‘White Lotus: All Stars’? Mike White Would Love to See It Happen
The creator, star Jennifer Coolidge and others talk about the trials of filming season two’s nautical conclusion, while White addresses that closed-caption mystery and his hopes for the series’ future.
Jennifer Coolidge’s open disdain for boating did nothing to dissuade The White Lotus creator Mike White from subjecting the actress to three days of queasy and often claustrophobic filming on a yacht anchored off the Sicilian coast. Her discomfort was his inspiration.
“She had such a bad time filming on the boat in the first season that I just imagined telling her, ‘Yeah, now your character is going to die on a boat,’ ” says White. “Maybe I’m sadistic or something, but I knew Jennifer’s reaction was going to make me laugh so hard.”
Typically, any mention of a hit drama eighty-sixing its star would be prefaced by a boldface “spoiler alert,” but even the most fleeting frames of the HBO series’ second season — say, for example, the chaotic wardrobe choices for Haley Lu Richardson’s Portia — became unavoidable pop culture events. For seven weeks last autumn, The White Lotus was the internet’s monogamous boyfriend. And the conclusion of Coolidge’s Emmy-winning portrayal of flighty, insecure and terminally privileged heiress Tanya McQuoid proved more newsworthy than some election results. Her final moments were immediately immortalized as GIFs, and one of her last lines (“These gays, they’re trying to murder me!”) has since been spotted emblazoned on novelty T-shirts. Linger a little too long on the ubiquitous memes, and it’s easy to overlook just how much deliberation, effort and nausea went into nailing the send-off for the series’ seasick star.
“We were in the Ionian Sea, you could see Taormina in the background, and it was so epic,” White explained over the phone in late April, from a pre-strike writing trip to Bangkok. “But at the same time, I felt like I was so in over my head. It’s the closest to shooting a Bond movie that I’ve come.”
Coolidge’s first trip to The White Lotus, named for the fictional resort chain setting in which a succession of rich guests mingle with the local working class, included a memorable scene of Tanya aboard a Hawaiian charter boat. Her character imposing a maritime eulogy for her nymphomaniac mother on a group of strangers proved to be one of several darkly comedic scenes that helped win Coolidge an Emmy, a Critics Choice Award, a SAG Award and a Golden Globe. But, for the actress, it was an especially awful day at work.
“I can’t even ride in the back seat of the car,” says Coolidge. “Anything that rocks, any kind of motion, and I get very sick. So everyone was one foot away from me on that boat, and I was puking up my guts. When [the show] was picked up for a second season, I swear to God, I heard Mike say, ‘Yeah, no more boats.’ And then, guess what? Lots of boats on this show.”
In addition to more boats, the second season brought in an almost entirely new cast. There are storylines about Sicilian sex workers (Italian actresses Simona Tabasco and Beatrice Grannò) dodging the uptight hotel manager (Sabrina Impacciatore), three generations of Italian American men (Adam DiMarco, Michael Imperioli, F. Murray Abraham) attempting to reconnect with the motherland, and two duplicitous couples (Meghann Fahy and Theo James and Aubrey Plaza and Will Sharpe), all intersecting to varying degrees — usually in the bedroom.
As for Tanya, she’s on the rocks with husband Greg (Jon Gries) and finds refuge and apparent acceptance with a quartet of posh gay men led by Quentin (Tom Hollander). He hosts Tanya at his lavish palazzo. He takes her to the opera. He plies her with enough cocaine to last a long weekend at Chateau Marmont. But, as the audience — and, a bit too late, Coolidge’s character — comes to suspect, Quentin’s intentions are as questionably pure as his Schedule 1 narcotics.
“I had just seen a trailer for a movie that Jennifer had done on Netflix, where she says something like, ‘The gays all love me!’ ” says White, referencing the 2021 Coolidge vehicle Single All the Way. “It’s now this trope: Jennifer as this gay icon. Everybody loves her, and it’s now baked into the content in some way. So I thought, ‘We’ve got to do the opposite of that.’ “
But White needed to be careful about how he teased out his intended subversion of the Coolidge trope. In addition to its comedic and sometimes heartbreaking musings on class and relationships, there is a mystery-box element to The White Lotus. The first two seasons each opened with a shot of an unidentified body, via flash-forward, inspiring rewatches and fevered speculation about who among the rotating casts wouldn’t survive their respective season — and who might be the one to off them.
“I remember reading the season two scripts and talking to Mike about how much we wanted to reveal and how soon we wanted to do it,” says editor John Valerio. “At what point do we want to suggest that, you know, Greg is potentially behind all of this?”
Though there is an Easter egg or two suggesting a connection between Quentin and Greg, the latter off camera for the season’s final five episodes, the truth is something saved for the final moments. The team needed to create a closed environment where Tanya’s increasing suspicions about her new friends could veer into paranoia. White wanted her sequestered. He needed to put her back on a boat. “There’s nothing more vulnerable than being on a boat with a bunch of people that don’t want you to survive,” says Coolidge. “If we’d shot it on a soundstage, it wouldn’t have been the same — because I didn’t even have to imagine much. I already felt vulnerable.”
