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Interview: Murray Bartlett on Reflecting Real-Life Hospitality and Interacting with Every Character on ‘The White Lotus’

HBO’s The White Lotus is described as a social satire, featuring a group of wealthy guests at a Hawaiian resort. The man who greets them all is Armond (Murray Bartlett), the resort manager who seems charming but has an edge that begins to show itself more and more as each new issue with a guest or member of his staff arises.

Awards Radar had the chance to speak with Bartlett about the benefits of being able to share scenes with everyone else in the cast and the prospect of doing season after season of this Mike White series.

Q: I have to know – have you ever worked in hospitality, and if so, how true to life is this show?

A: I have, yeah. I mean, I think if you talk to anyone who works in hospitality, it’s not far from the truth. Obviously, most people generally are lovely and treat you like a human being, and then there’s this smaller percentage of people who can be incredibly obnoxious and demanding. I think we’ve all probably if not acted on the impulse certainly had the impulse to be obnoxious in situations where we feel like we deserve something. I think this show is kind of like a warning for us against those aspects of ourselves.

Q: But I do like that Armond also has his own personality, and while he’s sometimes nice, he doesn’t always lead with that impulse. Maybe that’s a nice way of putting it. What appealed to you about this character?

A: So much. Mike White is a genius, basically. He started writing the scripts in August and we started shooting in October. So that gives you a little insight into what a genius he is because the scripts were brilliant when we got them and the characters were already incredibly complicated, complex characters. Reading these scripts and being blown away by them, the opportunity to play a character that has such a rollercoaster ride throughout the arc of the story. I love a lot of things about this character. One of the things I think is an obvious example is the public face that we present and the other inward part of us that can be at great odds or polar opposite to each other. It’s such an amazing manifestation of that in this character that his job is to present this perfect public face, where everything’s good, and everything’s working. But he’s got this very rich and complicated and quite dark inner life bubbling away underneath, so how do you balance those things? I love the opportunity to play those two sides of a character. They’re all so three-dimensional and believable. One of the things I love about all these characters, and Armond is no exception, is that there are moments where you feel for them, you’re like, oh, you know, they’re actually a really good person. And then the next minute you’re like, oh my god, they’re a monster! I think that’s sort of close to who we can be as human beings.

Q: How do you become attached to the show?

A: I just auditioned. I sent in a self-tape. It was during the pandemic so there wasn’t any in-person stuff.  I sent in my audition, I had auditioned for the casting woman for many years and she’s a great friend of Mike’s and she put forward my audition. I had a five-minute conversation with Mike and then I was on the plane to Hawaii. So it was very surreal. Not only just that quite quick process, but also the fact that it was in the middle of a pandemic and suddenly I was being whisked off to Hawaii to work with this amazing group of people on this really fantastic show with these incredible scripts. It was not something that I felt comfortable talking to a lot of people about because it felt unfair. First of all, that I had a job in the pandemic, which was so unexpected, and then the job was this, in this fancy, beautiful place. It was a pretty incredible, surreal experience.

Q: I feel like you have the best role in a lots of ways because you get to interact with every character. I want to ask you about all of them, but first, do you have a favorite character?

A: I think that’s an amazing thing about this show. I’ve watched it all and what is amazing is that it’s all these interconnecting stories and you jump off one to another and while you’re missing or you don’t want to let go of one, you’re excited to come to the next one. It’s an amazing cast, and there are no dips in the story. I feel like I love and relate to and despise all the characters equally. It’s so well-balanced in that way.

Q: Let’s start with your most contentious relationship. I spoke to Jake Lacy earlier this week and he said that you had to get along in real life because if you didn’t, it would just be mean in the way that you guys interact with each other. So what can you say about your real-life relationship with Jake and about playing Armond and Shane together?

A: That’s so interesting. I didn’t think of that. Yeah, luckily we got along well in life. We were all so excited to work on the show, and I think Jake and I probably work a little similarly in that we possibly over-prepare in terms of coming to set like ready to go. And so we came to set, and I remember the first scene and we were like rabid dogs, ready to go. It was this feeling like we were meeting each other at the same sort of energy level in terms of what we were bringing to the table. It was like having a sparring match, like fencing with someone, with an opponent that was giving as much as each other was giving. It was really exciting to work with him on this stuff and very enjoyable because the conflict between these two is so clear. You go into those scenes and they both want polar opposite things, and there’s no way that either of them are going to give each other what they want. So it’s kind of perfect conflict for actors. On one level, it’s never satisfying because they never get what they want. But as actors, it’s so satisfying because the conflict is alive.

Q: I think with Jennifer Coolidge and Steve Zahn, the interactions you have with them, they don’t have nearly as much of a sense of how you’re talking to them. They’re much more naive about your intentions and even when you’re saying things to them that aren’t as nice as they sound. What can you say about working with them?

