To everyone who has been patiently waiting week-to-week for the next episode of The White Lotus’ second season to drop and get their fill of decadence, deception and discontent among filthy rich holidaymakers, Will Sharpe is Ethan, the subdued and recently minted millionaire.
On a luxurious vacation in an awkward quartet alongside his fun-zapping wife Harper (Aubrey Plaza), morally questionable and arrogant college friend Cameron (Theo James), and Cameron’s seemingly shallow partner Daphne (Meghann Fahy), Ethan is a character whose calm and collected persona looks increasingly like it’s about to erupt in dramatic fashion.
Outside the five-star opulence of Matt White’s multi-Emmy winning creation The White Lotus, however, the British actor/writer/director is best known for his work behind the camera, most notably a trio of eccentricity-tinged comedy dramas (all, coincidentally, starring Olivia Colman). After breaking out with the darkly comic BAFTA-winning series Flowers, in which he also acted, he then went on to direct both Benedict Cumberbatch and Claire Foy in 2021’s The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, the StudioCanal and Amazon-backed period biopic about the famed painter of wide-eyed cats (Colman was the narrator). Most recently, he helmed HBO’s critically acclaimed true-crime miniseries Landscapers, about a couple of mild-mannered murderers.
Speaking to ahead of the climactic final episode of The White Lotus (and no, he won’t say who the dead body in the first episode belongs to), Sharpe discusses how he felt nervous about being just a “random British guy” when heading out to Sicily to shoot with a number of big-name U.S. stars, working with Plaza to build the backstory of their characters’ unhappy marriage, and the surprise of being cast in the show: “Watching the first season, I never dared to imagine that I’d have a part in the second.”
Were you a fan of the first season?
Yeah, I really loved it, and I loved Enlightened as well, so I was excited to work with Mike [White]. It’s interesting how this second season sits relative to the first, and how he’s found a way to make it of a piece, but also feel new.
Your American accent for Ethan is excellent. Did that take a long time to work on?
It’s an accent I’m relatively comfortable in anyway. I spent much of my childhood in Tokyo and went to an international school — my dad’s English and my mum’s Japanese. So there were a lot of American teachers, and American kids, Japanese American kids. When I arrived in the U.K., I had this sort of slightly mangled hybrid accent. But I did work with a really brilliant dialect coach, just to make sure everything was in order.
There’s obviously a lot of manipulation and mind games going on with your foursome in the show. When you were together, did you stick to characters or keep certain things close to your chest?
We all knew the long game, so I guess probably in our own way we would all have had an eye on where it was headed. But Aubrey and I would talk quite a lot about Ethan and Harper’s hinterland, wanting to bring a sense of where they came from and how they met, just to carry some stakes into that relationship. Because when you meet them, even if they don’t realize it, it’s already on the rocks. The first time you see them, they’re bickering and steadily things get worse. So we definitely did think about where they came from and why it matters for them, and what are they trying to get back to. And talking with Mike [about Ethan and Cameron] as well, it’s like they were never soulmates. They just shared a room together and have sort of stayed in touch in a way that you might probably invite each other to their wedding. One of the things I love about the way Mike writes is that sometimes you sit down and it feels like it’s just about some people chatting, but actually there are so many different tensions and dynamics firing across the table.
Since you had all the scripts going in, how did knowing the ending help you to play out Ethan’s evolution?
We did have all the scripts, and I think I’m right in saying that even before I read them all, they talked me through a sense of the general shape of the series for everyone, including Ethan’s arc. And that was what got me really excited about playing him. For the majority of the series, he’s written with a lot of restraint. He’s sort of enigmatic and you’re not really sure which way it’s gonna go. Is he a terrible person? Who is this guy? You pay that off in the final episode, so that was a fun challenge to track and build a simmering sense of the stuff that he’s holding in that is eventually going to boil over in some way.
The White Lotus follows the different groups and you are mostly with your foursome. But did you get a chance to hang out with the other actors on set?
The stories don’t really intersect that much so on set, it would only ever be really if we were in the dinner scene and in the back of someone else’s shots. But socially, there were a lot of opportunities for us to hang out and become close as an ensemble. There would often be cast dinners, and there was a little bar around the corner from the hotel which sort of became a local.
How did the role of Ethan come your way? The last project of yours, Landscapers, was something you directed, had they seen you in something else?
