Metro Weekly

White Lotus star Murray Bartlett talks artful intimacy, Jennifer Coolidge, and the importance of queer casting

Bartlett had a blast giving in to bad impulses as the gay manager of a tony resort on HBO's summer hit

Murray Bartlett, the white lotus
Murray Bartlett — Photo: Timothy Schirmang

In the midst of tropical paradise, at the height of a global pandemic, under a rigorous production schedule and COVID restrictions, the cast and crew of The White Lotus conjured magic. The HBO miniseries created, written, and directed by Enlightened co-creator Mike White filmed last fall at the Maui Four Seasons, assembling a choice cast for White’s biting satire of upper-class vacationers and the staff they readily torment, exploit, or ignore.

Surviving a couple of shutdown scares caused by false positive COVID tests, the show went from script to in-the-can in a matter of months. And, to top it off, says Murray Bartlett, who portrays Armond, the suddenly spiraling gay manager of the titular resort, “We had an incredible amount of fun.”

Bartlett, known for his role as sensitive aspiring restauranteur Dom Basaluzzo on HBO’s gay drama Looking, saw something special from the moment he laid eyes on The White Lotus. “When I read the script, [I was] like, ‘Oh my God, this is amazing,'” recalls the Sydney-born actor. “You’d have to really mess up to fuck up that script.”

In fact, Bartlett and co-stars Connie Britton, Steve Zahn, Jennifer Coolidge, Natasha Rothwell, Jake Lacy, Alexandra Daddario, and Molly Shannon, more than do justice to what White put on the page. The White Lotus captures with laser-sharp insight the fraught dynamic of power-plays and pettiness that pervades even the smallest interaction between the resort’s affluent guests and anyone they deem to be not on their level. Bartlett’s Armond, whom the actor describes as “a total control freak,” appears at first to be the consummate resort host, trying his best to appease every need of his guests. But one honest mistake in a guest room booking, plus a misplaced bag of prescription pills, set the recovering addict on the road to completely unraveling.

Armond engages in his share of bad behavior, on par with demanding resort guests like Lacy’s stubborn prick Shane. Tension brews slowly but surely with every episode, as the characters, like lobsters in a pot, heat up to boiling. Bartlett credits writer-director White with keeping a steady hand on the flame.

“I think Mike White is kind of a genius,” he says. “The complexity of the characters, the way that it kind of slowly burns, the fact that I think that he packs so many pertinent issues that we’re looking at as a society into the show — I don’t feel like [he’s] banging you over the head with it, I feel like it’s just interwoven. I love the way that it builds, and especially the way my character builds, because he is very much set up as something in the beginning — I think very consciously by Mike — and then it’s revealed gradually what’s going on underneath for him. I love that kind of writing. I think it’s really smart.”

To his credit, White praises his cast for bringing so much to the characters beyond what was on the page. “I didn’t realize what a comedian he was,” says White of Bartlett. “He’s obviously a gifted actor, but there was something really funny about his audition and I was like, ‘I think this guy might be really funny too.’ And then he got to the set, and he’s just so nuanced and he has such a facility to go back and forth between hitting the dramatic aspects of the character to finding the absurdity. And he’s not afraid to look ridiculous. So he has all the elements of an actor that I’m looking for, someone who can do that blend of tone, of the unlikable one minute and then very empathetic the next.”

Bartlett relished the opportunity to play that duality of Armond, pointing out, “I think the interesting thing about all these characters is they can have moments of self-awareness, but then they turn around and do something shitty to someone.” Essentially, the show thrives on that potential we all have to be our better or worse selves, as with Armond, who sometimes loses the battle.

“He’s very much a casualty of the sort of obnoxious, entitled sort of people who he has to serve,” observes Bartlett. “But then he turns around and treats the people under him like crap at times. He does have enough self-awareness at times to be like, ‘This is fucked. And I’m caught up in it. I can’t believe that I’m becoming one of these people that treats people like shit.’ And then he gets back on his treadmill of doing what he does.”

the white lotus, murray bartlett
The White Lotus: Murray Bartlett

METRO WEEKLY: Looking at characters on the show other than Armond, do you recognize aspects of yourself in any of them?

MURRAY BARTLETT: That’s one of the things that I love about this show is that, if we’re honest, we can recognize all of these characters inside of us, and that makes it really confronting. It made it confronting to read, and it was one of the things I loved about it. I was like, “Shit, I unfortunately recognize….” Hopefully I never act on some of the impulses that these characters act on, but I think when we find ourselves in positions of privilege or power — and I don’t mean like being the president, I mean just being waited on or some sort of simple situation, like at the deli — and we feel kind of entitled, we have to be mindful of the fact that we can turn into monsters.

