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Jennifer Coolidge on Promising Young Woman and her viral “hi” video: “All my best stuff is by accident”

Jennifer Coolidge on <i>Promising Young Woman</i> and her viral “<em></em>hi”<em></em> video: “All my best stuff is by accident”<em></em>
Graphic: Natalie Peeples, Photo: Manny Carabel/Getty Images
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Jennifer Coolidge is the kind of actor who can make any line interesting; her unique delivery and innate sense of comedic timing have produced some of film and television’s most quotable scenes of the past 25 years. There’s Paulette’s immortal “Makes me want a hot dog real bad” from Legally Blonde, there’s Sherri Ann Cabot’s “We both love soup” from Best In Show—one of many unforgettable lines from her fruitful collaborations with Christopher Guest—and now there’s “Hi,” from an eight-second video that seemingly came out of nowhere to thoroughly tickle the internet. Leave it to Jennifer Coolidge to make even the simplest greeting iconic.

Coolidge, however, remains modest about her own talents, sharing with The A.V. Club that her recent viral success—as well as many of her indelibly funny moments—was a stroke of luck: “I feel like all my best stuff is by accident.” But to chalk her work up to chance contradicts the time and energy the actor invests in each of her roles, taking a thoughtful approach to even her broadest characters. It’s a skillset she’s been fine-tuning since her days at The Groundlings, where the focus on character development taught her how to fully inhabit whoever she’s playing and take them to some deliriously entertaining places.

Jennifer Coolidge’s recent turn in Promising Young Woman may be the actor’s most surprising character work yet in a career filled with surprising character work. As Susan, the meek and beleaguered mother of Carey Mulligan’s Cassie, Coolidge turns down the dial on her natural charisma, imbuing the role with both a subtle humor and a profound sense of sadness. She’s another one of writer/director Emerald Fennell’s sly casting coups, subverting the audience’s expectations of what a performer like Coolidge can bring to a role. With Promising Young Woman’s astounding awards-season run coming to a head at this Sunday’s Oscars, The A.V. Club jumped at the opportunity to speak with Jennifer Coolidge about grounding her work in the film, how the best improvisation is born out of well-defined parameters, and the origins of the “Hi” heard ‘round the world.

The A.V. Club: The Oscars are just around the corner, capping off what’s been a fantastic run for Promising Young Woman. Are you surprised by how it’s been received?

Jennifer Coolidge: I guess I was really surprised that men have been moved by it, and even voted for it for these Oscar nominations and all of that. That makes me really happy because I was scared that maybe they wouldn’t support it, you know? It just goes to show I know nothing in this world [Laughs.] Look at that, five Oscar nominations! And not that I didn’t think it was a brilliant film, but, for me—even though I was in it, even though I knew the story—I had no idea it was going to be told the way it was told. I was blown away when that movie ended; I was sitting at a screening and I couldn’t get out of my seat.

I had this talk with Emerald Fennell in the very beginning, even before I had the role, and I realized how much of a vision she had for this thing, which carried through to Carey [Mulligan]’s performance, and Bo [Burnham]’s performance. It’s just one of those movies that sneaks up on you, because I’m used to more heavy-handed movies, I guess. [Laughs.] But here, it doesn’t hit you over the head, it’s more like someone tipping over a glass of molasses, it just slowly reveals itself. I have to say, out of every film I’ve ever done, I was most surprised by Promising Young Woman. I mean, I was only there a week, so there’s a lot I didn’t see. [Laughs.]

AVC: Your character, Susan, we never see outside of the home, she only inhabits a small part of this world, alongside Clancy Brown’s Stanley. What kind of parents do you see them as? Because, in some respects, they’re very sweet to Cassie, but they also seem clueless—they don’t appear to have the tools to help her. 

JC: Yeah, I mean, in playing Susan, I think I did steal from my own relationship with my mother. I felt like my mother was sort of naive to a lot of what was going on with me as a troubled teenager—kind of like you just said, she wasn’t equipped. So I do feel like there was some of that with Susan. But I also think you have to realize that Cassie’s been home for like 10 years at this point, so I think that they’re so far beyond any sort of hope that things are going to change.

I was going over a scene with Carey, and she really was playing it as if she’d just given up, and I remember going, “Oh my god, this is probably exactly what my mother was thinking!” And you don’t really know how to operate in response to that except out of anger. If you perceive someone as not really willing to turn things around, not really willing to fix anything, it’s so hard to embrace. I remember filming and feeling very tired at the end of the day. [Laughs.] I felt like I had run the gamut of what I put my mother through.

