SPOILER ALERT: This interview contains spoilers for Season 2 of “The White Lotus,” now streaming on HBO Max.
Rest in peace, Tanya McQuoid.
While we mourn the crown jewel of “The White Lotus” — who in the Season 2 finale takes out a few “high-end gays,” falls off a yacht, knocks her head on a dinghy and drowns to death in the Ionian Sea — the internet is ablaze with Jennifer Coolidge memes. (Yes, she is aware of them.)
Tanya figures out she’s being conned by Quentin (Tom Hollander), but as she preps her escape back to shore, she slips and kills herself in a shocking death that even the most outlandish theories didn’t predict. As for why Tanya didn’t put the pieces together sooner, Coolidge tells Variety, “It is too hard for people to admit to themselves that there’s that type of evil in the world. No one wants to believe that.”
While Tanya fended off “evil gays” in the Season 2 finale, Coolidge herself battled seasickness. “I told Mike I didn’t want to be on a boat ever again after ‘White Lotus’ Season 1, and of course there were two yachts I had to be on,” she says. “I was so nauseous.”
In an interview following the end of the second season, Coolidge — who in September won an Emmy for playing Tanya in Season 1 — sat down with Variety to discuss how her own “obliviousness” inspired the character, becoming an instant meme and what “The White Lotus” has meant for her and her career.
When did you first find out you would be the big death at the end of this season, and what was your reaction when Mike told you?
I wasn’t happy about it! But Mike White’s a genius — I knew my ending would be good. When he told me I was going to die, he didn’t have the ending yet, he hadn’t completely orchestrated it out. I was kind of bummed, but Mike knows how to tell a story better than anyone I know, so I knew I just had to trust it. You can’t talk Mike White out of anything, so I’ll just have to go on some different adventures this year and maybe go visit Mike when they’re filming [Season 3].
Tanya dies by falling over the side of the yacht and hitting her head on the dinghy. Did she not see the ladder?
Tanya didn’t notice! Mike White thinks it’s very funny that I can handle big things, but a little thing will be my demise. Like, my technical inabilities with my phone or something will keep me from accomplishing something big. These small things throw me off. It was so in line with who I am — I even heard Mike say that to somebody. Not noticing something that could save my life.
Are you speaking as you, Jennifer, or as the character Tanya?
I’m saying Mike stole that from me, Jennifer Coolidge, and made it a Tanya thing — her obliviousness.
How did you shoot that scene?
It was late at night on a rocky boat. I told Mike I didn’t want to be on a boat ever again after “White Lotus” Season 1, and of course there were two yachts I had to be on. I was so nauseous. I’m not good on these boats. It was many hours on that boat not feeling well and having to kill people and run around. There was a lot of running around on that boat.
Why do you think it took Tanya so long to put the pieces together and plan an escape, even though she had already seen the photo and had told Portia about Quentin and Jack? Did she refuse to believe it, or was she frozen in fear?
Mike was writing these scenes as very dreamlike: “Did I really see that? Is that really real, or is that my imagination?” Tanya’s a very damaged person, and a lot of times she isn’t nice, but she would never take someone’s life or anything. That kind of person who has no problem taking another person’s life — it’s very hard for a naïve, innocent person to conceive that idea in their head. You hear people on a jury say, “The reason why I voted that he was innocent is I just don’t think anyone could take the life of their own child or kill their wife.” Like, oh my God! They do it every day! Somewhere in the world, someone is doing that. It’s that sort of inability to believe something until you’re in way too deep, because the possibility of it is too hard for people to admit to themselves that there’s that type of evil in the world. No one wants to believe that.
In Tanya’s last moments, she asks Quentin if Greg is having an affair. What does that say about her?
There’s so many things in that line. One, that’s so important to women. And you have to remember, this is a dramedy. There’s a lot of comedy in this show. Even with all the bodies strewn around on the floor, that’s a question that Tanya wants answered, despite this horrific scene she’s standing in. When I read it, I thought it was brilliant. And two, she really wants to know. People want to know if she really got all that was going on. She talks to Portia about putting the pieces together, but that deep denial is just beyond reason.
How does it feel to be a gay icon who ends up murdering a bunch of “high-end gays” who plotted to kill her?
That is so Mike White. I wouldn’t have come up with that scenario myself, it wouldn’t occur to me. Gay men can be catty, but mostly they are the good guys in a lot of films that I’ve seen. But Mike White made these guys kind of wicked, very corrupt soulless guys. He told me, “You end up getting taken in by this group of — well, let’s just say they’re evil gays.” I just got so riveted, I was so enthralled. You know, Tanya’s not onto them, but she’s finally being appreciated and she’s finally having a good time on this horrific trip.
Are you aware that the “These gays, they’re trying to murder me” has already become a meme?
I have had some people send me that this morning, yes.
Did you anticipate that when you read the line?
No. That was one of the last scenes I filmed for the show, and I was seasick and stuff. There were a lot of logical things I should have come up with. There’s so many things people are sending me. [When filming], you’re not thinking memes down the line for some reason. Maybe other people on the show were, but I wasn’t savvy enough to spot them.
Do you have a favorite line you improvised?
There’s one line that I told Mike about that he put in the script. I had just bought this big house in New Orleans, and my father was secretly upset because he thought I was in over my head. And my aunt pulled me aside and said, “Sometimes… old buildings are more important than people.” And I told Mike White that, and he put it in the script in a different way. [Tanya tells Quentin on the boat, “There aren’t enough people out there that are worried about old buildings.”] It’s very clever the way he weaves all these things in.
One of my favorite lines, which Mike came up with, is “These are some high-end gays.” I liked when Tanya was excited about something, because she was so depressed for most of Season 1 and the beginning of 2. There’s another brilliant line about how when you meet other rich people, they don’t fear that you’re going to take their money, so they let you in. That’s a true fact! I improvised a lot of things, some made it in and some didn’t. But 99.9% of my favorite lines were Mike White.
How does it feel to say goodbye to Tanya McQuoid, and what has “The White Lotus” meant to you and your career?
It was sort of the beginning of good times for me, coming out of COVID and making “White Lotus” Season 1. To be given this gift to act and do this very cool story. I know Mike White’s a genius and all that, but I never had the thought that “White Lotus” was going to be a huge deal. I remember thinking, “This is good,” but there’s a lot of good stuff on television that never gets any recognition. I didn’t have any expectations, but it turned into this massive thing.
And staying on “White Lotus” Season 2 — it was a life-changing thing. The offers! Whether I can take these projects or not, it doesn’t matter. I never thought I had a shot in hell at doing anything dramatic. Of course “White Lotus” has comedy in there, but before that, the only dramatic role I had was something a long time ago with Nicolas Cage called “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans,” and I don’t really know how many people saw that. “White Lotus” has opened a world of opportunities, and Mike White will be my friend forever, of course.
I never could have predicted this moment, and that’s what’s cool about life sometimes: Cool stuff is something you never thought of. I’m in a state of shock still, two years later.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
For more coverage of “The White Lotus,” read our interviews with Will Sharpe (Ethan), Adam DiMarco (Albie), Haley Lu Richardson (Portia). Read a recap of the season finale here, and its series-high ratings here!