European yachting sounds like the peak of glamour until you cram a film shoot on deck, and the logistical hurdles to execute the primary set piece of the season two finale were many. Italian laws required a skeleton crew, especially during the scenes in which the vessel was moving. Support boats were needed to host additional crew and cameras. And, with so little room aboard, White — the series’ sole writer and director — was often confined to a cabin, unable to communicate directly with his Dramamine-dosed actors. Space was so tight on board that HBO’s set photographer wasn’t able to shoot any stills.
“Let’s say you’re shooting on location in a hotel room, there are five or six other rooms you’ve rented to store equipment, give a green room for actors, house your sound and video teams,” says cinematographer Xavier Grobet. “There’s absolutely no extra real estate on a boat. It’s so complicated, so scaled down. But it also gave us everybody’s favorite shot.”
Complications aside, White says he warmed to the intimacy and focus of the boat shoot, especially when collaborating with Coolidge. One particularly fortuitous conversation led to the shot that Grobet references. “Mike and I are a good combination because he lets me try things,” says Coolidge. “I pitched myself casually walking around a corner and then running as fast as I could to get away from these guys. We shot it two ways — on our boat and from a camera filming from another boat. Mike found it so much funnier from on our boat, only seeing me run through a window. Whatever I come up with, he always tops it.”
Some choices were not up for debate. The climax of the boat scene, which takes place after night has fallen and Coolidge’s alter ego seems to be moments away from being executed by her conspiratorial hosts, did not change from script to storyboard to shoot.
“I still wanted to leave a little bit of reasonable doubt that maybe this is all in her head until the last moment,” says Valerio. “But when she’s locked herself in this claustrophobic cabin, pulls the gun out of the gangster’s bag and you hear them pounding on the door, you just know. They were trying to kill her.”
Grobet’s camera remains fixed on Coolidge’s face, albeit partially obscured by the gun she’s holding with pin-straight arms, as Tanya shoots her way through the would-be assassins and back out onto the ship’s deck. It’s a rampage that’s intended to be hilarious and horrifying. “This is Jennifer’s moment, so instead of doing the action thing, I wanted to hold on her,” says White. “And I kind of knew the audience for this show was going to want to be with her.”
On another show, this could have been some version of a happy ending. But we’ve since learned that was never in the cards. Instead of descending the stairs to a dinghy that could have taken her to safe shores, Tanya clumsily scales the yacht railing, catches a clunky heel and falls to her death. Costume designer Alex Bovaird helped foreshadow the unlikely undoing.
“Those were Betsey Johnson shoes, and I couldn’t find any more pairs, so I had a cobbler make four more with a wonky heel where the platform swiveled a little,” Bovaird says of the fatal footwear. “No one knew she was going to topple overboard, but we wanted to show she wasn’t secure on her feet. She’s glam right to the very end, killed by her own vanity.”
As for Coolidge, she weathered the boat like a champ. But she still feels torn about her exit from the show. “Goddamn it, she made it so far down the line — way past what she was capable of, really,” she says. “It’s sad that she didn’t make it all the way. What a bummer for Tanya.”
White and Coolidge delivered the “derpy” death he promised, but one big question about the episode has lingered. In the days following its Dec. 11 premiere, several eagle-eyed closed caption viewers caught a line of dialogue in the shootout scene attributed to Jon Gries’ absentee Greg flash across the screen. This led to speculation that the mastermind of the semi-botched murder plot could have been on board the boat, perhaps even a victim of Tanya’s shooting spree. White dismisses any such suggestion.
“No, I was so confused when I heard that,” he says. “I’m still a little confused. It was obviously a closed captioning mistake. It was definitely not intended by us.”
What White says he is open to is revisiting Gries’ character in a future season of the show. In fact, he may ultimately revisit quite a few characters from his semi-serial. “It would be easy to just be full-on anthology, but I think it’s more fun to have little threads through the show,” he says of The White Lotus‘ pivot from limited series to drama. “If the show goes on for a couple of seasons, it would be fun to have an all-star season.”
He also doesn’t seem heavily committed to anything, either — such as starting every installment with Chekhov’s corpse. “I don’t think it needs to always be a body,” he says. “There are so many ways that we want to reinvent the show each year. Like, what is this show — other than people? A fresh mystery, people maybe expect that. But I don’t feel constrained by expectation. It’s fun.”
As for the third season of The White Lotus, it’s now on hold — one of many projects bumped into purgatory by the ongoing stalemate between the Writers Guild and the studios. But White had been scouting possible shooting locations in Thailand. Before the strike, he’d even courted season one castmember Natasha Rothwell for a return to the show. The actress who played Belinda, the spa manager strung along by Tanya, would be a fitting replacement for the series’ now-severed throughline. Whenever it returns, Coolidge will be watching.
“Mike must have some juicy stuff for her,” says Coolidge. “I think that will be the most interesting storyline of all: whatever’s happened to Natasha’s character. But, yeah, I also want to see Greg get it.”
This story first appeared in the May 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.