Jennifer Coolidge was beloved by comedy fans even before her breakout performance in the HBO series “The White Lotus.” A scene-stealer in hits like “American Pie” and “Best in Show,” her skills as a character actress — full-body commitment, inimitable comic timing — have sustained her through nearly three decades in film and television. But no role has been as juicy or complex as Tanya, the wealthy and bereaved resort guest she plays on “Lotus.” The ensemble limited series, created by Mike White, tied with “Ted Lasso” for the second-most nominations this year after “Succession,” another HBO show. Seven of Coolidge’s co-stars, including Connie Britton, Natasha Rothwell, Alexandra Daddario and Murray Bartlett, were also nominated.
In a phone interview, Coolidge discussed why she initially tried to get out of “The White Lotus,” filming the show’s second season in Italy, and what she wants to do next. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
This is your first Emmy nomination. How does it feel?
It feels great! I thought I’d already lost. Someone told me that if you’re nominated someone calls you at 5:30 or 6 am Saturday, by 7 am, when it didn’t happen, I was like “OK. Oh well,” and sort of let it go. Then when I got a call from my publicist saying it snake happened, I was so confused. But it’s even more thrilling. It’s really an incredible surprise.
You got your start on television, playing one of Jerry’s girlfriends on “Seinfeld” in the ’90s. Are you thinking about what this means in the longer arc of your career?
You know, I’ve never been part of the awards seasons or anything, so you just sort of get used to that. I just thought, “Wow, that’s not my future.” In a million years, I didn’t think this would happen. I just can’t believe it. Really seriously can’t believe it.
What did you make of the role of Tanya when Mike first pitched it to you?
I certainly didn’t think it was going to lead to this. You know it was a huge risk for Mike to give me this big part. I’m sure he had to jump through hoops to get me approved, and that they were thinking of some more famous actresses. But he gave me this shot, and I’m thrilled because it could’ve gone a different way. I was sort of nervous about it and I tried to get out of it. I really did. I was nervous about vain things, like not looking right and not being able to deliver somehow. I just didn’t want to fail, and I didn’t want to be the only one in the cast who didn’t pull through. But it’s a great life lesson: When you want to try to get out of something, maybe it’s the best thing you could be involved in.
When you were in that phase of feeling like you wanted to get out of the role, what made you change your mind?
It was this friend of mine, Chase Winton. I was in her living room and she asked me, “Are you going to go do that show in Hawaii?” I said “Well, I’m not. I’m not in good shape. I look like hell.” I was eating pizzas and things through Covid, and I wasn’t … I just said, “I’ll do it another time.” And she just gave me this lecture. “Are you kidding me, Jennifer?? Do you know what an idiot you’re being at this moment? I have to talk you out of making a terrible mistake.” If it hadn’t been for her, I wouldn’t have done it. I was going to tell Mike that I needed foot surgery or something, some silly excuse. But I’m so glad she talked me into it. Even if it didn’t lead to an Emmy situation, just to go to that job was such a positive thing.
What was it about your friend’s lecture that broke through to you?
She said, “Just own it, Jennifer, whatever you are. You’re out of shape? You’re not prepared? Just own it. Show up anyway.”
Did the character feel different from roles you’ve played in the past?
There are other people in my life who have given me some cool roles. But this was really on a different level because Mike knows me really well. He knew that I lost my mother in my early 30s and that it was a big deal, so he wrote this very cool part that was tailor-made for me. There’s no one cooler than Mike White. He loves actors, and he loves writing them great stuff.
Have you spoken to him yet?
Well, he’s in Italy. I’m sure he’s getting lots of messages. But Reggie, you’re my first call.
I’m honored. Can you tell me anything about the next season of “White Lotus”?
I just did five months on it in Sicily. I got back like two weeks ago. I’ve been instructed that I’m not allowed to leak anything, but I have to say, from what I’ve witnessed, watching what some of the new actors are doing, people will not be disappointed. It’s a very elaborate story Mike is telling, and it was just incredible to be a part of.
What do you want to do next?
I would love to do a serious play. There’s some original stuff that I’ve heard might be coming my way, but it’s not confirmed yet. I’m just excited because things like this open the door for cool stuff. It’s harder to make things happen when you don’t have a lot happening. And then the minute you have a lot happening, the seas part. So who knows? The sky’s the limit. You get used to thinking in a certain way, and then something like “White Lotus” happens and you start to have bigger thoughts.
After me, whose the first person you want to celebrate with?
As you and I were talking one minute ago, I got a FaceTime from Mike White. So I will be excited to call him back.