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Column: Jennifer Coolidge has been a big deal for years; with an Emmy nod, she’s starting to believe it

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Jennifer Coolidge
Jennifer Coolidge, who has her first Emmy nominee for “the White Lotus,” is finally, maybe, kind of understanding how famous she really is.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Here are two stories told by an actor; try to guess who it is.

One: She is among a star-studded group at the home of a very famous writer for a play reading. Afterward, the writer unexpectedly suggests the guests help him scatter the ashes of an equally famous comedic actress in his garden. “She left him part of her ashes and he said he had been waiting for the right time to sprinkle them.” Now was that time. “It was an unusual moment. I did a Broadway show with her; her dressing room was right down the hall. It was ... not what I expected when I went.”

Two: She is working with a trainer, running up and down the steps of the Hollywood Bowl. “It’s killing me and just as I get up to the final step, there is this family, scattering someone’s ashes and — I swear to God this is true — I inhaled a face-full of those ashes. It was terrible. I felt so bad.”

I could mention that the actor in question just received an Emmy nomination for playing a woman obsessed with the need to scatter her mother’s ashes, but I shouldn’t have to. If you think about it, there is really only one person who could — and would — describe not one but two inarguably hilarious encounters with cremated remains. Only one person you could visualize in both of those situations.

It could only ever be Jennifer Coolidge.

Too long “best known” as “Stifler’s Mom, the original MILF” from “American Pie,” or Paulette from “Legally Blonde” (films that came out more than 20 years ago), Coolidge, at 60, is finally having the moment her career, which includes three Christopher Guest movies and a slew of television series including, most recently, “2 Broke Girls,” deserves.

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It is, in fact, very difficult to place Coolidge in the Hollywood hierarchy.

Just as Mike White’s scathing HBO resort satire emerged unexpectedly from the darkest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Coolidge was, from the moment she staggered onscreen as a woman in need of a massage and a place to scatter those ashes, a revelation.

Even by Jennifer Coolidge standards.

A woman in a black dress talks to a man in a coral-colored suit at a tropical resort.
Jennifer Coolidge plays a guest at a tropical resort and Murray Bartlett the concierge in the HBO series “The White Lotus.”
(Mario Perez / HBO)

My interview with Coolidge begins with a classic comedy setup. We are both sitting in separate parts of a restaurant wondering where the other one is. Only when Coolidge glances at a text message from her publicist is the situation rectified. “I didn’t realize he had put the reservation under his name,” she says. “I mean, it’s not like I’m Lady Gaga.”

As she is speaking, our waiter arrives to ask if we would like a beverage and, seeing Coolidge, his face lights up in that very “oh my God — don’t say anything, act professional but Oh My God” kind of way.

So maybe not Gaga but definitely more Gaga-adjacent than most. I mean, did Lady Gaga ever go viral by simply looking into the camera and saying “hi”? Has Ariana Grande ever done her impersonation of Lady Gaga on “Jimmy Kimmel”?

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Say her name and pretty much everyone yelps, “I love her.” But this Emmy nomination — for supporting actress in “The White Lotus” — is her first, which seems both impossible and totally on brand.

She is often classified as a “character actor,” a term that can have a lot of subtext in the entertainment business but almost always means “rarely if ever the lead.” But Coolidge’s cultural footprint is larger than that, rivaling many performers who are considered leads.

The moment Coolidge shows up in any scene, you know she will be walking off with it, like a rich woman with a small dog. A role she could very well be playing.

Tall, blond, curvaceous, she is able to channel a sweet and slightly daffy sexuality through an octave-fluid voice that deeply understands the power of the half-whisper. Coolidge is the master of the blink, the pause, the stare and the lurch; she is one of a small set of actors who can perform miracles with her back to the camera.

If stardom is about talent, recognition and audience devotion, Coolidge is a very big star. But she is just now starting to believe it. Maybe. Kind of. Almost.

“It is so weird,” she says. “Even though I’ve had a lot of training, I never walk off thinking, ‘Wow, I nailed that.’ I’m always insecure. I didn’t think [the “White Lotus” performance] was going that well. I mean I had a great time, it was very cool to be locked up in Hawaii instead of self-destructing somewhere else, but I had no idea. We had no idea.”

