Since the halcyon days of Tom Selleck, has anyone worked a mustache quite like Murray Bartlett? The Australian actor, previously best known for playing Dom on Andrew Haigh’s shortlived gay drama “Looking,” is having a much-deserved mid-career breakout with “The White Lotus” — and not a moment too soon. Created by veteran writer/director Mike White, whose cult status cemented around another canceled-too-soon show (the Laura Dern starrer “Enlightened”), “The White Lotus” is the result of HBO giving White full creative control amidst a pandemic-induced content panic. The choice is turning out to be an inspired one.
Set at a fictional luxury hotel in Hawaii, “The White Lotus” is a biting satire of modern day privilege told through the eyes of an eclectic ensemble of hotel customers and workers. There’s the perennially bewildered alcoholic who arrives with her mother’s ashes in tow; the spoiled brat frat boy and his naive trophy wife on an ill-fated honeymoon; and a high-powered Sheryl Sandberg stand-in, her emasculated husband, and their obnoxious and technology-addicted teenagers. Arriving by boat on the utopian shores for a week of luxury, they are greeted by a phalanx of serenely smiling staff, overseen by their impeccably dressed ringleader Armond, played by Bartlett.
That Bartlett stands out amidst a cast that includes Jennifer Coolidge, Connie Britton, Natasha Rothwell, and Steve Zahn — all masters of their craft, seemingly born with impeccable comedic timing — is a feat unto itself. Like Ralph Fiennes in “The Grand Budapest Hotel” or John Cleese in “Fawlty Towers,” Bartlett’s Armond is the ringleader of a three-ring circus that he well knows could topple over at any moment. Under Bartlett’s inspired performance, Armond slowly devolves from a duck paddling vigorously to maintain an utterly placid surface into a vengeful bully as obstinate and narcissistic as the ones he’s been wrangling.
“To have a character that is so rich and complicated and follows through in such an intense way on some of his impulses, it’s such a dreamy kind of meaty character for an actor,” Bartlett said during a recent phone interview. “There was so much there, and I felt like I’d met this character before, and I felt like there were aspects of me in this character that I very rarely get to express.”
Luckily for Bartlett, it wasn’t Armond’s reckless behavior or substance abuse issues to which he related most, but his people-pleasing tendencies.
“I have tended to be… a people-pleaser type of person in my life,” said Bartlett. “So to do some of the things Armond gets to do was kind of therapeutic. Most of us can relate to the thing of having a public mask that we present to the world and having an inner life that is at odds with that. [With] every character, there’s an opportunity to find the aspect of yourself. […] With Armond that was quite confronting, because he’s got a very rich inner life and a lot of it is quite dark.”
As the guests’ requests begin to escalate, Armond’s patience wears thin. When a missing bag belonging to the teenage girls shows up full of prescription meds and other drugs, his years-long sobriety goes down the drain. What begins as a few anxiety pills quickly devolves into a full-on bender. Whether he’s up or down or some unknown combination of both, Bartlett’s face portrays the roller coaster of whatever cocktails Armond is cooking up with beguiling precision.
It’s a talent made all the more impressive when you consider most of the series was shot out of chronological order, due to tight pandemic scheduling. Though he originally plotted out which drugs Armond was taking when, most of that went out the window with the hectic shooting order, and he relied on White to keep him on track. Their focus was more on how to keep Armond from spinning too far from the recognizable person Bartlett felt like he’d met.
“We wanted to keep him grounded in a reality. Some of the moments when he’s just, like, staring at a bottle of pills and that kind of intense moment where there’s not a lot happening character-wise or action-wise, but it’s that very human moment of what do you do when the thing, your challenge, is staring you in the face?” said Bartlett. “[We tried] to keep him anchored so we never felt like this was a character that was disconnected from reality, that it was all anchored in something that felt true.”
“The White Lotus” was shot on location at the Four Seasons Resort in Maui, and the cast and crew all stayed at the hotel while quarantining and shooting. (Nice work if you can get it.)
“It was so surreal because we were all in our Covid pods, and then all of a sudden we got this call to work on this wonderful job in Hawaii, which seems completely unfair. We were kind of cloistered away in this high-end resort on a beach,” said Bartlett. “It was very, very surreal, and kind of dreamy, because we were in this stereotypical fantasy world, but it was odd.”
They had the place to themselves for the first half of shooting, before travel restrictions eased up and actual guests slowly filtered into the hotel. It’s a mark of White’s great writing that the parallels to the show were often a little unsettling.
“As the hotel opened up — I’m sure there was a lot of projection on my part — but [we started] to see some of the characters of the show walk into the hotel. and [we were] like, ‘Whoa, this is the non-fiction version of what we’re doing,'” he said. “It was pretty surreal.”