Fabio Lovino/HBO Theo James, Meghann Fahy, Will Sharpe, and Aubrey Plaza in 'The White Lotus' season 2
Mike White wants to apologize for ruining vacations for everyone.
"Sorry," The White Lotus creator tells EW with a laugh. "What's funny is how many people are now like, 'I was on vacation and it was so White Lotus!' I guess that's why I wrote the show in the first place — not coming from money and then wanting to keep up with the 'Joneses' of Hollywood and going to the vacation spots that people go to, then you get there and you're eavesdropping like, 'Oh my god, the things that these people are talking about here!' I feel like now there's a lot more people who are eavesdropping on those kinds of conversations and having a similar train of thought."
It's a little more than a month before White's Emmy-winning HBO series returns with all-new vacation nightmare fuel, and the showrunner/director/writer is calling from Hawaii. He's back to the scene of the crime (a.k.a. where the first season filmed) to finish editing the last few episodes of season 2 after shooting for months in Italy. "Because of tax rebate reasons, this year it was like, 'We could just go back to Hawaii,' so we did," he says of the post-production process. "Unfortunately our schedule's so gnarly it's not much of a vacation, but it's still nice to be in Hawaii."
A stay in a seemingly idyllic paradise not living up to stereotypical expectations? Sounds familiar! The White Lotus first premiered in July 2021, introducing viewers to a high-class Hawaiian resort full of arrogant, wealthy guests and the local service staff who were losing their s--- (in some cases, quite literally) to meet their every need. Originally billed as a miniseries, buzz for the sharp, satirical dramedy was so high that HBO swiftly ordered a second season before the first finished airing.
White was grateful but shocked when the renewal came in. "Last season, it was one of those pandemic, 'Can you put a show together in five weeks?' kind of deal," he says. "I always thought of it as an experimental show, so there was never any idea that we would even do another season. At first I thought, 'Oh crap.' It was exciting, but it suddenly felt like a scramble again. The reason I haven't done a lot of TV is because I don't like sustaining a show for years and years, because it feels like it limits you creatively ... at least, for me, it's difficult. So I liked the idea of doing it in kind of an anthology way and going somewhere different — it was like cracking the code."
It was time to pack up and take off for a new location. After previously shooting at a Four Seasons Resort in Hawaii, the White Lotus crew found another Four Seasons on the opposite side of the world around which to craft an entirely new season: the San Domenico Palace in Taormina, the largest town in Sicily, Italy. And this time, the show didn't have to be confined to only the hotel grounds since COVID restrictions were less severe. "Look, I'm not going to complain about being at the Four Seasons Maui, but you do start to feel like it was a Hawaiian Shining," White says with a laugh. "I'm literally in a hotel and I can't leave the grounds without permission. It was cool this season to be able to feature more of the city and some of the iconic places in Sicily. The canvas gets much bigger and that's a huge improvement."
Fabio Lovino/HBO Will Sharpe, Aubrey Plaza, Theo James and Meghann Fahy in 'The White Lotus' season 2
Much like when planning a real vacation, picking the destination was the easy part. Figuring out the itinerary — a.k.a. the actual story of the season — was a lot more complicated, as White's first idea ended up not working out. He's hesitant to reveal his initial pitch — "I might still do it down the road maybe, if they give us a third season, so I don't know if I should say," he hedges — but then throws caution to the wind. "Originally, it was more of like a Bilderberg conference, more about getting into some of the bigger power dynamics there. But Sicily was a totally different vibe than the idea I pitched. That didn't seem right."
It was only once White dove into the societal culture of Italy that season 2 really started to take shape. "The kind of mythology of Sicily, at least from the point of view of Americans, is the archetypal sexual politics and role play that you associate with, like, opera and the mafia and Italian romance. I felt like it should be more focused on men and women and relationships and adultery and have an operatic feel to it, so I pivoted."
The seven-episode second season takes place over the course of one week at an Italian branch of The White Lotus hotel chain, once again focusing on a few groups of wealthy clientele and the local resort staff catering to them. Jennifer Coolidge and Jon Gries are the only two cast members who are reprising their roles from the first season, as Tanya McQuoid-Hunt and Greg Hunt respectively, who are now married after meeting at the Hawaii resort. The rest of the characters are completely new, including two extremely opposite couples who are on vacation together played by Aubrey Plaza, Theo James, Meghann Fahy, and Will Sharpe. And of course, there's another murder mystery introduced in the opening scene of the premiere, but that's where the similarities end.
