TV

Murray Bartlett on That Shocking “White Lotus” Sex Scene: “We Just Played”

"It was a matter of seeing what happened when we made it a bit more intimate," says the out actor.

Spoilers ahead for The White Lotus

It’s no understatement to say Murray Bartlett has been part of some of the most iconic queer series in television history. American audiences were first introduced to him as Oliver, the gay shoe distributor who becomes friends with Carrie on Sex and the City, but it was his portrayal as Dom, a mustachioed daddy on HBO’s Looking, that made viewers really fall head over flannel for him. He then returned to San Francisco to play Michael “Mouse” Tolliver in Netflix’s revival of Tales of the City, based on Armistead Maupin’s classic book series.

Bartlett’s latest role is Armond, the unhinged hotel manager on The White Lotus, writer-director Mike White’s new HBO series. The out actor recently spoke with NewNowNext about what it was like to play Armond, including shooting his shocking sex scene with Dillon [Luke Gage]; talking anal sex with Steve Zahn’s character, Mark; and spending weekends on the beach with Jennifer Coolidge. Find our full chat below.

Mario Perez/HBO

Hi Murray! The last time I talked to you was for Tales of the City. How have you been?

I’m really good. I had a surprising pandemic because I got to shoot this show in Hawaii, which I would never have imagined. So I feel like I’ve had such a charmed year.

I love Mike White. Enlightened is one of my favorite shows of all time.

Mine too.

So I was super excited for The White Lotus, and then even more excited when I saw the cast, which included you. How did you become involved with the project?

I just auditioned. I, like you, am a huge Mike White fan, so when the audition came up, I was like, “Oh my God.” And it was the middle of the pandemic. So I auditioned once, then I had a phone call with Mike, and then I was in Hawaii. It was very bizarre and quick. And I had read the first script before I got there, or I think I read the other scripts on the way, so I was just so thrilled to work with him, and the first script was so amazing so I was just so excited to dive in.

The show was filmed during the pandemic in a bubble. How long did shooting take?

Well, first of all, Mike started writing the show in August, and we started shooting in October, which is crazy because those scripts when we got them were so polished and just complicated and amazing. And then we got there in October and then we shot through until December, and we were in a complete COVID pod for that time. We obviously tested multiple times before we went and then we quarantined when we got there. We were locked in that high-end resort with a beach for two and a half months, which was a bizarre experience in some ways. It was surreal because we’d come from the pandemic, so we felt so full of gratitude and joy to be suddenly thrust into this amazing place in Hawaii. But yeah, it was an odd sort of theater camp/bootcamp with this incredible group of people.

There’s that shocking rimming scene between Armond and Dillon in the latest episode. What were your conversations with Mike like about Armond and his sexuality?

Honestly, we didn’t have a lot of conversations outside of just working on the scenes at the time. I think partly because it was just there; it was just written in the script. This character was fully realized and complicated and had all these aspects that I don’t think they needed explanation. And so then it was just a matter of on set playing with that — playing with the different levels, playing with who this character was, seeing what happened when it was fully expressed or bigger and what happened when we made it a bit more intimate, always trying to keep it grounded in something that felt real even when he was losing his shit or being very fully expressed. But yeah, there wasn’t a lot of talk [about] outside of the moment of what we were playing with. And I love that way of working, that Mike just makes you feel like you can completely play on set. You’re just exploring, but he gives you this incredible library of information about the character in the script. So I didn’t have a lot of questions and I feel like he didn’t really need to explain a lot of stuff. We just played.

Mario Perez

Do you have a favorite memory from the set?

Yeah, every day at the end of the day, we would go down to the beach. It was just like this crazy sort of fantasy scenario where it was a really intense schedule, so we had long days. But at the end of the day, we would all go down to the beach and swim together while the sun was setting or just after the sun had set, that’s usually when we’d stop shooting. It was just so beautiful, and it’s such a lovely group of people. And so you’re paddling around in the water, and you paddle out next to Steve Zahn and have a conversation. It was just this sort of idyllic setting to bond with people and get to know them. I do have this memory of one day on a weekend… We were sitting on the beach and there was probably about a dozen of us sitting around while Jennifer Coolidge told this true-life story that just unfolded over about an hour. And it was like this campfire moment of this master storyteller having us in stitches and crying. Yeah, so there were a lot of those moments.

Oh my God, I’m so jealous. That sounds amazing.

I know. I’m jealous just thinking about it. It was one of those memories that I’ll always treasure.

Speaking of Steve Zahn, the scene where you’re at the bar with him and his character, Mark, asking about anal sex and how it feels… what did you think when you read that script? Did you think that they would maybe hook up?

