Los Angeles. For the show’s inaugural season, White wrote Tanya, an insecure and self-absorbed heiress, with his friend specifically in mind. After two seasons working together, Coolidge remains awestruck by White’s “superhuman” abilities. She’s also thrilled she isn’t the one who has to conceive of the entire show. “I just have anxiety thinking about it!”

With her kitschy caftans and delirium, Tanya quickly became a fan favorite. In season one, she visited The White Lotus’s Hawaii location to scatter her late mother’s ashes, grappling with her loneliness before falling head over heels for a fellow hotel guest named Greg (Jon Gries). She was the only original cast member to reprise her role in season two at the hotel’s Sicilian Coast property—this time, with her now-husband Greg in tow, (as well as her boldly dressed personal assistant, Portia, played by Haley Lu Richardson). Like the rest of the Internet, Coolidge does have an opinion about Portia’s style: “I didn’t like the bucket hat, but I liked her little number she chose for the premiere.” But “[Haley] can somehow pull it off.”

Things, however, become rocky early on, with Greg abandoning Tanya in Sicily shortly after their arrival. She found respite when befriended by a group of “high-end gays,” and she and Portia ventured offshore to a lush Palermo villa to party in style. But this is The White Lotus, where nothing is as it seems—and Tanya became the mark in a scam spearheaded by Greg and Quentin (Tom Hollander), the way-too-inviting English expat.

Prior to the finale, when we initially spoke, Coolidge said she didn’t know who dies this season—or maybe she did. (She likes to play coy, so she remained tight-lipped.) Luckily, Coolidge wanted to dish on the dramatic finale after it aired. “I knew about dying before I got the whole script,” she recalls. She even tried to talk White out of killing off Tanya. “I mean, look, I didn’t want to die,” she exclaims. But in the end, The White Lotus creator did incorporate her vision. Coolidge had mentioned to White that she wanted to go to Italy, even referencing a video of eight different men offering Monica Bellucci cigarettes in the 2000 Italian film Malèna. “I was like, ‘It would just be my fantasy,’” she says with a dreamy lilt. “And then Mike wrote this big, Italian, operatic thing.”

While shooting the infamous boat scene in the finale, Coolidge found herself battling nausea. She can’t recall what was and wasn’t improvised—it was all a blur. Or maybe it was the seasickness. “I love that, when there’s no possibility for someone like Tanya—an awkward, overly paranoid woman overwhelmed with depression—would be able to get her hands on a gun and shoot the bad evil guy,” she says. “That just doesn’t happen often.” The actress, notably, never removed her stilettos during the entire process. “It’s sort of like murdering someone,” Coolidge says. “Logical things like taking the shoes off don’t even come into play.” No matter, she’s just happy Tanya got the last laugh—in her own way. Is there a chance Coolidge will return to The White Lotus, I ask? “My only way in would be probably as a different person, I think,” she reasons. While she doesn’t expect Tanya to make a dream sequence appearance, she thinks a prequel could potentially work, too.

Coolidge’s star turn has been a long time coming. The Boston-born actress landed her big break in 1999, when she starred as Stifler’s liquored-up MILF in the American Pie franchise, a role where she epitomized “bimbocore” before it was a TikTok trend. Playing Paulette Bonafanté, Elle Woods’s brassy manicurist and confidante in Legally Blonde just a few years later, made her even more unforgettable. Since then, Coolidge’s roles have included trophy wives, divorcées, and evil stepmoms with scene-stealing roles in A Cinderella Story, Christopher Guest mockumentaries like A Mighty Wind and Best in Show, and in the CBS sitcom Two Broke Girls. Her signature squint coupled with pursed lips and a befuddled slur has become her trademark—an impression Ariana Grande nailed in 2018 (and a handful of times since). All the while, Coolidge’s charisma and comedic timing have permeated the archetypes of her characters.

Courtesy of HBO

Though she had bit parts and supporting roles over the years, it wasn’t until she became one of the leads of The White Lotus that mainstream audiences really began to notice. “I don’t think HBO was very hot on me at the time, but [creator] Mike [White] insisted that I have this part,” she pauses, “And thank god.” After years of being typecast for cheap laughs, Coolidge was being given a new opportunity to show off her talents. “People saw me doing comedies, and that’s the only way they saw me,” she says.

