Before it aired last night, few people knew what would happen in The White Lotus’s season finale. At the top of that shortlist sat actress Jennifer Coolidge, who played dotty heiress Tanya McQuoid through a journey of self-discovery in last year’s Maui-set installment, then found herself at the center of a Hitchcockian murder plot on a yacht off the coast of Sicily in the climax of season two.
Following mountains of speculation regarding the identity of the victims at this season’s luxury Italian resort, the seven-episode getaway worked its way up to an astonishing, operatic conclusion: Tanya discovers that the troupe of high-class gays she’s been cavorting with after her husband’s departure are actually planning to murder her on his behalf. When she realizes her only way off the yacht is to fight back, she conquers her enemies in a blaze of tears and gunfire only to go toppling off the side of the boat in a tragic, darkly hilarious accident.
Months before the season started filming, Lotus creator, writer and director Mike White called Coolidge to prepare her for Tanya’s fate. Her response? “Aw, damn it!”
How long did you know Tanya would die?
I knew very early on. Even before he was planning for Italy, Mike told me he wanted me in White Lotus two. And then I don’t know how many months after, he called me up one day and said, “Well, I guess I have to tell you this now so you can prepare.” And I said, “What?” And he goes, “You die, Jennifer. You’re gonna die in White Lotus two.” And I said, “Oh, no!” You’ve gotta be kidding me! Really?” I tried to talk him out of it, but Mike is very strong. He said I was going to have a tragic ending, and he stuck to his guns.
Did he tell you how it would happen at that time?
He didn’t tell me how it was going to happen. He did say Greg was going to be behind a plot that was not good for Tanya and that Tanya was going to go out with a bang. He said, “We’re definitely killing you, Jennifer.” And I said, “Aw, damn it! Okay.”
What did you think when you read the script?
I was surprised! I’ve had a gun before in one other movie, but somehow this was the first time I felt very out of control. I really liked that. When we were shooting it, I felt like I could even have shot myself. Mike is a really good director — he sets up such a good environment where it feels like anything could happen.
Right before we did the scene, Mike was like, “Just remember, Jennifer, Tanya is so much more human than these guys. Just remember that killing something is hard for her.” It’s true. As unattractive as she is at times — she’s such a handful and unlikable — she really isn’t awful. Not like guys who are willing to take someone’s life as if it’s nothing.
There’s such a range of emotions in those final scenes. The shooting is so tense, and the part where you fall off the boat is at once funny, horrible, and surprising. What was it like to shoot that sequence?
I didn’t feel like the boat was that far off the water. I wanted it to be me. I wanted it to be me falling off the boat. I didn’t want it to be a stunt double. Mike was like, “The water’s really cold!” And I said, “I don’t care if the water’s cold! I want to fall off the boat!” He said, “Jennifer, our stunt double has been waiting here all night to do her stunt. It would be weird to say, ‘Hey you can go home now.’”
She was this very cool Italian woman, and she was very funny, so yeah, it would be weird to just send her home. But I was like, I get why Tom Cruise wants to do his own stunts. You think, Well, why can’t I do that? Who cares if the water is cold! But it was this fall between these two boats and insurance and you know. But it would’ve been fun.
The thing that was interesting when I was arguing with Mike — well, not arguing, but talking about the way she loses her life — is he was saying it has to be at the fault of herself and not anyone else. A clumsy moment. I heard Mike telling someone that’s what happens with Tanya because “I think that’s what happens to Jennifer. She locks herself in the bathroom or something. She can get the big stuff done but not small things. Some weird little thing can just mess her up.” There’s something, unfortunately, very unconscious about me.
You know, Mike and I went to Africa together, and we were staying in a tent. I had this experience on the Serengeti where the animals were outside the tent, so you have to have a chaperone take you from the tent to the mess hall where you eat. And sometimes I would open up the tent and walk out and forget that you have to yell for the chaperone. I’m that kind of person. I’m thinking about something else and then I just walk out there with the wild animal.
