“Luxury problems,” says writer-director Mike White, appearing via Zoom from his house in Hawaii. He’s 10 minutes late because he totally forgot we were meeting. He’s hunting for his glasses which turn out to be on his head. This past week has been manic, what with the edit of season two of his HBO comedy The White Lotus, the premiere, the press calls and round tables. “I feel pulverised,” he declares and then promptly laughs at himself. Luxury problems, he knows, aren’t really problems at all. “Also, you don’t want to be the guy who complains because he has a hit show.”
Season one of The White Lotus made White an overnight star at the age of 52. His class-war satire scooped 10 awards at the Emmys last month. It’s his biggest (some say only) mainstream success since he wrote 2003’s School of Rock. White can’t explain it. He suspects it must be a blip. “I’ve done so much weird-ass stuff,” he says, shrugging. “This is only a little frozen moment in time.”
On-screen, White has an occasional sideline playing grinning, guileless man-boys (notably as School of Rock’s Ned Schneebly). As a writer, though, he’s pitiless, unsparing, a beady-eyed chronicler of so much human frailty. Shot during lockdown, the first season of The White Lotus lifted the lid on a five-star Hawaiian resort, cutting between the pampered guests and the harried staff. It told us that every millionaire’s vacation is built on the back of someone else’s misery. It showed us that every self-styled escape is a prison in disguise. The exotic setting, White jokes, helped sugar-coat the bleak message. It made viewers think they were getting Fantasy Island instead.
It’s not just the backdrop. Maybe the people help, too. The way White sees it, he typically writes scripts which focus on one central character: Laura Dern’s crusading former executive in the Golden Globe-winning TV series Enlightened; Jennifer Aniston’s wayward cashier in 2003 movie The Good Girl. More often than not, these protagonists are polarising figures. Some viewers like them; many others do not. Whereas on The White Lotus he simply doubled down, spread his net. “So there are more entry points because I’ve hedged my bets. I thought that instead of one difficult character, I’ll write 10, I’ll write 12. Audiences seem to respond to that more.”
He conceived The White Lotus as a standalone story. It’s now its own boutique franchise, with the second season set in a sister resort in Sicily and a fresh cast that includes Aubrey Plaza, Michael Imperioli and F. Murray Abraham. The one hangover from the last vacation is Jennifer Coolidge, reprising her Emmy-winning turn as the tragic, needy Tanya. In one episode she comes tottering through the hotel lobby to demand that the manager find her a psychic right away. “I want a real, authentic old-world gypsy,” she says, as though ordering a drink from a cocktail menu.
White, for his part, has no need of a psychic. He accepts that he’s probably got another hit on his hand. The prospect, however, appears to make him uncomfortable. He’s grown used to his role as a cherished underdog, a creator of cult favourites (like Salma Hayek-starring movie Beatriz at Dinner) and TV pilots that never quite left the runway (Mamma Dallas). He always saw himself as part of Hollywood’s service industry. How unnerving to realise that he’s joined the elite.
Back in 2018, in a break from the day job, he appeared on the US reality show Survivor’s biblical themed spin-off Survivor: David vs. Goliath and clawed his way to the final. The experience was terrific; it taught him the best way to compete. On reality TV, he explains, you’ve got to keep your threat level low. That way people like you and root for you. But if you stick your head up, then well, you’re only asking for trouble.
“Like, I’ve just been reading some reviews of this new season [of The White Lotus]. And they’re very positive. I’m very happy. But they’re all like, ‘OK, great show’, as if this was expected.” He gropes for his glasses. “I guess I liked being the underrated, under-the-radar guy. Now I’m the bloated, overpraised old Hollywood whatever.”
Reality TV, he says, remains a key creative touchstone, because it provides a live drama most screenwriters can’t match. But his upbringing in a conservative Christian community is the real wellspring for his writing. “I was a minister’s kid,” he explains, having been raised by the Reverend Dr Mel White. “The minister wheels his family out and says: ‘Look at us, we’re a good example of a God-fearing family.’ And as a kid, I was like: ‘Well this just isn’t how it is.’”