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A man in a white dinner jacket and black bow tie leans toward a sexy seated woman.
Jennifer Coolidge as Stifler’s Mom, right, with Eddie Kaye Thomas in “American Pie” (2003), a role that still follows her to this day.
(Universal Studios)

The nomination puts Coolidge smack in the middle of her very first awards season (honestly, it is hard to fathom that this is her first) even as her post-“White Lotus” career has sent her all around the globe on a string of projects.

Including the series’ second season, in which she is the only original main cast member.

She has just returned from that shoot, which was in Italy, though she’s not sure she can say any more except that the new cast, which includes Aubrey Plaza, Michael Imperioli, Tom Hollander and F. Murray Abraham, is “very cool because Mike is as brilliant at casting as he is at writing.”

Also, she managed to snag a really good room in the nameless second-season hotel (rumor has it as the Four Seasons San Domenico Palace) because “I was the last one to arrive and this room had just opened up. It was pretty amazing. There were definitely ghosts.”

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Still, having a publicist attempt to assure her anonymity is all very strange and new.

As she has said in earlier interviews, Coolidge had been initially reluctant to take the part White offered her; after months in lockdown at her New Orleans home, she didn’t feel up to it.

But it was more existential than that; while she considers herself a successful actor, she still had that star problem.

With so much television, the Emmy nominations were bound to have snubs and surprises. Voters did not disappoint.

White had, in fact, just pitched HBO a show revolving around Coolidge as a flailing actor, which the network turned down. So when he asked her to be in “White Lotus,” she was a bit confused.

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“Mike called and said, ‘Remember when I told you I wanted to write something about rich people on vacation? Well, I wrote it and HBO wants it.’ And I was like, ‘Huh’? I mean we had pitched something ... and they didn’t want anything to do with it. I thought they would want someone else, a bigger name.”

But White had tailored the role to Coolidge and Coolidge could see that as soon as she read the script. “If you call me and say, ‘We’re looking for a kind of 1940s dame who can ricochet dialogue around the room,’ I’m probably not your girl. I am a slow performer. But I knew Tanya.”

An early scene, in which Tanya freaks out believing she has lost the bag holding her mother’s ashes, only to have a staff member find it in the pile of luggage right behind her, “was probably the easiest scene I have ever played. I am always losing things. When I go to events, I don’t even want the jewelry anymore because I get so stressed. ‘Where is that box of expensive jewels that don’t belong to me?’ I’d rather not wear them.”

More important, Coolidge related very strongly to Tanya’s loss.

“I lost my mother almost 30 years ago and I am still grieving. I was there when she passed — and it isn’t like it is in the movies. All I had to do was think about it and it was right there, very easy to pull up again. The sadness and the guilt — you think you have so much time and then you don’t.”

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Even when the show began airing, Coolidge had no idea of the impact it — and she — was having, in part because she hadn’t watched it. “Oh my God, my TV in New Orleans is just terrible. I’ve got like five remotes and none of them work and I can never seem to get a repairman.”

Three women at a table looking pleasantly surprised
Jennifer Coolidge (Paulette), left, Alanna Ubach (Serena) and Jennifer Cauffiel (Margot) in “Legally Blonde 2: Red, White and Blonde.”
(Francois Duhamel / MGM Pictures)

In person, Coolidge is and is not like the screen persona she has adapted to so many roles. She is indeed tall and blond and curvaceous. She seems very kind, admits to not understanding “technology” and, on the way to the bathroom, uses the word “tinkle,” which is adorable. But her voice is lower and less breathy — though when she says “oh my God,” countless Coolidge characters crowd in — and if she occasionally goes for a laugh, she is very candid and straightforward.

In other words, it is important to remember that Jennifer Coolidge is an actor, one who has worked long and hard for a career that is singular and successful and leaves no room for either complacency or whining.

She wanted to act pretty much all her life; she trained for it in college and for years after. After coming to L.A. and hearing “no” and even “never” from too many people, Coolidge moved to New York and then back again, with stints in rehab and the Groundlings along the way. She famously did not get her big “break” until, at age 31, she was cast as one of Jerry’s girlfriends in “Seinfeld.”

“My mother was dying at that point,” she says. “But she knew that had happened and I was glad. I was having a terrible time navigating everything and she thought nothing cool would ever happen for me. So that was good.”

