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[This story contains spoilers for The White Lotus’ fifth episode, “That’s Amore.”]
Haley Lu Richardson has quietly become a highly respected figure in the world of film, and HBO’s Sunday night audience is now catching up to her courtesy of The White Lotus season two.
Richardson, who’s mostly made a name for herself on the indie circuit, plays Portia, the personal assistant to Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge), the one returning main character from White Lotus season one. Upon arriving in Sicily, Portia, who is also Richardson’s first series regular role on television, was told to get lost by Tanya until Tanya’s husband Greg (Jon Gries) suddenly departed their vacation. From there, Portia resumed her assistant duties, and the duo soon met a group from Palermo, led by Quentin (Tom Hollander) and his “naughty nephew” Jack (Leo Woodall).
Portia and Jack then fell for each other almost immediately, however, while staying at Quentin’s Palermo villa in episode five, “That’s Amore,” Tanya made a shocking discovery as she walked in on Quentin and Jack having sex. When Richardon read the moment in the script, she felt the surprise as both her and her character.
“My reaction was inherently blended with Portia’s reaction,” Richardson tells The Hollywood Reporter. “My reaction was like, ‘Oh my God, poor Portia. Oh no, Portia.’ She’s finally getting this thing that she wants, and obviously, there’s something that’s not true. There’s some ulterior motive with that. It’s false. There’s this other very different thing going on, so I felt for Portia, as Portia and me.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Richardson also discusses how after five months of working with Coolidge, she still can’t tell where Tanya ends and Jennifer begins.
So before you were actor Haley Lu Richardson, what early job made you feel like Portia does about her job?
Hmm. (Richardson ponders for a few moments.)
Someone had to have asked this already. It’s right there.
No one! Well, someone did ask me if I had a boss from hell, and I have worked with producers that were awful. (Laughs.) But the thing is, I moved to L.A. to attempt to start acting when I was 16, so I didn’t really have a lot of official jobs, aside from babysitting when I was younger.
But I can equate this feeling of unfulfillment and emptiness and being stuck with my final weeks of high school, before moving to L.A. I know high school is not a job, but I remember feeling like I was wasting my life. I loved high school at first. I only went to actual high school for two years, and I loved the dance program there. I loved my friends there. I loved so many aspects of it, but during the first couple weeks of my junior year, I remember just being like, “I am not where I’m supposed to be. I’m unfulfilled. This isn’t right. I’m resentful of this. I need to be somewhere else.” So I think that’s a lot of what Portia is feeling.
Between the meds comment and her frustration with apps, the discourse and life’s lack of mystery, Portia is depressed, which she’s admitted. So her job is really the least of her problems, right?
Yea, it’s definitely much bigger than that. I’ve had to learn this the hard way, and I’m still trying to ingrain it into my brain and soul. But when you put all the responsibility on the external — like other people, jobs or something else to fulfill you and make you happy — it’s never going to come through. If it does, it’s never going to be long lasting or deeply fulfilling. It’s just never going to work. So I think that she needs to find a therapist. I think she needs to journal. I think she needs to look inward and maybe do some shrooms. (Laughs.) She’s got a lot of work ahead of her.
But I also don’t think that her personal assistant job and being around Tanya [Jennifer Coolidge] is doing any better for her. Tanya is literally a warning for what she could be like in the future, only the broke version of her. Still, if she got everything she ever wanted, she wouldn’t magically be happy.
So you opted to live in an apartment instead of the hotel [San Domenico Palace, Taormina, A Four Seasons Hotel], mainly due to your cat Darbin. Did you ever feel like you were missing out?
No, I didn’t! (Laughs.) Honestly, I love being around people, and I made genuine friends with almost the entire cast. It’s really rare to make genuine friends when you’re on a job. Our job is so intimate, but it’s rare to leave the job and still love those people. But I love so many of the [White Lotus cast]. So it’s not that I didn’t want to be around them, but we were already hanging out all the time. And surprisingly, part of me is introverted, so I loved being able to just make my own food in my little kitchen and be by myself and not go out into the hallway to pick up room service and run into five other people on the crew.