While some facets of her on-screen persona echo into real life, Coolidge, now 61, is much more than the characters she’d become synonymous with. That bewildered nasal intonation she’s famous for on-screen? The real Coolidge doesn’t really have it. Instead, her voice is richer, and she’s soft-spoken. While her sense of whimsy lingers, Coolidge’s replies are always measured, thoughtfully considering every outcome of her answer. But most of all, she’s somewhat of an anomaly as a Hollywood star, not jaded by self-seriousness. During The White Lotus post-show interviews with the cast, the majority of the actors have said they’d love to travel with Coolidge. They think she’d be the best time—but does she? “Maybe,” she pauses. “I’m a little rebellious because I have lots of big parties. Maybe they think I could throw a party on a deserted island or something.” Coolidge thrives on eccentricity and not getting swept up in the madness—it’s perhaps what has made her such a star after all.

And Coolidge won’t rest on her laurels. She is, in fact, booked and busy. Last year, she took on a supporting role in the gay holiday rom-com, Single All the Way. Roughly a month before The White Lotus season two debuted, she starred as realtor Karen Calhoun in another mystery, The Watcher on Netflix—a campy role more dramatic than many of her others. As someone who grew up in the real-life Watcher town—Westfield, New Jersey—I begin theorizing with an audibly excited Coolidge about who could be the actual “Watcher.” Coolidge has her own theories: “I heard it was a woman that wanted the house,” she blurts out. “I heard it could possibly be a woman, but maybe I should keep my mouth shut about that in case we get asked to do Watcher 2.” While it’s fun to speculate, it’s rare that she gets the opportunity to flaunt the more serious side of her talent—only The White Lotus and Promising Young Woman have really given her the opportunity to flex those muscles. Next, she’s putting on her comedy hat once again in the Jennifer Lopez-led action rom-com, Shotgun Wedding.

Coolidge feels lucky she’s been able to work at all, let alone in such beautiful places. After filming in Hawaii for The White Lotus, she shacked up with Lenny Kravitz (okay, with the other cast members like Sônia Braga, D’Arcy Carden and Selena Tam, too) at a house in the Dominican Republic for Shotgun Wedding. In the movie, Coolidge is set to play Jennifer Lopez’s in-law. “Josh Duhamel is my son, and I’m just thrilled that he's getting married—but things go horribly wrong,” she says. That’s an understatement—a press image of her pursed lips firing a shotgun is already primed for social media virality.

But for Coolidge, the behind-the-scenes action is what excites her the most about this project—specifically, the ritual dinners she had with Kravitz, Cheech Marin, Carden, Braga, and her on-screen husband, whose name seems to slip her mind when she quips, “Who’s my husband?” Beyond the off-screen time, what’s stuck with her most has been working with Lopez herself. “I don’t know how she does it,” Coolidge says. “She’s like a one-man band. I mean, holy crap. What an impressive person that makes that much happen at once. Her life is intense, and somehow she manages it.”

Coolidge is navigating her own balancing act. After Shotgun Wedding, she’s also set to star in the Netflix comedy We Have a Ghost. Then there’s maybe a Legally Blonde 3 film in the works. “I’ll run into people that know or work with Reese and they’re like, ‘Oh, we can’t wait until Legally Blonde 3 happens.’ They’re talking as if it’s happening,” she says. “Apparently there is a script that Mindy [Kaling] wrote [but] I just have to keep telling people, ‘I’m not lying. I have not seen that script.’” Beyond that, she’s “secretly hoping” to work with some great female filmmakers.

But for more than two decades, she’s been haunted by fans repeating Paulette’s Legally Blonde 2 quote, “You look like the Fourth of July! Makes me want a hot dog real bad!” everywhere she goes—including on airplanes. For what it’s worth, some new lines from The White Lotus have started to stick, too. Since it’s already a viral meme, Tanya’s panicked plea in the season finale—“These gays! They’re trying to murder me!”—will likely be the next one she can’t get away from on flights. “There are two lines in two different movies about how much I love gay men, and I think that will always stick with the gays,” she says. “People give me those lines now, in movies and shows, because they know that about me.” But she’s hesitant to call herself a “gay icon.” “Friend since birth” has a better ring to it.