I think that’s what this show is holding the mirror up to, that these characters are all aspects that live inside of us. So yeah, unfortunately they all live inside me. But I try to favor the better sides of my nature. I don’t know what the better sides are, but the more compassionate, loving, kinder, just treating human beings with some sense of humility and kindness sides. That’s the power of this show — it holds a mirror up to all those uglier sides of human nature that we all have in us.

MW: One of those aspects of human nature that I think the show hits upon really well is the way people who have money can use it to manipulate or try to control others. If we’re talking about that aspect of these characters, are they bad actors or are they just responding to the conditions of their life? As born-rich guy Shane says, he’s just playing the hand he’s been dealt.

BARTLETT: Yeah, you can say that, but then what? So that justifies you being a total dick and treating people like shit? No. We all have to look at the hand that we’re dealt and deal with it. But hopefully do it the best way that we can, and not let it turn us into the worst aspects of ourselves.

I think that there’s positives and negatives that come with any kind of situation in life. Some circumstances put us in touch with our humility. Some circumstances put us in touch with our arrogance or our entitlement. And I think we all just have to look at that, and try and be the best people that we are, and not use our circumstances as a reason to be horrible people, and be unkind and uncompassionate.

What’s the point of living, really? Shouldn’t we be trying to be the best versions of ourselves? I think it’s an interesting thing that Shane says, because yeah, if you’re born into terrible circumstances, you can say, “Well, I got dealt this horrible hand and so I’m a victim.” And that’s legitimate. But do you then let that crush you, or do you figure out a way to rise up? And the other side — so you’re super wealthy, do you use your money to fly into space, or do you use it to end world hunger? [Laughs.] I mean, it’s a difficult question, isn’t it?

The White Lotus: Murray Bartlett, Jolene Purdy, Natasha Rothwell, Lukas Gage
The White Lotus: Murray Bartlett, Jolene Purdy, Natasha Rothwell, Lukas Gage

MW: On the show, we learn a bit about Armond’s past and that he’s recovering. But how do you think that Armond came to be the manager at the White Lotus? Where did he come from and how did he get here?

BARTLETT: There was some more backstory for the character in the script that fell away, but it was really useful for me. And that backstory was that he had wanted to be an actor. So my fantasy of him was what was partly in the script — that he wanted to be an actor and that didn’t work out. So he worked on cruise ships as sort of entertainment director and doing musical theater. This is all made up in my mind, but I relate to it because I’ve seen this trajectory that happens, and I also relate to it because I’m an actor and I wonder what I would have done if I couldn’t have been an actor.

So he found himself in that position and then was in that world. And then I think he got to this point because he’s kind of an actor — like the ringleader or the showman in this situation. He’s on, he’s acting for all these guests, and he’s kind of maneuvering this whole fantasy that they’re living out on their vacation. I think in terms of his job and everything, that’s how he got there.

It’s performative, his job, and so he really relates to that and he loves that aspect of it. But I think he’s incredibly frustrated. I think in terms of his internal life, he got to the place where he’s at in the show because he’s got unfulfilled dreams: he wanted to be an actor. And he’s performing for all these entitled, really obnoxious people. After a few decades of that, that’s got to eat away at you.

This is the world that he exists in. And the world that we exist in is how we see the world. Eventually, we think it becomes our reality, and so I think he’s like, “What the fuck? How did I get here?” And he’s at an age where he’s probably stuck there. He probably feels like he can’t make other choices. I think it’s a collision of those things that brings him to this point of trying to hold onto the showman thing while his inner life is splintering. He fell off the wagon of his sobriety five years previously and managed to climb back on, but he’s holding on by a thread when we get to him in the beginning of the show, so it doesn’t take much to topple him over the edge.

MW: In general, Armond’s a likable guy, but he is dead wrong about some of the things he does. What do you like about him? Because I know actors like to like the people they’re playing.

BARTLETT: I mean, I feel for him. I’ve always been a bit of a people pleaser, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a good trait. I mean, it is in some ways, but I relate to that. That’s his job. And so I relate to the frustration of that at times, when you put yourself in a situation where you give yourself kind of lower status, like, “I’m going to do everything to make you feel good,” and then people walk all over you a little bit. I know what that feels like. Not so much these days, but particularly as a younger person and a younger actor.

Also, Armond’s an amazing character for an actor because he has this rollercoaster ride, so that’s exciting. The amazing thing about Mike White is that in certain situations he doesn’t hold back and his characters don’t hold back. So the ability to follow through on an impulse in such an intense way is very satisfying. It’s something that often we don’t get to do in life — that’s super satisfying as an actor to be able to do that. I mean, it’s such a great setup of this character who is the showman. He has to show this public face, but inside, he’s got this rich inner life that’s tumultuous. There’s a lot of struggle and pain there, his own personal demons.

