The ‘White Lotus’ star on late-in-life fame and being like a security guard
The White Lotus became such a sensation. At what point did you realize the show was taking off?
There was no sign of it until it hit. There were moments where the acting that was going on made me think “This might be good.” But I didn’t feel like it was something 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 [showrunner] Mike [White] is saying. I truly underestimated the viewing public. It’s so funny, my neighbors in New Orleans were dressing up and having these White Lotus viewing parties. They all showed up in Hawaiian shirts and leis. That was a really good sign.
You won an Emmy for your work as Tanya in Season One. Do you keep that 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 [the painting] 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 White said he wrote Tanya with you in mind. How do you relate to her?
I’m hoping I’m nicer than Tanya. But I think my naiveté was completely parallel. At this stage, I’m not half as gullible as I [once] was. I’m much more cautious as an older person, and much more discerning. It’s that thing when you meet a security guard and you’re trying to get into some place, he’s heard every story and 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.
You were already well-known for roles in American Pie, Legally Blonde, and Christopher Guest movies like Best in Show, but some have called this moment in your career the “Jenaissance.” How would your life have been different if you had gained this level of fame early on?
If you want 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 clips from some shows that I did in my early thirties, some comedy stuff. 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.
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. 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.
What’s been your most indulgent purchase?
My house in New Orleans. I don’t have children, so I think it is like a child. You have to feed it. A lot goes wrong with it. It constantly needs attention. The house has become a job.
What advice do you wish you could give to your younger self?
Hang in there. If someone isn’t nice to you, believe it. I feel like I was always in such denial. For whatever reason, I would still hang out. I didn’t quite believe that they didn’t like me.
Thanks for your time.
Don’t you want my favorite quote?
“Character is fate.”
Coolidge co-stars in ‘The White Lotus,’ streaming now on HBO Max.