A: I think those characters are just oblivious to the people serving them to a certain extent. They’re just like, yeah, whatever, get me my vodka, that sort of thing. I think that’s probably where that comes from. There’s an equal amount of frustration with me, Armond, dealing with those characters as with Shane. But it’s more subtle, it’s not as combative, because they’re just in their own worlds, and you can’t really reach them. They want whatever they want. As you said, I was the lucky one in this show, in that my character got to dip into all these stories. It’s an incredible group of actors. I’m a huge fan of Steve Zahn and Jennifer Coolidge. Jennifer Coolidge is difficult to not just want to watch her in this thing because she’s so awesome and she’s so brilliant and so spontaneous. That was just sort of dreamy. Steve is such a lovely guy and so relaxed and easy to be around and so funny. We got some really great scenes together, and he’s just a really good actor, obviously. Back to Mike White again, these scenes were written so well, and I got to work with these amazing actors. You can really mine those scenes and find all these different moments in them. I know it’s sort of cliché, but it was really awesome working with everybody on this show. And I think partly that came from that we all started on a great note where we were like, oh my god, we’re so lucky to be in this thing with this wonderful group of people that also turned out to be lovely people. We’re all in.

Q: You also get to share scenes with the resort staff, particularly Natasha and Lukas. Was there some sort of onset divide between the actors playing staff and the actors playing guests? You have a much more honest rapport with their characters.

A: Yeah, definitely. It’s funny in some ways how I think naturally your off-screen time with people mirrors some of the elements of what your onscreen time with them is as characters. And I think that’s probably a subconscious, maybe semiconscious sort of thing. With Natasha, I wanted to spend time with her because I just feel like there’s a comfort level that I wanted to have with her. I mean, she’s a great actor, so she’s going to bring that anyway. But while we’ve got the opportunity, let’s sit down and get to know each other a bit so that we can really try and make that kind of honesty between those two characters ring true. I think you kind of look for those things. What do I have to explore with this person, as well as we were on this kind of weird surreal amazing summer camp together so mostly all of us swam on the beach at the end of the day. So you’re creating this rapport but you’re also I think subconsciously mining the aspects of your off-screen relationship with what you’re working with in the scenes. Does that make sense? Does that answer your question?

Q: Yes, it does. And from what I understand from speaking to some of your fellow actors, you were staying in and quarantining in a hotel. Was it a meta experience at all filming this Hawaiian resort thing while staying there? Did anything influence your own performance from your experience staying there during that time?

A: Yeah, it completely influenced it. I mean, it was a very, very surreal experience to be living and working in the same place with everybody. It creates a different kind of bond amongst the cast, because you don’t go away really to your own world. You’re all locked in together, but also you’re in that environment and you’re seeing it. It was mostly or partly shut down at the resort while we there, until towards the end and it opened up a bit more. But you’re seeing the staff and then eventually seeing guests come and recognizing some of the elements of some of the characters. It was really bizarre. It kind of merges life and work in a really great way, I think. It really anchors you in the environment in a different way, and all these different things occur to you. For me, watching the staff and hearing their tone. Not that they’re anything like my character. But there’s elements there of the dynamics that exist in that environment that you can’t picking up on when you’re it, so we were lucky in that way.

Q: I know this show intended as a limited series. Would you revisit this character if given the opportunity?

A: Oh my god! I mean, of course. It was an incredible experience. It’s an amazing character, an amazing opportunity for me to play this character. It’s so different from anything that I’ve played for a long time. Mike White is just a dream to work with. He created, wrote, directed this, and that’s also a unique experience because he’s right there with you and you can make tweaks, not that there was that much to tweak since the scripts were so brilliant. But yeah, I would jump back in in a second. It was so fun and he creates this amazing feeling of play on set that is addictive. You just want to do it all the time. I mean, if we could just have season after season after season of White Lotus, I’d be a happy man.

Q: I would watch it for sure. Do you have any other projects coming up?

A: I do! I’m doing another limited series with HBO called The Last of Us.

Q: What can you say about that? Are you not supposed to say anything?

A: Not a lot. Except I’m really excited. It’s a great cast and it’s an amazing team working on it. I’m super excited. The scripts are great. I love what I get to do in it, but yeah, unfortunately, I can’t give you any more detail.

Q: Is there anything I haven’t asked you about The White Lotus that I haven’t asked you think enthusiastic fans of the show might find interesting to know?

A: Oh gosh. (long pause, laughter) I don’t know, all I can say is just, buckle up. It’s a wild ride, but I think it’s worth it. You’ll hopefully belly laugh but be forced to kind of self-reflect. That’s, again, the brilliance of Mike White. He makes us look at ourselves in a way that makes us laugh but also is a bit of a knife in the gut, and I think we could probably do with that right now.

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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