“This morning, I saw his face above the fold. ‘Him.’ I can’t even stand to say his name. Because I’m a New Yorker, and we always hated him. And it wasn’t just the lying, the hair, and the ugly buildings. Oh my god, no. He has no style; he has no sense of humor! He tore down Bonwit Teller in the middle of the night! He wouldn’t rent to black people! Move to the Kremlin, you son of a bitch!” That’s just the beginning of Bette Midler’s vituperative rant in Coastal Elites, the HBO special debuting September 12th that lays out writer Paul Rudnick’s response to our country’s current crises.
Rudnick’s brand of gay, Jewish, New York humor — as a screenwriter, he’s brought us everything from the Nicole Kidman-led Stepford Wives to Kevin Kline as a closeted drama teacher in In & Out, and he’s currently working on the book for the Devil Wears Prada musical — can feel like verbal overload for the uninitiated. Whether in a New Yorker “Shouts & Murmurs” essay or columns by his alter ego, Elyot Vionnet, Rudnick is a deft satirist, a close observer who finds the comedy (and pathos) amid human foibles, offering laughter in the most unlikely of scenarios — even, say amidst a devastating pandemic.
“My goal in almost everything I write is to surprise people — to make them laugh when they least expect it — and then take a hairpin turn, and turn it into heartbreak, and justify that heartbreak. So it’s never just easy sentiment,” Rudnick says. “Years ago, I wrote a play called Jeffrey, which was at the peak of the AIDS crisis, and it was, of all things, a romantic comedy. At that point, people felt that was absolutely impossible. I learned early on that illness and tragedy are never funny; that’s something that you only honor, and you weep over, and you try to be a service to. But people are always funny. Coping is always necessary.”
Coastal Elites, directed by Jay Roach (Bombshell, Austin Powers), covers the last nine months — from pre-COVID January through the pandemic lockdown, Black Lives Matter protests, and our coronavirus summer — with the stories of five characters, each given a standalone monologue: a retired New York City schoolteacher (played spectacularly by Bette Midler) who accosts a MAGA-hat-wearing man in Manhattan; an out-of-work gay actor in Los Angeles (Dan Levy); a wealthy black woman (an effervescent Issa Rae) with ties to Ivanka Trump; a meditation guide who can’t find her Zen while visiting her Midwestern family (Sarah Paulson); and a Wyoming nurse (Kaitlyn Dever) who travels to New York to help treat COVID patients, and finds surprising connections with the city’s residents amid the ER chaos. With the diversity of perspectives, Rudnick says, he aims not to skewer any one group, but to uncover more points of similarity among us than we might expect.
“I look at Kellyanne Conway’s family and the divides there; this is where we’re all living. And that’s very much what I wanted Coastal Elites to be about,” he explains. “If you think it’s only about the ‘elite,’ or you somehow imagine that because you live in Iowa you’re not a ‘coastal elite,’ you’re going to be in for what might actually be a very pleasant shock.”
Here, Rudnick discusses what it was like working remotely with his talented actors during “peak pandemic TV,” his one up-close encounter with Ivanka Trump, and more.
Explain a bit about how Coastal Elites came to be an HBO special. It was originally meant to be staged this spring at the Public Theatre in New York City, right?
Paul Rudnick: Yes, I started writing the piece almost a year ago, and I wasn’t even sure what it would ultimately become, because these monologues just sort of erupted in response to our national nervous breakdown. And I just couldn’t stop: These characters insisted on being heard.
Originally, our director, Jay Roach, was going to stage Coastal Elites before a live audience at the Public, and then would film it for HBO. Then, when the pandemic hit, that was no longer possible, and I sort of put it aside. But then I was so grateful that HBO and our production team called, and they had thought of another route. So, Jay and I had a lot of conversations about shooting this remotely. Of course, the first and overwhelming concern was for the safety of our cast and crew and everyone involved. Once we had a Covid adviser and every possible protocol, we realized this might make sense.
