White Lotus Actor Knew He Had to Fool the Audience

“The White Lotus” Season 2 didn’t end with any hotel guests maliciously drowning each other — but not for lack of trying.

Ethan (Will Sharpe) is at his wit’s end by the finale, when he’s convinced that wife Harper (Aubrey Plaza) had sex with Cameron (Theo James) to get back at Ethan for cheating on her during a night of illicit partying. (He didn’t!). By the time Episode 7, “Arrivederci,” arrives, Ethan has gone from soft-spoken and diplomatic to full-on violent rage.

“Mike [White] wanted him to be a bit of an enigma, and for audiences to sort of be able to guess one way or another about him,” Sharpe told IndieWire via Zoom after the finale. “People are going to think what they want to think and their suspicions will move around, but he did know that he wanted people to be able to imagine Ethan might end up killing someone. I was mindful of that in the playing of him through the series, whilst also trying to [get to] the truth in each moment and having an eye on the long game.”

Sharpe and White spoke at length about the character up front, about “the restraint with which Ethan was written” and the “coil of energy” inside him that charges up throughout the season. Later episodes also tasked Sharpe and Plaza with multiple layers of deception, as their characters manipulate and gaslight one another while also daring the audience to think them capable of murder.

“We really wanted to have a sense for ourselves of Ethan and Harper’s history,” Sharpe said. “Really this story for them is about trying to work out whether their marriage is falling apart, and if so, why? It was easy to invest these scenes that we’re seeing with some stakes because that’s why it matters to them. That’s why there is heat in those scenes, because they really want it to work out and both of them are  trying to reach for something — they’re not sure exactly how to fix it.”

Two men arguing while standing in the water at a beachfront resort; still from "The White Lotus" Season 2.

“The White Lotus” Season 2

Fabio Lovino/HBO

He added that Ethan’s loosening grip on his control comes from conviction, that something happened and he has to get to the truth — even though his character also made mistakes. “Even if he was curious enough to let that party into his room, he feels like he did show some will power in not fully engaging. Whether he’s right to feel that or not is a matter of opinion, [but] I think that’s why he’s so amped up in those scenes.”

When Ethan finally snaps — “the animal is out” — and attacks Cam in the water, he’s fundamentally fighting for his marriage, Sharpe said. “Through the series, Ethan’s like, ‘I don’t really want to play this game where people are fighting for status and fighting for each other’s affection.’ But then he realizes maybe that he has to. So this is the episode where it’s like, ‘Okay, well, this is the game that we’ve gotta play, then let’s play.’”

Sharpe’s central foursome dominated conversations about Season 2, from their sexual dynamics to their commentary on a specific bracket of privileged millennial lifestyle. Cameron and Daphne (Meghann Fahy) present a cultural foil to Ethan and Harper, the kind of relationship they initially scorn but which ends up getting under their skin in ways no one expected. Ethan and Daphne barely interact before the finale, when they share “a moment of intimacy…and openness with each other,” the rest of which is left open to interpretation.

“Regardless of what physically happened, there is a moment of connection there,” Sharpe said. “A lot of people have talked about the gender politics and the sexual politics and the satire of the privileged — all of that is going on, but sometimes when I’m watching it, I also feel like I’m just seeing a series of interestingly drawn characters yearning for some kind of connection.”

“The White Lotus” Season 2 is now streaming on HBO Max.

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