“I started working on ‘Coastal Elites’ over a year ago because everyone I knew on every side of the political divide had spent the last almost four years now enraged and passionate and heartbroken and so concerned about where the country was headed,” he tells Variety. “And people have become so addicted to information from every social media platform, from every newspaper, every television network, and it was fascinating because I had never seen that level of engagement [before]. That demanded to be written about.”
Rudnick’s original idea, he continues, was to create a stage production with actors delivering monologues on the larger political themes in the world. When the coronavirus pandemic hit in early 2020, forcing stay-at-home orders and putting the kibosh on live events and productions, he admits he assumed it would have to be shelved. Instead, though, his production team wondered if they could film these monologues instead, “under the most extreme safety precautions remotely,” he says.
And thus, with some rewriting (which Rudnick says he loves to do anyway), the five monologues were given to Bette Midler, Dan Levy, Issa Rae, Sarah Paulson and Kaitlyn Dever and became a special presentation premiering Sept. 12 on HBO.
“It became, strangely, the ideal format for these monologues,” Rudnick says.
The five monologues take place between January and June of this year and are not all told linearly, but the first one is the one set in January. Starting ahead of the pandemic allowed Rudnick to still keep a focus on the time “when we were in an area of pure politics 100% of the time,” he says. As the other monologues move forward in time, there is a clear marker of how the shifting world is affecting characters’ priorities, mental states and relationships.
“People are riding the wave of politics and engagement and protests and are recording not only their own feelings, but also those of those around them. There’s one character that isolated with her family in Wisconsin in a very conservative, small town, so there’s a total range of points of view and what people are up against. Because one of the things that I think has happened with this administration is families are very divided and friendships have fallen. There’s a real litmus test of, ‘OK who do I share my feelings with?’ I wanted to show what it means to live in a time of such radical disagreement and extreme passion.”
Characters such as Paulson’s, who Rudnick references above, turns to her online community to vent in a moment of “such total emotion [she] just had to share it,” he notes. Other characters are speaking a bit more intimately: Levy’s is doing a virtual therapy session, while Rae’s is video chatting with a friend. Since the format of the show is to keep the characters in monologues, though, the people on the other end of those conversations are never seen, nor heard.
“I think the way you justify a monologue is it’s an emotion that can’t be contained. It’s kind of like a song in a musical: It’s someone telling a story that is absolutely essential to who they are. And this format was ideal for that kind of intimacy,” Rudnick says.
The production itself was intimate, as well.
“Everyone was in a different home,” Rudnick says of the cast and crew.
Director Jay Roach and Rudnick communicated by Zoom and text messages, while the actors were in their own homes, communicating with crew through apps. Without the distraction of dozens of people wandering around, adjusting props or lighting or grabbing snacks, Rudnick says the experience of producing the project was “very focused.”
“We could really concentrate on every aspect of the performance,” he explains.
The show’s title comes from the fact that every character is living on one coast or the other during the time of their recording (although notably Dever’s character is from Wyoming and only traveled to New York to help with healthcare efforts). Rudnick says the title also plays with perception because not all of the characters come from the privilege living in sometimes implies. Rae’s character does — she went to boarding school with Ivanka Trump — but Dever’s character is a nurse; Midler’s character is a public school teacher; Levy’s character is an up-and-coming actor. These are five distinct and specific people living in an equally specific and unique moment, so Rudnick acknowledges there could be more monologues to deliver down the line, whether revisiting these characters or introducing new ones “after the election or a vaccine or after we start to see, God willing, some systemic change in every possible power structure.”
However, he adds that he didn’t want to wait for those things to deliver “Coastal Elites” because “I think there’s such a rising tide of anxiety and emotion and desperation approaching that election that that was a good end point. I didn’t want to answer these questions; I wanted it to be about people living with these questions.”