Never accuse Mike White of holding back.
The modest, unpretentious queer writer of comedy films including Chuck & Buck (in which he also starred), Orange County, The One and Only Ivan and School of Rock loves to skewer American culture and characters with biting relish. His latest endeavor, the HBO series The White Lotus which he also directed, finds White elevating his acidic humor to a new level of penetration.
The White Lotus follows a group of moneyed, American tourists on a dream vacation to a luxury resort in Hawaii overseen by the flamboyant manager Armond (Murray Bartlett) and the ambitious spa attendant Belinda (Natasha Rothwell). Once there, the tourists begin to fall apart: newlyweds Shane & Rachel (Jake Lacy and Alexandra Daddario) question their relationship; Tanya (national treasure Jennifer Coolidge) pries Belinda’s attention with money; Mark (Steve Zahn) questions his masculinity while his CFO wife Nicole (Connie Britton) obsesses over work. Meanwhile, their daughter Olivia (Sydney Sweeney) and her bestie Paula (Brittany O’Grady) plot to destroy each other, while leaving Olivia’s brother Quinn (Fred Hechinger) to sleep on the beach.
How quickly a dream becomes a nightmare…
The White Lotus earned White and its cast rave reviews, including for one sex scene between Bartlett and Lukas Gage that has to be seen to be believed. We caught up with White for a rare interview to discuss his inspirations, his philosophical statements about Americans and his peculiar brand of humor ahead of The White Lotus’ finale. The final episode of the show airs August 15 on HBO.
So this is a story set in an ostensible paradise, though it’s about characters in misery. Is this your vision of Hell?
I mean, if hell is nice thread count sheets and room service, it’s not too bad.
I sometimes feel like when I’m on these vacations to “get away from it all” a whole new set of existential problems can kick in. You start to be like it’s the end of the world. Am I happy with these people? A vacation, sometimes, you want to get away, but the music kicks in and it becomes tropical anxiety.
I love that. And, tropical weather and high thread count sheets—if you can’t enjoy them, that is kind of hellacious.
I kept thinking about The Bonfire of the Vanities as I watched. The characters in that book are terrible human beings. The characters in this series are kind of awful people—spoiled, self-involved, oblivious. Do you see them as all equally awful, or is there a sliding scale on this?
Well, I think there is a sliding scale; some are more awful than others. I actually think it’s been interesting reading people’s take on the show and how awful the characters are. I start thinking God, I wonder if they’ve met the people I run into at the Country Mart? There are way worse people than the characters on this show.
It’s also…I feel like parts of these characters are me. I’ve had moments where I can’t get into my room, where it was supposed to be ready at two but it isn’t. You feel like there’s some injustice going on, but it’s really just a minor flag for a cushy life.
In terms of sympathy for them. I had the most sympathy for Quinn, played by Fred Hechinger and Belinda, Natasha Rothwell’s character. Though even then, Quinn is a horny teenager and Belinda is transparently ambitious.
I think it’s a testament to how many characters in television are engineered to be “likable.” People find characters in this show so odious. I feel like it’s true to life that people have different colors to them. That’s true in my life. Maybe I’m hanging out with the wrong people.
That’s fair as well. Though I also found Olivia, played by Sydney Sweeney, the most loathsome. She’s evil incarnate…but maybe that’s just me.
I’ve met some friends’ teen daughters that have scared me for sure.
That’s not hard to imagine. Jumping off of that though, the other interesting thing is that these characters seem awful, but, for example, when Nicole and Mark are faced with a crisis, we do see that they really love one another. Do people need challenges in life to stay centered?
I think in that situation, there was a need for Mark to feel like he had a useful purpose in the family. Even though it was an absurd heroic moment, it gives him some kind of swagger that’s missing for him. But yeah, a little bit of the show—the poem the title is based on is The Lotus Eaters, which is a lot of people that are on an island eating lotuses in a sleepy haze. I think sometimes we have moments where we realize how much we actually have. And these people have a lot. It’s relatable to most people living in western society where we have a lot of conveniences taken for granted. Our lives are generally pretty enviable. But sometimes we need a jolt to the system to remember how lucky we actually are.