I just got an email asking to tape for it. I was sort of very surprised. Obviously, I did it as well as I could, but I didn’t really think anything would happen. Our second child had very recently been born, so my head was sort of in that. I think the casting director and one of the producers both had the idea independently of sending it my way at the same time. I did a couple of rounds of tapes, got some feedback, then was on a Zoom with Mike and everyone else and was suddenly on my way to Sicily.
It’s been a while since we’ve seen you on screen. I think the last time was Giri/Haji. How did it feel to get back in front of a camera?
I love to act. And to be able to do it in something like this, with such a brilliant cast and with Mike, who I was a fan of, I felt very lucky… and also, it’s in a very beautiful part of the world. It’s all part of storytelling. I think all the different disciplines sort of feed into each other.
I really enjoyed your last feature as director, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, and remember wondering how you managed to assemble such a phenomenal cast, including Benedict Cumberbatch and Claire Foy in the lead roles. It was your first major feature and, at the time, you were best known for the TV series Flowers. But that cast was off the charts.
The honest answer is: I don’t know. I was amazed as well. We’d think about who we’d ideally like to play this part and I’d send the script off, and write a little note just explaining why I felt like they would be right for it. And so it blew my mind really, not just to have the opportunity with Benedict and Claire, who are both extraordinary, but the supporting cast, which was also lots of people that I have so much sort of admiration for. I just felt it was quite surreal sometimes.
Looking at the projects you’ve directed, like Flowers, Louis Wain and Landscapers, there seems to be a running theme of eccentricity in the main characters. Is that something that you actively seek out in your stories?
I’m probably not the best person to analyze my own stuff. But in the case of Flowers, that was a world that was informed by an author of children’s books, a fairytale, and also, I guess to a certain extent, the psychology of mental illness, whether it be depression or bipolar mania. So that informed the aesthetic and tonal choices of the show. And then with the Electrical Life of Louis Wain, similarly, our biggest influence on that was Louis Wain himself, the tone of his witticisms, the hidden fragilities and the little notes he’d scribble underneath some of his pictures, but also the kind of playfulness and the use of color and patterns. And again, that was quite a psychological film. It’s a film about love and grief, I think. And then Landscapers was a show about truth. It was a show about the unknowability of certain truths and how, depending on who’s telling you the truth and how you sort of receive it, it affects your perception of it. And it was centered around two characters who roleplay around each other and are obsessed with classic movies and old Westerns. So in each case, I was just trying to create a world for the piece that felt like it was in keeping with the emotional landscape of a character, to help you get inside their heads.
Landscapers got a huge reaction when it landed on HBO. The obvious next step after a high-profile show like that would be for you to direct something else. Was that something that was happening and did The White Lotus interrupt anything else that you had lined up?
The White Lotus was definitely a surprise. Watching the first season, I never dared to imagine that I’d have a part in the second season. I’m not even sure if I knew there was going to be a second season. But our second baby was born very soon after we finished post-production on Landscapers, so I wasn’t really in a place where I was making any serious plans. I was just at home. But I did have ideas for projects.
For both Landscapers and Louis Wain I ended up writing a fair bit on, but they weren’t projects that I originated. So I felt ready to originate something and build something up from scratch. So I guess I would have gotten to those in earnest a little earlier, were it not for The White Lotus.
One of the privileges of being a director who also acts is that I get to be on other people’s sets as well and learn from those experiences. Since we wrapped, I’ve been writing a feature film project, which is a love story set against a period of American history that I think is slightly under-examined, and I’ve wanted to write about for a long time. And then the other is a pilot episode for a series that we’ll start pitching soon. That’s slightly harder to explain, and is perhaps closer to Flowers in tone, but it’s sort of set in a post-Chekhovian sci-fi world. Two very different projects. But that’s what I’ve been doing.
With this season of The White Lotus getting such a good reaction, are you finding that there’s suddenly a lot of interest in you, particularly with U.S. projects? Have your agents been fielding more inquiries?
Yeah, it’s starting to happen and I’m just trying to be careful about making the right decisions. But yeah, nobody knows who I am! Like you said, I hadn’t done any acting since Giri/Haji and I hadn’t really worked on a big American show as as actor, so heading over to Sicily, part of me was nervous about seeming like this random British guy who’s done, sort of, three things. But I really felt like everybody treated me as an equal and so it was easy to feel at home in that cast and to develop a sort of trust.