Jake Lacy’s Change of Pace

After years spent playing preternaturally charming, the White Lotus star finally gets to go full jerk.

Writer-director Mike White told Lacy his character was at his worst when he thought he was being nice: “It’s just someone cocking their arm back and being like, Dude, don’t make me hit you.” Photo: Peter Fisher
Writer-director Mike White told Lacy his character was at his worst when he thought he was being nice: “It’s just someone cocking their arm back and being like, Dude, don’t make me hit you.” Photo: Peter Fisher
Writer-director Mike White told Lacy his character was at his worst when he thought he was being nice: “It’s just someone cocking their arm back and being like, Dude, don’t make me hit you.” Photo: Peter Fisher

Jake Lacy doesn’t normally go on runs with other people, so he’s fascinated by the unspoken negotiations that happen around pace. “I just ran with a friend of mine for the first time in a long time,” he tells me. “He came out of the gate cooking, and I was like, Shit, I guess we’re doing this.” So Lacy sped up and then the friend sped up too, and by the end of their five-mile run, they were both panting with exhaustion. Eventually, he had to ask, “Is this your normal pace?” And his friend admitted no, he just got competitive. “Clearly, part of me does that too,” Lacy muses, “otherwise I would’ve been like, I’m done running.”

Lacy happens to be telling me this story as we cool down in Domino Park after our own run back and forth across the Williamsburg Bridge on a foggy July morning. He had suggested the activity for an interview and checked in with me about how well it was going both as we ran and afterward. We completed our 3.5-mile loop in around 30 minutes, making for about an eight-minute-and-30-seconds-per-mile pace, according to my attempts to calculate. We haven’t quite booked it like Lacy and his friend, but we’ve made good time, especially considering that I was holding a tape recorder and asking questions he had to shout answers to over the screeching J/M/Z trains passing by a few yards away. He runs the route a lot by himself, but he’s curious about how other people approach running — and curious in a meta sense about competitiveness itself. “I think I don’t have that in me,” he says, “and then the moment presents itself.”

Competitiveness is on Lacy’s mind after filming his role as the ultimate loathsome bro in HBO’s The White Lotus. In Mike White’s cutting series, Lacy’s character, correctly named Shane, touches down at a Hawaiian resort for a honeymoon with Alexandra Daddario’s Rachel, discovers they’ve been booked into the wrong room — the Palm Suite, not the Pineapple Suite — and proceeds to sabotage the rest of their vacation by going to war with Murray Bartlett’s hotel manager over the mix-up. “He’s the most entitled victim possible,” Lacy tells me mid-bridge. “He’s technically correct. He did not get what he paid for. But also, dude, let it go!”

Lacy’s performance on The White Lotus repurposes all of his natural charm to sinister ends. He’s got a boyish smile and an easy handsomeness, the kind that can get you a gig working the check-in counter of an upscale SoulCycle knockoff — which, yes, was one of his survival jobs when he first moved to New York. Onscreen, his most famous roles involve playing capital-N, capital-G Nice Guys: straight men who offer comfort to complicated women, whether as Fran the schoolteacher, who woos Lena Dunham in seasons four and five of Girls; Ken, who’s miraculously fine with Leslie Mann’s pregnancy in How to Be Single; or Max, who is so preternaturally kind to Jenny Slate in Obvious Child that he offers to warm up her butter packet at a restaurant with his hands.

At 36, Lacy realized he was almost exactly between his White Lotus co-stars Steve Zahn, 53, and Fred Hechinger, 21: “I’m not the young dude fresh out of the gate anymore.” Photo: Peter Fisher

The fact that Lacy is always nice has gotten to the point of memeification, with nearly every piece written about his work in The White Lotus riffing on the concept of “no more mister nice Jake Lacy.” It doesn’t help that I once wrote a ranking of his many nice guys for Vulture, which I feel a need to apologize for turning into his career narrative. He admits he saw me tweet about the list, too. “I was amazed that anyone took the time or thought about me,” he says. “Thanks, man!” Nice again.

Lacy didn’t take the White Lotus role specifically to buck that career narrative. It was more that he was excited to work on a show written by White — and to be able to work, period, since the show filmed in a bubble in the middle of the pandemic last fall and winter. Lacy had read only the first episode by the time he landed in Maui, assuming it would be a pretty standard show about “privileged white people on vacation and the grotesquerie that goes along with it,” he says. Yes, The White Lotus is very much that, but White pushed Lacy to tease out Shane’s specifically grotesque way of being. Often, the writer-director pointed out that Shane is at his worst when he thinks he’s being nice: when he’s trying to make peace with his wife (at one point, he offers to pay her not to take a writing job) or broker a deal with Bartlett. “He knows he’s allowed to be an asshole, and he thinks he’s being generous by not immediately being an asshole. But that’s not the same as grace or compassion,” Lacy says. “It’s just someone cocking their arm back and being like, ‘Dude, don’t make me hit you.’”

