Jennifer Coolidge’s coffee maker is broken. The actress is calling from her home in New Orleans, and she just can’t get her crappy automatic to work. “I hope you don’t think I’m an amoeba because I have no personality,” Coolidge, 61, says, deciding to brave the interview without caffeine. “We already postponed this with you, and I don’t want to be a pain in the ass. So I’m just going to have to do it with my low energy.”
In theory, Coolidge could walk to her local coffee shop, but she’s a little too famous for that now. As Tanya in The White Lotus — which aired its second season on Oct. 30 — as well as the role of Karen on Ryan Murphy’s The Watcher, Coolidge has transcended from beloved character actress to, finally, her rightful place as a bona fide star. Even after her famous turns as Paulette in Legally Blonde, Stiffler’s mom in American Pie, Hilary Duff’s evil stepmom in A Cinderella Story, and several Christopher Guest movies, she could still go out and get a coffee. Not anymore.
“I can’t just walk over in my bathrobe,” she says in her signature breathy half-whisper. “I miss the days I was anonymous, where you can just throw on some weird hat and walk over there. I can’t do that. You have to brush your hair and put on makeup. You have to get it together. How boring!”
How has the reception been for The White Lotus Season Two?
I think it’s very hard to do a season like White Lotus [Season] One was. When something is this unexpected success and then there’s that pressure to match it…[but] I think it did a pretty good job. I’m not one of those people that really researches the numbers. I don’t want to jinx it. It’s that thing where you don’t want to read reviews because it makes you self-conscious.
Especially since you won an Emmy for your work on Season One.
It puts the pressure on, right? But thrilled to be back on that show. Who doesn’t love [showrunner] Mike White? He did an amazing job casting White Lotus Two. He found these great actors [Michael Imperioli, Aubrey Plaza, Laura Dern] and he really knows how to tell a fascinating story. He knows how to hold your interest. Most of all, he’s writing stuff that other people aren’t writing.
At what point did you realize the show was taking off?
There was no sign of it ever until it hit. There were moments where I was very — not surprised, but the acting that was going on made me think, “This might be good.” But I didn’t feel like it was something that a lot of people would watch, because even though it was a brilliant story, I just didn’t know if people would get all that Mike is saying. I truly underestimated the viewing public, and I was so surprised when it just turned into this huge thing.
It’s so funny, my neighbors in New Orleans were dressing up and having these viewing parties of White Lotus. They all showed up in Hawaiian shirts and leis. That was a really good sign.
Are they still dressing up for Season Two?
Halloween was just the other night. I usually have this big party with 150 people, but I have to keep the number really down. I think it was 50 this year. The same group of neighbors came. One of them was dressed as my Emmy speech. There was a girl that dressed as me and found a dress that looked just like the one I wore for the Emmys. And then another guy came as a lavender bath. When people make an effort like that, you can’t really fake that enthusiasm.
A bath is so elaborate. What did that costume look like?
It was amazing. He built this little bathtub, and then had lavender and white balloons for the lavender bubble bath. His lavender bath was better than what I had. Bath salts don’t really bubble, but it was just so clever.
What did you dress as?
Well, you see, I’m not Heidi Klum. I don’t have time to come up with a great outfit. I came in this massive wig. People are like, “What are you?” I have no idea what this is. But it’s so hard to throw this Halloween party. I just don’t have time to show up as a worm or whatever. I loved Heidi’s costume. It’s so unexpected: One of the most beautiful girls in the world comes as a worm. I love it.
Do you keep your Emmy in your house?
I do. It’s at my house in L.A., and I have this painting of this woman from the 1930s over my fireplace. If I push the Emmy up against the painting, it looks like she’s holding it. When I bought it from the antique guy, he said she was an actress. So it’s cool. It’s like some actress from another generation got it.
Mike said he wrote Tanya with you in mind. Where Tanya’s at right now, how much do you relate to her?
I’m hoping I’m nicer than Tanya. But as far as who I am, I think my naivete was completely parallel. Definitely at this stage, I’m not half as gullible as I [once] was. That just got me into all sorts of trouble. I don’t want to use the word jaded, but I’m much more cautious as an older person and much more, what’s the word for the opposite of gullible? I’m much more discerning. It’s that thing. When you meet a security guard and you’re trying to get into someplace, he’s heard every story and he just gives you that look like, “You don’t have a chance.” I’m not the security guard that’s been doing it for 20 years. I’m the security guard that’s been doing it for a few years.
Fans have called this moment in your career the Jenaissance. What has that been like for you?
The Jenaissance thing might’ve come from two shows coming almost at the same time — Ryan Murphy’s show, The Watcher, was right ahead of White Lotus Two. Somehow, that created some momentum.
How often are you stopped in public now?
It’s really increased. It just goes to show you the power of television. A lot of people knew who I was because of [American Pie]. You get on a plane and people are like, “Oh, I’m sitting next to Stifler’s mom,” or whatever. People do recognize you, even if you’ve done a movie a long time ago. But somehow the combination of these two shows has overnight made… Everyone knows me now.
