Jennifer Coolidge on Hollywood, Women in Comedy and Her Serial Killer Dream Role

Jennifer Coolidge - P 2015
Henny Garfunkel

The '2 Broke Girls' regular was honored at the 17th Annual Provincetown Film Festival with a Career Achievement Award.

"I watched that trailer and I'm so vain, all I could think was I should have stopped at American Pie," says Jennifer Coolidge, following a clip reel that included choice moments from her role as Stifler's horny mom in that comedy franchise, as well as her memorable turns in Legally Blonde and the films of Christopher Guest. "I didn't want to be all those other fat-faced ladies."

Coolidge's indelible contribution to entertainment has made her a beloved cult figure unlike anyone else, and it earned her the Faith Hubley Career Achievement Award at the 17th Annual Provincetown Film Festival. The honor was accompanied by a wide-ranging onstage Q&A with film critic B. Ruby Rich.

Likening Coolidge to legendary female comics such as Gracie Allen and Lucille Ball, Rich quizzed the honoree about coming into comedy during the extended gray-zone period between women's standup pioneers like Joan Rivers and game-changing contemporary empowerment figures such as Lena Dunham.

Coolidge pointed to Roseanne and Grace Under Fire as shows from the late '80s and early '90s built around funny women. But although she emerged out of the hothouse talent incubator of Los Angeles improv troupe The Groundlings, alongside names like Julia Sweeney, Kathy Griffin, Lisa Kudrow, Cheri Oteri and Ana Gasteyer, she acknowledges that opportunities back then were more limited.

"I was kind of naive in the beginning," she admits. "I signed up for these movies and didn't realize that as a woman you were just supposed to be the straight person. If it wasn't for [American Pie directors] Chris and Paul Weitz and Christopher Guest I'd probably still be a cocktail waitress, which I did into my 30s."

She freely confesses, however, that part of what held her back was lack of savvy about the business, indicating her former restaurant co-worker Sandra Bullock as an example of a woman who was proactive from an early stage in shaping her own career.

"I wish I'd educated myself in the business aspect of it,” says Coolidge with typical candor. "I kind of waited for opportunities to be handed to me. I think I was lazy, and when things didn’t go right, I just said, 'Oh well.'"

But she does see the needle shifting with women like Amy Schumer today carving out their own vital space in the comedy landscape without having to fit pre-existing models: "The comedy world for women now is really kind of exciting, even if Hollywood is still a man's town."

Coolidge makes no secret of her ambivalence toward Los Angeles, having bought a place in New Orleans years ago as an alternative to living at the center of the entertainment industry.

"I was obsessed with that town," she says of New Orleans. "Music, food and booze. It was everything L.A. wasn't, but now of course a lot of Hollywood has moved there."

At 54, Coolidge says there are unexpected advantages to being older: "I never thought I'd say that. There's a relief in figuring out that showbiz is not the be-all and end-all. I never have to go to another Hollywood party again!"

She has also found it rewarding to veer away from life in Hollywood and delve into more personal material in her standup gigs in Las Vegas and elsewhere. “That’s a very slick world, and a lot of the stuff in my world is very awkward.”

Her love of movies is undiminished, having been planted by her father from a very young age when he gave her a fake illness note to skip school and accompany him to a Charlie Chaplin film festival.

While continuing in her recurring role on the CBS sitcom 2 Broke Girls, Coolidge will take a break from the screen this summer, returning to her native Boston area (she received a BA in Theater from Emerson College) and to the stage. She will star in playwright Marisa Smith's Saving Kitty for the Nora Theatre Company in Cambridge, MA, beginning performances on July 9.

Her character in the comedy, Kate, is a cultured Manhattanite who specializes in throwing impeccable parties for her husband, a prominent U.N. figure. When their TV producer daughter brings home a born-again Christian boyfriend, the cracks in Kate's liberal philosophy are exposed as she tries to undo the budding romance.

"The same script does tend to show up at my house over and over, and this play is like nothing I've ever been offered," says Coolidge. "I've never been able to convince Hollywood to give me a part like this."

"Ninety percent of the scripts I get are about women with lots of plastic surgery married to rich men, or women with weight problems being ridiculed," she adds. "It's never the lead. Now it would be Reese Witherspoon's dumpy mother. You get the older version of women that you've played before.”

Coolidge's role as the ditzy manicurist who becomes a friend to Witherspoon's fish-out-of-water at Harvard Law in Legally Blonde and its sequel remains a fan favorite, showcasing the warmth, the slightly daffy sweetness and sensuality, and the idiosyncratic line readings that make her such a unique performer. Not to mention her priceless deployment of the "Bend and Snap."

Arguably, the roles that have made the most resourceful use of Coolidge's gifts are those in Guest's semi-improvised comedies, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind and For Your Consideration. She says that opportunity to utilize her improv skills is rare in the business: "When people slave over those scripts and pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for them, they don't usually want you to add farts."

Coolidge is self-deprecating about her ability to put an original spin on characters that exist in their own peculiar comic universe. "I think I get credit for my timing because most of the time I really have no idea where I'm going with it," she deadpans. "When you look at it, you think the Polish lady in A Mighty Wind could be the Polish lady in 2 Broke Girls… and she is!"

Aside from Stifler's mom — the millennials' answer to The Graduate's Mrs. Robinson — Coolidge describes her characters as "random misfit toys who haven't quite worked out their shit." She adds that her history of playing people with problems often prompts complete strangers who meet her instantly to share their most intimate issues.

"It's an open field," she explains. "People sit next to me on planes and tell me about very personal gynecological things. Definitely, people don't think I'm slick, that's for sure. Whatever they're saying to Scarlett Johansson, they're not saying to me. But I don't mind. I listen to it all and I give them advice."

As for what's next, Coolidge says she's looking for roles that take her in a different direction, citing Werner Herzog as a filmmaker who gave her a chance to stretch dramatically — as the title character’s alcoholic stepmother in 2009's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans — largely because he was unfamiliar with her other work.

"I'm not all for a lot of violence in films, but I would kill to play something other than the kind of movies that have been offered to me over and over," she says. "I don't know… a serial killer would be great."