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The White Lotus (Still)Courtesy HBO / Sky TV

Will Sharpe on The White Lotus and ‘eat-the-rich-core’ TV

The actor, writer and director talks to Halima Jibril about joining the HBO show’s hotly anticipated – and much darker – second season

Will Sharpe is already known as one of the most exciting names in British film. The writer, actor and director is best known for writing, directing and starring in the BAFTA award-winning black comedy Flowers (2016), along with writing and directing The Electrical Life of Louis Wain (2021) and the HBO true crime miniseries Landscapers (2021).

But now, Sharpe is making his transition into American TV in a big way. This month, he joins the Emmy Award-winning show The White Lotus as one of its main characters, Ethan Spiller – a newly rich tech bro on a luxury holiday in Sicily. While last season was an explosion of privilege, entitlement, sex and drugs, season two promises that and much more.

We spoke to Sharpe about season two of The White Lotus, white privilege, and our current cultural obsession with watching rich people drown in their own toxicity (some minor spoilers for the first two episodes ahead).

Will, I have to know: what the hell is Ethan’s deal? He’s the character I learned the least about in the first few episodes. He’s quiet and submissive but also part of the nouveau riche. I don’t know if he’s just shy and nonchalant as a person or if, because of his new financial situation, he feels like he doesn’t have shit to prove to anyone?

Will Sharpe: I think Ethan is probably trying to work that out for himself. I think he and his wife, Harper (Aubrey Plaza), are also trying to determine if this money they've newly come into has changed who they are, or has it, in a funny way, not changed who they are at all?

When we meet Ethan and Harper, they’re at a point in their relationship where they’ve been together for seven or eight years. They’re very open and honest with each other, or at least they tell themselves they’re honest with each other. To the extent that, in the second episode, Harper walks in on Ethan masturbating, and he doesn’t even pretend that he wasn’t.

I was so shocked that he didn’t even lie about it. Their honesty with each other is almost jarring.

Will Sharpe: Yeah, I guess that raises the question of, like, is there an almost unhelpful lack of mystery between them? And actually, are they talking to each other about the biggest questions? Or have they arrived in this place of strange co-dependency? I think at the beginning, particularly for Harper, being set against Cameron and Daphne (Theo James and Meghann Fahy), who seem to operate very differently, makes her question her and Ethan’s relationship and where they‘re at. So there’s this simmering feeling of an impending crisis of some kind, whether it's personal within Ethan, or within Harper, or a marital crisis.

What drew you to The White Lotus?

Will Sharpe: Well, I really enjoyed the first season of White Lotus. I also loved the show Enlightened, which I think is when it first became aware of Mike White as a writer, director and creator. So I just honestly wanted to work with him. I was blown away by the scripts for the show when they sent them over and how he’s able to spin so many plates and serve all these different characters and storylines that speak to each other thematically. They don’t tend to intersect that much, which I think was also true of the first season.

What’s your favourite scene from season one? Armond (played by Murray Bartlett) shitting in Shane’s (Jake Lacy) suitcase was one of the most iconic things I’ve ever seen.

Will Sharpe: Mike is so fearless with this stuff... I don’t know if this is a weird reaction, but I felt a lot of respect for him as a writer with that scene like, okay, he went there! That was definitely one of the most memorable.

White Lotus comes under a genre of TV I like to call eat-the-rich-core. From Succession, Big Little Lies, The Undoing, Nine Perfect Strangers and even Arrested Development, people are really into dramas showing rich people rotting away in their privilege. Why do you think there’s an increasing demand for media like this?

Will Sharpe: I guess there’s a certain kind of voyeurism. I wonder, with the first season, if it was seen as escapism, as it came out in the heat of the pandemic. But I think there is anger in society about how divided the world is becoming and how that gap seems to be getting wider and wider. So there’s an enjoyment in watching creators attack those people who are in positions of privilege.

What I would say about possibly all of those shows you just mentioned, but certainly Mike’s writing and White Lotus, is that while he takes no prisoners he has also written human beings. So there are also pieces of all these characters, however monstrous or complicated or fucked up they are, that are hopefully relatable. I feel like this season is maybe a bit darker than the first. People have said it has more to do with sexual politics, which I think is true. But amidst all the seriousness, it’s also a very romantic series. There’s something about how fearlessly Mike is just diving into all of the messiest, gnarliest aspects of love, whether it’s familiar or romantic love. So he’s able to say something honestly romantic, even if the journey along the way is quite fucked up.

It’ll be interesting to see people’s response to this season, as we’re in a cost-of-living crisis in the UK and US.

Will Sharpe: For sure. There’s also something weird about a “holiday”, which I think Mike puts his finger on. There’s this expectation that when you go on holiday, you get away from everything and your problems, but you carry your problems with you.

I found myself thinking about this Adam Sandler sketch from back in the day on Saturday Night Live, where he’s selling Italian holidays, but he’s constantly saying, ‘I can take you to the Amalfi coast, but if you’re sad at home, you will be sad on vacation. I can’t fix all your problems.’ So I guess there’s something about that, that he may be hit upon with this show. 

“There’s this expectation that when you go on holiday, you get away from everything and your problems, but you carry your problems with you” – Will Sharpe

The White Lotus has been described as one of the best satires on wealthy white privilege by critics, but it was also critiqued for sidelining the Black and Hawaiian characters who would have been best suited to critique this whiteness. Do we see attempts to address some of those critiques in the new season? 

Will Sharpe: I think Mike is best suited to answer this question, and I don’t want to speak for him. But there’s that moment in the second episode where Ethan tries to check in with Harper and thanks her for giving Cameron and Daphne a chance. He’s like, ‘you know, it is important to have diverse friends’, is the phrase he uses, and Harper’s, like, ‘I think we’re their diverse friends?’ So I guess there is a feeling of being used by these wealthy white people.

Harper also has this theory that the only reason they’ve invited us on holiday is that Ethan is a successful tech entrepreneur, and Cameron wants to do some business with him. So there is a feeling of like, are we being exploited somehow? Are we just here to be paraded as their friends who look different and have different opinions? So, you know, questions are being asked about that subject.

It’s interesting to have that discussion about race and class status in this specific context, which we didn’t see last season. You can’t talk about whiteness without talking about the other. 

Will Sharpe: Yes, I definitely think it does something to the dynamic between the couples that Aubrey [Plaza] and I are both mixed-race. I don’t know whether, with Ethan – in an almost subconscious way, rightly or wrongly – it gave me a sense of playing him as an underdog.

Do you have anecdotes or funny stories from your time filming in Italy? 

Will Sharpe: I am so bad at remembering funny anecdotes. But there was one cast dinner where Jennifer Coolidge put on a Russian hat, and I don’t know why, but that seemed to change the mood completely. It was almost like magic, pure pandemonium. But that’s all I’ll say about that...

The White Lotus is exclusively available from October 31 on Sky Atlantic and streaming service NOW