Murray Bartlett Wants ‘The White Lotus’ to Plant a Viciously Funny Seed of Awareness
Murray Bartlett brings a personal touch to HBO’s “The White Lotus.” He knows all too well the feeling of having to cater to the whims of the barbarously privileged, having worked in the hospitality industry before acting started to pay off. Mike White gave Bartlett a chance to face all those demons again in his acclaimed, wickedly absorbing creation. The Australian actor and TV veteran plays Armond, who manages the White Lotus resort, an exquisite Hawaiian getaway where an ensemble of privileged Americans drop in with their literal and internal baggage. Armand develops a particular antipathy towards Shane (Jake Lacy), a wealthy heir traveling with wife and aspiring journalist Rachel (Alexandra Daddario). Other guests include the Mossbacher family, composed of CEO mom Nicole (Connie Britton), dad Mark (Steve Zahn), son Quinn (Fred Hechinger), daughter Olivia (Sydney Sweeney), who is bringing along friend Paula (Brittany O’Grady), and Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge), who wants to spread her mother’s ashes into the sea.
It is in this season’s final episodes that Armand’s bottled-up rages erupt in a show-stealing performance. Throughout the season we see him in a stand-off with Shane, who is (not without justification) frustrated that Armand has housed him and Rachel in the wrong hotel suite. Shane may be arrogantly spoiled, yet Armand has his own pitifully tyrannical streak. When he steals and indulges in the pills and ketamine found in a lost bag belonging to Olivia and Paula, it fuels the fire that helps set the stage for the show’s low-key apocalypse. The gauntlet was really dropped when Shane caught Armand in a late night sexual frolic with his resort employee, Dillon (Lukas Gage), in a wildly memorable scene, where the hotel manager has his face firmly planted in the ass of his younger co-worker. Yet it is when another employee, Kai (Kekoa Kekumano), is caught breaking into the Mossbacher’s room, that Armand’s fate is sealed.
What follows is a biting vision of the resort manager “rising up” against his social masters. Armand isn’t so much a hero as someone who has simply snapped like a rubber band. He snorts a line of the ketamine he’s stolen from Olivia and Paula, tells Dillon not to waste his life in a place like this, and throws up a pair of middle fingers before initiating his final, drug-crazed hurrah. It’s the perfect culmination of a show that works in the tradition of films like “The Exterminating Angel,” where the elite are boxed into a space that lets their true, vicious selves come forth. An instant hit for HBO, “The White Lotus” has been renewed for a second season which will be set in a new locale with a new cast of travelers.
“This is a brilliantly written show and a lot of the character was already on the page when I read it,” Bartlett told Entertainment Voice when discussing his dive into this sly satire. “As a young actor I worked in the hospitality industry, so I had those experiences to draw on. You always want to bring your experiences to a role and I had plenty (laughs). I had to deal with obnoxious people, and some who were not, of course. You just have this specific experience when working in hospitality.” On working in that industry, Bartlett tells us, “I hear stories from a friend of mine that are so weird. He’s always sharing about these bizarre, obnoxious people he has to deal with. They keep asking for crazy shit.”
Bartlett sees the resort manager, who is a walking pressure cooker, as a tragi-comic personification of the human condition. “You always search for an aspect of yourself that is that character,” he said. “It can be kind of uncomfortable when it comes to certain aspects of some characters, which is the case of Armand (laughs). It’s like ‘oh my god, this is who we are as humans.’ It exists in all of us. I hope that’s one of the things about the show, that it holds a mirror up to these aspects about ourselves and helps us try to do better. At the same time you want to understand Armand and find his vulnerabilities and feel for him. I think you do feel for Armand. He’s a casualty of this insane world that he’s in. He acts badly as well. It’s complicated.”
Armand is this season’s central and sole openly gay character, and Bartlett hopes the show says something about our divisions along identities and social rankings. “Our society is built in this structure that has produced great inequality and this cultural, economic form of racial privilege that is tearing us apart,” said Bartlett when reflecting on how “The White Lotus” resonates not merely as entertainment, but as an artistic expression of the times. “I hope this can be a wakeup call. We can’t keep treating each other like crap. We’re all human beings. This idea of privilege just perpetuates divisions of race, class and any other kind of version of privilege in our societies. Although this tackles it on a personal level, it does play into the big picture. How long can we be obnoxious creatures and treat the planet like shit? Let’s just stop, please.”
In a way Armand is the Greek chorus of all the dramas unfolding in the world of the White Lotus resort. “It was a bizarre, once in a lifetime experience,” said Bartlett. “We were all locked down together in this resort. We couldn’t leave during the entire shoot. But it felt like summer camp. We were in a good mood shooting Hawaii. But the schedule was so tight we shot a lot of it out of order. So it was very intense in that way. Mike White just wants everyone to have fun and succeeds in that. You’re given a lot of license to take risks and play on set.” Despite clashing with Jake Lacy in the story, in what amounts to a near duel to the death, the vibe on set was much different. “In real life, me and Jake got along splendidly (laughs). It could have easily gone the other way, but he and everyone else were just such wonderful people. It was fun and playful. There was more of an intensity to the way we were shooting.”
Bartlett’s performance in this inaugural season of “The White Lotus” should stand as one of the year’s best in television. Like the most memorable satirical characters, Armand is a creation fully entertaining but also loaded with meaning. He’s both underdog and overlord, wishing to exercise control over his environment even as he must cater to a social superior like Shane. It’s a virtuoso turn with moments of low-key, guarded frustration and an unforgettable eruption by the end. White’s writing makes everyone memorable, and succeeds in giving adequate space to each micro story within this world. What makes Armand particularly compelling is how he can generate both sympathy and also head-shaking from the audience. If only he could find another way out than his poor decisions.
Bartlett’s performance in this inaugural season of “The White Lotus” should stand as one of this year’s best in television. Like the most memorable satirical characters, Armand is a creation fully entertaining but also loaded with meaning. He’s both underdog and overlord, wishing to exercise control over his environment even as he must cater to social superiors like Shane. It’s a virtuoso turn with moments of low-key, guarded frustration and an unforgettable eruption by the end. Nothing frames how Armand feels quite like the moment where he decides to enter the Pineapple Suite to defecate in Shane’s luggage, and we get a big closeup of both the action and the result. It’s his final gesture towards a man he considers to be absolute shit, before Shane accidentally stabs Armand, leaving him to breathe his last breath in the suite’s tub. It is both a pitifully operative ending and a testament to the overall boldness of Mike White’s writing and directing. White makes every character memorable, and succeeds in giving adequate space to each micro story within this world. What makes Armand particularly compelling is how he can generate both sympathy and also head-shaking from the audience. If only he could find another way out than through his poor decisions.
Now, after tackling the savage ways of the modern American, Bartlett tells us he is gearing up for a new project from HBO. “I’m actually working on another HBO series, (‘The Last of Us’). I probably shouldn’t say much, but I’m happy to be under their roof again.”
“The White Lotus” season one finale airs Aug. 15 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.