Warning: Major spoilers for The White Lotus season finale lie ahead.
Amid her search for the perfect massage and a place to scatter her dead mother’s ashes, grieving hotel guest Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge) seems like the character closest to unraveling in writer-director Mike White’s The White Lotus. But it’s actually Armond, the luxe Hawaiian resort’s manager, played by Murray Bartlett, who’s having the nervous breakdown the whole time. After bungling the honeymoon reservation of smug real-estate scion Shane (Jake Lacy), the five-years-sober boss dives off the wagon — and straight into vacationing college student Paula’s (Brittany O’Grady) “missing” pill-filled duffel bag. (Armond eventually returns it, minus the pharmaceuticals.) “Being in this environment, dealing with these guests, trying to keep a lid on his demons has really worn him down,” says New York–based Aussie Bartlett, who traded his pandemic lockdown on a Cape Cod beach for a work trip to Maui to play the relapsing hotelier last year.
Armond’s increasingly erratic behavior goes from obsequious to off the (ketamine-induced) rails when he adds binge-drinking to his bender: He schedules the already unsteady newlyweds on a rocky boat ride with Tanya during one of her off-loading efforts, propositions wallowing guest Mark (Steve Zahn) at the bar, and gets caught by Shane and spa director Belinda (Natasha Rothwell) giving staffer Dillon (Lukas Gage) a rim job. But it’s his scatological room-service delivery to Shane’s suite that leads to his final aloha in a cardboard casket.
While Bartlett is coy about that defecation scene, he has heard, and is here for, the Armond–Basil Fawlty comparisons. “I remember him being kind of a highly strung, anxious mess,” he says. Here, Bartlett breaks down Armond’s breakdown, how he and Gage fleshed out their sex scene, and why the hospitality pro’s shocking death might have been a relief for him.
The cast lived and worked together at the Four Seasons. During off hours, did you stay in character, with the haves separate from the have-nots?
[Laughs] We didn’t go that far. But we did kind of become a family ’cause we were our own isolated community and it was an intense schedule. We worked a lot but got to go down to the beach at the end of the day and swim together and spend at least one day on the weekend hanging out. It was a very unique experience. I would say it really helped a lot of the relationships in the show.
In HBO’s Looking, your character, Dom, is a waiter. Now you’ve moved up to resort boss. Have you worked in service-industry jobs and waited on rich assholes?
[Laughs] Like most young actors, yes, I worked in hospitality as a waiter and a bartender. And yes, I have a rich library of experiences with less-than-kind — I mean, most people are lovely. But there’s always memorable moments of having to deal with really obnoxious people, so I had some pretty strong reference points of my own.
I assume you never lost it the way Armond does.
I didn’t, which was partly why it was so satisfying to play him. It’s kind of therapeutic letting out some of those pent-up emotions from way back when. It might not be immediately apparent, but he’s starting to lose it when we find him. He’s messed up a booking, and this is not something he does. He runs a really tight ship. He’s a perfectionist. He likes to be in control of everything. Immediately, he’s aware that he’s kind of slipping; he’s off his game. It doesn’t take long for those cracks to widen.
When he confesses to Belinda that he has relapsed, she tells him to get rid of the drugs. He says, “Absolutely, 100 percent,” as he shakes his head no. Were you aware that you did that? Also, where’s Armond’s sponsor? Why doesn’t he go to a meeting?
[Laughs] The wonderful thing about Mike’s writing is that he captures the complexity of human behavior, that we can say one thing while doing the exact opposite. Interestingly, that moment you’re talking about, I wasn’t aware in the beginning. I didn’t intend to do that. It’s one of those moments where the character takes over. You’re like, Oh my God, I’m shaking my head — doing the opposite physically [of] what I’m saying. So I kept doing it. These characters are all complicated. One moment, you feel for them, can relate to them, and the next, you’re like, What are they doing? Perhaps the reason he doesn’t have a sponsor — although Belinda is kind of his de facto sponsor in a way, or he’s made her that — [is] he feels his downfall coming. And maybe that’s the only way to go. He’s in a kind of living hell, really. Perhaps the only way out is the way he goes out.
Is Shane the last straw, or has the ketamine addled his brain? Why does he escalate things and put Shane and Rachel on Tanya’s charter?
