The Coolidge factor
Jennifer Coolidge is riding a career high, the magnitude of which she finds at once humbling, even bewildering, she tells BAZAAR in this Australian exclusive.
Words by PATTY HUNTINGTON; Photographed by POLLY BORLAND; Styled by JILLIAN DAVISON; Set design by ARIANA NAKATA
THE SUN IS SETTING on an afternoon in late April as a handful of us cram into a bathroom at Smashbox Studios in Culver City, Los Angeles. The focus of our attention: the newly crowned Queen of Hollywood, Jennifer Coolidge. Resplendent in a ruffled pink Catherine D’Lish gown, she is sitting on the loo recording a short video to accompany Harper’s BAZAAR’s June/July cover story.
The Australian photographer Polly Borland has almost wrapped a long day of shooting, but Coolidge is so into it that she volunteers to fire off a totally unscheduled vignette in her last look of the day. I’m sitting on the floor feeding her line prompts, while BAZAAR’s editor-in-chief, Jillian Davison, stands over me directing.
This hilarious toilet tableau, which was Coolidge’s idea, has us all bursting into giggles each time she hits the flush. Coolidge’s stock-in-trade has always been comedy, but thanks to Mike White’s zeitgeist-zapping television series, The White Lotus, she has not only emerged as a late-blooming dramatic star, but also a pop culture phenomenon. (On TikTok alone, the #jennifercoolidge hashtag has been viewed almost 800 million times). Her line from season two, “These gays, they’re trying to murder me!” has been immortalised in memes and emblazoned on caps, T-shirts, coffee mugs, fridge magnets, greeting cards and candles (“And I don’t get one penny,” she quips). Beyond the pop culture cred, the show has been showered with critical acclaim, earning 39 awards. Coolidge has won more than a dozen for her performance, including an Emmy, a Golden Globe, a SAG Award and two Critics Choice awards. She was awarded the MTV Movie & TV Awards’ 2023 Comedic Genius Award and made the cover of Time’s 100 Most Influential People of 2023 issue.
This nearly didn’t happen. Three days after the shoot, Coolidge and I are sitting in a window booth at The Tower Bar on West Hollywood’s Sunset Boulevard. She tells me that she initially baulked at White’s offer to play the series’ unhinged heiress, Tanya McQuoid. Having been approached during an early pandemic lockdown, Coolidge says she “just wasn’t feeling it … I just didn’t want to be in Hawaii on the beach in skimpy clothing and bikinis.” She only agreed after a friend, the actor Chase Winton, scolded her, telling her she was “out of her mind”.
Now, she’s wading through a mountain of scripts that have been offered to her. “Some very cool things are happening,” she says. “But I’m a little bit frozen. Because I have to make some big decisions about the next move.”
For a character actor who had been stuck in Hollywood’s friend zone for decades — cast in sidekick roles such as American Pie’s smouldering cougar, Jeanine Stifler aka Stifler’s Mom, and Legally Blonde’s loveable nail technician, Paulette Bonafonté Parcell — to suddenly find herself the centre of industry attention is a little bit daunting, she concedes. “You’re full of crap, or it’s a misprint,” is how Coolidge would have responded had someone told her a decade ago that she would have Hollywood at her feet at 61. “I had for sure eliminated the possibility of a moment like this ever happening,” she adds.
“I don’t know if I would say I had made peace with it, because it’s disappointing to not have your dreams come true. Sometimes I would watch a movie and go, I could have played that part. And you get depressed about it. I couldn’t ever foresee this moment, there’s just no way. And I still don’t believe it’s true sometimes.”
“I would love to give guidance to young girls and just say, ‘No-one decides your fate,’” she continues. “Any idiot could say something to me like, ‘You’re not going to make it.’ And I’d be like, Oh, all right. I wish I could go back and do my life over, I really do. There were so many years of just the inability to know how to move myself out of the funk I was in. I mean, I did do the legwork, but believing that it was all going to come to an end, that this moment would happen, just [wasn’t going to be] part of the story.”
Coolidge grew up in Norwell, Massachusetts, in a family of six. She was raised as Unitarian Universalist (UU), a liberal religion focused more on spiritual growth than any creed. “It’s all about really living your life and just doing good deeds,” Coolidge says. She has long since stopped attending church but has fond memories of UU. “It’s very laid-back. Let me tell you how laid- back: we once had Kermit the Frog come and give a sermon.”
She credits her father, Paul Constant Coolidge, for igniting her interest in movie magic. A resins manufacturer who became an environmentalist in his twilight years after rueing his involvement in the plastics industry, he took her out of school one day when she was six so they could attend a Charlie Chaplin film festival. “I do think that moment changed my life,” Coolidge says. She would go on to perform in school productions of Rumpelstiltskin and The Madwoman of Chaillot. “[The festival] was sort of my first [film] memory that I always go back to because it was so good. There are some moments in your life, they’re just locked in there forever.”
I would love to give GUIDANCE to YOUNG GIRLS and just say, ‘No-one DECIDES your FATE’
Coolidge graduated from Boston’s Emerson College with a bachelor’s degree in theatre studies before attending the American Academy of Dramatic Arts (AADA) in New York, where she studied under award-winning actor and playwright Julie Bovasso. Initially aspiring to be the next Meryl Streep, Coolidge eventually shifted her focus from drama to comedy. She auditioned for Gotham City Improv, which would open up the world of improvisation and sketch comedy. She spent the rest of her twenties doing fruitless auditions, working as a cocktail waitress at NYC restaurant Canastel’s (where Sandra Bullock also briefly worked) and partying.