I was also thrilled that I was able to rewrite; because of the time progression, I could include details about the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests, and how those events might impact the characters’ lives. So it became this most-up-to-the-moment time capsule. When we were shooting remotely, it was fascinating, because it felt like this was exactly the form the piece wanted to take — there was an intimacy to it. And with this extraordinary cast, it felt like, Yeah, that’s just what you want it to be — up close and personal. It felt just right.
The title is a sort of triggering term. People may even feel wary, thinking, “Why should I watch this?” You do such a good job of combining comedy with politics, but people don’t always want that, especially now. They don’t want to laugh at themselves, or don’t feel like they can laugh at all. How do you respond to that?
The phrase “coastal elites” can become a kind of slur and [speak to] a sense of entitlement. But in the show, we’ve got schoolteachers and nurses and out-of-work actors, and you name it. I think it’s something that so many people may identify with, and not just the ones who live on the coast. There’s a sense of disconnect — from your own family, from your friends, from your partner — over politics. And that’s been going on for four years. I always wondered if it would diminish. And if anything, it’s only hotter now.
Naming it Coastal Elites, I wanted it to feel provocative, because I thought if people imagine that they’re in for a lecture, or any sort of medicine, or something that’s only partisan, they’re going to be shocked. There’s a sense of a town hall — where it becomes a matter of exactly what’s on everyone’s minds. It’s not just [the characters’] high-flown political thoughts, but their dirty, gossipy, secret thoughts as well. That’s what I was after: The sense that we’re in this together; we’re all hopelessly confused; we’re heartbroken; we’re howling. And we’re not sure how much we can take.
With a theater piece, often the playwright is there during the process and there are rewrites and changes. Was there any sort of collaboration with the actors — some of whom are writers themselves — on shaping any of the material?
I always welcome input from actors, especially with a cast of this caliber who are all so smart and so funny and so heartbreaking. They have such a world-class skill set that I would be very foolish not to not to value that. Jay and I had extensive rehearsals over Zoom with the cast. So, I rewrote to sculpt the pieces for these performers. I was so eager to hear what they had to say, both about the contents of the pieces, and about the direction the characters would take. It became this wonderful collaboration. And then when we were shooting it, it became very distilled and exciting because — even though Jay and I and the actors were all off in wildly different parts of the country, and we were communicating via a series of apps — it was sort of show business at its essence, without the distractions of an enormous crew or of a lot of downtime. We were really honing the pieces, and we could watch every nuance that the actors were bringing. It was intense, but it was wonderful.
Let’s talk about Bette’s character, Miriam. She’s such a Paul Rudnick creation, with her sassy smarts and verbal agility. How did she come about?
She was the first piece that I wrote, and Miriam very much is a tribute to my mom and her sisters, my two aunts, who were all librarians and teachers and just the most politically committed, idealistic, hopeful, funny, skeptical people on the planet. They’re all gone now, but they could be so funny and sometimes so pissed off and so addicted to the news cycle all at the same time. And that’s pretty much the position of just about everyone I know, not only on the coasts and not only on the liberal side of the political divide, but I think the whole country is now operating at that frequency — that sense of, “If I don’t pay attention to every development, the top of my head is going to blow off,” and that may happen anyway. So with Miriam, it was a question of finding someone who wasn’t only angry, but who was also so deeply curious. She’s someone with very long-held liberal political views, but she really wanted to understand the other side. Because she was a public school teacher, she had a sense of obligation, I think, to her kids and to the world, to know how things work.
Over the years, you’ve written about this being named Ivanka, and your insight into her and Jared Kushner and the rest of the Trump clan has been fascinating. I’m curious about the way you unravel her in the monologue performed by Issa Rae, which is my favorite. Issa’s character, Callie, attended boarding school with Ivanka, and encounters her former classmate while accompanying her father on a formal visit to the White House. Tell me about crafting that bit, and also putting it in the voice of a rich, young, black woman.
I guess I have certainly studied Ivanka over the years. I mean, I’m a longtime New Yorker, and the city knows that family, and the city has never “voted” for that family. I think there’s always been a sense of betrayal. They’re all in: They’ve supported [the president’s] birtherism; they’ve supported the trans ban; they’ve supported caging immigrant children. You know, they are far from blameless.
