×

“No one else acts the way she acts,” says director Christopher Guest of his frequent collaborator Jennifer Coolidge. “I don’t mean acting as an actor. I mean behaves the way she behaves.”

Coolidge, currently a first-time Emmy nominee for HBO’s “The White Lotus,” is on the cover of this week’s edition of Variety; she first became known to many for her work with Guest, which includes roles in “Best in Show” (2000), “A Mighty Wind” (2003), “For Your Consideration” (2006), and “Mascots” (2016). In those movies, Guest says in a rare interview, “It’s so striking to see her with other people, because she’s on a different plane of her own reality.”

Guest’s movies are improvised by their actors, who come in armed with backstories and the plot but then, when the cameras roll, “people basically begin to talk,” he says. “It’s impossible to audition for that. I’ve found that that isn’t really something that works.” After making his breakout comedy “Waiting for Guffman” (1996), Guest saw Coolidge performing at the Groundlings (at what Eugene Levy tells Variety was his suggestion, after the pair of performers worked together on 1999’s “American Pie”) and cast her. “When I met her,” Guest says, “I knew there was something going on that was special. And I was right, fortunately.”

Her joining a growing troupe of actors — one that also included Parker Posey, Catherine O’Hara, Fred Willard, Jane Lynch, and more — was an easy match. Guest recalls what is perhaps Coolidge’s most famous scene in “Best in Show,” in which she haltingly rattles off what she loves about her catatonic husband while he sits, mute, beside her: “I could go on about the things she said, but they come from this unique place. You could write a book about it, and never really get to what it is.”

It’s not just the words Coolidge says but the spaces between them that struck Guest, who tells his actors when he first meets them, “Don’t feel you have to say anything.” It’s a difficult objective for many performers: “Most conventional actors would be wary of that idea. Most actors will flip through the pages to see the first thing they do, flip, flip, flip, other people, other people, here I am. But if someone doesn’t speak, the audience will naturally be riveted to that person. Just her looking out at the camera or looking wherever she wants to look. That becomes the magnet. And she understands that.”

That approach extends beyond Guest’s movies with Coolidge; on one commercial he shot with her, “she had felt no compunction about just doing what she did, which was going way into outer space. And the two people she was working with were left to kind of marvel at this thing.” And when promoting the folk-singer comedy “A Mighty Wind” at a concert stop in New York City in 2003, Coolidge and Bob Balaban — who play non-singing characters — took the stage and gazed at one another. “It was the biggest applause I’ve ever heard,” Guest says. “It was striking because Bob is quite small and Jennifer is a tall woman. They didn’t have to say a word — in that silence of him looking up at her, everything that they had done together was put into that moment where no one had to say anything. And it just kept building. It was extraordinary and incredibly fun to see that reaction based on the power of not saying something.”

Guest muses about the power Coolidge has to draw a reaction even before she says a word. “It says that the audience is so drawn to her, so primed to respond — it really didn’t matter that they didn’t say very much at all, they were just joyous to see this person walk out there. And I don’t know if Jennifer is comfortable with that. A part of her is always battling, as a lot of actors are, that idea of the response that people have to her.” Having worked with her across decades, Guest says that Coolidge is “a very regular person” with little in common with the characters she creates. “If one met her and had no context for what she had done, it would be an interesting thing to see. Because I think she wouldn’t say much. She’s not a person who goes into a social situation unless she knows the people and just chatters away, you know?”

In other words, perhaps, she understands the power of not talking. It’s a gift she put to use on the first season of “The White Lotus,” in which she dominated scenes simply by casting out fearful or manic or unsteady vibes, even when not at the center of the frame. Her old collaborator relished her scenes most of all. “This person stands out. Everyone else to me is invisible,” he says. “I’m not grinding any kind of axe, I’m just saying — you want to see her.”