Transplanting herself to LA in the early ’90s, she spent nine years with The Groundlings, Gary Austin’s legendary improv and sketch comedy theatre, which also spring boarded Lisa Kudrow, Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy and Maya Rudolph into fame. A Seinfeld casting director was in the audience one night in 1993, leading to Coolidge’s first on-air role at 32: a masseuse named Jodi in the season five episode The Masseuse. She started gaining box office traction in her forties thanks to the smash hits American Pie and Legally Blonde, both of which would become pop culture goliaths and spawn sequels. Rounding out the commercial blockbusters were appearances in a number of the screenwriter and director Christopher Guest’s cult-hit mockumentaries, starting with Best in Show in 2000. Like Guest’s other films, it was almost entirely improvised, a prospect at which Coolidge initially recoiled. “I don’t know how I got Best in Show, given my uncomfortableness with improv,” she says. “I wasn’t good at it. When I was at The Groundlings, I would pray, absolutely pray, that I wasn’t chosen for the improv. I didn’t want to do it. It was just too risky and frightening.”
In her teary Golden Globes speech earlier this year, Coolidge credited five people who kept her going “for 20 years with these little jobs”. They included Michael Patrick King, in whose television series 2 Broke Girls Coolidge played the hilarious Polish businesswoman Sophie Kaczyńska-Golishevska. Separately, she has credited Ariana Grande for inadvertently setting the wheels in motion for her newfound career high. In a 2018 episode of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Grande did an impromptu impersonation of Coolidge delivering two of her famous Legally Blonde lines: “You look like the Fourth of July,” and “I’m taking the dog, dumbass.” Coolidge messaged Grande to thank her and before she knew it, found herself invited to reprise the role of Paulette in Grande’s 2019 music video for “Thank U, Next”, a tribute to early aughts girl-powered hit movies, which also included Mean Girls, Bring It On and 13 Going on 30. Clocking up 46 million views in 24 hours, which broke YouTube’s day record at the time, the video has since amassed nearly 800 million views. “So many people in the world like [Grande], so many young girls, and so what happens is then just instantly, you get approval from that,” Coolidge says. “To do her video just added another layer to it.”
There is something about Coolidge that has endeared her to the public as an Everywoman. “Recently, I heard someone say something that I’ve always thought, but was too afraid to verbalise because I thought someone might make fun of me: ‘Jennifer, I feel like your recent fame is because we, the people, chose you, not Hollywood.’” she says. “I mean, I don’t know if I’m really what Hollywood had in mind. But I do feel like there’s something true about that. I’ve never met an agent who liked me as much as someone I sat next to on a plane or whatever. I always felt like the public liked me better. It doesn’t matter where I am, someone comes up to me and tells me something extremely personal about themselves, like a secret or very sad things about themselves, the mistakes they’ve made in life. Or they will say, ‘I’ve had cancer and then I saw you in that movie and it made me feel better.’ And I’m sure that happens to other actors too, but it happens to me more than I can explain.”
One totally unexpected bonus of her Jenaissance, as it’s been dubbed? The fashion. “If you were to say, ‘Jennifer, what are the perks?’ [I would say] it’s fashion people wanting you to wear their clothing. I would never have predicted that.” So far, that has included custom gowns from Tom Ford, Balmain, Vivienne Westwood, Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello and Dolce & Gabbana. “When big fashion houses offer you a dress and you put it on and it’s the best you’ve looked in your life, you just can’t believe it. The difference between struggling and being where I am now is that the clothing improves one million per cent.”
Beyond choosing the next scripts, Coolidge is also trying to figure out how to best leverage this moment to make a difference. “The coolest thing of all is that, besides actors you’ve loved and respected giving you a wave or coming over saying a nice thing — that’s great, but also, I’ve spent my whole life feeling that I couldn’t penetrate any kind of charity or something that I felt strongly about,” she says. “To be involved in another cool thing like The White Lotus is great, but at this age, it is not enough anymore.” Coolidge has been involved in a number of LGBTIQA+ charities, including AID for AIDS and the Elton John Foundation. She is a staunch vegan and animal activist (in March, Coolidge won PETA’s 2023 Vegan Queen Award). She has two rescue dogs. Her terrier, Chewbacca, was destined for the South Korean dog meat market until The Animal Rescue Mission stepped in. Her Instagram Stories are full of calls to rescue pound dogs from euthanasia. She is deeply concerned about factory farming and its impacts not just on animals, but also the environment, and is also concerned about Australia’s live animal export trade.
“I always felt like it would never influence anything in a big way,” she says of her activism. “Not that I feel like now I’m going to change the world, but all of a sudden, you’re invited into groups that are changing the world. And you’re with people who are actually making a mark. So, you are seeing how they’re doing it. I’ve got a place at the table. And to me, that’s the ultimate gift.”
This story appears in the June/July 2023 issue of Harper’s BAZAAR Australia/New Zealand, available for delivery here.
Hair by Clayton Hawkins at A-Frame Agency; makeup by Melissa Hernandez at The Wall Group; manicure by Vanessa Sanchez McCullough at Forward Artists. Polly Borland is represented locally by Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney; Ariana Nakata is at Walter Schupfer Management. Executive production by Samantha DeFalco; Local production by Cynthia Hadden; Special thanks to Jennifer Coolidge’s personal stylist, Gaelle Paul at A-Frame Agency.