I saw a lot of responses to the finale that were surprised Tanya didn’t think to take her heels off before jumping off the boat.
Sometimes you don’t do things that are practical when it’s really high stakes. I think if they were pumps, it would be weird.
Ah, because they’d be much easier to take off.
Yeah! You’re just having to make a decision, your life is at stake. We shot that a couple different ways, but I don’t think we ever shot it without the heels. It is so weird, though. It’s that panic mode where you’re murdering someone or it’s high stakes and you don’t do that thing — that obvious thing — that anyone would’ve done in normal circumstances.
You do such great improvisational work. Was there any ad-libbing in any of your big finale scenes? I would guess you know that “These gays, they’re trying to murder me” has already taken over the internet.
I don’t know! I don’t know if Mike wrote that or if I improvised it. There were some things like that that did make it, but I don’t know. When in doubt, I want to say it’s Mike White. I add whenever I can, and some of it works. But “These gays are trying to murder me” was to the captain, and I don’t know, I was trying all sorts of stuff. But that could’ve been a Mike White line.
At the moment you fall off the boat, you say, “You’ve got this,” to yourself, which is so moving and funny and tragic.
It was a long shooting day; I was delirious. I think we tried a couple different lines at that moment, and I don’t remember what the other ones were. We were trying to come up with some little thing that would be an encouragement to herself.
Sometimes you have experiences that are so vivid, and you remember every moment. White Lotus two has become this dreamy thing. People ask me what time we shot something or whether it went all night, and I have no idea. We were shooting so fast, trying to get seven episodes in this short amount of time.
So there was a stunt double falling off the boat, but there are also several shots of you in the water. Did you shoot those yourself, or is there a Jennifer Coolidge dummy lying around somewhere?
I was definitely floating in the ocean when Daphne discovers me, that was me floating around. I had to hold my breath for a long time.
You know, I’ve only seen the finale once now. I watched it Sunday night with Mike White. I’m not sure what was me and what was the stunt double. I’m so fascinated.
It must’ve been pretty wild watching it with Mike last night.
It was! I was one of the few people that knew the finale. I knew everything. And yet I thought it was really suspenseful! I thought that was a good sign. I told Mike, “Isn’t it weird that I’m watching it as though I have no idea?” He’s really good at building tension.
He is! I feel so frustrated that Greg is going to get all of Tanya’s money now.
Mike told me not only does Greg get all the money, but he doesn’t have to share it with Quentin. Worse, right?
The finale was such a secret. Was it a closed set to avoid any spoilers leaking?
There were so many people on that boat, makeup and hair, and of course everyone is very discreet. But I’m surprised no one leaked it! I thought maybe someone would tell their wife or something. But everyone was so closed-lipped about it. It really blows me away.
Were there other characters whose stories you were particularly invested in this season?
The story that fascinated me the most is the story that I witness the most, and am fascinated by it, and my girlfriends and I talk about it over and over: The story line of the two couples. The betrayal, the cheating — I’m most interested in that topic. How do you have a good relationship, how can you make it last, when there’s infidelity? How can you survive it? I thought it was so well written. I’ve been interested in that topic for 30 years.
With a little distance, how do you feel about this as an ending for Tanya?
Mike White’s very realistic. I don’t think everyone gets to be the hero in the end or everyone gets to live in the end. It’s sad. She’s finally able to forgive her mother in season one and finds this guy, and he ends up being this awful human being. He tries to murder her. It would be so great if I come shooting out of the water and I’m alive at the end, but Mike likes to stick to reality. Tanya was sort of doomed. I think she had to go.
So many of these stories are bad in real life. The guy ends up with all the money. But if you’re asking me, the actress, if I’m sad about it — yes. I am sad about moving on. It’s good to mix it up, though. Mike White is truly the greatest friend. He gave me White Lotus one and two. If he asked me to come back as someone else? Or asked me to do a prequel? I would totally do it.