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Jennifer Coolidge on Grief, Lockdown Anxiety, and Embracing Her Serious Side

Back in the spring of 2020, as lockdowns began to roll out around the globe, executives at HBO were observing the news with increasing dread. Of course, there was the state of the world around them to worry about, but as planned shoot after planned shoot was cancelled, they watched in real time as their slate of shows for the next year trickled slowly down to zero.

In crisis mode, they began conceiving of a series that could be produced under strict protocols in a single setting with an ensemble cast. And who did they turn to? Mike White, the writer-director behind School of Rock and Brad’s Status, whose Laura Dern-starring show Enlightened had been a critical darling for the network back in the early 2010s, if never quite receiving the attention it deserved. Thus, The White Lotus was born: a darkly comic Upstairs, Downstairs social satire set among the privileged guests of a luxury Hawaiian resort, with an equally keen interest in the beleaguered staff pedaling furiously below the surface. 

Any panic among the HBO head honchoes, however, pales in comparison to that felt by Jennifer Coolidge. A departure from her most famous roles, which often provide comic relief, the largely dramatic turn she gives in The White Lotus is already earning her rave reviews as the ensemble cast’s undeniable standout. But as she remembers it, her response was far from an immediate yes. “I’d been on a real self-destructive ride in my house in New Orleans, just eating three or four pizzas and ice cream sandwiches all day long,” says Coolidge matter-of-factly of the lead-up to the show, which gave her mere weeks to prepare. “I was just on this feeding frenzy. I had this fatalistic view of what was going to happen with COVID, and I thought we were 100% doomed, all of us. I thought we would all perish. I was just going for it.” While Coolidge describes herself, somewhat jokingly, as being “dragged kicking and screaming” to the job, there’s something about the timing of it that feels fated.

As it turns out, White had already been working on a separate television vehicle for Coolidge, whom he’d met and quickly befriended on the set of the 2009 comedy Gentlemen Broncos. “Mike is a great director, as he’s very transparent, he never keeps any secrets from you,” says Coolidge. “But the only thing about Mike that’s a bit scary is he sees right through you—all your good stuff and all your bad stuff.” In Coolidge, White clearly sees plenty of the good stuff. When the opportunity to shoot The White Lotus came around, his only non-negotiable was that Coolidge be given a role she could really sink her teeth into. Still, her initial reaction was one of reluctance; partly out of fear of shooting during COVID, partly out of faltering self-belief, but mostly out of straight-up vanity.

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