How much of that is a corruption of relationships fueled by technology and social media? Let the record show, you’ve been very critical of social media in the past.
I’m critical of it, but very much a part of it. I’m on the road now, but I keep checking my phone and putting people’s lives at risk.
I think that social media adds unreality to our lives. We think we’re plugged into what’s going on, but it becomes a dissociative addiction. Especially when you’re on vacation in this disembodied place—these resorts are designed to feel like an “elsewhere” place. But you’re living in a bubble, and your only connection to the world is through your phone. But really you’re living in an alternate reality that social media and your news feed creates. I think it’s a very common feeling. Social media leads to this kind of existential anxiety people feel on vacation. They can’t really escape the thing they should be escaping from, which is this nonstop dialogue on social media.
Absolutely. One theme here that fascinated me was that the story is, in many ways, a meditation on power dynamics. Power over friends, power with money, power over job, sexual power, racial/socioeconomic power, power of substances over people. What fascinates you about that? What statement do you feel like you’re making with power dynamics?
The way I thought of it was more about money—who has the money calls the shots. Though power and money are kind of interchangeable in the way you posit it. I find that’s very true to life. Money can pervert our most intimate relationships. Guest versus an employee of a hotel, employer-employee, husband and wife, within a family—yeah. If we’re going to get into wealthy vacations and privilege, I wanted to explore how money talks no matter who you are and how intimate your relationship is.
You’re a man who has earned a career out of his approach to humor which is, for a lack of a better word, “cringy.” It often deals with painfully awkward situations. Why that approach? What fascinates you about the awkward?
It’s funny. A lot of people have used those words, “cringey” and “awkward.” When I feel like a scene doesn’t have tension, it feels limp. I also have a very low tolerance to social anxiety. So I tend to right smaller, more high-frequency tension as opposed to somebody trying to kill somebody. Other shows have a style more operatic. I find myself writing about more low-stakes situations, but because the anxiety level is high, it tends to seem like it’s about awkwardness. I feel like I’m so sensitive to that in real life, when I see it depicted, I get giddy. It feels like there’s some kind of energy in the scene where I want to see what happens. So I kind of write for myself.
Nothing wrong with that. In that context, it’s interesting to see the artist reflected in the art. I’m at an unfair advantage because I’ve read your dad’s [Rev. Mel White, the openly gay writer/activist] autobiography and I know you had some painfully awkward “dream vacations” as a kid. It’s also interesting that you use a lot of church hymns on the soundtrack. How much of the story is autobiographical?
I don’t think of it as autobiographical, but it is personal. I am trying to get at things I’m working out in a way an “artist” would. But I’m creating product for a TV show. So it is personal, and I feel like some things are more autobiographical than others. And I do feel like there are things I’m mining from my personal life that end up in the show. With Mark, the storyline with his dad, it felt like a guy having a male identity crisis. He has swollen balls, his dad having gay sex—it was a series of onslaughts to his masculinity. It was more about trying to figure out where the character would go than the story of my life.
Tell me more about writing. What satisfaction does it bring you?
You know, I feel like part of why I’ve been able to have this career is that I enjoy writing. So many writers I know in LA are not really into the writing. I don’t really like writing when I’m on my 50th set of studio notes.
That’s just painful. But something like this where I’m in a flow and inspired, it can be very…
When I was in the pandemic and I wasn’t working, I felt a sense of unease. I feel like when I have something to think about and I have some creative puzzle, it’s a nice break from existential feelings that I have when I’m not writing. So it’s nice to occupy my mind. I get frustrated, but in general, I like writing.
So what’s your next project?
I’m hoping they might let me do another season of The White Lotus. It would be different with this one, but it would be cool to do something about vacations like that. I’m sure I’ll get into some other trouble.
Can’t wait to see what it is.
The season finale of The White Lotus airs on HBO August 15.