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Had 2020 not been consumed by the Covid-19 pandemic, The White Lotus, HBO’s buzzy new limited series about a web of guests and employees at a luxury Hawaiian resort, likely would never have come to be.
“HBO came to me and was hoping I could come up with some idea that was COVID-friendly and in one location, and at the time I was like, ‘How do I get out of L.A. and go somewhere that’s not like punishing?'” creator Mike White told The Hollywood Reporter at the show’s premiere on Wednesday. “I was like, ‘Maybe we can do a show in a posh hotel?’ That was kind of the initial idea, then I thought there’s something I’ve always wanted to write about the leisure world and people trying to escape their lives and then ending up being more stuck in a crucible.”
As a result, the show pulled many of its all-star cast — including Connie Britton, Jennifer Coolidge, Molly Shannon, Natasha Rothwell, Sydney Sweeney, Murray Bartlett, Alexandria Daddario and Steve Zahn — from an uncertain, work-free period in quarantine to Maui, where because of the strict precautions, “it turned into this weird film camp,” Zahn said.
“We got so tight because we didn’t go away, you didn’t go to your house, you’re not staying in different places. The crew stayed there, the extras; we knew the extras, first time in my life we actually got to know people.”
“Mike called me up and I was like, ‘What do you mean now? I’ve been eating ice cream sandwiches and pizza,’ sometimes four to five times a day that combo. Sometimes there was a couple of pizzas,'” joked Coolidge of the unexpected job offer after months of Hollywood shutdown. “When I got the word it was going I was like, ‘I just need four months to get all this stuff off’ and he was like, ‘Either take it now or…’. It was a very humbling thing to take a job when you’re not really ready for the camera.”
Pandemic influence aside, the show follows a group of wealthy white guests over the course of a week-long vacation, as a darker picture emerges from both the glamorous travelers and the cheerful hotel employees. It also dives heavily into issues of race, class and white privilege as the service workers and those being served navigate each other.
“My hope is that while obviously a lot of the white privileged people are oblivious to certain things, at the same time the idea is to see it from a humanist perspective in that like you see why they’re defensive and why they don’t see,” White said. “It’s not necessarily trying to humanize white rich people, but at the same time, see how you can be a hero in your mind and you still are a villain to someone else and you’re stamping on someone else while you’re achieving your dreams.”
Britton said that the deeper topics, “because it is so entertaining, it’s funny, it’s thought-provoking, I hope it opens a door for people to be able to have some of the conversations that have already started in the culture anyway, but this sort of gives a little landing point for that and gives some ground for that.”
Rothwell added that the show gave “an opportunity to speak to how class and privilege are perceived by those on the outside and then also from within of how are you contributing to creating boundaries and distance between people in the service industry who are there to help you out — do you see them as people, do you look them in the eye, do they have a name?”
“I think it will cause folks to definitely question their own behavior as it comes to how they express their own privilege and how they check their own privilege, and it’s in this sort of fun, dramatic, comedy, soapy situation,” said Rothwell.
The White Lotus also marks a notable turn for Coolidge, who is getting rave reviews for her performance as Tanya, an emotional woman who has come to the island to scatter her mother’s ashes. The actress says it’s only the second serious role she’s ever been offered.
“For once I get something very, very different to play,” she told THR. “It was amazing, I got to play someone who had all sorts of problems and so many things she hadn’t worked out, and I get to have a love interest and have a crush on somebody. I’m thrilled, I hope there are more roles like this. I have to say if this was it, this was the role to have and I’m completely satisfied if this is the only role I get like this.”
And for others, it was notable in turning them off luxury vacationing forever; said Sweeney, who had never gone on a trip like the one in the show, “it has made me terrified of going to a resort ever in my life.”
Inside the premiere, held at the Bel Air Bay Club, attendees lived their own resort fantasies with a party and screening overlooking the ocean, along with Hawaiian-themed bites. On top of the cast in attendance, which also included Brittany O’Grady, Fred Hechinger, Jon Gries and Jolene Purdy, HBO execs Casey Bloys, Francesca Orsi and Nora Skinner joined the party, along with celebrity guests John Stamos, Este Haim, Nasim Pedrad and Jordan Firstman.
Before showing the first episode, Orsi recalled how when the pandemic hit, “the shows we were in the midst of shooting, intended for air in 2021, were shuttered, so when I looked down at HBO’s programming schedule for the year, sheer terror set in. All I saw were empty slots burning holes across the grid. My phone rang and rang and on the other end of the line every time was Casey Bloys, a man plagued by the same problem. He asked, ‘What are we gonna do, Franny? I’m chief content officer and I have no content.'”
“One day, he just bottom-lined it. ‘Here’s what I need, Franny. I need an excellent show for 2021 and it needs to be smart, moving, funny, thematically resonant, on the pulse of American culture and produced with a lean crew in a COVID-safe bubble compliant with SAG-AFTRA, WGA and DGA approvals,'” she continued. “I looked at the moon, searched the stars and it came to me: Mike White.”
For his part, White, who previously worked with HBO on Enlightened, likened the premium network to “that on-and-off-again girlfriend who one minute you’re making sweet love to her and the next you’re eating alone and they don’t show up. But then when they gaze their loving eyes on you all is forgiven. It’s worth it!,” he joked, adding that, “This is what I’ve always been hoping to have, a show that they are into and they love me and I love them.”
The White Lotus premieres on HBO on Sunday.
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