"It's more juicy, it feels like the stakes are higher and there's more intense drama and plot twists than the first season," Plaza, who plays "normie" lawyer Harper Spiller, tells EW. "It's more heightened in the way that it made sense for the stories that happened on this volcanic island. Of course the stories and the characters are more volcanic because that was the energy in Sicily. Italy has this kind of machismo culture that we're thrust into and when you have a bunch of Americans going to Europe, there's always that discourse with the puritanical American style versus the Italians who just seem to be much more open and sexual, to be blunt."
Fahy, who plays the wealthy, perpetually-smiling housewife Daphne Babcock, loves how season 2 is "definitely a departure from the first" when it comes to the themes and social commentary explored. "It feels a little bit more sinister, a little bit sexier," she adds. James plays Daphne's brash, pompous, alpha husband Cameron, who was college roommates with Harper's quiet, introspective husband Ethan and planned this double couple getaway. He says season 2 explores "how gender and sex play in roles of class, play in roles of friendship, how wealth and capitalism are linked to sex."
Fabio Lovino/HBO Theo James and Meghann Fahy in 'The White Lotus' season 2
White hopes that by tackling an entirely new theme tailored to the new location, season 2 will succeed on its own terms rather than trying to replicate the success of season 1's exploration of how money impacts the power dynamics of relationships, colonialism, and privilege. "This is totally its own thing and creatively that was what I wanted," he says. "There is some connective tissue, and having Jennifer back helped that. But it's a whole new idea and there's a whole new reason for it to exist."
Bringing back the now-Emmy-winning Coolidge was a no-brainer for White, since she was "the whole reason why" he created the first season. But as for the rest of the stellar cast? "I loved the actors I worked with on the first season and would love to bring them all back at some point in different iterations, but for this season, it was like, I can't go to Italy and not bring Jennifer," White quips. Tanya got her "happy" ending in season 1 with Greg, but it's been about a year since then and things are decidedly less romantic between the two — no matter how rose-colored Tanya's glamorous glasses may be. "She's married to Greg and they've been married long enough now that the honeymoon is definitely over," White teases. "She's going to be contending with that."
Casting a whole new roster of actors to join Coolidge and Gries was a "daunting" task for the producers. "The last cast, most of them were nominated for Emmys and people really loved them," White says. "We realized we had to get a cast that will pop like that again, but in a new way." And joining the series after the first season was such a hit wasn't easy for the new actors, either. "It's a lot to live up to, especially now that they've got all those trophies," Plaza says. "I don't want to disappoint." James didn't think he even had a shot to land the part: "To be honest, especially after the huge success of the first season, I didn't know how realistic it was." Fahy had already been dealt a heartbreaking blow when she auditioned for the first season and lost the role to Alexandra Daddario. "She was f---ing amazing, and I'm sure hundreds of other people auditioned for that too," Fahy says. "I still kind of can't even believe it that I'm in this season. It's such an unbelievable, once-in-a-lifetime experience, for a myriad of reasons."
Sharpe was a fan of White's earlier TV series Enlightened, which he argues is still "wildly under-appreciated," as well as the first season of The White Lotus, so he was thrilled when he got the offer to join for season 2 as Ethan Spiller. But he had a big concern when it came to his role as a tech genius who recently became a millionaire. "As an Asian man, you often get cast in a tech world, and I've played lots of characters who were good at math, things like that, so I was very keen to not play Ethan as a sort of stereotypical nerd," Sharpe says. "I wanted to find a version of him that felt progressive in some way in terms of representation."
Fabio Lovino/HBO Meghann Fahy and Aubrey Plaza in 'The White Lotus' season 2
Ultimately Sharpe's fears were assuaged through many conversations with White, and the way in which the two couples act with, around, and behind each other's backs became one of the best parts of season 2. "There's a fascinating nature to Ethan and Cameron's friendship, how they became friends, how they interact with each other," Sharpe says. "And there's interesting stuff between Daphne and Ethan, and Harper and Daphne, and Harper and Cameron too — there's a whole spider diagram between these four, these two pairs, to look forward to."
Each couple thinks they're better than their vacation counterparts, and watching them all try to get along in a civil manner while constantly judging and comparing themselves to each other brings new meaning to the word awkward. "I think it's kind of natural when you're in a couple and you're spending time with another couple, there's always this compare and contrast thing that happens," Plaza says. "'Do they have a better relationship than us?' 'Are we good?' 'Are they good?' 'Who's happier?' Couples tend to compete with each other in some ways — especially couples that are unhappy."
