The show centers around five characters from New York and Los Angeles coping with politics and the pandemic.
Midler plays Miriam Nessler, a long-time teacher in the New York City public school system, who loves her students, the New York Times and the theater, who finds herself in police custody.
Speaking as part of HBO’s virtual CTAM press tour, Midler said that she identified strongly with the character. “It was cathartic but not cathartic enough because I’m still in a state of rage and anxiety,” she said.
The Beaches and Hello, Dolly! star admitted it was a “completely bizarre” experience shooting under quarantine protocols. “[The crew] cleaned, they kept their distance, they did everything they had to do. I felt very well taken care of. I’m so paranoid because I’m so old… so I felt I was in superb hands. Every question I had, was taken care of and I got a free COVID test out of it so it was win-win.”
She added, “When the work comes, we’re happy to do it, but it’s like we’re on some sort of spaceship and we don’t know where the spaceship is going,” she added.
The quarantine production challenges were echoed by Sarah Paulson, who plays Clarissa Montgomery, a YouTube personality filming episode 28 of her Mindful Meditations, hoping to soothe, inspire and heal her followers. She said that it was a “little frightening” and “complicated” to have seven people in her backyard filming.
The special was written by Paul Rudnick and directed by Jay Roach. Originally conceived for the Public Theater in New York, Coastal Elites moved from the stage to the screen at the beginning of the pandemic. “What I found was so right for this was that it provides an intimacy with these characters. I started writing Coastal Elites over a year ago, when I realised everyone I knew was angry and heartbroken and concerned about the future of our country and I was trying to figure a way into that material. These were people who demanded to be heard. It was an exploration,” said Rudnick.
Elsewhere, Kaitlyn Dever stars as Sharynn Tarrows, a young nurse from Wyoming who flies to New York to volunteer at a hospital at the height of the area’s COVID-19 crisis, Dan Levy stars as Mark Hesterman, a young actor in West Hollywood videoconferencing with his therapist at a moment of peak career and personal stress and Issa Rae plays Callie Josephson, a well-connected philanthropist whose prep school network leads her to the highest levels of government.
Rudnick teased that he’d be open to writing more Coastal Elites when the country comes out of lockdown, saying that reality outstrips satire right now. “There will always be more to write up,” he said. “I will keep reacting. I can’t wait to see what will happen next. There’s way too much material out there. Should there, ever be a second [special], I hope we won’t be in little boxes. It’s going to feel like a trip to Mars if you’re suddenly in the room with everybody else.”