Yet, Ivanka has always fascinated me as a character, aside from that, as a human being. She blurs those boundaries because of the constant smiling, her sort of “hostess” quality, and that sense that she can remain in a bubble — that she can socially distance herself from history, that she can be untouched by the current bloodshed. I don’t think that’s possible for anyone, and especially not for someone in her position. This is what Callie, Issa Rae’s character, talks about.
Have you had access to people of great wealth and power, or did you base any of it on people you know who have visited the Trump White House?
I remember when I first went to college — and I’m a very middle-class kid from New Jersey — but when I went to Yale, it was the first time I’d ever been around people of enormous wealth and influence. And Callie was somewhat inspired by a lot of those people, because I saw that some of them became completely lost; that in a certain sense, their family power destroyed them or certainly confused them. And then there were a handful of people who took it as a responsibility. That’s what I wanted to go after with her — that this was a woman whose family was extremely wealthy and powerful and realized that, not just as a black family, as an American family, and as people with access to the greatest power, they needed to be very mindful of their personal morality.
I worried that people might not be able to relate to that character, but Issa’s so appealing and she’s so funny and she has such great personal charm that you immediately go to her. You are so happy to have her as your guide into these extraordinary and often frightening worlds that any boundary between the rich and the audience immediately evaporates.
I think it’s fascinating what you said about her being a guide into this world, because you do wonder as you watch: Why would you go to the Trump White House if you have firm beliefs that oppose his? And how would you react? I guess it’s about what one does with access to power?
I do know people who’ve gone to the White House, and everyone has a very different response, because it’s got a glorious history and a shameful history. It’s a building that was built by slaves. A lot of it depends on who’s in the White House. I remember in the days when President Obama and his family were there, it was such a joyous building. He invited people from every level of the culture — from the great pop artists to bus drivers and subway workers to health care workers to theater people. You name it — everyone was welcome. There was a sense of total inclusion. Now with Trump, it’s a sort of velvet rope back up, there is no sense of invitation there.
Have you ever met Ivanka up close?
I actually did have one personal split-second of Ivanka. It was a kind of very strange moment in my life. I was someone’s guest at the Tony Awards — this is before the election — and Ivanka was walking in front of me. She was wearing a chiffon gown — which I think she probably sleeps in — and I stepped on her train! It was my fault, but she didn’t flinch. I apologized, and she seemed to be perfectly gracious, and she left. So that was my only real brush with Ivankaness. But I do remember thinking that there’s this kind of robotic charm to her, that sense of — if I’m trying to be sympathetic, I would say: This is a woman raised under difficult circumstances, you know, a child of divorce, a child of a very divisive father, who has tried desperately at every moment to gloss over all of it, to make peace with the world, to try and charm the world, all of which should be positive qualities. But I think when they’re trying to conceal racism and sexism and her father’s sexual assault, that becomes a very dangerous quality.
With Dan Levy’s section, it feels as if you’re also addressing how much progress has been made for LGBTQ people in Hollywood — and, sometimes, how little.
It just means the world to me to see that Dan is part of a generation of out gay actors — that’s why [his] input was so valuable to me, because he’s been in those rooms where you can be welcomed as an openly gay performer and you can still be treated with a certain condescension and lack of respect. It remains toxic, and Dan expresses that. And he’s also, you know, one of the funniest human beings alive. He retains that particular gay sense of humor. That is the most necessary balance wheel. You know, it’s: Don’t mess with gay people, because they’ve they’ve got a wisecrack in their holster.
You’re one of our great satirists, but I’ve been worried that satire is no longer allowed. Can we still deploy humor and not be shunned or banished for it?
I think people always welcome humor. Some people imagine that satire is cold, but I always aim for the humanity. Comedy is a great leveler that says, “Look, yeah, you’re the president, and I’m a guy in the West Village in New York. But I can deal with you. I can take a shot. I can get involved.”