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‘Coastal Elites’: HBO’s Scripted Pandemic Series Zooms in on Monologues

The show — written before the pandemic, but filmed during — stars Sarah Paulson, Kaitlyn Dever, Issa Rae, Bette Midler, and Dan Levy.

Bette Midler

Bette Midler in “Coastal Elites”

HBO

HBO’s new series “Coastal Elites” is built for these times — literally. A group of disparate characters come together via Zoom to vent their rage, frustration, and fear in the hopes of helping a world suffering those same emotions.

For screenwriter Paul Rudnick, he wrote the “Coastal Elites” script a year ago before the pandemic started, “when I realized everyone I knew was angry and heartbroken on every side of the political divide,” he said during the show’s Summer Television Critics Association virtual panel on Wednesday.

He’d been following how some entertainment entities were utilizing Zoom, whether that be for unscripted television or dramatic readings, but hadn’t witnessed it in a scripted show. “It provides a kind of intimacy, that you had a one-on-one experience with these characters,” he said. “These were people who demanded to be heard.” Having a Zoom series, focusing on the actors’ faces and their emotions, appeared to lend itself to the material.

Since he worked on the script prior to the crisis that is 2020, it would seem he’d have a lot of revision to do but that wasn’t the case. “One of the great advantages of filming so in the moment…was that I could weave both the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests into the material,” he said. “I so welcome the opportunity to say ‘Okay, let the world in’ and see how it informs these lives.”

Issa Rae

Isaa Rae in “Coastal Elites”

HBO

Director Jay Roach sent all the actors the scripts and believed they’d be drawn to it since everyone was in the same situation, staying at home under quarantine. For Roach, Zoom was the one chance “I have to connect and commiserate” with others, he said. He pictured the actors playing to the camera and believed everyone could empathize with the characters and relate to their plight. Roach has “a perfect political pitch and control of tone,” Rudnick said, and he felt the cast was on the same level.

The actors all joke that while they weren’t looking for work to do via Zoom, “the fact that it was shooting at home was certainly helpful,” Dan Levy said. Levy had never done monologue work outside of high school theater, and he had to not only learn his lines but simultaneously figure out “where the acting happened.” Considering his character is an actor struggling with stereotyping Levy said he mined his own experiences to use for his performance.

“For me this was an education, because I try to avoid as much about the Trump family as possible,” Issa Rae said. Rae found Ivanka Trump fascinating, but not in a way she wanted “to listen to her” for long periods of time, and upon doing more research on the family Rae says she walked away more horrified.

For her part, Bette Midler says it was unlike anything she’d ever done. “I’d done a long monologue before,” she said, in “I’ll Eat You Last” on Broadway. “The hardest part was the connection between me and the person I was talking to,” she said. She did joke that she believed Rudnick had written the part specifically for her. “I identified very, very strongly with this character,” she said. “For me, it was cathartic,” though Midler admits she’s still in a state of rage and anxiety.

Sarah Paulson didn’t find filming under quarantine freeing. “For me, the connection with the other actors — the thing I’m usually the most interested in and inspired by — not having that…it was strange,” she said. The actress said she missed conversing not just with her fellow cast members but the crew as well. That being said, having a small group of crew in her backyard did raise her paranoia level a little bit. “I thought was actually going to be less nervous doing a monologue in the comfort of my own home,” said Kaitlyn Dever, but it was the opposite.

But Midler stresses that the process of filming the series left her feeling as safe as could be. “I felt very well taken care of,” she said. “Every question that I had was answered and I got a free Covid test out of it! It was win-win all around.” But, for Midler, even discussing the process of filming in a pandemic shows the flaws in the nature of Hollywood itself. “People used to say showbiz was Depression-proof” and this proves it isn’t. “Now we’ve discovered we’re all out of work,” she said.

Rudnick says he isn’t ruling out the possibility of a second season of “Coastal Elites” down the road. Being so close to an election and with so much tumult still happening “there will always be more to write about,” he says. “I’ll keep reacting and we’ll see what happens next; I’m terrified of what happens next.”

“Coastal Elites” airs on HBO September 12.

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