I think that’s something that we can all relate to, to a certain extent, of the public face that you have, and then what you’re really feeling on the inside. So I think he’s a great manifestation of that.

I also feel like he’s a manifestation of a lot of the frustrations that I felt about the way our society is structured, especially the things that have come to the fore in the last year and a half during the pandemic. And I think in these moments of self-awareness that he has, he’s like a casualty of this system that puts rich and/or entitled people at the top, people of color and service industry people at the bottom, and the local people or indigenous people barely even in the picture. In my mind, I was like, “Oh, this is a person that is kind of torn apart by this whole thing, even if he’s not even aware of that, that’s what’s happening.” But that system, that hierarchy is messed up and it messes everybody up.

All these characters to a certain extent are victims of it, or are affected by it. Not so much the people at the top, but he is one character that really is kind of being driven mad by that system in a way.

MW: Speaking of Mike White, he created, wrote, directed and produced the show, which I imagine is not the experience on every show, having it all contained in one person. What’s it like to have that one person on the set all the time? Were you guys sticking to the script, were you improvising?

BARTLETT: It was awesome — and I don’t necessarily know whether it’s always awesome. It’s a great experience working with the person that is the creative source of the material. And maybe it’s not always, but Mike White is just awesome.

The scripts are amazing. I guess there were moments of improvisation and stuff, depending on the actors, but the scripts were incredible, like really incredible. He started writing them in August, and we started shooting in October, so it’s an incredible feat, not just to write that much material in that amount of time, but for it to be so tight and so good and so complex. All I can say is he’s brilliant.

He’s also a good man, so you want to be around him. He creates this atmosphere of play on sets. I mean, always in the beginning you’re a little terrified, and then once you get over that, with him it’s just play. You’re encouraged to play, and see what’s there and try things. And one of his things is that he wants everyone to have fun. I mean, what a great guiding principle, like, “I just want everyone to have fun.” Cool. So we did.

the white lotus, murray bartlett
Murray Bartlett — Photo: Timothy Schirmang

MW: And because we’re talking about fun, for me, Jennifer Coolidge and Natasha Rothwell are two of the funniest women in entertainment. Working with those two, which one is more likely to keep you cracking up on set all day?

BARTLETT: [Laughing.] What do you think? I agree with you, I think they’re both incredibly talented, smart, funny women and actors. Natasha as a person is funny and everything, but she’s directing, she’s writing, she’s doing a billion things, so I guess there’s more serious moments with her. She’s very engaged in a lot of things, so it’s cool talking to her because she’s got so much going on and she’s super creative.

Jennifer Coolidge is this just incredible person who is a joy to be around, and she’s naturally incredibly funny and naturally a storyteller. She doesn’t have that same sort of type-A personality that Natasha has — she’s a little more chaotic, in the best way. She’s just kind, and has got a lot more self-awareness than some of her characters have. While I didn’t get a lot of scenes with Jennifer, every scene that I had with her, it was difficult not to laugh, because she’s so brilliant.

I mean, I’m a huge fan of her, so I just had to stop myself. I had to keep bringing myself back into the scene, because I just want to watch what she’s doing, because she’s so great. Whereas with Natasha, it was easy to be in the scene because we’re two actors and we’re going at it, right? Whereas it’s a little harder with Jennifer, because she’s just, I don’t know, this different kind of person that you’re like, “Whoa, I don’t know how you exist, but I just love that you do.”

MW: I just read a profile of her that gave exactly that impression, of a wonderfully unique person who lives in that uniqueness every second.

BARTLETT: She’s just unapologetically herself, and I love that.

MW: In at least one scene, Armond gets a face full of another man’s derrière, which I think is funny in the moment, surprising, and also it reveals character. As we’re shown on a lot of shows, including Looking, sex lives and sexual situations do reveal character, even though there are a lot of people who feel they never need to see anything sexually explicit on-screen. What’s your take on how love scenes can reveal character and story?

BARTLETT: I mean, that’s what you always want. You want it to be progressing the story in a way that’s interesting. And they’re intimate moments, so the potential to reveal things about character and about relationship dynamic is so great in those situations.

I think in the scene that you are referring to there needs to be shock value for the people who are seeing it, and for the audience. And I think it’s shock value on many levels. It’s an act that is not familiar to a lot of people, and I love at times when intimate situations can be surprising in that way and you’re like, “Oh!” and normalize things that for a lot of people are already normal. So I think there’s that layer.

