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admin / Fri, Jun 23, 2023
‘White Lotus’ Stars Theo James, Will Sharpe on the Show’s Themes of Jealousy, Rivalry and Toxic Masculinity

The two actors also tell THR about their characters’ suspicions of cheating and that final confrontation in the ocean.

In Mike White’s The White Lotus, Will Sharpe and Theo James play Ethan and Cameron, friends from college who go on a lavish vacation to Sicily, Italy, with their wives, Harper (Aubrey Plaza) and Daphne (Meghann Fahy). It’s all fun and games, until jealousy, rivalry and male egos come into play — and for James and Sharpe, the underlying themes and the depth of the storyline are exactly what enticed them about the show. The two actors speak to THR about their characters’ competition and suspicions of cheating, and their final confrontation in an ocean fight scene.

What interested you about each of your characters?

WILL SHARPE The quality of the writing, the opportunity to work with Mike and the brilliant cast and crew. But in the case of Ethan, what was exciting was also challenging. How he was this enigma at the beginning and by the end he does get quite explosive, but for much of the series, he’s mysterious and almost like a human question mark.

THEO JAMES Mike’s grasp on his own genre that he’s carved out — it’s both humorous and philosophical and reflective of social and economic problems. All of that is so ripe and really interesting. In terms of Cameron, I felt like I’ve met those people before in various stages of my life — repugnant versions of them. I liked that he was quite villainous. I was interested in playing that side of him, but the challenge was trying to make him as vaguely charming or empathetic in the guise of someone who’s quite toxic and manipulative, and make him as warm as possible within the gambit of that fairly toxic [group].

How did you step into that “villainous” role?

JAMES He says some fairly outrageous things, but he’s not too highly judgmental of people around him. I always thought Cameron, in his warped, strange, fucked-up way, really loves Ethan even though he’s willing to sabotage, gaslight and manipulate him. He’s competitive and jealous of him in various ways.

SHARPE What’s interesting about all these characters is how they’re morally gray — it’s not like any of them are out-and-out good people, nor are they cartoonish villains. The way it’s written, you have the opportunities and audience for your feelings to move around and to shift from moment to moment, from episode to episode. A big theme in this season was toxic masculinity, and Cameron presents more immediately as toxic, but Ethan is also pretty toxic in his own insidious way. At the beginning, the assumption is that Ethan is following Cameron around and needs him to feel important or worthy, but by the end of the series, there’s almost a feeling like, “Hang on, this guy needs me.” Like, where is the power, I suppose? Even that felt like it was shifting as the story went on. That’s a really particular fucked-up friendship, where you’re thrown together just by geography almost. They just happened to share a room and then ended up being in each other’s lives one way or another.

JAMES You’re right. They’re thrown together at college, first dorm room together. They don’t have much in common, but that shared emotive history brings a certain kind of love and reverence behind all the toxicity.

How much improv was involved?

JAMES Mike let us top and tail beginnings and ends of scenes with improvisation, and that really helped us because it let us warm in [and out of] scenes. Most of what ended up being in there is from the script, but then little pieces of improvisation ended up being in there, or stuff that he might shout out to one of us. That gave us a certain freedom and also enabled us to work around the characters and develop little relationships in these scenes themselves. Because the way they’re written, they’re quite contained, in a great way.

I read the flossing scene was ad-libbed.

JAMES Yeah. I always thought of Cameron as someone inspired by someone I met. One of these hypermasculine dudes, but he’s really obsessive-compulsive about his hygiene in an odd way. I like the idea that he’s very meticulous about that and then ended up reflecting a little bit about his pain and narcissism mainly in the fact that he may have a child fathered by someone else.

Will, Ethan really spirals in episode six. How did you prepare for that?

SHARPE What I love about the way Mike has written the show is that there are different ways to interpret how we’ll end up at the end of the series, us four, and there are different ways of interpreting what the story actually is. There’s a version of it where Ethan and Harper have borrowed some small piece of Daphne and Cameron, and it’s broken this spell of the strange period in their relationship. But there’s another way of looking at it where it’s almost like it’s their induction — Ethan and Harper are obviously newly into this level of wealth, so it’s the first time they’ve probably been on a vacation of this kind. It almost felt like, “If you want to be a part of this world, you have to play by our rules.” And there’s the obvious thing of jealousy, and if there’s something going on here between Cameron and Harper. I felt like it was almost something deeper about how Ethan wants to play by a certain set of rules that he thinks are correct and good, but it doesn’t work out, and so by the end of the holiday, it’s like, “OK, if we have to play by those rules, then let’s fucking play by those rules.” He surrenders to that in spite of himself.

Did having all the scripts for the episodes help shape your characters’ arcs?

JAMES It would have been tough without them, because the thing is nuanced and the performances need to have range; they are comedic but they can heighten, and they have to sit in a certain reality. We often said as a cast, we’re quite lucky to be season two, because the tone and the pitch of it is very specific in terms of what it is and it would have been more discombobulating to be on a first season, I can imagine, because you’re like, “Is this enough? Is this too much?” We had all seen how Mike’s certain alchemy really worked in the first season, so we were able, to an extent, to trust it.

What was your most challenging scene?

SHARPE Some of the gaslighting scenes. I remember Mike pushing me out of what was my instinctive comfort zone of wanting to bring some tenderness or levity to offset the dysfunction. Mike pushed me to go in a steadily more toxic direction until it was the appropriate level of toxicity. Also, some of those scenes are just very sad and required being vulnerable.

JAMES Simulating a sex scene with one actor and then staring into Will’s eyes was tricky. I remember thinking, “This is a pretty random thing we do as actors!” But no, I enjoyed the foursome scenes because they had so many peaks and troughs to them. It was a bit like doing theater. I found Will and I pitching where we end up — the fight scene was fine in itself, but there was a bit of a [deviation from] where it started, because it was originally written a little more comedic, in a heightened way. It didn’t quite work because you needed to drive home the reality of the situation. We were trying to figure out what was enough from Cameron to spur Ethan on, to tip him over the edge. We tried a few things. Some were too much, too on the nose, some weren’t enough.

Let’s talk about that final confrontation. What was it like to shoot?

SHARPE We had one rehearsal with two stunt guys the day before, and because of the tides, we kept drifting into the actual shoot and had to wade away from there. Also, we wanted it to be fun and exciting, but also clearly people who don’t really know how to fight, who are just muddling their way through it. So there is something quietly funny about it. And it was also a long time coming. I don’t know how it felt for you, Theo. There’s something cathartic about it; it felt like there’s an undercurrent in every scene leading up to that one, where it’s like, “When is this shit going to kick off?” When we got to that day, it was like, “Finally, let’s do this.” The subtext becomes the scene, so there was something very satisfying about finally getting to that moment.

JAMES I think that’s part of Cameron, as well. There’s a satisfaction that he gets from it. The thing with him is he’s constantly gaslighting so he could dress it up in the sense of “That’s what I was trying to bring out of you, man!” A satisfaction from the fact that he’s [pushed] him over the edge in a way, always goading him. But then the basis of that is jealousy and competitiveness from Cameron.

SHARPE I felt like there was something [about] the quiet power Ethan had over Cameron in moments that he wouldn’t rise to the goading. Cameron’s constantly trying to get to him, testing him. And so in a way, that is a moment where Cameron wins because Ethan snaps, and it’s only in the scenes afterward with Daphne where the power shifts again. [Source]

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