Coastal Elites was never meant to be set against the COVID-19 pandemic. The series of five monologues from Paul Rudnick had been in the works for over a year with director Jay Roach when live performance shut down in March. But instead of postponing a planned Off-Broadway run at The Public Theater, Rudnick, Roach, and HBO came up with a solution: an HBO special in which each monologue is performed directly to camera. The end result premieres on HBO September 12.
"What we discovered is that because they were monologues, there was an intensity that was a great match for this kind of filmmaking," Rudnick says. "And once we assembled this extraordinary cast, we thought, 'How amazing! What a gift to have a front row seat with [them].' The more Jay and I worked on honing these pieces with the actors' collaboration, the more it flourished. So it was unexpected but so welcome."
"What it turned into is something very fulfilling because it was just Paul and I and the cast," Roach says. "The crew was not there while filming. And it was so intimate and so directly interactive."
Among the five monologues are Jewish New York Times devotee Miriam (Midler), a gay actor in teletherapy (Dan Levy), a former boarding schoolmate of Ivanka Trump, played by Issa Rae, a meditation guide who is anything but Zen when talking about her Trump-supporting family (Sarah Paulson), and a nurse on the frontlines in April of the pandemic in New York City (Kaitlyn Dever). All but Dever play some variation of a type that can be scoffed at as a coastal elite; all of them reveal layers of pain and vulnerability and self-doubt that that stubborn moniker doesn't begin to describe.
For Levy, playing a gay actor discussing a recent audition in which his level of "gayness" is repeatedly adjusted by the powers was a phenomenal experience that also brought up some unhappy memories.
"In my head, I'm still working at a video store, so these opportunities that have crossed my path are so surreal sometimes. So to get an email where Paul Rudnick and Jay Roach are offering me a part in something... Are we sure about this?" Levy says with a laugh. "And because that piece is so personal and so closely tied with experiences I have actually had, they were really open to [collaborative] conversations. And that's what makes things really shine, allowing actors that freedom and that space."
As for the monologue itself, in which Levy's character recounts his auditions for a gay superhero leading role, he says it opened his eyes to some previous experiences that he had tried to repress. "I had walked into auditions where I was told to camp it up. And even in particular, I was the host of The Great Canadian Baking Show, and in one of the early reviews a Canadian critic criticized my 'feyness.' And you realize we have been exposed to subliminal homophobia in so many different ways. The audition scenes were quite triggering when I was going through them, because you think back to those moments where there was really not a lot of finesse when it came to what the casting directors wanted from me. It was made very clear. And it's a strange, sad, scary thing."
Levy brings a moving authenticity to the role, and the across-the-board talent attached to the project was both a boon and a worry for Rudnick, who points out that they're all gifted enough to make even mediocre material sound great. "It became a question of listening and not taking advantage of their skills on every level," he says with a laugh. "Discover exactly what's working, what needs to be taken further, what needs to be eliminated. It was very distilled. That's what writers dream of! And that you have that cast at your fingertips? You get to say, 'Kaitlyn Dever, do this.' And she does!
Filmed entirely in quarantine with the performers alone in a room, the actors delivered what Roach calls "pure high-wire single takes."
He points to Midler's innate abilities as a prime example. "She's so much about—as a musician, as a performer—the interaction. And even on sets, there's someone who can let you know how it's going. That's the brilliance of her showmanship: to be that wound up and hilarious and angry and coming to an epiphany with no ability to tell if any of it's working. We'd get to the end and she'd say, 'How was that?'"
"And we would be doing the equivalent of howling and standing ovations with shrieks of pleasure!" Rudnick adds, delightedly.