INTERVIEW

“White Lotus” star bids Aloha to a shocking finale: “Privileged, rich people get away with stuff”

"[The ending] is incredibly frustrating; it reminds us of the society we live in"

By Kylie Cheung
Published August 16, 2021 7:00AM (EDT)
Murray Bartlett, Jolene Purdy, Natasha Rothwell, Lukas Gage on "The White Lotus" (HBO)
Murray Bartlett, Jolene Purdy, Natasha Rothwell, Lukas Gage on "The White Lotus" (HBO)

The following contains spoilers for the Season 1 finale of "The White Lotus."

As tourist visits — and with them, COVID infection rates — surge in Hawaii, HBO Max's subversive satire "The White Lotus," concluded its first season on Sunday. The eerie and at times darkly funny story follows a group of mostly white, wealthy guests tending to their dramatic rich people problems at a luxury resort in Hawaii. The guests seem immune to both consequences and self-awareness, and the show also focuses a good deal on the resort workers who have the displeasure of catering to their every whim. 

There's something about "The White Lotus" that's felt almost prophetic, as if the show, filmed last summer, predicted how many privileged people would flock to escape to Hawaii at the first chance, with little to no consideration for how their travels could affect an island with a vast Indigenous population and many vulnerable hospitality workers. On "The White Lotus," one such hospitality worker is Armond, played by Murray Bartlett. 

Despite publicly performing as the perfect hotel manager and host, Armond loathes the self-centered guests with a passion that becomes clear early on, and his character provides a relatable lens through which audiences glimpse and come to understand some of the truly loathsome characters in "The White Lotus." There's Shane (Jake Lacy), the poster boy of white, male privilege and entitled generational wealth; the self-pitying, self-centered Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge); and the out-of-touch Mossbacher family and their performatively woke yet conspicuously complicit daughter Liv (Sydney Sweeney). 

Teased in the first episode, the identity of the person who dies is finally revealed to be . . . none other than Armond in the season finale. After a truly trying time dealing with the resort guests and especially the demanding, entitled Shane, Armond learns he's going to be fired and decides to go out in a blaze of glory. He snorts the last of the drugs he appropriated, which leads to a bizarre sequence of events that includes Armond taking a retaliatory dump in Shane's luggage and then hiding when Shane returns to his room. Upon finding the unexpected gift and hearing what appears to be an intruder, Shane grabs a blade, rounds a corner and ends up stabbing Armond out of fear.

It's a memorable end (to say the least) for a memorable character, Bartlett said in an interview with Salon.

"He's an amazing metaphor for our public face and our private face, how we manage this. At what point does it become unmanageable to keep those two separate, or keep up this public face that denies what's going on internally, pretends everything's alright, when you're being treated badly?" he said.

Armond similarly presents a metaphor for many hospitality workers in Hawaii, left with virtually no other options but to serve privileged vacationers as a direct result of the legacy of American imperialism. Kai (Kekoa Scott Kekumano), a Native Hawaiian forced to work at "The White Lotus," saw his family's land seized by vulturous tourist companies. The fates of these two characters, juxtaposed with the guests walking away from the resort unscathed, present the thesis of the show, Bartlett says. "Those privileged, rich people — not to say they're all terrible — but there's a lot of people like those, and they get away with stuff, and it's really frustrating," he explained.

Bartlett spoke to Salon about "The White Lotus" and the twists and turns of its finale, his initial guesses about who was in the body bag in the first episode, how previous experiences working in hospitality shaped his performance of Armond, and the show's future. 

What was it like filming "The White Lotus" during the pandemic? And what has it been like watching the show over the past weeks, during the surge of tourists going to Hawaii?

It was very unexpected to work on this show because we were in the middle of a pandemic, and I assumed I wasn't going to work for a while. So, it was a shock to get a job, and for the job to be with Mike White, who I've always wanted to work with and I admire so much. The scripts were so wonderful, and it was an incredible group of people. Then, to be in Hawaii! I couldn't talk to many people about it because it felt completely unfair; I felt kind of guilty talking about it. 

It was also very bizarre. We were tested stringently before we left, we quarantined when we got there. We couldn't leave the resort we were shooting in at all. We could go down to the beach, which was lovely, but it was overall a really unique and amazing experience, with an incredibly talented group of really lovely people, and we had an amazing time. It was a very unique experience in that it was almost pressurized, like a boot camp, because we were living and working in the same place and couldn't leave. But it was incredible. And today with tourists, I wonder whether the show's made people a little more self-aware from watching this. I hope so!

What was your first reaction to reading Armond on the page? What do you think of his philosophy about performing "tropical kabuki" for the guests?

I think Armond is an amazing character because he's complex and has this public face, the face he has in his job. He maintains this game that he and the guests play, where he gives them whatever they need and plays this role, and they expect a lot. But he also has this very rich inner life, his own pain and demons he's dealing with, in terms of his addiction issues and probably other stuff that's not in the script, who he is and where he's coming from.

When I first read it, I only read the first script, and in the first episode, the majority of what you see of him is playing this public face. So I was like, I love this character, I know Mike White's work and there's a lot going on underneath this. That's true of all of us, and I found that really fascinating.

Who or what was your inspiration for your portrayal of Armond? While Armond is cynical and intense about how he approaches his role, did you find sympathy for the demands of hospitality workers in portraying him?