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In Tanya, as in many of Coolidge’s performances, there is the tension between hope and resignation that so often fuels great comedy. And like most great comedic performers, Coolidge experiences that tension personally.

Now shooting Marvel’s Spider-Man universe action film, “Madame Web,” the young actor has shed her early struggles and self-doubts.

“You’re so lost in the beginning,” she says of her career. “I know actors who have a completely different story — these people who say they want to play Hamlet and they turn around and play Hamlet. That was not me. All those restaurants, all those years telling people I was an actor when I was a waitress. All those creeps saying, ‘Come to my house to audition’ or ‘We can’t find our lead, so come meet me at the Bel-Air Hotel.’ The stories you hear about those creeps are totally real.”

Fortunately, she says, between a skeptical roommate and her time in rehab, she knew enough not to fall for it.

“When I was in rehab,” she says, “we had to go around the room and talk about our goals. And people would say they wanted to get married or have kids or whatever, and I was like, ‘I want to be a queen.’ Like an actual queen of an actual country. And my counselor would say, ‘You have to have goals that are more reasonable,’ and I said, ‘Why?’ You have to have big goals in the beginning or else you won’t do the work.”

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She pauses, then says: “I would have been a terrible queen, of any country.”

Her point is that you start with wild ambitions and then, if you really want to be in the business, you have to adjust. Sometimes you might not be happy about that, but you will still be doing the work you love.

A woman in a flowy dress is greeted outdoors by a man and a woman at a tropical resort.
Jennifer Coolidge, as Tanya McQuoid, is greeted by hotel staff (Murray Bartlett and Jolene Purdy) in Mike White’s “The White Lotus.”
(Mario Perez / HBO)

She has mixed feelings about the term “character actor,” which means “you never make any real money.” Then she thinks about it and says it goes a bit deeper. “When I was on ‘Legally Blonde’ and met Reese [Witherspoon], it made perfect sense that she was the lead. Here was this tiny little girl, carrying this film, always first on set, always perfect, always in control, and she made it look so effortless. It was very clear that I was ‘the other guy,’ which was fine. I loved being Paulette. But as you go on, you realize you can’t get out of that.”

If she had been smart, she says, or born a couple of decades later, she would have written something for herself, like Phoebe Waller-Bridge did with “Fleabag.” “That’s what you have to do,” she says. And that’s what White did for her.

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“Mike lives on a whole other level of brilliance,” she says. “On an elevated scale of time-management skills. I was in Paris once when he was there, and we would go out to vegan restaurants at like 6:30 because he had to be back in his hotel at 8 to write. We were in Paris.”

When it came time to film “White Lotus,” she drew on another overseas adventure with White. “He was going on safari and at the last minute his boyfriend couldn’t come so he asked me because I am obsessed with animals. And it was this very fancy safari and I was the least fancy person there. I met these really rich people but I identified more with the staff. I felt like an impostor, very insecure.”

This article was originally on a blog post platform and may be missing photos, graphics or links.

Tanya is also deeply insecure, she says, in part because she’s rich. “The deadliest thing about being rich is it isolates you. It puts you in a false position — you either feel guilty or superior. The loneliest people I know are rich. And,” she adds laughing, “some of them never pick up the check.”

She hastens to add: “I always pick up the check, so no one says, ‘Oh, she wasn’t worth the price of the linguini.’”

The success of “The White Lotus,” and then her Emmy nomination, has juiced her career to a point that is, to her, still a bit baffling. She rattles off the list of projects she has done since the first season of “The White Lotus,” which includes Ryan Murphy‘s “The Watcher.” “I have been going from one airport to another,” she says. “And I am not used to doing all this press, all these events. But I am seizing everything I can because I don’t know what will happen next.”

She tells another story, from early in her career, when she was cast in a very small part — “angry sales clerk or something.” After a few takes, the producer told her she was being recast for a slightly bigger part, as the store manager—“Mrs. McGillicuddy or something.” Then, after a few more takes, she was put back into her original part.

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“And the thing is, these changes were all marked on a placard on my trailer door. Like ‘angry sales clerk’ scratched out, then ‘Mrs. McGillicuddy’ scratched out, then ‘angry sales clerk’ again. It was humiliating. Though,” she adds, “the woman who had been the original Mrs. McGillicuddy got her part back, so that was good.”

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