Spoilers for the sixth episode of The White Lotus season two, “Abductions.”
“I thought, I am fucked. Like, I am fucked! This role is gonna ruin my life,” Sabrina Impacciatore exclaims over a Zoom call from Los Angeles. The 54-year-old Italian actress — well-known and well-loved in her native country after rising to fame on ’90s variety show Non è la RAI — plays Valentina, the manager of the White Lotus Sicily in season two of Mike White’s hit HBO anthology series. Her role is the Italian counterpart to Murray Bartlett’s Armond, a character whose existence was paramount to season one’s conclusion and won Bartlett his first Emmy.
“He became an icon of this show,” Impacciatore continues. “I was terrified about the comparison; the expectations were very high. And then I had to be bitchy on top of that? I wanna become an international actress! And with this role, I will never work again.”
And yet, Valentina’s blunt retorts, general misandry, and teetering in stiletto pumps across the Taormina cobblestones have endeared her to audiences, with Impacciatore racking up media appearances and memes across the internet. Episode six swaps out her comedic beats for an emotional roller coaster: After working up the gumption to ask Isabella on a date (on her own birthday, no less), Valentina is thrilled when she accepts — until the unwitting Isabella confides that she’s engaged to Rocco. Visibly devastated, the manager cancels their plans to sip martinis alone at the bar. Then Mia (Beatrice Grannò) arrives with a proposition, and the pair use Valentina’s master key to sneak into a suite, where Mia helps Valentina have her first sexual experience with a woman. “Mike was very passionate about this moment,” Impacciatore says of the tender sequence. “The hookup makes Valentina finally free.”
I need to start with the starfish pin Valentina gives Isabella. It’s been bothering me since episode four. No one is supposed to think that’s pretty, right?
I still don’t know. When I saw the pin, I was wondering, Is it a bit cheesy? I know it was very precious. In the first take, I literally described the pin to Isabella in great detail to make her understand how much money I had invested in this gift. It was a sign that Valentina is making a big effort. But it’s a gesture that’s almost too much, a bit invasive. You know, I just learned that a starfish is a symbol of forever love.
Aw! That makes it so much sadder when Valentina finds out Isabella isn’t into her.
I mean, she’s so naïve. We see her so alone, and then she falls in love with Isabella. She doesn’t understand that Isabella doesn’t love her back. Then, in that moment of vulnerability, there’s this meeting of a lifetime with Mia. Even if they’re not going to be together, who cares? There is a click. Mike was very passionate about this moment; he came to me and said, “Sabrina, Valentina can’t be sad when she understands she is not going to have a relationship with Mia.” Mike wanted to really affirm the fact that the hookup makes Valentina finally free. That was really touching to me. I cried a lot off-camera with this character. Even now I get emotional. I love her so much.
Did you have a backstory you made up for Valentina, or did Mike work on that with you?
So, I never talked with Mike. Like, we never rehearsed. So I arrived to the first day of shooting terrified because I didn’t know what he wanted from this character. We talked for five minutes and he told me, “Valentina is so direct. She just says things she feels.” Through my character, he wanted to tell this story about his own experience traveling in Europe, when he met someone who didn’t treat him in a way he was expecting.
At first, I struggled a lot. He told me, “Sabrina, you have to be more bitchy!” And I didn’t get it right away. I was scared that people could hate me. It’s my first American show, a huge show in America; I was excited and I was terrified! So, I made up her backstory on my own and I didn’t even share it with Mike. I’m an actress who really needs to feel things. I don’t act, I live things, and the only thing in the script was that Valentina was married many years ago. With the editing, that information is not there anymore, so I created the story of an abusive relationship. I imagined her at home, not having a real life, not having friends, very lonely. In fact, the scene with the kittens helped me a lot because I thought, Valentina loves these kittens so much because she’s not at ease with human beings.
I loved that scene with the stray cats in episode three. It’s our first glimpse at something deeper in her.
Sometimes people love animals more than humans because they feel the animals don’t judge them. They don’t ask questions; they just love you. The more Valentina works, the less she can think about herself. Her job is a way to have control over her life because all her emotions are repressed. To me that was very touching, that Valentina was in contact with herself through those kittens.
So that abusive relationship, that’s where her hatred of men comes from?
Valentina doesn’t even know why she treats men badly. She just feels uncomfortable. She feels they want something from her that she doesn’t want to give them, but she doesn’t know why. To me, that was surprisingly innocent. Because when Isabella comes to her and tells her, “I admire you. I like the way you treat men,” it’s the first time Valentina ever considered that she does that. But she feels seen for the first time, and so she gets attached to the first person that pays attention to her.
Like a lost kitten.
Exactly! She’s a lost, sad kitten. In fact, I worked a lot in the opposite direction of bitchy. I imagined a cactus being repellent from the outside but very sweet inside.
I want to ask about Valentina’s sexuality against the backdrop of Sicilian culture and gender dynamics. Did that come into play at all?
Of course. In Italy, sexuality is still a big issue. The queer community doesn’t have the same rights as heterosexual people or like queer people in America. Always in my life, it made me struggle. As an actress, I’ve always tried to communicate that we have the same right to love. For example, I’ve done it in a monologue about homophobia. We all love; who cares if you love a person of your same sex? Why shouldn’t you have the same rights? But because we have the Vatican in Italy, that’s a big issue. So, not only does Valentina not know herself, but from the cultural point of view, she’s scared to accept that idea.
And then Mia and Lucia come along flaunting their sexuality. It’s an affront to Valentina’s very being, isn’t it?
Yes, of course, because they live with their sexuality in a very free way. Valentina probably felt unconsciously threatened by them. Her reaction to them is very strong at the beginning, but through them, she finally meets herself, meets her truth.
Thinking about the consequences of being gay in Italy, what’s the reaction been to Valentina, or to you, online?
I’ve been surprised. So many people have written me on Instagram. They say, “I love you. You are my favorite. I can’t wait for your episode. I want to marry you.” Even with just a few scenes, they are loving me and loving this character.
Someone proposed marriage?
Okay, well, not marriage, but I’ve had so many love declarations from different people: men, women, girls, transgender people. In Italy I am a queer icon, but it’s happening here too, and I’m so proud of that. Maybe I will have a girlfriend in the future.
How did you become a queer icon in Italy?
It’s a strange destiny. It happened like 20 years ago. They keep following me and they really support me. I’ve been a queer godmother for queer film festivals, gay pride, they involve me in their celebrations. It is something very special to me. But I have no idea how it started. When I was 18, I did a huge variety show that became a phenomenon. Even though it was on in the ’90s, they still air it every year. On the show, I was a comedian and I used to invent characters; I wrote and I sang this song that the queer community loved so much. I used to dress myself up in lots of makeup, wigs. I was never the cute girl trying to please everybody, and I didn’t want to. I just want to be myself and I want to be free, and I want to fight for the rights of everybody.
So, basically you’re the Italy-based Lady Gaga.
[Laughs.] There are some memes about that. Allora! On TikTok there is one that says, “Lady Gaga’s best acting ever,” and it’s a picture of me in the show. It’s weird because on Instagram people say I should have done House of Gucci. It’s crazy. You know what? Look at this. [Impacciatore demonstrates her profile, running her pointer finger down her nose to accentuate the bump on the ridge.] I mean, my God. Actually, when I saw A Star Is Born, I identified a lot with Gaga. I feel like she’s my sister and I can’t wait to meet her someday.
Hey, well maybe someone — *cough cough* Mike White — will write a sister story for you and Gaga.
Oh my God! That’s a good suggestion!