SPOILER ALERT: Details for all aired episodes of seasons 1 and 2 of The White Lotus are included below.
After Succession, HBO has proven itself to be firmly in the Hilarious And Terrible Rich People business with The White Lotus. The satirical show features an anthology cast of characters who are either vacationing while cluelessly wealthy or bearing the brunt of that clueless wealth by working to ensure the other half’s vacation is first-rate. It’s a riff on Upstairs, Downstairs for modern tastes, at least partially inspired by The Odyssey'’s Lotus-Eaters, who apathetically indulge instead of facing reality and mostly live in a state of perpetual bliss.
The series, which was originally slated as a one-season miniseries, has been so successful from the get-go that it was quickly renewed for a second season, and is officially coming back for a third. The first season takes place in Hawaii, the second in Italy, and there is no limit as to where the Mike White-created series can go.
1. HBO had three conditions for making the show.
When COVID hit, HBO’s head of drama Francesca Orsi contacted Mike White—who had previously co-created the critically acclaimed two-season series Enlightened for HBO—to see if he had an idea for a show that could be made under the new filming restrictions. White immediately thought of doing a show in Hawaii, but there were three conditions to moving forward: It had to be at a single location, it had to be safe, and each episode had to be made for less than $3 million. “I should just do a show about people on vacation who have money, and how money is impacting all of their relationships,” he told The New York Times of the thought process behind the series. Thus, the panoramic claustrophobia of The White Lotus was born.
2. COVID protocols created a tight-knit atmosphere.
Because season 1 was shot within a COVID bubble, it meant that all of the show’s actors and production staff were living and working and eating together every single day at the Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea, where the first season of The White Lotus was filmed. This created an incredibly tightknit creative team, and at a time when working on the show meant that cast and crew could not be with their families. “There was gratitude and also the pain of being quarantined away from family and friends, so we all supported each other and helped each other while also feeling immense joy and gratitude,” season 1 star Alexandra Daddario told Forbes.
3. Whales could be a distraction while shooting in Hawaii.
Nature is one of the challenges of shooting a project in Hawaii. The horror, right? When discussing the memory-seared moment of Tanya scattering ashes on a boat, Natasha Rothwell (who played Belinda in season 1) gushed about the experience. She gave credit to her co-stars Coolidge and Murray Bartlett (who plays Armond), but also said the scene was amazing because of the giant creatures who kept interrupting takes. “I’m trying to be in the scene, but there’s a whale breaching. And it was just magical, it was unreal,” Rothwell told The Hollywood Reporter.
4. Mike White wrote Jennifer Coolidge’s character specifically for her, but she almost turned the show down.
What a mistake that would have been. As is often the case with Jennifer Coolidge, her character Tanya McQuoid became such a standout among a cast of standouts in the first season that she and Jon Gries, who plays her husband Greg, are the only two actors to return for the second season. White crafted the character of Tanya with Coolidge in mind, a fact which she found both flattering and a little mocking. But her pandemic routine made her question whether she could go through with it.
“I wanted to back out of it because I was so nervous about the fact that the start date was during COVID and I had been eating pizza and ice cream for eight months solid,” Coolidge told Collider. “I wasn’t in good shape and mentally I thought we were gonna die every day ... I thought I’d just eat myself to death and it would be over.”
Fortunately, White sensed Coolidge’s reluctance, and managed to convince her that he was creating a safe space for the series. “I’m glad that Mike picked up that I was trying to get out of it,” Coolidge told Collider. “He texted me one night, when I was in my bedroom in New Orleans at two in the morning, and it just said, ‘Are you afraid?’ It was Mike’s way of telling me that he knew that I was afraid and that I wasn’t going to be able to get out of it.”
5. Coolidge, Connie Britton, and Molly Shannon had worked together before, but never shared any screen time.
This is one of those quirks of filmmaking, especially in the pandemic era. Jennifer Coolidge, Connie Britton, and Molly Shannon are all featured in the movie Promising Young Woman, but their characters never appear on screen together. Thus, The White Lotus was a bit of a reunion for the actors.
6. Steve Zahn had to approve his prosthetic penis.
In season 1, Zahn’s character is dealing with a rather painful issue in his nether regions, which required some nudity. When White showed Zahn the prosthetic they had planned for the shot, Zahn said, “Yeah, that’ll do,” although he also jokingly lamented using the appendage for the infamous shot. “I come from the old school where we were actually naked when we were naked,” Zahn told The Wrap. It also apparently took two hours in make-up to get the prosthetic to look right, but it was a body double doing all the hard work since Zahn’s face wasn’t in the shot.
7. Zahn’s character shared at least one major similarity to White.
Zahn’s character Mark always thought his father died of cancer but learns, during one episode, that he was a closeted gay man who died of AIDS. The character concept shares some similarities with White’s own father, Mel White, an evangelical pastor who wrote speeches for Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and Billy Graham and came out of the closet in the 1980s. Unlike Mark’s dad, White’s father is alive and even joined his son on The Amazing Race in 2009. When White won three Emmy Awards for The White Lotus, he dedicated them to his mom and dad.
8. Season 2 features a shot-for-shot homage to L’Avventura.
Fans of season 2, which has transported its satirical wealthy patrons to Italy, may have recognized a sequence from Michelangelo Antonioni’s classic 1960 Italian drama L’Avventura in the third episode. In the film, Monica Vitti’s character walks through a plaza while being quietly menaced by a group of men. The White Lotus crew was filming in the Sicilian town of Noto, in the same plaza where the L’Avventura scene was shot, so cinematographer Xavier Grobert suggested they recreate the scene with Aubrey Plaza.
9. White is not comfortable shooting sex scenes.
While The White Lotus is packed with sex scenes—perhaps even more in the second season—White admitted to NPR that he is highly uncomfortable when directing them. “As a director, I’m very timid about asking people to undress and get into sexual situations. It’s not my wheelhouse,” he said. “There were definitely times on this shoot that I was like, what have I got myself into? My threshold for awkwardness is very low.”
10. Aubrey Plaza pranked her castmates with creepy messages.
While filming at the San Domenico Palace hotel for season 2, Plaza took advantage of the five-star location’s reputation for being haunted by drawing odd symbols in castmates’s dressing rooms. She also slipped weird messages that said ominous things like “here lies ...” under doors, all while the hotel staff could see her on their security cameras. Plaza consistently denied being the perpetrator, and her pranks had co-star Adam DiMarco, who plays Albie Di Grasso, “questioning [his] reality.”
11. Haley Lu Richardson kind of stalked Plaza before they were cast on the show.
Haley Lu Richardson, who plays Coolidge’s put-upon assistant Portia, admitted to Jimmy Kimmel that before they were co-stars, Richardson was one of Plaza’s “crazed fans.” So much so that she ended up finding a way to get an invite to Plaza’s birthday party, which was a pretty private affair.
“I showed up at her birthday party, and it was an intimate invite-only party, and she saw me across the bar and she said, ‘You,’ and walked away,” Richardson recalled. “And it was the best thing that ever happened to me. When I booked the show, I got a text from an unknown number that was literally just a knife and a drip of blood. And I knew, I just knew it was Aubrey!”
12. White wrote the entire show by himself in two months.
Most TV shows have an entire writer’s room with sometimes a dozen or more people all collaborating to craft the narrative and storyline for a single season of television, which is not how White works. Not only does White do everything pretty much himself, for the first season, he also did it in two months—writing the first episode at the end of August, the other five in September, and then filming the show beginning in October 2020.