So I do like my own space and being a hermit. That’s very re-charging for me, and I need that in life, especially on a five-month job in another country with a bunch of people that I just met. Because I’m an only child, I’ve never had real FOMO. I’ve always been comfortable hanging out when I see people, but I’ve always liked being in my house by myself or with my cat. So Darbin and I got to hang out a lot, and I needed that time with just us.
Portia feared the effects of pasta, so did your kitchen allow you to avoid it as well?
That was definitely my goal in getting the apartment! I was like, “I’m going to just go to the grocery store and get vegetables and cook the things I normally eat.” But it turns out that there is no grocery store in Taormina. There’s a minimart that’s a stand-in for the grocery store, but there were no vegetables, really. (Laughs.) There was eggplant, a couple of tomatoes and berries every couple weeks, but that wasn’t consistent. So it was very hard getting food.
If I found an avocado, it was either black and rotten or neon green. So I made myself eggs in the morning because the hotel breakfast was pretty much pastries and cheeses. I also got a blender and found some frozen fruit for smoothies. I was really craving things that weren’t Italian food, and specifically Sicilian food, because that’s a totally different type of Italian food than what we usually think of. So I just tried to find some variety because there was a lot of eggplant.
Jennifer Coolidge seems like quite a character both on and off screen. I actually had to watch your post-episode one featurette a couple times because it seemed like she was slipping in and out of character. Was that the case?
(Laughs.) Only she could answer that. I’m still so curious about Jennifer Coolidge, and I worked with her almost every day for five months. She’s the most unique person I’ve ever met, truly. She’s a genius. There are things that I still don’t know, such as what she does on purpose and what is just her that she can’t help. So there’s still so much that I’m curious about with her. We should call her up and get the tea. (Laughs.)
So is everybody now asking you if you’ve seen The Godfather?
Thankfully, not everyone is asking me that because the answer is no. (Laughs.) I haven’t finished it. Is that bad? Do you hate me?
Hey, I’ve got plenty of embarrassing blind spots on my résumé, too. So this is a safe space.
It’s a safe space that’s going to be written up and blasted across the Internet! What’s your most embarrassing one?
Oh man, I’m sure I’ll think of one as we move along. So was Michael Imperioli super into that Godfather location [Castello degli Schiavi] since he’s the Sopranos guy?
Yeah, Michael and Murray [Abraham] were both really interested. Tourists can go there [if they make certain arrangements], but there isn’t a cafe where you can eat and all that. So it was neat, but to be honest, it just felt like any other location to me. It was pretty, though.
So the presence of the car and Apollonia mannequin must have been another show invention. [Writer’s Note: They were.]
(Laughs.) Ask me about any Pixar or Disney film, and I can talk all day.
In the third act of Incredibles …
Incredibles one or two?
I haven’t seen either Incredibles movie, so that’s two blind spots for the price of one.
Incredibles 2 is pretty good. I’ve liked pretty much every single animated movie I’ve ever seen.
So, on paper, Albie (Adam DiMarco) has a lot to offer Portia. He’s well-educated and from a well-off family, despite their obvious problems. He’s also sensitive and kind, especially to her, which is a response to his father’s (Imperioli) treatment of women. So why isn’t that enough for Portia?
Well, the big answer is what we were talking about earlier, which is nothing will be enough for Portia until she looks inward and realizes that she’s part of her own problem. But in that moment, Portia just wants someone that will come in and shake her up and make her feel alive, even if it’s just for this fleeting moment. And Albie is definitely not that, because he’s wanting to be the opposite of his dad and grandpa. He’s so hyperaware of that. He’s this extremely nice guy who’s extremely aware of not being that toxic man, and Portia, honestly, even though it’s fucked up, wants that [toxicity] because that’s what’s going to make her feel alive in that moment. So I’m not saying that’s healthy, but I do think that’s what Portia is deeply craving in that moment. And Albie is never going to be that.
She then meets Jack (Leo Woodall) who gives her exactly what she’s looking for in a vacation fling, but then things take a turn at the end of episode five. So what was your reaction when you read that ending as Tanya walks in on Jack and his uncle (Tom Hollander’s Quentin)? And for the sake of protecting what’s ahead, it’s probably worth pointing out that your reaction is not necessarily Portia’s reaction.
