HBO's newest limited series found unlikely inspiration in the coronavirus pandemic.
The White Lotus, which premiered Sunday, July 11 and features an all-star ensemble cast, details how a group of well-to-do people find their vacation ending with one person dead.
Director and writer Mike White told E! News at the show's red carpet premiere that the concept behind The White Lotus was born after exploring how being "cooped" up with your loved ones throughout the pandemic could take such an extreme toll. As he put it, "You're still with your family, you're still with the person you're married to and having to get along in this tight environment, I thought that would be something that people can relate to."
White said he set out to shine a light on the "cultural issues that everybody's talking about right now" through the lens of seven Hawaii-bound vacationers. Each character, whether it's Jennifer Coolidge's Tanya or Connie Britton's Nicole, is forced to reckon with their own privilege as stuck on an island together.
The first episode opens as the guests arrive to The White Lotus hotel on a boat, with Olivia (Sydney Sweeney) and Paula (Brittany O'Grady) quite literally judging people at first glance. They pick apart newlyweds Rachel (Alexandra Daddadrio) and Shane Patton (Jake Lacy), criticize Olivia's own mom (Britton) and write off Tanya (Coolidge) as a zany woman, all assumptions that aren't totally far off.
But as the episode progresses, things begin to look much different for the employees answering to the hotel's VIPs' beck and call.
At one point, Murray Bartlett's character Armond explains to a new employee that it's best to be "generic," so they can be "pleasant, interchangeable helpers" for the guests. "They get everything they want," he says, "but they don't even know what they want, where they are, who we are, or what the f--k is going on."
This might be the key to ensuring a five star review on Yelp, but as Natasha Rothwell was reminded in playing spa worker Belinda, "those people we interact with in customer service in our day-to-day, they're people too."
"Sure, you might be on vacation, but you're human, I'm human and if you have a s--t day, I can have a s--t day too," she explained, adding that it's made her take a step back and approach situations with empathy, because everyone can make mistakes.
Yes, those missteps are exaggerated in The White Lotus, Bartlett admitted, but it's what makes the HBO series so good. He said, "That's what is so complex and wonderful about it is that [the characters] all incredibly flawed, but there's some moments where you kind of relate to them."
And though White touches on serious subjects, including race and gender, throughout the six episodes, Steve Zahn, who plays a dad going through a mid-life crisis, praised the director for "balancing" those topics with humor and perspective.
"It's such a great social satire [and] social commentary on class and money," the Daddy Daycare actor said, "and yet at the same time there's this backdrop of nature. And that is always grounded in all of these ridiculous problems that we have."
Zahn remarked that as they filmed on the beaches of Hawaii, they'd see "a whale breaching or like, a 120-year-old tortoise" and suddenly remember how "tiny" your problems actually are.
And the cast really did have those moments when they could stop to take in Hawaii's natural beauty, which, as far as Zahn is concerned, was a once in a lifetime opportunity. As Zahn put it, "It was one of the most unique experiences that I think we all collectively as a cast and crew have had and will never have again, just because of the obvious logistics involved with the pandemic."
Bartlett agreed with Zahn, stating, "I think we all felt incredibly free and excited to go to set. That was the sort of motivating thing where you're like, let's go play and that doesn't happen as often as you want it to."
All in all, the cast couldn't thank White enough for allowing them to be a part of the project, with Coolidge calling her role, which he specifically wrote for her, the "gift of all gifts."
So how did White create the show and foster an environment of such love and gratitude? When asked this question, he remained humble as ever, chalking it up to a great cast and a beautiful location. "Well, the truth was we were shooting during the quarantine, so I think everybody was just happy to be working," he said. "And then we were taking over the Four Seasons, which was pretty enviable."
The White Lotus airs Sundays on HBO.