All four actors warn that any initial assumptions you make about the couples will be turned on their heads by the end of the season. "Daphne is someone who appears to be the easy, breezy, sunshine girl, but one of the cool parts about her arc is that there's a lot more happening under the surface," Fahy says. "She seems like a passive housewife, and then you realize that couldn't be further from the truth as the show unfolds." James adds, "Ethan and Harper see themselves as highly cultured and thoughtful, existential, and on the surface, Cam's not like that. But we soon realize that there's more to him than that. And Cam and Daphne are in love, and they actually enjoy each other's company, but they've managed to eke out different parameters for what boundaries they operate in. They play these f---ed up mind games with each other constantly, but perhaps they've found something that works for them. That's a question that Mike's asking the audience, should you judge someone for however they are finding happiness in a relationship, despite how messed up it may seem?"
When it comes to Ethan and Harper's relationship, Plaza reveals that White actually wrote her part for her. "Without going into personal details, Mike knows me very, very well, on a way more intimate level than most people know me, and a lot of what he wrote was informed by just knowing me on that intimate level," she says. "It was really intense for me, reading it and shooting it. I relate to this character more than any character I've ever played. It's really, really close to home. It felt very naked. It was pretty devastating and hard."
Plaza admits she struggled throughout filming with not letting Harper's reality seep into her own life. "Mike's writing is just so subtle but there's such a deep truth to it that just crushes me," she adds. "I wanted so badly to do a good job, and Harper's journey, there's a lot of moments in this season that felt very nightmare-ish to me. It just felt real, and shaking that off was a big obstacle for me. I don't regret it because I wanted to give Mike everything, no matter what happened. But I'll be terrified and horrified to see it."
Fabio Lovino/HBO Will Sharpe and Theo James in 'The White Lotus' season 2
The reward for Plaza was the way in which the couples' storyline concludes. "Ultimately it's a love story," she says. "Without revealing who the love story is with, I knew that was the underlying heart of it, and so even though I had to do a lot of things that are really hard, in my body I knew that's what we're doing with this, and I loved that."
James is specifically excited for people to see episode 3, which he warns shakes up everything for the foursome. "Ethan and Cameron fall down a rabbit hole, pushed by Cameron, and things get pretty deep and dark quickly," he teases. "The ramifications from what happens in that episode play throughout the rest of the season in a fairly cataclysmic way." And while Fahy wants to dish on her favorite part of the season, she can't get into spoiler territory. "The coolest thing that Daphne gets to do is, unfortunately, really top secret," she says. "You won't know until the finale, but it's pretty cool."
Speaking of top secret, what about that dead body problem that The White Lotus hotel chain can't seem to escape? Continuing the murder mystery theme into season 2 was White's way of keeping the show familiar enough despite all the changes. "I realized last season, 'Wow, there is so much online chatter and talk about the mystery element of it,' which was not my priority as a writer," he explains. "But I was like, everything is so different this season — the characters are different, the location is different — we need some kind of architecture that is similar to last season. Starting with the mystery and the body and who is it and what happened, carrying that over might lure people in. Because this is like an operatic season, it's a little wilder as far as the plot, so I felt like, we might as well go there." He laughs as he adds, "Come for the murder, stay for something else, hopefully."
Another big hit that carries over into season 2 is the now-iconic music — with a twist. Composer Cristobal Tapia de Veer's work in season 1 earned him two Emmys, and he's back to remix the music with an Italian flair. "Cristo is a genius and he obviously got a lot of attention for the first season, so I was worried that he got so much attention that we wouldn't be able to get him back to do it again," White says with a laugh. "We were lucky that he took pity on us and came back for another round. Last season had a tropical percussive vibe with a lot of whooping jungle animals as accents, and that clearly isn't Sicily. We wanted to figure out a way to create new music but also take some of the hooks of last season and transport them to a Sicilian kind of vibe. We're still in the process of doing that, but he did it with the main titles and it's really fun."
Music, murder, sex, and love, all wrapped into one story set on the beautiful Italian coast — the suitcases are packed and the table is set for another smash hit season of The White Lotus. But for the actors, the most memorable part of joining the series is how it's changed their idea of vacations forever — just like viewers. "There was some strangeness since we were living and filming in the Four Seasons, and while we were there, they opened it to their paying, real guests," Fahy says. "I would be sitting at a breakfast table next to someone who is paying I don't even know how much for those rooms, and I'm like, 'I shot a scene at that table a week ago, kind of making fun of you, commenting on that kind of lifestyle.' That was pretty hilarious to be shooting a show, pretending to be that person, and then meeting the people who actually live their life that way."
Plaza laughs about how she hasn't gone on a vacation in a long time. "But the next one I go on, I will definitely be thinking about this show," she says. "I think vacations are ruined for a while."
The White Lotus season 2 premieres at Sunday, Oct. 30 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO and HBO Max.