When Lacy asked if Shane could wear an Ivy League baseball cap, White suggested the infamously douchey Cornell. In a later episode, when Shane’s mother, played with charming menace by Molly Shannon, shows up, Rachel asks him to imagine how he would feel if her mother had dropped in on their honeymoon out of the blue. Lacy’s instinct was to place a lot of emphasis on Shane’s comeback that Rachel’s mother couldn’t afford the trip, as if he were lashing out. White told him to focus on his phone instead, to play it as if Shane hasn’t been paying attention. “Which is awful. The truest thing about him is that he’s like, ‘She’s poor,’” Lacy says. “It’s not a dig. It’s who he is.”

When talking about his acting work, Lacy often frames himself as the student. In this case, he showed up in Maui and did his best to keep up with the rest of the series’s truly stacked cast — including Jennifer Coolidge, who, for a scene in the show’s third episode, improvised “comedy gold” on a boat while talking about her character’s dead mother as Lacy and Daddario tried desperately to keep straight faces. But if he’s in a meditative state, it’s also because he’s reckoning with a transitional moment in his career. While filming the show, he had dinner every night with Steve Zahn, 53, and Fred Hechinger, who turned 21 during the shoot. At 36, Lacy realized he was almost exactly between them in age. “I’m not the young dude fresh out of the gate anymore,” he says.

By this point, we’ve settled onto a bench looking out across the East River, our breathing almost fully returned to normal. Lacy points out a nearby building where he used to live. Aside from a brief stint in Brooklyn Heights, he has been in Williamsburg for nearly the past decade, having caught the tail end of gentrification: “Before it was just finance bros, and then my good fortune has matched the ever-increasing rents here.” He likes to go to all his favorite local places, especially Paulie Gee’s, where he orders the Hellboy slice with a root beer every time. (“I have a real thing about loving to be a regular,” he says. “I don’t want to go to new places.”) But he’s also considering moving out. He has two young boys with his wife, Lauren DeLeo, and he thinks it may be time to find more space outside the city.

Shane “thinks he’s being generous by not immediately being an asshole, but that’s not the same as grace or compassion,” Lacy says of his White Lotus character. Photo: Peter Fisher

All this marks a sort of personal-life and career recalibration — the time you start to ask how fast you want to be running. He’s not as interested in playing the Jake Lacy Nice Guy unless it’s with an incredible director or co-star, or, he jokes, “the money is insane.” And even in more recent roles of that type, he has tried to push the character in different directions. On Ramy, he seems genuine but turns out to have a fetish for Ramy’s sister’s Muslim identity. In the Hulu reboot High Fidelity, he played the put-together guy who loves rock-climbing to Zoë Kravitz’s music-obsessed mess but felt he could thread more depth into the character. “Instead of just having him be out-of-the-womb aw-shucks, I wanted it to be him making a conscious effort to be this person,” Lacy said, implying that the character had made mistakes like Kravitz’s in the past and was both judgmental of and drawn to her because of it. He wanted to further explore that dynamic, but the show didn’t get picked up for a second season.

Coming up, he has a role in Aaron Sorkin’s film about Lucille Ball, playing one of the writers of I Love Lucy alongside Tony Hale and Alia Shawkat as they all react to accusations that Ball was a communist. There’s also a TBS pilot he just shot with Halston’s Krysta Rodriguez about a couple in a stagnating relationship. The fact that he has played so many supporting roles is, he reckons, a sign of some progress in the industry, that many more stories are being told that center on women, and he can show up and fill a part of their narrative. But he’s gotten hungry to do more, even just from his role on The White Lotus. It’s an ensemble show, but Lacy’s feud with Bartlett is what propels the plot toward its deathly conclusion.

We know The White Lotus ends with a dead body because Shane is the first character we see, as he’s watching a casket get loaded into an airplane at the end of his vacation. “It was after I’d been cast that I saw that in the script, and I was like” — he whispers — “I get to start this fucking show?” Lacy’s looking back from our bench toward the Williamsburg Bridge, smiling at his own good fortune. “I just haven’t gotten to do that before. It’s really fun.”

Jake Lacy’s Change of Pace