Yes, absolutely, to your second question. I worked in hospitality when I was starting out as an actor, so I had a lot of my own experiences as reference points of being in those situations that Armond finds himself in. But really, the script is so well-written, there was so much that was on the page. I wanted to do justice to what Mike had written. I had to find my inner Armond! I explored the aspects of his character, like having a public face and a private face, that we can all relate to — maybe we don't all have addiction issues, but we all have things we fall back on to help us get through whatever. 

I never felt a lack of sympathy for him. Some of the ways he treats people could be kind of horrific, especially the people who are under him, but I also think he has a level of self-awareness some of the guests lack. At some point, when Lani is having a baby at the end of the first episode, he does realize he messed up, and he's horrified. But he's so caught up in this role he's playing, and the system he's sort of playing into, that he becomes part of it. He does have enough self-awareness to self-reflect and feel crappy about it, but it's his job to do what he does, and that's the insidious thing about this hierarchical system, where there's privileged, wealthy people at the top — everyone has a role to play and you're sort of expected to play that role.

Eventually it becomes autopilot, and you're like, 'Who am I? What is this?' That's the trajectory of Armond, ultimately. 'What is this world I'm in? What have I become? What is this? Get me out!' But he's at an age where he's like, what would he do if he left? So he's trapped in a way. I always felt empathy for him from the beginning, through all the crazy, sometimes horrible things he'd done, I think his humanity is also very present.

There's something so eerie about Armond's final, downward spiral in the finale, ultimately leading to his death. How did you prepare for this scene, and really give audiences a glimpse into his psyche?

Again, it's brilliantly written! Those plot points and the trajectories of the characters are so clear in the script, so it was a joy to play because all the pieces are there. We were shooting completely out of order because the schedule was so intense. But there was something about mapping where he was in terms of what kinds of drugs he was taking, what level he was at, especially toward the end. 

It was a bit of a jigsaw puzzle in terms of keeping track of where he was emotionally, where he was with the drugs in his system, which was sometimes a challenge but ultimately fun to hold those pieces together. I just was lucky to have an amazing script, and an amazing character written. Some of the drugs he's taken I haven't taken, so I had to do research, find out as much as you can, ask a lot of questions to people, try and stitch it all together,

In many ways, Armond and his disdain for the privileged, demanding guests provide a lens through which audiences watch and understand the show. For you, was the ending of the season frustrating, watching these guests get away with everything, and leave the resort with nothing having changed for them?

It is frustrating in a great way, because that's what happens! It's frustrating that that's what happens in this hierarchal system where people with privilege and power at the top, if they misuse it, can literally get away with murder and all sorts of stuff. [The ending] should be frustrating! It made me feel all sorts of mixed emotions at the end.

So, when Rachel (Alexandra Daddario) and Shane get back together, I didn't like it, I was like, 'What? I don't understand!' And then a bit later, I'm like, of course, that's what happens — she'll be miserable, he'll be oblivious, but they'll just go on and live this life, and they can afford to put all this stuff behind them and be oblivious, because they can hover above it and let everyone else be broken and suffer below them. I love the way it ends for those reasons. It is incredibly frustrating, it reminds us of many aspects of the society we live in, where that plays out.

The White Lotus
Murray Bartlett in "The White Lotus" (HBO)

Almost all of the guests are frustrating to watch in their own ways. But what was it like actually working with the actors and the cast?

It was fun, really, really fun. Mike White set the tone of fun, of let's play, and dive in and have fun with this. Everyone was on board with that. And it's such a talented group of actors, and you're all in the spirit of play, it's just a recipe for a joyful experience. The scenes I got to do with Jake Lacy — he's such a great actor with such a great sense of humor, so being in those scenes with someone like that, where there's such great conflict and tension, it was just fun. 

It was really a dream, this experience, because it is such a talented, wonderful group of people. We were lucky we were all stuck together, everyone got on really well, a really lovely group. It was a very unique experience because we all felt incredibly fortunate to be there in the middle of a pandemic, in this beautiful place with this great script, hanging out with each other, having fun. I don't think we were ever not aware of that, we felt very lucky. It was an experience like no other, and I hope we don't have to experience working in a pandemic again!

Finally, we learn it was Armond who's killed and sent home in the cardboard coffin. People had a lot of guesses about who would die — did you have any favorite fan theories? Were you initially surprised by Armond's fate?

I was surprised — I didn't know who it was, I suspected at some point that it might be him, and then there were a few other contenders. I sort of thought it was going to be Rachel, and then all the way through, maybe it would be John, the guy that Tanya dates because he seems sick. It could be a number of different people! But I kept coming back to think these are all just red herrings, mainly I thought, it's Rachel. So, I was shocked when it was Armond! I haven't keyed into what different fan theories are, or I haven't come across those. But I love that people are guessing, and I hope people were surprised!

Your character may have been killed off in this season's final twist, but do you know anything about Season 2 at this point? What are your thoughts on how a second season could go? 

I know as much as you do! But it's Mike White. He can do anything, he's got such an amazing mind and imagination. Obviously, I would love to be part of Season 2; I don't know how that would be possible, but it's Mike White! He can come up with something! [laughs] I'm just thrilled the show is getting a lot of love, to the extent they want to do more, and I think whatever way it goes, I have complete faith Mike will come up with something extraordinary. As much as I love the idea of being in a second season, I also think a season with a new cast and completely different location could be amazing. It'll be great whatever it is!


Kylie Cheung

Kylie Cheung is a staff writer at Salon covering culture. She is also the author of "A Woman's Place," a collection of feminist essays. You can follow her work on Twitter @kylietcheung.

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