It's been two decades since Groundlings alum Jennifer Coolidge got her first big break in "The Masseuse" episode of the NBC series "Seinfeld," as Jerry's new masseuse girlfriend who refuses to give him a massage. In the subsequent 20 years, the statuesque, 51-year-old actress has created a memorable gallery of no-holds-barred, outrageously funny ladies.
Frat boys know her as Stifler's seductive mom who likes her scotch and men the same way — aged 18 years — in Paul and Chris Weitz's 1999 blockbuster "American Pie" and two of its sequels. Christopher Guest fans remember her fondly as the gold-digging, big-breasted dog owner in his 2000 comedy "Best in Show" and as the ultimate dumb blond producer in his 2006 film, "For Your Consideration." And she's providing a lot of laughs as Sophia, the Polish owner of a cleaning service who knows her way around a double entendre in the CBS comedy series "2 Broke Girls."
Coolidge is also working her comedic magic in "Austenland," which opened Friday, as Elizabeth Charming, a wealthy woman who befriends Keri Russell's "Pride and Prejudice"-obsessed Jane at a British resort geared to women who want to live in Jane Austen's universe. With her dreadful Cockney accent and ample cleavage, Charming seems like she's just another ugly American who is thrilled she's going to "look great in those wench costumes." But she ends up being Jane's protector and great friend.
In a marked contrast to her characters, Coolidge was more reflective and subtly funny during a recent brunch at a Beverly Hills hotel. She even opened up about her insecurities: "I am always really surprised when I get a part and am glad when we get into the second or third week of filming, because I am, like, 'If they fire me now, they will have to redo all of this stuff.' "
I would love to go to stay on an estate and be swept away in the fantasy of Jane Austen.
Do you know how much of a fantasy that was of mine?
My parents were so weird about what we could watch on TV. The only stuff we could watch was "Masterpiece Theatre": "Tom Brown's School Days," "Upstairs, Downstairs." I would imitate scenes from "Upstairs, Downstairs." I was obsessed with those English accents. I don't know if I did that good of a job doing them. That's probably why I got this role! But it was a fantasy to be on one of those big estates and live in those costumes.
Where did you shoot "Austenland"?
We were in West Wycombe House on the Dashwood estate. The Dashwood family is still there. There are moats. It looks like a set, but it's real. I spent the whole movie trying to figure out how I could rent the place for myself and have a party or something there for everyone I knew who would fly to see a place like that.
I was surprised to learn that you actually began as a dramatic actress.
I went to Emerson College as a theater major. I tried to do the serious route for a very long time in New York. I did plays and I couldn't get anything to happen. I was a waitress for so long.
Then this weird thing happened. I was in this acting class with a very famous acting teacher, Julie Bovasso. She was always rewarding people — whomever sobbed the most [doing a scene] got the most praise. I was with this guy from my acting class after class and I did this [comedic] sobbing thing in front of him. He said, "You know, Jennifer, I want to take you somewhere on Saturday — just say yes. I think that's where you should be." He took me to an audition at the New York version of the Groundlings, Gotham City. I ended up getting in. It kind of changed my life. I moved out to L.A. to be in the Groundlings.
Who was in the Groundlings with you at the time?
Mike McDonald, Will Ferrell, Cheri Oteri, Chris Kattan and Ana Gasteyer. My life changed so drastically because of the casting directors who saw me at the Groundings. Christopher Guest was in the audience.
What was it like working with Guest and his repertory company on "Best in Show" and "For Your Consideration"?
Those films were life-changing. They are incredibly normal people, really decent people who are incredibly humble and don't have egos. They have all had killer careers but you would never know it. No one talks about their career.
You didn't get your break on "Seinfeld" until you were 32.
My mother was really worried about me my whole life. She really thought I might not end up doing so well. She ended up with pancreatic cancer. Right before she died, I went to church with her and that episode of "Seinfeld" had just come out. Everybody saw it and said something to my mother. She had this incredible relief. I think she was very excited that I had a little victory. It was such a big deal.
[For the record, 1:10 p.m. Aug. 21: An earlier version of this post misspelled acting teacher Julie Bovasso's last name as Bavasso.]
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