I feel like it’s this new generation — Ariana Grande’s generation — they like me more than the first generation. Somehow I click with them better. They’re way younger than I am, though. Maybe it’s all the social media, but they do imitations of me on TikTok, and a lot of the imitations are so freaking good. Ariana, just a few days ago, she did my character, Sherri Ann Cabot in Best in Show. It was so spot-on. She got every nuance and batting of the eyes.
Did you tell Ariana how much you loved it?
Of course. I couldn’t believe it, and so many people sent it to me. They go, “It’s almost you, Jennifer. It’s you.”
You’re also starting to be better known for roles, like Tanya, or playing Carey Mulligan’s mom in Promising Young Woman, that allow you to do more serious dramatic work. What caused that shift?
Mike White gets so much credit. He is the guy that took the big risk on me. No one has really done that.
[And] I think Promising Young Woman helped things. Thank God for Emerald Fennell. She got the ball rolling. You can’t underestimate — If you were to say, “Jennifer, what do you think it was that changed your life in a very short amount of time?” I would say Emerald Fennell, by far. That tiny little role somehow got things going.
And then obviously right before Emerald Fennell, it was Ariana Grande putting me in her video [for “Thank U, Next”], which was just a complete fluke. All of a sudden someone pours gasoline on this tiny little fire, and the next thing you know, you’re having a different life.
How do you think your life would’ve been different if you had gained all this fame early on?
That’s very interesting. I don’t know who I’d be by now. If you want to hear an honest answer, I would say that I would rather end my life with some great things than to have them happen in my thirties and then have it fizzle out. But I have to say, I found funny clips from some shows that I did in my early thirties, some comedy stuff that I did. And I remember thinking, “Oh, I must have sucked.” But looking back at it at this age, I was like, “I wasn’t bad and I was really thin and I was much cuter and no one wanted me.” It’s weird how I had way more going for me physically. But who knows why things didn’t happen after Best in Show or any of those things. I’d rather end with a bang than the opposite.
In the Eighties, you worked with Sandra Bullock at a New York restaurant called Canastel’s. Was she good at her job?
It’s so funny because two of those waitresses from 1983 were at my Halloween party. But Sandra was the hostess and I was the cocktail waitress. Then, at the very end, I wasn’t showing up to my shifts a lot. I was going out on the town and not being very good. So Sandra ended up getting my cocktail shifts. She was very pulled together, very pretty girl. Stuff was already brewing. She had stuff going on.
How many times have you seen Legally Blonde?
Yeah. Maybe once. Sometimes when you do the movie and you go to the premiere, they go, “Jennifer, we have a seat for you in the audience.” So you really do have to watch the movie, and everyone’s watching you watch it, too. If I’m over at someone’s house and Legally Blonde is on, I’ll watch anybody else’s scenes. Reese’s breakup. But I literally become very unhappy if I have to watch anything I’m in, ever. Just don’t want to see it. I do the job and that’s it.
But I met a guy, he was a maitre d’ at a hotel in San Francisco and he said, “I just want to tell you something. Every night after my shift, I go home and my mother and I watch Legally Blonde.” And I said, “Oh that’s so cute. But not every night, you don’t.” And he goes, “No, no, every night I really do go home, and she stays up for me. That’s what we watch.” I’m so glad that movie brought a lot of joy to people.
What’s the best part of success?
People think they’re going to have a good experience with me because I’ve played a lot of underdog characters. I like that. I haven’t played a lot of evil people. People who don’t even know you invite you to things because they know you’re not a serial killer or something. I feel like I would never be in trouble if my car broke down. Someone would be like, “Oh my God, get in the car. We’ll take you to a gas station.”
What do you do to relax?
My dog loves my bed and I love my bed and I like to… lay down in my bed [laughs]. I know a lot of people are like, “Well, I like to surf, that makes me relax.” But mine, it doesn’t involve any sort of athleticism. It’s just getting in the bed and watching movies if I can make the television work. That’s my favorite.
What is your fitness regimen like?
I don’t really have any regime. In New Orleans, I have these really steep stairs that I go up and down 100 times a day. I feel like that really helps.
What’s the most indulgent purchase you’ve ever made?
This house. I don’t have children, so I think it is like a child that needs a lot of attention. You have to feed it. A lot goes wrong with it. It’s an old house. It constantly needs attention. So it’s not a purchase of a necklace or something, but definitely the most indulgent because of all the money I’ve put into it. It’s never-ending. The house has become a job.
What advice do you wish you could give your younger self?
Hang in there. If someone isn’t nice to you, believe it. I always feel like I was in such denial. For whatever reason, I would still hang out. I don’t know what that is, but I didn’t quite believe that they didn’t like me.
I’ll let you go get your coffee.
Don’t you want my favorite quote?
Character is fate.