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Interview: Brittany O’Grady on Her Layered Character, Casual Racism, and a Great Cast in ‘The White Lotus’

HBO’s The White Lotus is described as a social satire, featuring a group of wealthy guests at a Hawaiian resort. Among them is Paula (Brittany O’Grady), who is accompanying her best friend Olivia (Sydney Sweeney) and her family on their vacation. While she spends most of her time laying out by the pool and joining Olivia in bullying her younger brother, there’s more to Paula than meets the eye.

Awards Radar had the chance to speak with O’Grady about the opportunity to work with great people, tackling uncomfortable subjects through satire, and whether her parents like the series.

Q: How did you hear about The White Lotus and what drew you to the role?

A: It was during quarantine last year, and I got an audition for, I think it was an untitled Mike White project at the time, so we didn’t know that it was called White Lotus. And I saw the script and I got the audition for Paula, and saw that she had this tit-for-tat with a friend of hers at a resort and I was kind of trying to figure out where the storyline was going. But I just had so much fun doing the audition and when I saw that it was written by Mike White, I was so excited. I’m a really big fan of his movie that he wrote, Beatriz at Dinner, and the story and the dialogue and it all really touched me, so I was just excited to even have the opportunity to audition for him. And I got lucky enough to be a part of it, so that was really exciting.

Q: So what’s your read on Paula? She seems like she picks up the personalities of the people around her, which in the case of Olivia means being very mean to her younger brother and seeming stuck-up. But that changes as we get to know more about her. What do you think?

A: Paula’s interesting. I think with the storyline and how it progresses, these layers unravel with her, and her relationships with people around her at the White Lotus, and her relationship with Olivia. And as she starts to discover a little bit more about how she feels in this environment, I think a lot of truth comes to light. So I think that depth of Paula was always there but I think that she was potentially living this life of comfort and fun and connection in solidarity with someone – we decided they met in college – and I think in those times you are trying to find where you are in life, and feeling comfortable and feeling empowered. And I think that kind of comes crumbling down for her throughout the episodes. It’s so interesting with characters. I kind of piece them together and still there is mystery at the end of the day and trying to figure out who they are, but I just go moment by moment with the emotion of portraying who they are in their interactions. I guess that’s where my brain goes. I guess that’s the brain of an actor, maybe.

Q: This show portrays a lot of casual racism and classist attitudes. Do you think satire is a good vehicle to explore those topics?

A: Yeah, I think there’s a lot of ways to explore the topic, and I think that it’s definitely a tool to really make a point at how racism and classism affects people and how casual it is in everyday life. So I definitely think that it’s a different way of approaching and tackling that sort of area. And I think that The White Lotus does a really good job, and it’s very casual and nuanced and cringey at times and uncomfortable, which a lot of times, it is very uncomfortable when someone says something classist to racist or ignorant or homophobic or just things are completely out of touch. So it does really grab them to the reality of that.

Q: I think the word ‘cringe’ is a good one because that’s what Olivia uses when her mom just doesn’t get the point of, she said something she shouldn’t have said and then just doubles down and tries to keep going with it. Without giving too much away, is it nice for Paula to have a chance to speak up for herself and to point out that people are saying things they shouldn’t be saying?

A: I think so, and I think a lot of times it is really uncomfortable and difficult to point out when something is disrespectful or out of touch. That’s one thing I did admire about the character, that she did not leave room for acceptance for that sort of commentary or belief, and that was something that I had to tap into for myself, because it’s really interesting what you learn from characters. I really did admire that about Paula. She’s very blunt about it. She does not care what people think and she doesn’t care about rubbing people the wrong way or making people uncomfortable, and that was kind of fun playing her too.

Q: In terms of real-life experiences, have you ever tagged along on another family’s vacation, and have you ever been so mean to a friend’s younger brother?

A: Oh gosh. I think the only time I’ve been mean to someone’s younger brother was my own. Sorry, Mikey. But no. I have tagged on with vacations with friends and had a lot of fun, and family friends and stuff. We usually have a good time. Maybe funny things here and there, something maybe weird happens, I don’t know. But nothing as dramatic as The White Lotus.

Q: I’d love to hear about your relationship with some of your co-stars, particularly Sydney Sweeney and Connie Britton, what it was like to work with them.