While he tried to be devout, he felt that something was missing; the teachings never sat right. “I remember going to religious summer camp and people would go out into the night and accept Jesus into their hearts. But I never bought in; I was kind of sceptical. It made me very alienated.”
At the age of 11, he discovered that his father was gay. Mel later reinvented himself as a gay rights activist. He wrote a memoir (Stranger at the Gate), co-founded a Christian LGBT group (Soulforce) and toured the country to explain that “being gay is a gift from God”. But it was that early schism – that rupture between our public and private selves – which has fascinated his son ever since.
“I grew up in this religion where nobody was honest about who they were and what was really going on,” he says. “And part of my impulse to write has always been about wanting to poke fun at that gap and to show people as they really are – complex, base and flawed. That’s why I’m always resistant about creating characters who are likable, who people can rally around, because that feels too easy. Because we’re basically animals, we’re essentially monkeys. In a religious community people like to claim a connection to a higher spiritual dimension. That’s how they want to be perceived. But there’s always this human, animal undertow that’s pulling us away from all that.”
On arriving in Hollywood, White worked as a writer on Dawson’s Creek and the much-missed Paul Feig-created high-school series Freaks and Geeks. But one of his first forays into the limelight was as the creator and co-star of the 2000 film Chuck and Buck. He played Buck, the creepy Peter Pan who stalks his former best friend around town, desperate to rekindle their pre-pubescent romance. Chuck and Buck was a delirious one-off, a wanton affront to good taste. If nothing else, it seemed to establish White as a rogue agent, an id: hiding out in the shadows, throwing grenades from the wings.
With hindsight, he says, he’s glad that mainstream success didn’t arrive any sooner. It would have screwed him up, turned his head. He recalls meeting prominent screenwriters back when he was first starting out and mainly being struck by how unhappy they were. “It was like they’d won in Vegas – pulled the lever, hit the jackpot – and now wanted to be chasing that high every time. They expected unconditional love, or a perfect understanding from the world.” He blinks in dismay. “And that level of success makes you self-conscious. You start adjusting who you are in order to win the game. That’s a recipe for producing lesser work. But it’s also a recipe for disappointment in life.”
In the meantime, here he is. Top of the world, king of the hill, with a shelf full of Emmys and his bank balance bulging. The second season of The White Lotus is done and is almost as good as the first, although it feels somehow sadder, more sombre, haunted by the ghosts of old Europe as the guests drift from the palazzo to the ruin to the flyblown locations from The Godfather Part 2. “I wanted to do a kind of operatic roundelay,” White says. “Mismatched lovers. People sneaking into hotel rooms. More of a sexual revolving door. I think that keeps it interesting, the idea that the content is shape-shifting. So when people come back to the show it’s not the same as it was before.”
In The White Lotus’s first, Hawaii-based season, he says, he most identified with the character of Armond, the doomed resort manager, superbly embodied by Australian actor Murray Bartlett. In Sicily, though, he found himself gravitating towards Tom Hollander’s Quentin, a waspish, old-money gadfly who owns an opulent villa in the hills. “I’m not as sophisticated as him, but I aspire to be. He’s like this Gore Vidal figure. I guess I’d like to be Gore Vidal.”
All being well, he might make a third season, possibly set in Asia next time, assuming HBO gives the green light. But inevitably he’s conflicted. Having finally landed in paradise, he’s already circling back towards the departure lounge.
“Even articulating this, I sound like an idiot,” he says. “But I’m not a keep-the-franchise-alive kind of guy. I’m not a big-tent entertainment person. I don’t want to always be writing about rich people in front of infinity pools.” Success is a trap. Too much comfort spells death. In White’s words, if his show tells us anything, it’s that: “At some point you have to burn the whole house to the ground.”