I thought, “Oh, what a great scene where that possibility is hanging in the air.” You know? And that there’s a moment, even just a tiny moment, where you might consider that, I think is so cool. And that there’s that moment of tension between these two unlikely characters, or the two of them being together is kind of unlikely. So yeah, we played around with that. It’s, again, genius writing that there was a lot of those moments in the show where you’re like, “What is happening? What are these people doing? What is going on?” There’s this sort of strange thing sizzling between characters, and you’re not quite sure what’s going to happen. And this brilliant group of people. That scene with Steve Zahn, he’s such a comic genius, and so amazing to play off of that and to be able to explore those moments with such a wonderfully talented group of actors. Everyone loves Mike and Mike’s style, and he’s so up for really diving into those moments.

That scene was so realistic. I feel like us gay guys have been in that situation with a straight guy getting too drunk and asking, “So, what’s it really feel like?”

Right, yeah. I know. It’s familiar and unsettling all at the same time.

Mario Perez/HBO

I can’t believe it’s been five years since the Looking movie. Do you still keep in touch with the cast?

First of all, yes. It was one of those rare shows where we all became great friends and stayed great friends. Jonathan Groff just came and spent four or five days with me. And yeah, it was one of those just once-in-a-lifetime experiences, where everything came together in the right way, and we just adored each other and loved working on that show. It was a pivotal life experience for all of us, I think, and those friendships live beyond that, which is one of the greatest gifts to us of that show.

What do you think the legacy of Looking is?

I think, like all shows that represent an underrepresented community, Looking was another step along the way of opening things up. I feel like other shows have come after it that have kind of continued that. I hope that we were part of that sort of opening of seeing the full range of who we are as human beings, not just one binary and one idea of what intimacy and sexuality and everything is. And one of the things I’m most proud of — and we still get feedback from people — one of the amazing things about a platform like HBO is it reaches so far around the world, and it goes to countries where queer people can’t live freely. That show continues to be seen in countries where that is the case, and people continue to feel a little less alone, and the possibility of connection. And so, yeah, I feel like if that was the only legacy of the show, I would be so incredibly proud. It’s very heartening and satisfying, and I feel like we’ve maybe added something useful to the world.

How’s it feel that you will always be associated with peri peri chicken?

I mean, have you tasted peri peri chicken?!

Yes! I saw it on a menu and I was like, “Oh, I want to taste it because of Looking.” It was good!

It’s tasty. Yeah, it’s not a bad thing to be associated with. Portuguese flavors, man. They’re hot.

HBO

I loved the Looking movie, and I thought it did a great job of wrapping up the series, but I totally would’ve been down for a Dom and Doris spinoff.

It’s just ripe for the picking. Lauren Weedman and I are still great friends, and she’s such a comic genius. She should have her own show, and maybe I could just guest on it. But yeah, a Dom and Doris show? Come on, that would be awesome. I’m totally down.

Okay, good. Going back to Tales of the City, what was it like working with Olympia Dukakis on that series?

It’s so interesting. Olympia is so fused with Anna Madrigal for me, because that was the first thing [of hers] I saw, I think. No, I must’ve seen Moonstruck before I saw the original Tales of the City. But in real life Olympia carries a lot of those Anna Madrigal traits; she’s wise, she’s kind, she’s strong. It was such a delight just to be around her because she has that profound kindness and wisdom. That whole show was surreal for me because I read those books before I’d seen the first show in the early ’90s. Those characters were so important to me and played such an important role in my life, and my feeling of what it could be to be free and happy as a queer person. So stepping into that world was incredibly surreal. I hung out with Laura Linney and with Olympia a little outside of when we were working, but those characters were so alive in those people for me, and I let it be that way because I was stepping into that world. I identified with the character of Mouse, so it felt somehow fitting that I stepped in as that character. I mean, this is going to sound really self-indulgent and wanky or whatever, but it felt profound for me. There’s so much love in that show, and in that world of that show that Armistead Maupin created, and I felt honored to be part of that and playing his character and being able to interact with those characters that had been so pivotal in my feeling of freedom as a gay man.

Netflix

You mentioned being close with your fellow cast members from Looking, Tales of City, and now The White Lotus. Are you just lucky that you pick these projects with great casts?

I feel like I have been really lucky, particularly in the last 10 years. Really, really lucky. I also love these shows. So I go into it with that, I guess, and that probably colors my experience of it. I’ve been so happy to work on these shows and so thrilled to be amongst such great people. Not only talented people but great people. So that definitely does color my experience, I think. But they’ve been genuinely great groups of people and shows that I’m really proud of. So, yeah, I feel like a lot of it is good fortune. And dreaming about these kinds of jobs for many years before probably counts for something. By that point, by Looking, I felt really clear about the kind of job that I wanted. I just wasn’t sure whether it would ever eventuate. And then I’ve been lucky to have a succession of them.

New episodes ofThe White Lotus premiere Sundays at 9pm EST on HBO.

I write about drag queens. Dolly Parton once ruffled my hair and said I was "just the cutest thing ever."
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