And then the whole home is taking on the depression, that dark cloud. I’ve seen people do that—it’s like, if one person in the family is not well, you can all go down. Some things can happen that are almost beyond your own fear, beyond what your brain can handle, and that was one of the choices I made in playing Susan. But I gave Emerald a bunch of choices, a bunch of ways [Susan] could go, and that’s the genius of Emerald—that she kept the most subtle parts of my performance, which made it the most emotional.

AVC: Despite that, there are quite a few moments of levity and comedy, particularly in the dinner scene when Cassie brings Ryan home for dinner with her parents, which Emerald has said was mostly improvised.

JC: Yeah, we improvised that scene! We did. I think there is a blooper reel somewhere with a lot of different possibilities. I’m so glad we got to have that scene, and I’ll tell you why: All of my scenes with Carey were very heavy, so it was nice to have a lighter day, which we shot more toward the end of my filming. You know, we were in that house—a nice little house, but the set design was brilliant, and they had made it very depressing. So that was the first time I’d really seen Carey laugh, and it was a fun day for all of us, comparatively. We were trying all sorts of different possibilities, and Bo is a really good improviser, just a really funny person. I just thought, “Well, I’d love to do another movie with this group.”

AVC: It was funny to hear that scene was improvised because audiences have come to associate you with the form.

JC: Well, look, I would much prefer to improvise a line than have to learn it! [Laughs.] No, but, if we’re doing a scene and I really know it, and know who I am in the scene, it’s sort of great when a director says, “Alright, let’s just throw some stuff in here and see how it goes.” I mean, it’s such a generous thing for a director to do. And when it happens, it can be really fun, and I feel like a lot of cool stuff comes out sometimes—and sometimes it doesn’t! Sometimes you improvised something and thought it was pretty good, and then they don’t use it. Or, sometimes you think it’s just terrible, and that’s the worst: When you improvise something that is not good, and they still put it in the movie!

But, if you have the parameters of what the director is trying to tell, and then you’re given free rein after you’ve shot for three or four days, that’s much cooler than having to come up with something out of nowhere. If it’s too open, you can get lost, so I like when it’s more contained.

AVC: In the case of your work with Christopher Guest—films that don’t have scripts, in the traditional sense—where do those parameters come into play?

JC: Well, for Christopher Guest, the thing that’s so helpful is he lets you create your own character. Like, when I first met with him before I got the part in Best In Show, and he was saying [Sherri Ann Cabot] is a very wealthy woman, she’s very upstanding, and projects that she knows the dog world, even though she doesn’t. He described her as an actual person with more of a perspective on her field. Then I asked if I could make her less of that, more of a nouveau-riche person that was living in their own head about things. I thought it would be cooler if she was sort of playing at being a wealthy person, but really wasn’t that.

The minute it gets really specific—someone who thinks they’re something else—then you can really play. The genius behind Christopher Guest’s stuff is that he has you get so specific [with your character] that, by the time you get to wardrobe, he lets you pick out all your stuff, your hairstyle, everything. Christopher gives you free rein to create, but then it’s played within these guidelines. If someone just gives you some broad things—just, “go out there be whoever you want to be right now”—that’s much harder.

He’s kind of magical; I’ve never met anyone like him. He just really understands character, and he makes you look better than what you are. [Laughs.] But he brings you good luck, that’s for sure, and he gives you what you need.

AVC: Of course, you have a background in improv and live comedy, including some time with The Groundlings in L.A. How did the skillset you learned there prepare you for your work in Guest’s movies, or even Promising Young Woman?

JC: You know, when I was in The Groundlings, half of the show was sketches that we wrote and performed, and then the other half of the show was improv. And I didn’t really like doing the improv! Just being on stage with these people, they [seem to have] vast knowledge of everything, so their responses are so fast and quick-witted. And then there’s someone like me, I’m slower on every response. So I felt like, the whole time I was at The Groundlings, I was playing this tennis match where the ball was just going way too fast.

But on film you can control it a little bit more. On stage, I was very intimidated by all the geniuses, all these brilliant improv guys and girls. So if I could get out of doing an improv scene, I would. [Laughs.] Like, they would pick you to go up on stage—you’d have to sit in the pool with all the actors—and I would always put my head down so no one would pick me up. Just like, “Please do not look at me.”

