Weird Science

Photo: Danielle Levitt; Hair by Alyn Topper; Makeup by Colleen Runne

Jennifer Coolidge has just breezed through the stage door of the Barrymore Theatre—where she is appearing in the black comedy Elling with Denis O’Hare and Brendan Fraser—carrying a peacock-plumed purse that is only slightly less ostentatious than the feather-and-faux-fur bags her heartbroken Sex and the City character might have made. Coolidge is in pursuit of dental floss (she’s just eaten a mango) and the New York Post: Bad news, she jokes, makes her feel better about herself. This is only her second time on Broadway, after the 2001 production of The Women, and she’s nervous. Coolidge leans in, half-whispering, “You get very paranoid on these jobs. There was one day when I was going out the door and [the director] Doug said, ‘Good night,’ and I saw Brendan still in the rehearsal room, and Denis, and everyone there, and I thought, I wonder if they’re all still in the room because they’re telling them that there’s a new actress coming in to replace me, and they haven’t let me know yet.

Coolidge is famous for playing kindhearted, ditzy sexpots of a certain age: Paulette the manicurist in Legally Blonde, Stifler’s mom in American Pie, and, most memorably, Sherri Ann Cabot, the Anna Nicole Smith–esque poodle owner in Christopher Guest’s mockumentary Best in Show. Sometimes just looking at her face or hearing her voice (which can sound not unlike having an inflated balloon in your throat) can provoke laughs. This is not because she’s unattractive; there just aren’t many women who can, or are willing to, contort their faces into something approximating Jocelyn Wildenstein. It’s a gift that she claims she doesn’t have much control over. “When I was in the Groundlings, you’d see these girls, and their faces just don’t go weird, as much as they tried to be the old lady or the retarded homeless woman,” says Coolidge. “I think you have to have kind of a weird face, or a face that makes weird expressions.”

On top of her malleability is an eccentric timing that makes every performance appear to be improvised, even when it’s scripted, which likely has to do with her decade performing in the comedy troupe the Groundlings. Jane Lynch, who first met Coolidge on the Vancouver set of Best in Show (playing the dog trainer with whom Coolidge’s character has an affair), describes a process that never needs a rolling camera, just an appreciative audience. “When we weren’t working, we walked through Stanley Park, and Jennifer would act out the porn she watched the night before. I remember being doubled over, gasping for breath, as she reenacted some insane position on a park bench,” says Lynch. “She’s not only wildly and uniquely hilarious, but she’s also an incredibly deep thinker with moments of such intense consideration that time just stops. She never belly-laughs. She considers and then gleefully smirks when she’s tickled. I lived for that. I fell in love with her just a little bit.”

Lynch admires the almost scientific way in which Coolidge observes life’s absurdities; Coolidge talks about listening to people’s stories and tucking away their peculiarities like a squirrel hoards nuts. “There was a girl in my acting class, and she was very much like [Sherri Ann] in Best in Show,” says Coolidge. “She was sleeping with an older man, and she would meet him at hotels, and she said, ‘After we slept together, he paid me like $800 in front of the hotel, where the taxis were—in front of everyone. I turned to him and said, “You know, when you do that, you make me feel like a whore.” ’ It’s moments like that—it never made it into the film, but they inform you about how the mind works. The odd things that people say to you are so much more hilarious than what you can come up with.”

It took a while for the actress to find the roles that would allow her to go out on her particular limb; being a uniquely funny woman with bombshell looks was confusing to Hollywood. She was already in her late thirties when she was cast in American Pie. “There are so many actresses who are so friggin’ pretty that they have to play that pretty role over and over again,” says Coolidge, who is entirely too preoccupied with eccentricity to have been anything other than a character actress. Odd, for her, is where it’s at. Consider the gift she gave to Lynch on the last day of shooting Best in Show: a ceramic Great Dane, picked up at an L.A. dog show while the two were researching their roles. “It was male, and for some reason the dog’s penis was circumcised. It had a head,” Lynch says. “That was the detail Jennifer loved.”

Elling is filled with oddness. Set in Oslo, it follows two mentally ill men trying to adjust to post-asylum life. And Coolidge, employing her arsenal of expressions and voices, plays four different women who help set the men on a path to something resembling functionality, including a slam poet, a Nurse Ratched–y R.N., and a troubled pregnant neighbor named Reidun who falls in love with the simpleminded 40-year-old virgin Kjell Bjarne (Fraser). The essence of Reidun is drawn from Coolidge’s relationship with her dog sitter. “He can drive and stuff, but he’s slow—I don’t know what’s wrong with him,” she says. “But he’s so good with my dogs. And my relationship with him is certainly better than my relationship with my last boyfriend. There are some people who make you feel less lonely. He would show up to see my dogs, and I’d go, ‘Oh, my, there he is, there’s Michael. I think that’s how Reidun feels [when she sees Kjell Bjarne].’ ”

O’Hare plays Elling, Kjell Bjarne’s delusionally anxious, agoraphobic roommate, and Coolidge is inspired by his offstage sanity, which she speaks of with bewilderment and awe, like an anthropologist who has discovered a lost tribe. “I would wonder, Is he in his room meditating?” says Coolidge. “No. When he has a spare moment, he’s gone off to his accountant’s, or he’s on the phone, speaking Portuguese with a woman about his rental unit. That he could handle all the life stuff and carry a Broadway show—I’m fascinated.”

Weird Science