Interview: Jennifer Coolidge of Austenland

The beautiful and bodacious Jennifer Coolidge has been making us laugh—and leer—for the past 15 years since her breakout featured role as Stifler’s Mom, a sex-starved MILF, in 1999’s American Pie. Since then, the Boston-born Ms. Coolidge has been leaving her lively mark on the big screen as a member of the Christopher Guest ensemble in the comedies Best in Show, A Mighty Wind and For Your Consideration and as an enthusiastic beautician in the Legally Blonde movies starring Reese Witherspoon. Her busy schedule extends to television, where she’s made us smile in featured roles on such series as Joey, The Secret Life of the American Teenager, and, most recently, as the sexy and shrewd neighbor of Kat Dennings and Beth Behrs in the hit sitcom 2 Broke Girls.

Disc Dish spoke to Ms. Coolidge prior to last week’s home entertainment release of the 2013 film Austenland (Sony, DVD $30.99, Blu-ray $34.99). A comedy romance starring Keri Russell, Austenland features Ms. Coolidge in the role of Miss Elizabeth Charming, a very rich and very exuberant American woman who lays out her loot for a vacation at a  Jane Austen-themed “reality” resort in England, where she’s on the hunt for lust and love and a chance to shed her straining bodice.

Disc Dish: Austenland is a film whose leading character is a woman who’s obsessed with all things Jane Austen. How do you feel about Ms. Austen?

Jennifer Coolidge: I think she was pretty brilliant. The great thing about Jane Austen—the reason we’re all still obsessed with her—is that she gets inside a woman’s mind and she taps into our fantasies of wanting to be accepted and loved for who we are. There are women in her stories to whom that doesn’t happen, of course, but in our fantasies, we’re the winners.

DD: What’s your favorite Jane Austen work?

JC: Pride and Prejudice is up there, but I also have a strong feeling for Sense and Sensibility. Not only the book—I thought that Ang Lee’s film adaptation with Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet was also quite wonderful. There’s a moment in the film, a wonderful acting moment, where Emma Thompson starts to hyperventilate and have a complete breakdown because the man she’s still in love with may have gone off with someone else. You almost think Emma herself isn’t going to recover. Think about it—if you were convinced that you had found the love of your life and then lost out on it. At that moment, you would probably die!

DD: Okay, so you’re a Jane Austen fan, but probably not to the extent that Keri Russell’s character was in Austenland. That said, do you have your own personal passions that border on the obsession Keri had in the movie?

Jennifer Coolidge goes gunning for romance in Austenland.

JC: There are two things that I’m obsessed with. The first, an obsession that I’ve developed in my old age, is great architecture. I bought a house in New Orleans and I became quite enamored of the architecture there. It began there. I travel a lot or my work, so now, wherever I go, I wasn’t to find the most beautiful church, the most beautiful museums. Anything ancient. The other thing I’m obsessed with is really great bad paintings. I have a storage locker full of them and I want to give them their own museum. You don’t even know who these artists are—you can buy them at garage sales, antique stores and places like that. They’re brilliant because they were done with the intention of being great, but the artist sort of made a wrong turn. Some of them are hilarious and I can’t get enough of them.

DD: Austenland is certainly filled with splendid architecture, as well as some spectacular costumes and hairstyles and all kinds of activities reflecting Austen’s era, like needlepoint, dancing and shooting.  Did you take lessons in all these things to prepare for your role of the life-loving, exuberant Elizabeth Charming?

JC: I took gun-firing lessons, and dancing lessons, too. But I was left out of the needlepoint lessons. My character wasn’t the kind of woman who was interested in the intricate details of life in Austenland, so she would do the needlepoint very badly. She was more interested in meeting a man and having a fun time.

DD: And how about the costumes, hair and make-up? It looked like there was a lot of prep time necessary to turn you all in Austen-era women.

JC: Yes, there were very early calls for this film! The costumes were absolutely beautiful. But what was underneath the costumes was very painful. Ugh, those corsets! They really dig into you. At lunch time, we were allowed to loosen our strings, but then we had to tie ourselves back in for another six hours. There’s really a lack of oxygen when you’re wearing them for so long, and you get depressed and feel nauseous.