AVC: But it’s not all about speed, it can be delivery too, and you’re the type of actor that can make any line funny. Take, for example, the internet’s favorite video where the camera pans up on you and you say, “Hi.”

JC:  Yeah, that’s so funny! [Laughs.] Isn’t it weird—what someone’s going to respond to, you just never know. Vincent [Oquendo], the makeup artist, was standing there and he just goes, “Hey, Jennifer, I’ve got my phone out, so just say ‘hi’ when I get to you. I’m just going to take the camera and [pan] up to your face, and then you say ‘hi’.” So, you know, there was no thought in it—here’s no plot at all. [Laughs.] So, I just said, “Okay,” and then it ended up being something! And I don’t know why! [Laughs.] I have no idea why people like it so much.

What’s really funny to me is, [in the video] I’m wearing this corset thing under my dress, and it’s tight—it really pulls you in, just like a real corset underneath. So, I think [the video] was on TikTok or something, with a bunch of comments where people are saying, “I don’t know why this makes me laugh so hard,” or “This is crazy.” But then this one guy goes, “Yeah, well, that’s not Jennifer because she’s not that slim.” So I was like, “Wow, this corset really works!” [Laughs.] I’m really glad—it did a really, really good job!

But, I mean, it really is weird. That took two seconds [to make], and I can sometimes make videos or whatever for Instagram, and put a lot of work in them, and then no one could give a crap about it. That is one of the things that I have to say: I feel like all my best stuff is by accident. It’s never anything that I really develop—it’s all this accidental stuff. There’s a million people that set their minds to something and then they create this amazing thing. I feel like the less I work on something—or if I put too much energy into it—it’s just a complete flop. But if I don’t give a crap, and I don’t put any judgment on or whatever, then it goes over way better. So the moral of the story is don’t work very hard! [Laughs.] People I know ask me about that all the time, and I’m like, “I don’t know! That was two seconds of our day!”

AVC: Two seconds that have been endlessly entertaining. The other week, there was a whole piece on Vulture about the video.

JC: It’s amazing. You want to know my theory on it? I think it just captures my true lack of intelligence. [Laughs.] I really do! I think it just reveals how dumb I really am, [laughs,] and I think somehow that strikes a chord with people. It has to be that because I was just winging it there. But, really, it’s cool that somebody liked it that much. You just never know.

AVC: But the video’s success also speaks to how beloved you are on the internet. It’s a well discussed topic that everyone—from drag queens to Ariana Grande—has an impression of you. How does it feel to know that you’ve had such an impact on people and have become so “impression-able”?

JC: Wow, that’s such a nice way for you to describe it! Because someone else would be like, “You just have such a crazy voice,” or “a weird sounding voice.” [Laughs.] I don’t know why, but there’s thousands of [impressions]. My friends send me one or two a day, like there’s always 20 different people who are on TikTok doing it. But the thing I really like about it is that some of the people are really, really good at it! There really is something to doing an imitation that I appreciate. There was this one guy that I watched who did all the characters from Legally Blonde—he did the UPS guy, he did Elle Woods, he did me. He has a mustache, so he was playing me with his mustache, and it was really well done; he got sort of essence of all of us.

So, it’s all very entertaining. And when people aren’t good, it’s entertaining! I love when people are terrible at it, it’s great. And I’m thrilled to hear that they do me on Drag Race for their auditions and stuff—I love that. Is it because I’m odd or weird? I don’t know, but I like it better than no one doing it. [Laughs.] But so many of them make me laugh, even the ones that don’t sound anything like me. And then Ariana Grande! You know, I texted her and said, “Your imitation is fantastic; just really mind blowing!” And that’s what started with our friendship. She does is just about better than anybody!

AVC: RuPaul did just recently mention on Drag Race that a queen will inevitably audition with a Snatch Game impression of you every season. Do you watch the show?

JC: Yes, of course! But I’m sure you could say that about a lot of people, you know, like Cher or Dolly [Parton]. But I like when people get extra creative, and they do a take that’s flattering, you know? When they’re more poised than I am, and they look better than me—I really like that! [Laughs.] When the queens are all put together and they’re all glam, like, I could never look that good! But they’re playing me, so I feel good.

AVC: Well, Ru needs to give you a call and get you on the show!

JC: Yeah, I mean, they have asked me, but I’ve had some conflicting stuff going on. But now? I’m free! So we’ll see what happens.

Promising Young Woman is now available on digital, Blu-Ray, DVD, and VOD platforms.