A: Oh my gosh. I get so excited to work with such talented actors, especially that are up-and-coming and have such a great body of work. And Sydney has a great body of work. I loved her work in Euphoria and being able to work with someone who has such a great work ethic and someone who plays these characters in such a vulnerable way. I was really excited to be able to work with her and to be able to create this relationship with her even though the characters do kind of have their ending in some sort of way or kind of a little cliffhanger. But also I love Connie Britton’s work. I’ve grown up watching her so when I heard that I got the role and heard that Connie was going to be a part of it and so many other actors who are a part of this, I was really excited. It’s really cool to meet young women, women who have a more seasoned career, and to have the opportunity to see how they work and how they operate, and how they portray a character. So that was really exciting.

Q: And you do have a bit of an opportunity to interact with some of the other guests. What was your favorite plotline or group of people to jump into, and is there any storyline or group that you wish you would have been able to interact with but just wasn’t part of the script?

A: You know, it’s so interesting. I think that I loved Jennifer and Natasha’s dynamic a lot. We’ll be at dinner, the dinner table’s here and their dinner table’s there. I loved their dynamic and figuring that out, and I wish that there was a little bit more interaction with them. I think that was a lot of fun. I’m trying to think who else. I loved their relationships and maybe some sort of something here and there would have been really cool.

Q: What was it like to film in Hawaii?

A: Oh, it was beautiful. I felt really fortunate. I felt a bit of guilt too because I think that there are a lot of people who were suffering. A lot of darkness was going on in 2020 and so I wanted to give some sort of gratitude and awareness to how privileged we were to be able to be filming a television show in a very beautiful place like Maui. And I think the Hawaiian culture is so giving, in a way that is so giving that people take advantage of it. To be able to experience a piece of the culture in such a dark time, even though we were in a resort, and we had to stay there the whole time, I really did try to find gratitude every day and in this experience. We were just so fortunate, and we got to do it safely and get tested and it was humbling in a way, to be honest. I think I felt guilty or a sense of discomfort sometimes because it’s like, you were here filming a show and there are people who are not with a job. It was humbling. I could go on and on.

Q: It is arriving at an interesting time, as people are starting to venture out and those who are able to are taking vacations like this. I’m sure that, to some, it does seem excessive. But that’s also part of the point. These are people who would do this in a lot of cases even during a pandemic, if they were allowed to.

A: Yeah, yeah. There was definitely that sense of guilt, and wanting to do your part to make sure that every action that you take is for the better of the collective. I’m just glad to provide entertainment for people too, that people do need that. But I definitely had a bit of a pull within.

Q: Have you received any surprising reactions from friends or family to the show or to your role?

A: Yeah, I think my mom didn’t love the first episode, to be honest. My mom really loves Disney and happy-go-lucky things, and my dad is more like, he loves to watch Fargo and Six Feet Under and The Sopranos. So my mom had a little bit of difficulty getting through the first episode with some of the surprises there, but she watched it, which I was grateful for. And then a lot of family members, like family friends, I just feel so bashful sometimes when they see work that’s very crude, but they loved it. And people have been really enjoying it, which makes me very happy. So I am really excited that people are enjoying it so much.

Q: I would love to talk about one of your past roles. It’s been a full year since Little Voice premiered on Apple TV+. I haven’t heard anything. Do you know anything is? Is the show still alive? Is it coming back?

A: You know, I’m not sure if I’m allowed to say. But the spirit of the first season is very much alive and the music is still alive. Our relationships with the actors, we’re so close. I actually had Shalini, who played my roommate on the show, she just came over yesterday. We’re all very close. I got to see Phil, we have a very close bond still. That’s the beauty of that show. I’m honestly not sure if I’m allowed to say anything.

Q: I don’t want to get you in trouble. What else is coming up for you?

A: I did just finish filming a pilot for ABC. It’s called Epic. We’re waiting to hear if the network would like to continue that story. It’s a fairytale Disney show. Way more up my mom’s alley, so we’ll see. We’re waiting to hear back at the moment. I’m a little on pins and needles there, for sure.

The White Lotus is streaming on HBO Max, with new episodes premiering every Sunday at 9pm on HBO.

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Written by Abe Friedtanzer

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