Armond is desperately trying to regain control of the situation with Shane, of the situation in the hotel. He’s trying to contain his own demons [and] impulses. It’s a coming together of all these things that are not containable. In some ways, I felt like it was the social strata of this show: Armond is a casualty of this social structure. It’s insane the way these people are acting and the way that everybody around them has to accommodate them, the impact that they’re having on this community and society around them. His unraveling is a symptom of that. He’s had enough. He’s at the end [and] can’t contain it anymore.
Was there any improvising with Jennifer or in your many scenes with Jake?
We were blessed with having really incredible scripts Mike wrote in two, two-and-a-half months. They were brilliantly detailed, brilliantly complex characters; a lot of the stuff you see was in those scripts. You didn’t want to go off-script, [though] there were always moments here and there.
There’s always improvising with Jennifer. [Laughs] She brings in a whole world. There was one scene where Armond just found out that [trainee] Lani is having a baby in [his] office, and Tanya starts raving on about some treatment she wants to have the next day with Belinda. She just went on and on and on, going off-script, making me wait. Eventually, Lukas and I lost it. We just couldn’t hold it together ’cause she’s so incredibly hilarious. But I’m not sure we got the full thing [in the final cut].
Lukas said you two made updates to your sex scene. How did you come up with that, and were you concerned about becoming a meme?
That was one of the first conversations I had with Mike. [In general,] we didn’t talk a lot about what we were going to do before we did it; we didn’t go into great depths talking about the characters because a lot of it was on the page. [But] we had early conversations about the “choreography” of that scene, and he was adamant that we only do what we were comfortable with. Then Lukas and I talked about options that would reflect the dynamic between the characters as well as having a shock value that fit the moment of being caught in the act. There’s always the potential for a moment like that to become memeable, so you just try to make choices that are best for the scene and serve the story.
You got to play so many delightfully awful moments, from Armond stepping in Lani’s amniotic fluid to him shitting in Shane’s clothes-filled suitcase. Did you have a favorite thing to do, one you’re most proud of?
The scene at the end with the suitcase, those kinds of scenes [are] always awkward to shoot just ’cause of the nature of them. It’s bizarre. But they’re kind of perfect in the context of this show. They’re very [chuckles], very odd and awkward scenes to actually play. Mike [created] this atmosphere where you can feel like a kid, just try stuff out, so it feels very free on set. In the context of that kind of vibe, doing those things is much easier ’cause you’re like, [voice rising] Well, we’re just having fun making this show, doing this crazy stuff. [Laughs]
Did Armond plan what he was going to do, or was it a spontaneous, final “fuck you”?
I don’t want to give that away as to what was in my mind. I think you have to ask Mike what his intention was. I’m curious to see what he thinks.
It looked real. Was that CGI?
I know! I mean, I can’t give that away. That’s the magic of television. I was equally shocked when I saw it. I was like, Oh my God, I didn’t realize it was gonna be that graphic. [Laughs] It’s suitably shocking [and] an intense manifestation of someone following through on a really intense impulse. I love that Mike lets these characters fully express themselves.
It looked like you really fell backward into the tub after Shane stabs Armond.
You did that? So should we infer you did the other thing, too?
[Guffaws] I can’t give away all the magic.
When Dillon and Armond are partying, Dillon asks if this is a “kamikaze situation.” Is Armond suicidal? Is Shane’s knifing him a kind of suicide by hotel guest?
I think Armond knows his downfall is coming, but I don’t necessarily think he sees death coming — not consciously. He’s definitely letting go into his unraveling; in his final moments, after the shock and pain, there is some relief in being released from the madness of the situation and the circumstances of his life. But I don’t think his death was intentional. I just think he is out of options and completely fed up and unwilling to continue the madness of his circumstances.
After Armond’s body is loaded onto the plane, Rachel shows up at the airport and tells Shane that everything’s fine, she’ll be happy. So Shane killing Armond saved their marriage, huh?
[Laughs] Is that what you think? That ending is really surprising in weird ways. Things that might feel like a happy ending — are they really? There’s so many things to think about in the final moments of all these characters. It’s unsettling right to the end. You’re not sure — is this a happy ending, or is this even worse?
After playing Armond, do you have a new appreciation for hotel staff, and did you tip really well during your stay?
I like to think I’ve always had a good appreciation for hotel staff and try to tip well because I realize these people put up with a lot of crap. [But] when my laundry hasn’t arrived after two days and I’m about to call up the desk with a bit of tone in my voice, I’m like, What am I doing? This is insane. This is one of the things I hope the show does. These behaviors exist in all of us. Hopefully, it’ll make us more aware of them and try to act better. I know it’s had that effect on me.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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