I don’t think it always needs to be explicit. In fact, probably my favorite sort of intimate scenes are not visually explicit. They are explicit, but it’s all about what’s going on in the face, or the few things that are said, or whatever. I think it’s just always finding that balance of how does this serve the story, how does it show vulnerability, or not, if that’s what the scene is about? But I think it’s such an art to reveal intense intimacy, or real intimacy, without just showing physical sex in terms of just the act. Like what is intimacy? How do you show intimacy in this moment without it just being sort of like gymnastics?

In terms of the scene you’re talking about, I think there’s the shock value thing, and I think it also is sort of indicative of a dynamic that plays out with those two. But I love intimate scenes in terms of the opportunity to do justice to intimacy, and to show vulnerability in a way that everyone can relate to. Or that it’s unexpected for people who don’t expect intimacy, especially in terms of relationships that are outside of the sort of heteronormative kind of thing. That you’re showing the essence of it to people who might not be familiar with the essence of intimacy in that particular sort of configuration of intimacy.

The White Lotus: Natasha Rothwell, Murray Bartlett
The White Lotus: Natasha Rothwell, Murray Bartlett

MW: As far as the shock value is concerned, do you have family or loved ones that you have to prepare for scenes like that before they’re watching, or do you just let it fly?

BARTLETT: I mean, by this point, I’ve done a few roles that aren’t afraid of showing intimacy, so the people who are in my life are probably prepared. But yeah, I’ll still with my mom be like, “Hey….” My mom is an amazingly open-minded and supportive person, and she loves me no matter what, thankfully. But, yeah, I still throw out a, “Just letting you know, this could be a little confronting in some scenes.” I think it’s sort of a given at this point that I might be doing things that push the envelope a little bit in that way.

MW: And one of those things would be Looking. How did you feel about how the series wrapped up?

BARTLETT: We would have loved to keep doing that show for years. That was a unique experience where we all became great friends. We were in a city that we loved — San Francisco. We really believed in what we were trying to do in the show. The creative team was just wonderful. We all adored them and wanted to work with them. So we could have kept doing that for years. We were sad when it wrapped up.

Michael Lannan created the show and Andrew Haigh was our main director and one of the main creatives. He’s a great filmmaker, so to be able to end on a film — it was really exciting to work in that form with him. Even though we reluctantly wrapped it up, I think they really did a beautiful job of wrapping it up. I felt like that wrap-up film had some of the strongest elements of the show in it. I really loved it.

We knew we weren’t going into a third season, and then we had about six months before we shot the film, so we had enough time to grieve the fact that we weren’t doing a third season and then get super excited about the fact that we had this opportunity to once more get together. So it was slightly melancholy, but a really joyful experience because we’re like, “This is it. This has been such a great experience and here we get to wrap it up.” Some shows don’t get that opportunity, so it was kind of awesome.

MW: Something that gets talked about often these days, and not necessarily relative to that show, is casting queer actors to play queer roles. Looking was a great example of casting openly gay actors to play openly gay parts, maybe with the exception of Scott Bakula. How much do you think that aspect of casting matters in telling authentic queer stories?

BARTLETT: I look forward to a time where we’re all treated equally, and where we can integrate gender identity and sexual identity and the full spectrum of those things into content across media. We’re not there yet, and it’s not an even playing field. A lot of actors don’t feel comfortable to come out still. And it’s a fact that women don’t get equality in the entertainment industry. I mean, how many cinematographers who are women get the opportunities that cinematographers who are men get? I would love to get to the point where it doesn’t matter what your sexual identity is, what your gender identity is, you can play any role. I look forward to that time. And I hope that it’s in my lifetime.

Because we’re not at that point, I think we have to look across sexual identity, across race, across gender identity, across gender, we have to look at how we can lift everybody up to an equal playing field. Part of that is making sure that everyone gets an opportunity. And so in that way, I think it’s really important to cast queer people in queer roles. I don’t necessarily think always, but I think that until we’re on an even playing field where queer actors are considered equally to actors who aren’t queer, then there has to be a lifting up process.

Also, I just think it makes sense. I mean, if you’re going to write a story about people of color, why would you have it all written by white people? Similarly, why would you have a queer story written, produced, acted by people who are a group of people that aren’t queer? It just makes sense for there to be inclusivity. I often get cast in gay roles, like a lot of the time. I would love for a time when a gay actor or an actor that plays a lot of gay roles gets to play all sorts of different roles, but that’s just not the world we’re in right now. Not to say that it doesn’t happen or it can’t happen, it does sometimes. I do get to play roles that are heterosexual at times.

