With 20 nominations, HBO’s The White Lotus is the most honored limited or anthology series at this year’s Emmys, with eight of those noms for various members of its ensemble cast. Two standouts of that impressive bunch are Murray Bartlett, who plays the chipper hotel manager Armond as he combusts on a shocking drug-fueled spiral, and Jake Lacy, who plays Shane, a trust-fund baby with a bad attitude who complains after he and his new wife (fellow nominee Alexandra Daddario) are placed in the wrong luxury suite.
The series takes place almost entirely within the confines of the titular five-star resort, where questions of class, race, family and sexuality are all explored in humorous, deeply nuanced and provocative ways. Creating the show was a unique experience — the cast and crew stayed at the Four Seasons in Hawaii in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, as HBO tasked showrunner Mike White with creating a project that could be filmed within the constraints of quarantining.
The result is a frightfully contentious clash between Bartlett’s Armond and Lacy’s Shane, grounded in both actors’ carefully calibrated, consistently heightening tension that eventually boils over into one of the most shocking, satisfying TV finales of all time.
Speaking to THR, the two character actors unpack the fun of playing the dynamic that White wrote for them, their gratitude for such a unique on-set experience, and what it was like figuring out just how to film some of their most — er, intimate — scenes together.
There’s tension the whole time, but you’re able to build it over the course of the episodes. How do you calibrate that arc so it’s not one-note?
MURRAY BARTLETT There was a calibration process that happened with Mike, where in my first scene — and I think this has happened to a couple of other actors — he got me to do it a million ways, because we’d never worked together. We’d barely spoken. It was COVID, and I thought I was just getting it all wrong and couldn’t give him what he wanted. Maybe that’s true, but there was also another piece of it, which was him getting to know what the character was, the way that I was going to play it, pushing me in different directions to just get a sense of who I am as an actor. I remember coming up to Jake afterward and being like, “Whoa, that was really intense.” I remember you put me at ease. You were like, “Yeah, he’s doing that to all of us.” And I was like, “OK, so I can stop — or mitigate — my spiral into insecurity.”
JAKE LACY [The first scene we shot together] was the room switch. You’re saying, “We do have another suite, there’s an extra toilet, but there’s no ocean view.” I remember we did that a bunch. We shot in blocks, because of COVID concerns. Alex and I shot for, like, 10 days straight when we first got there. I had been through the same — Mike being like, “Dial it all the way up, dial it all the way down.” [I’d] had the benefit of filming for just a few days beforehand with him, and there is this calibration happening, but also it feels like that result is really fulfilling. I didn’t feel distrustful. I wasn’t like, “Oh, this is a mess. We’re doing it 1,000 different ways and no one knows what’s going on.” It was like, “Oh, no, he knows exactly what options he wants to have.” The tension, I think, is built in that edit, is them selecting the best versions of what Mike had us do and piecing it together. I know in our early scenes, narratively, I was coming in a little hot, and he had to be like, “Hey, you’re just a guy on vacation. We’ll get to you being an asshole in a bit. You don’t need to come in guns blazing.” If you start coming in being like, “Give me my fucking room!”, there’s just nowhere to go.
BARTLETT I do remember in our first scene together, you coming at me like a bull. I found that really exciting. We came knowing that shit, raring to go. And even though I think you’re right, we had to find the levels, there was something really fantastic about that. Mike had to put the muzzle on us, which is a great way to go with those scenes, and they’re some of my favorite scenes in the show. You can always feel that they’re growling at each other, ready to rip each other’s throat out.
How do you unpack that class dynamic between the characters?
LACY A lot of the characteristics or circumstances that separate us, as characters, are really in the writing. In a way, I’m able to leave it to the writing — and to that I look like a WASP-y dick. Between the polo shirt and the Cornell hat, that informs or fleshes out the facts of who you’ve learned Shane is, in terms of being born with a silver spoon, and [having] inherited this position of commercial real estate scion’s son. So, really, any of that stuff is fulfilled on my end by going after these objectives, which is just to get this room. And to crush this guy along the way.
BARTLETT Somehow, even though you may not identify as these characters, there are pieces of those characters in all of us, and Mike maneuvers it in a way that you can relate to all of them, even in just a moment. It’s enough to pull you in and not distance you from them. I feel like I did bring a lot to it, but I also feel like I’ve been embarrassed taking credit because it was beautiful on the page. For me, a character like Armond was probably always bullied by characters like Shane throughout his life. I didn’t totally have that experience as a kid, fortunately, but there were moments of it, and I saw other people being the victim of that, and so plugging into that, it was a very recognizable setup to me.
The big scenes between the two of you that come to mind are when Jake walks in on Armond having sex with Dillon (Lukas Gage), and then at the end — the stabbing, the poop. What was filming those scenes like?
LACY Where I walk in on Murray and Lukas engaged in various positions, various fun … That stuff gets so technical, both the comedy of it and the camera of it, and it’s so fulfilling to me to work out these small things. There’s a handful of takes where [Belinda, played by Natasha Rothwell] tries to close the door, and I hold it open to see what’s going on. We probably did that 15 times, just to be like, “What do you like? What do you want to have in the edit?”
BARTLETT Finding what would be a [sex] position that was most shocking for these people to walk in on was really fun. Working with Lukas, who is awesome and has pretty fluid boundaries in a great way — we were like, “What can we do?” We went to Mike and said, “What about this?” He had this sort of devilish grin on his face. He was like, “Can we do that?” Yes, we can. The scene at the end, the shitting death scene, it felt like shooting a French farce. There was this whole dance, and it was really fun.
Did you film that close to the end of the shoot? Was it a catharsis of the conflict finally ending?
BARTLETT We were supposed to [shoot] something else that day. I think someone had a COVID positive test [and production rescheduled this scene] early. Which was great, in a way. Not that I’ve ever had this experience before, but, like, you don’t overthink shitting in a suitcase.
LACY Because we were living where we work, it felt a little easier to go, “OK, we’ll do this now. It’s one floor away from where I live.” I just love Murray, and loved working with him from the jump, and so any of the tension and animosity and quiet cruelty that these two have toward one another, at least for myself … my comfort level to express those things in a genuine way is actually a result of being very comfortable and safe with Murray and being like, “Oh, you can be as ugly as you want to be or as subtle as you want to be, and he’ll be present to it and pick it up.” I didn’t feel a catharsis of “Oh, finally this tension is done.” It just felt fulfilling to work on that and create that thing together. I just wanted that on the record, that I love working with you, Murray.
BARTLETT It’s a singular experience that we will probably never have again. It was insane to the point where I felt guilty talking to people about it, because I thought, “How can I be having one of the best experiences of my life with this extraordinarily talented, wonderful group of people, and everyone else is in a pandemic?” It felt unfair to me, but at the same time, I would honestly wake up every morning and look out the window at palm trees and almost cry, like, “Oh my God, what did I do to deserve this?” I am just so happy. I would bounce out of bed and go poop in a suitcase.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.