HBO’s The White Lotus is described as a social satire, featuring a group of wealthy guests at a Hawaiian resort. Among them is Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge), a woman mourning the death of her mother who forms a fast if superfluous friendship with Belinda (Natasha Rothwell), the manager of the spa, and nervously eyes a romance with another guest, Greg (Jon Gries).
Awards Radar had the chance to speak with Coolidge about how she tried not to take the part, the benefits of working with Rothwell, Gries, and creator Mike White, and whether she would return for a second season. She also shared the two roles that people still recognize her from two decades later.
Q: I loved your performance in The White Lotus.
A: Aw, thanks, thanks.
Q: I’ve heard that Mike White wrote this role specifically for you. What was the process like of you hearing about this show and ultimately joining it?
A: Mike had written another thing, with a woman who was similar to what Tanya was, maybe in the same vein. Mike’s not a liar, but I never really believed that he was pitching this with me in mind. When he said he’d put me in The White Lotus, and planned it out in a very short amount of time, I didn’t really pay attention because he just said, it’s a bunch of rich people going on vacation. People say a lot of things, and Mike is not a liar, but you just get to the point in your life where you don’t take anything seriously because all of these things don’t happen. When he did tell me that HBO was going to do this show, I had been self-destructing during COVID, eating pizzas every day, three or four of these vegan pizzas I had in my refrigerator. I really had to get out of this whole thing. It just goes to show how you really make some bad decisions. So I really did spend a lot of time trying to come up with an excuse that sounded legitimate, and Mike was catching on a little, and he finally just sat me down. At the time, I really didn’t want to go on camera. I knew the role was good, I knew the role was great. Mike can really write for women in a way that a lot of guys can’t. He knows the inside of us. But I almost blew it. I just said, I’ll do it. I told a friend I was going to do another thing with Mike at another time, and thank god that she just said, you’re an idiot. You have to just go do this. So you’re like this? Big deal, just go do it. And thank god for that friend. I would have been ready to do The White Lotus in January when the whole thing was over. But I’m so glad I did it, because what an experience and what a great thing to be part of. All the people I got to meet. Everyone was just at the top of their game, and I would have completely not been able to be part of that because of my vanity.
Q: I’m glad you were involved too! You share a lot of your scenes with Natasha Rothwell, an actress who has the chance to be the funny one on Insecure. What is your real-life dynamic like, and what was it like acting opposite her in a more serious role for her?
A: Well, we’re complete opposites. She’s one of these incredibly organized people. I’ve never met anyone so together in my life. While we were filming The White Lotus, she was working on three other scripts. She directs some Insecure episodes. She is just someone who is going to be the queen of Hollywood, running a studio someday. She’s insanely gifted. The dynamic, on a personal level, worked for us. She always has it together, and I naturally don’t. That really worked for these two characters, how we processed everything. Personal things can really work for you when you’re performing with someone. Even though Tanya is trying to help Belinda in her very odd way and fails miserably, still, it was like a magic combo. I have to thank Mike White for his casting of this show. The combination of Natasha and myself was kind of perfect. I think that’s Mike White’s genius.
Q: What can you say about Tanya’s romantic relationship and working with Jon Gries?
A: Jon is a genius. I was very excited to hear that he was chosen. I’m a huge admirer of him. He’s a hilarious person. No one will ever forget his performance in Napoleon Dynamite because he was so brilliant and funny. At the same time, he’s an intimidating actor. He’s just a natural. His father was a director, and he was just born into this at an early age. He’s brilliant. It was quite a gift I was given. He played it very straight. I was thrilled when he showed up on the set, he was sort of the last guy to arrive. I’m so happy he was chosen. I’ve never worked with anyone like him.
Q: This show is coming back for a second season, which is great, but likely with a new cast and a new location. If it worked out, would you be interested in returning, and do you think there’s more to be explored with Tanya as a character?
A: Yeah, there are some stories – in case people haven’t seen it – that definitely have to end because of what happens. And then I feel like there are some other characters where there is a story to be told. I haven’t heard who is going to go on, maybe nobody, but I was hoping that maybe it would be possible for it to be a continuation of what happens with Tanya and Greg. I felt like Greg was so mysterious, and we don’t really know who he is. I felt like there was another chapter to him. But I don’t know. Everyone has been quiet about who’s in the next thing. But when you ask me, would you like to come back? Of course I would.
Q: Do you have one role that you hold dearest from your career or that you find people most associate you with?
A: It is sort of weird. It seems like there’s two groups of people. Women, young girls, and gay men will come up to me, it doesn’t matter where I am in the world, someone will come up to me and ask me to do the bend and snap. I forget sometimes how big Legally Blonde was. That gets girls talking. Then, for whatever reason, Stifler’s mom is still alive, especially with young guys. They’re sort of even. It’s two very different characters. Some people just know me as Stifler’s mom and some people just know me as Paulette. It’s one of those two, I think, that are lodged still, for whatever reason. Right now I’m near a college campus, a bunch of girls come up to me yesterday. I guess these movies play continuously on television, and people continue to watch them. For people who watch them, it must feel like they happened yesterday, instead of twenty years ago.
Season one of The White Lotus is streaming on HBO Max.