DD: But when a take ended and you would walk off to the side until the next take, did you feel that you were making a strong impression on the surrounding crew members as you were bursting out of your costume?

JC: Not really. I feel that when you want to seduce a man, you really need your legs. Since all my outfits were long dresses, I have to say that I really didn’t feel sexy at all. I will say that while we were shooting on that incredible estate and while I was wearing those costumes, I truly felt like a woman of that time. But as far as feeling sexy, not at all!

Jane Lynch and Jennifer Coolidge in 2000’s Best in Show.

DD: Can you describe what it was like shooting on that beautiful backdrop, West Wycombe Park in Buckinghamshire, England, surrounded by fellow actors who were all wearing period dress and working with first-time director Jerusha Hess?

JC: Jerusha brought a very cool feeling to the set and the production. When you’re making a movie, you feel like a very small part of something that you really don’t have much influence upon. You roll in, you do your thing, and then you’re gone. But Jerusha made us feel that we were really part of something, that we were valuable and that we were going to help her create her movie. A lot of filmmakers really don’t make you feel like that, but when someone does, it really makes you rise to the occasion. There’s definitely a psychology to it—to making you feel important and like you’re part of the game. It’s a very special quality, especially with a first-time director.

DD: As a comic actor, you’re known for your improvisational skills, particularly in your collaborations with Christopher Guest in such films as Best in Show and The Mighty Wind. Did any of that come into play in Austenland?

JC: Oh, absolutely. We’d do a couple of takes as written on the page—Jerusha co-wrote the script with Shannon Hale—and then we’d do a couple more where she would tell us to ‘go for it’ and try what we wanted. It was really cool. Of course, some of it worked and some of it didn’t, but you’ll definitely see some of it on the screen.

DD: How did you get on with the film’s international coterie of performers, who hailed from the U.S., England and New Zealand?

JC: I made some great friends out of Austenland! Jerusha Hess and her team assembled such a charming group of people for this film. Keri and JJ and Bret–it was a really interesting variety of people. Being there and working with them, all I thought about all day long was how I could maybe rent out that estate for six months, so people to come and visit and hang out. What a cool thing to have—I’d love everybody in my life, from L.A., from everywhere, to come by and just hang out. It was bizarrely breathtaking—a stunning 18th Century estate, designed by someone from Venice, so it was all moats and gardens and beautiful statues. It was so beautiful, so authentically beautiful.

DD: Speaking of which, Elizabeth Charming is quite a beauty, as well as being an undeniably energetic and lively character. How does she stand up next to some of the other bigger-than-life characters that you’ve created over the course of your career?

Jen hits the bottle in 2009’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans.

JC: You know, I’m not sure yet. It’s hard to know immediately. You just don’t know how something is going to be received, what’s going to work and what doesn’t. Sometimes, you have no idea why something works and other times, you put so much work and effort into something and it just falls flat.

DD: What roles and films took off in a way that you didn’t expect?

JC: Well, I didn’t think American Pie was going to be what it was! I had a very small role and the reception I received was just crazy. Such a fluke! And the Legally Blonde films were kind of a fluke, too. I definitely thought that Reese Witherspoon was going to have a huge career—I had seen her in earlier projects and I thought she was really on her way, but I didn’t know that first Legally Blonde movie was going to be what it was. You can never tell what the public will think! But when something goes well and is well-received, it’s a great surprise!

DD: You’re known primarily as a comic actor – is there a drama in your future?

JC: I’ve only had one dramatic role in my entire career and when I did it, I was in heaven and I thought, ‘Oh my god, I’m going to get more of these.’ But that hasn’t happened yet. It was a movie with Nicolas Cage called Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans in 2009. It was amazing, but I haven’t done another since. But I can say that when people ask me what my dream role would be, I tell them that it’s to play someone very dark. Very dark—like someone involved in the drug world or some other criminal venture. Maybe someone who’s delusional or not all there or just not well. I really hope I can do that one day.

DD: Yikes…sounds a little unsettling.

JC: No, it’s not. But I’m sure I can keep it light until then.

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About Laurence

Founder and editor Laurence Lerman saw Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest when he was 13 years old and that’s all it took. He has been writing about film and video for more than a quarter of a century for magazines, anthologies, websites and most recently, Video Business magazine, where he served as the Reviews Editor for 15 years.