Well, my reaction was inherently blended with Portia’s reaction. Portia is kind of a hard character to really empathize with, but I see so clearly where she’s going wrong and how deeply miserable she is. So my job as the actor playing her is to empathize with her and understand her. But as I was reading the scripts, me and Portia were getting intertwined very deeply. So by the end of episode five, my reaction was like, “Oh my God, poor Portia. Oh no, Portia.” She’s finally getting this thing that she wants, and obviously, there’s something that’s not true. There’s some ulterior motive with that. It’s false. There’s this other very different thing going on, so I felt for Portia, as Portia and me.
Now that I’m much more removed from Portia these last few months, I’ve been watching these episodes and seeing how obnoxious she is. (Laughs.) So it’s making me empathize and disconnect from her even more. But watching episode five was different because I was able to just be a viewer and be like, “Damn! Oh shit!” (Laughs.). So it was exciting for me, honestly. That scene is so ominous and primal because of the sounds and the music at that point, and just the way their bodies are moving was kind of dark. So it was very exciting.
Regarding the dead bodies in 201, did they tell you in advance who was going to die? Or did they withhold that information so that it didn’t influence anyone’s choices on some level?
I actually got all seven scripts before we started filming, and so I read them all and knew the ending. (Laughs.) We also filmed the show completely out of order. So all seven episodes were like one giant, 800-page movie or whatever, and we were filming it all over the place. So from start to finish, we all knew what happened in the show. So, yeah, wink, wink.
Did [White Lotus creator] Mike White utilize your dancing skills in the final two episodes, or did he overlook this superpower?
You know what, he overlooked it. Gosh darnit. He really did. Were you really hoping for a giant Portia dance sequence?
The world deserved to see your famous vertical kicks on HBO.
Honestly, that would be great. I should do a dance show with HBO. That’d be nice. Mike picks up on a lot of things about people, but I think he was really focusing on the hidden things that we’re all insecure about. He somehow picks up on the deepest parts of your gut and then encourages you to bring it to the character. So maybe he was just too busy bringing that stuff out to include dancing. (Laughs.)
Oh man, thanks for asking about that. It was one of the most special things that I’ve ever felt. Making the movie itself was the most special thing that has ever happened to me, creatively and professionally, so it was amazing to be able to revisit it with John [Cho] and Kogonada. We went back to that town and watched the movie again for the five-year anniversary.
And honestly, I mean this in the least kind of egoic or conceited way, but as I was watching the movie again with John and Kogonada, I was like, “This is such a good movie. I am just so thankful.” I’m still so confused why Kogonada found me and picked me for that role in the movie. It’s a gift and a work of art. So I’m just confused and thankful that I got to be a part of it and have that experience in my life.
When we spoke for After Yang, we talked about your audition for a character named Barbara Gordon, as well as a lovely email you received from J.K. Simmons. And since you’re currently promoting a Warner Bros. television show, I won’t ask you to follow up on that subject, but you did ask me at the time if there were any dancing superheroes you could play.
Well, afterwards, my colleague Richard Newby chimed in to recommend Dazzler, who’s associated with the X-Men. So let’s point your team in her direction.
Okay, cool. I’m going to look her up. I love the name.
Yes, today’s homework is to Google Dazzler.
Homework is so triggering. I actually had a nightmare the other night that I had math homework to do, but this sounds like fun homework. Thank [Richard] for chiming in. (Laughs.)
By the way, it pains me to say that I still haven’t seen Montana Story. Please accept my apology.
I am definitely so pissed at you. (Laughs.)
So I have my own fun assignment.
No, it’s kind that you would even want to watch it. I do think it’s a beautiful movie. It’s visually stunning, and the story really hit close to home for me. So I love that movie, and I wish more people would watch it. It means something, and a lot of the stuff out there doesn’t. (Laughs.)
Well, congratulations again on The White Lotus, and I’m sorry you didn’t get to dance as Portia.
All I want to do is dance.
If I could do a vertical kick, I’d be the same way. Never lose that.
Trust me, I do it every Wednesday. I teach a dance class every Wednesday. We could do a whole interview about just my dance class.
The White Lotus is now airing on HBO. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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