Jennifer Coolidge and Natasha Rothwell barely had a chance to say “aloha” to each other as teammates before starring in their first scene together on HBO Max’s limited series “The White Lotus” as vulnerable socialite Tanya, respectively. and the kind spa worker Belinda. It was also an intimate moment – the healing touch that gives Tanya an epiphany and Belinda the chance to dream.
“We landed in Hawaii and all of a sudden we’re filming this massage,” Coolidge recently said. “It’s like having a sex scene on your first day at work!” Natasha was so good it made it easy for me. Rothwell says she was “intimidated to be there” and could quickly see Tanya’s pain in Coolidge’s performance. “It was good,” she said. “Just bonding with Tanya’s humanity really gave me character motivation. I understood this symbiotic relationship they have. Before it got parasitic.
Although their characters’ connection rises and falls in Mike White’s exquisitely satirical series of privilege in paradise, the pair of Rothwell and Coolidge came out on top, earning them first-time nominations for Emmy Awards. Here, the actors behind one of this TV season’s most memorable duos talk over the phone about the on-set bonding behind the on-screen discomfort.
Does money make everything weird?
Rotwell: There are so many different versions of money, aren’t there? Rich versus rich. Old money versus new money. Young money versus geriatric money. It can really change the way you see the world. The socio-economic implications of the “White Lotus” are inevitable. You can’t talk about the show without talking about money.
Coolide: It can help the weirdness develop. Like gasoline on a fire. The rich have this incredible advantage, but they are prevented from feeling the essential things. I truly believe that Tanya saw Belinda as that real winner. She is ready to help, but she does not have the skills to make it happen. All that money to travel the world and do all kinds of self-help, and it still leaves her empty.
Natasha, was she going to improvise an item on the to-do list with Jennifer?
Rothwell: Oh, my God, yes. Stifler’s mother? Christophe Guest? are you kidding me? I’m an acting student, so being able to work with her was unreal. There was nothing about his comedic performances, either, that didn’t unleash their dramatic potential either. I knew she could do anything.
Jennifer, what do you remember from your work with Natasha?
Coolide: His performance was masterful and complicated. I was so moved by her. He’s also a hilarious person. We had a fun day on the boat where we were able to really let go, as if we were crushed by alcohol, recounting our failed relationships.
You mean when Tanya spreads her mother’s ashes, and Jake Lacy and Alexandra Daddario’s characters Shane and Rachel try to have a romantic dinner?
Rotwell: It was really fun! We were behind Shane and Rachel having their scene, so we improvised a dialogue about what these two were going to talk about. We were the ones lamenting our horrible history with men. I think there was a running STD joke we made, talking about “mistakes made but their memories carry on because of what they left us”.
Coolide: It was ridiculous, but it was one of the funniest times I’ve ever had at work. And I was sort of seasick, so it was a relief to have that fun time before, you know… I broke down.
Their farewell scene is intense – Tanya offers money instead of business investment, Belinda cries. Was this Tanya’s cringe-worthy time leaving the sunglasses in the script?
Coolide: Well, Jennifer Coolidge the actress forgot her sunglasses. I walked out the doors, and Mike didn’t have [said ‘Cut’] again, and I whispered to him, “Mike, can I go back and get the sunglasses?” And he said, “I think you should.” She was still sobbing.
Rotwell: I saw them on the counter too. I was not distracted by it. I was like, “Here’s another thing I need to clean up after this woman!” Then she slid in again, and it was amazing. Just salt in the wound during Belinda’s big cathartic moment. So I just used it to fuel my anger, of course, and Mike said, “Yeah, we keep that!”
Coolide: I am always questioning myself. I didn’t want to leave it in. But this need for possession. With a superficial gesture, he summarizes where they are.
What would happen if Belinda and Tanya ran into each other again?
Coolide: I think Tanya has a lot to apologize for. I don’t think Belinda would take it back.
Rotwell: I think it depends on where they crossed paths. On the street, Belinda might be unusually dry. If it was a resort, it would just do what it always does. Being in the service industry, you are a Swiss army knife to the people you work for. You assess a need and master the unsaid. Especially at this level of station.
Coolide: And the rich, they’re eaten up by the wrong thought process. Even in these stunningly beautiful settings and posh places, there’s not enough time for reflection.
Rotwell: I think “White Lotus” is provocative in that way, because it asks the audience to audit their holiday behavior, and perhaps their unconscious behaviors outside of the holidays, those insidious moments when narcissism takes the driver’s seat.