I know that this is a roundabout way of answering your question, because I think it’s a difficult question to answer. There’s so many elements to it. I think that, on one hand, it’s incredibly important for queer actors to be cast in queer roles. On the other hand, I hope we get to a place where there doesn’t need to be that mindfulness, because it’s just part of our nature to do that.

MW: At what point in your career did you decide that you were going to be out? And has your experience of being out in the industry gone as you’d hoped or expected?

BARTLETT: I mean, fortunately for me, I had an incredible mother. It was never an issue for her that I was gay. I felt like I didn’t really… I was going to say I felt like I didn’t really have to come out to a lot of the people in my life. That’s not true — I did have to come out to people. But because I had that base of unconditional love, it was made much easier for me. And I feel to a certain extent that’s what happened in my career, in that I didn’t go through a coming out process. I wasn’t super vocal about it, I guess, earlier on in my career, but I never tried to hide it. It just sort of naturally was a thing that, as I got older, I just didn’t lie about it, so it wasn’t like there was a coming out.

I wonder how it’s affected the roles that I’ve gotten, or the opportunities that I’ve gotten. Ultimately, I don’t really care because I love the opportunities that I’ve had. And I love that I’ve had the opportunities to play queer characters in shows that want to be honest and real, and in a way that I felt proud of. So I wouldn’t change anything about that at all. But always as an actor, you want to get considered for a range of roles, so I hope that I am and that I will be. But I feel lucky about the roles that I’ve gotten. And if that is a role that I play, of playing queer characters and bringing what I can in terms of honesty and vulnerability and complexity, then awesome.

The White Lotus

MW: You’ve been cast in HBO’s adaptation of The Last of Us. Who are you playing? Did you shoot it already?

BARTLETT: I’m not sure if I’m allowed to tell you who I’m playing. I got in trouble because in one interview a while back I said that I was doing it. But now apparently I can talk about the fact that I’m doing it, but I’m really nervous about saying the wrong thing.

I’m super excited about it. I can’t really give you any details apart from the fact that I’ve read it and I think it’s brilliant. I think the team that’s doing it is amazing. I love the cast. I love who I get to work with. I think it’s very kind of pertinent in terms of what’s happening in the world right now. But I probably can’t say much more than that, apart from the fact that I think it’s going to be an amazing show. I think the world is really great. And the team that is working on it are just phenomenal, so I think it’s going to be really beautifully done.

MW: Last question, and I think I know the answer, but you could surprise me. Having made White Lotus, the next time you’re on vacation, do you think you’ll be extra, extra nice to the staff wherever you’re staying?

BARTLETT: The short answer is yes. Because we were staying in the resort where we were shooting, I found it really confronting. There was this one time, because of COVID, we were the only people in the resort, so they were massively understaffed. And as I was about to call up to ask where my laundry was, because it hadn’t come back after four days, I’m like, “Don’t be a dick, just be polite.” I mean, you’ve got to ask, because maybe it’s lost, but just don’t be a dick. So it was really confronting to be face-to-face with the impulses. Even though I don’t think that I act on those impulses — hope to God that I don’t — I probably do at some points. It made me very aware of it.

The second part of that answer is that when I go on vacation, I want to be completely away from people. I love people, but a resort is not my ideal vacation. There’s things that I love about resorts, and I loved staying at the resort that we were staying at, but my ideal vacation is to be in the middle of nowhere with my loved one or loved ones, to feel like I’m kind of away from the world, so that I can’t annoy anyone.

MW: Alright. Well, who are you taking?

BARTLETT: [Laughs.] Who am I taking? It depends on the vacation.

New episodes of The White Lotus air Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on HBO, and are available for streaming the same day on HBO Max. Visit www.hbo.com.

Read More:

‘Pray Away’ examines the ex-LGBTQ movement through survivors and former leaders

Jungle Cruise review: Action romp charts curious course into gay representation

The Suicide Squad review: Lean, mean, and stuffed to the gills with charisma

Leave a Comment:

Support Metro Weekly’s Journalism

These are challenging times for news organizations. And yet it’s crucial we stay active and provide vital resources and information to both our local readers and the world. So won’t you please take a moment and consider supporting Metro Weekly with a membership? For as little as $5 a month, you can help ensure Metro Weekly magazine and MetroWeekly.com remain free, viable resources as we provide the best, most diverse, culturally-resonant LGBTQ coverage in both the D.C. region and around the world. Memberships come with exclusive perks and discounts, your own personal digital delivery of each week’s magazine (and an archive), access to our Member's Lounge when it launches this fall, and exclusive members-only items like Metro Weekly Membership Mugs and Tote Bags! Check out all our membership levels here and please join us today!