INTERVIEW:Actress and commedienne Jennifer Coolidge is best known as Stifler's Mom from the 'American Pie' films, but there is much more to her than that, finds DONALD CLARKE
JENNIFER COOLIDGE IS surely one of the great comic creations of our time. The inverted commas are intended. As we shall see, the real Ms Coolidge is a complex, smart woman with all the desired shades of personality. The fictional Coolidge is, however, every bit as deliciously broad a creation as Ali-G or Alan Partridge.
One version appears as Stifler’s Mom in the American Pie films. Other variations crop up in the improvised films of Christopher Guest: A Mighty Wind, Best in Show, For Your Consideration. You can also see “Jennifer Coolidge” in Legally Blonde. The character is (most often) a loud, generous, intellectually sluggish, sexually uninhibited mountain of firecrackers. The slightest swagger of her shoulders ups the hilarity level by several degrees.
Ms Coolidge is doing nothing to dismantle that image. As I enter her room in a posh Dublin hotel, she is eying up the complementary beverages with some relish. “Will I have Coca-Cola or gin?” she says, before curling cosily into the biggest armchair. Ms C could hardly seem less fabulous. Huge hair, enough make-up, a snug dress: movie stars rarely look quite so like movie stars these days. She decides to settle for Coke.
“Hey, are the liquor stores open late in this town? I’ve got all these friends who want me to buy them whiskey.” Coolidge is in town to promote the latest in the American Pie sequence. Terrifyingly, the smutty teen franchise – mainly concerned with popping cherries – kicked off a full 13 years ago. American Pie: Reunion finds the principals greatly changed: they have grown up, secured serious jobs and spawned children. But Jeanine Stifler, sexually voracious mother to Sean William Scott’s randy idiot, remains very much the same. She still favours young flesh. She still speaks in a Rolls Royce purr.
I wonder if Jennifer thinks of her as a rounded character. Is there more to Stifler’s Mom than a teenage boy’s fantasy of the available older woman? “Do you think I’ve become that?” she says. “It’s interesting. Stifler’s Mom has a very small part of the films, but people talk about her like she’s a bigger character . . . people project upon her. People think she’s more complex and mysterious than is possible.” Has she ever encountered any inappropriate material concerning the character on the internet? Stifler’s Mom has, after all, become the archetypal Milf. (The first three letters of that dubious acronym spell out “Mother I’d Like to . . .” You can work out the rest yourself.) “I like the fact that she’s a Milf rather than a cougar, which would be more predatory,” she says. “I don’t actually go on the internet that much. But I got a phone call from a guy who said I was the hostess on a Stifler’s Mom X-rated website. Ordinary mothers send in these incredibly filthy photographs of themselves. And they showed a photo of me, so it looked like I was hosting it. That was kind of gross. You just get your lawyer to handle it.”
So, Stifler’s Mom can be an albatross. “Oh, no. She’s kept my dating life alive. People really think you are that woman.” Jennifer Coolidge was born in Boston 48 years ago. If she is to be believed, she was the least amusing member of an extremely funny, middle-class family. Her first ambition was to be a serious actor. With that in mind, she made for New York and enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, the school that gave us Jason Robards, Edward G Robinson and Kirk Douglas.
She’s clearly a determined woman. It took a long time for her to find her current niche in the industry. “Oh yeah,” she half-bellows. “I was trying to be a dramatic actress for years. I was so frustrated. I worked in a restaurant for five years as a cocktail waitress and Sandra Bullock was the hostess. I was trying to be a serious actor. Meryl Streep was my idol.” Eventually, a friend decided to direct her towards The Groundlings comedy company in Los Angeles. That improvisational group has had an extraordinarily influence on American entertainment in recent years. Such luminaries as Will Ferrell, Lisa Kudrow, Jimmy Fallon and Conan O’Brien all passed through its doors on Melrose Avenue.
Astonishingly, Jennifer claims that, to this point, she had never really thought of comedy as a career path. How can this be possible? Few performers have been gifted such heavenly comic timing. Her voice is perfectly pitched for both slow-thinking bafflement and ill-judged overconfidence. “If you were a girl in my town you just didn’t think that way,” she says. “We went to see men perform in bands and in comedy. As a girl, you were just supposed to be pretty. You were supposed to be a nice girl. And The Groundlings was about being as hideous as you could possibly be.
I don’t even think I had a personality before The Groundlings.” She goes on to explain that, despite comprising furiously ambitious performers, The Groundlings thrived on a familial atmosphere. Comic actors such as Kudrow, later to find fame in Friends, were keen to encourage other women.
At the turn of the century, already in her mid-30s, Jennifer finally encountered a series of big breaks. American Pie, Legally Blonde and Best in Show all came along in 1999. The first two were huge hits. Christopher Guest’s Best in Show, set in the world of dog shows, garnered ecstatic reviews and secured the director’s reputation as a master manipulator of improvisational comedy. Alongside Eugene Levy, Harry Shearer and Catherine O’Hara, Coolidge is now an immovable member of Guest’s stock company.
“The great thing about doing a job with Christopher is that it is the ultimate creative experience,” she says. “You can’t believe the power he gives you. He is such a smart person. While working on the film you might not quite know what the idea is. You often have no idea what’s going on. But he has a genius for editing the best bits out and keeping in the bits that make sense.” Jennifer is now one the business’s most desired character actors. She rarely captures anything like a lead role. But nobody is better at adding colour to quieter corners of the frame. She is incapable of giving a dull performance.
In 2009, she broke out of her (unasked for) comfort zone with a surprising performance in Werner Herzog’s characteristically deranged The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. Many viewers of the off-beat detective story rubbed their eyes when Nicolas Cage’s drug-addled cop rubbed up against his alcoholic step-mother. Stripped of make-up, looking properly damaged rather than contentedly dissolute, Jennifer gobbled up the role with deserved relish. She looked like the complete actor she always longed to be. “I was just down in New Orleans and heard they were casting that film. And I just had to audition.” Given the German’s director’s distance from the mainstream, I suspect that he had no idea who Jennifer was.
“Yeah! Yes it was very different. This is the great thing about him. He is crazy about actors. He loves altering people’s make up. If he casts you, he must really like you. I think if they’d known I was the lady from American Pie I would never have gotten that job. What a cool thing.” Jennifer explains that she bought a second home in New Orleans just months before Hurricane Katrina struck. Spend a moment in her company and you become aware that she’s not the sort of person to buckle under pressure. She continued to fix up her house and now divides her time between Los Angeles and the Crescent City. We don’t want to fall into the trap of assuming that Jennifer Coolidge is as fond of fun as “Jennifer Coolidge”.
But I suspect she feels comfortable in the recovering good-time port. “Yeah. I spent 18 years in Boston. But you really do feel you’re getting seduced when you are down there. You get sucked in. You don’t have a choice. I somehow got addicted to the steamy south.” And what about expanding on the opportunities that Herzog offered her? She must still have a desire to tackle more serious roles. She obviously has the chops.
“Are you kidding? Of course. But people do see you on a certain way. I got into a cab in New York City and the cab driver said: ‘Vere you in dat movie with Nicolas Cage – that Bad Lieutenant movie?’ I said: ‘Yes. Some of my friends didn’t even know I was in it.’ He said: ‘I like you netter in da funny stuff. I don’t want you to make me feel sad.’ That was really nice. But aren’t I allowed to do other things?” A very fair point. Pay attention, Hollywood.
American Pie: Reunion is on general release from Wednesday.