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Ethan Spiller is spiraling. Once cool, calm, and collected (maybe too much), Will Sharpe’s hubby in Aubrey Plaza’s Harper can’t help but imagine his wife being insulted by her college roommate, can’t convince his wife that he hasn’t cheated on her, and, worst of all, no longer finds any spark in their relationship. As their travel partners Cameron (Theo James) and his wife, Daphne (Meghann Fahy), lust after each other all around Taormina, Sicily has become paranoia-inducing hell on Earth for the Spillers in season two of Mike White. The White Lotus. What started out as a fairly happy vacation with a vaguely annoying couple led to the collapse of a marriage — and not the one Harper started the vacation looking for cracks. “The deepest fear is, Are we falling in love? said Sharpe. “But alongside that, there’s this question of, Are we still physically attracted to each other?”
I want to go back to something that happened earlier in the season that reads differently later: Ethan’s jaded reaction to Cameron stripping in front of Harper. Ethan confronts Cameron about it in the Last episode, so we know it stuck with him. How did you read his first reaction?
During an initial conversation with Mike, we were trying to reflect on how they ended up on vacation, in this terrifying Matrix. Cameron is someone who grew up in privilege and was always rich, while Ethan had to fight for more. He went to college because he was smart. He made money because he’s smart. So this luxury vacation is like, Maybe I deserve a piece of this.
I feel like before Ethan went on vacation, he was very busy at work, so when they arrive, it takes him a minute to catch up and get back to his real life. Harper is quicker to see all the cracks in Cameron and Daphne’s relationship, but Harper is also the first to question their own relationship, which is terrifying for Ethan. What begins to shine through is that he’s also concerned that they aren’t as good as they claim. When she confronts him with this, he’s not ready. He’s not ready to imagine that his friend Cameron is still the exact same guy if not worse. He’s afraid of what this might mean for the rest of the vacation, and he’s afraid of facing the cracks in his own relationship.
It’s a very direct confrontation, while there have already been many side blows in this quartet. What is Ethan trying to accomplish with this franchise?
He can’t help it. Ethan is like a pot that gradually boils – he internalizes so much that at some point it has to come out. He’s so pissed thinking about it, and he’s trying to hold on to what makes him a good person. There is also a gradual sense of realizing that he has something to fight for and wants to fight for it when the time comes.
So we know he has these neuroses around Cameron, or at least had them at some point. Did those play into why he’s there?
It’s something Harper asks him at some point. It might be. If so, however, I don’t know how conscious it is. Maybe he feels like it’s safe to hang out with Cameron now, but, in a tragicomic way, that dynamic hasn’t changed at all. Towards the end of the series, you see that Ethan’s “only thing”, being smart, is driving Cameron crazy. Cameron knows he has a way of getting anything, and that’s his way of plundering Ethan.
Ethan and Harper think the only thing that keeps their relationship together is “honesty.” I’m interested in the difference between the factual lies, which they apparently haven’t told before this trip, and the emotional lies they seem to have been telling for a while.
There are a lot of big changes here. They’ve gone on vacation, and that invites a certain type of self-reflection – it puts you in an existential space. They are opposed to a really different couple in Cameron and Daphne. They also have this new wealth that has changed the way they operate. They’ve been on cruise control, and on this vacation, they realize they’re in a rut. They’re not really honest about the hard stuff. It takes a lot for them to deal with it.
Cameron and Daphne are a lustful couple – that’s the strength of their relationship. We don’t see that from Ethan and Harper. How do you see love and lust playing out in their relationship?
They are somehow intertwined. Aubrey and I were talking about their daily life because you meet them in a marital crisis. We wanted to communicate that there is a desire for something that was there, so there are stakes to that because they love each other.
Cameron says there’s this idea of a bro code, and it’s handy for Ethan when he’s withholding information about himself and Lucia and what happened with Cameron that night. He is like, I feel like Harper and I are not well placed. It doesn’t look good. I showed will, but I was still curious about it, and I still invited this stuff to happen. He’s afraid of what it says about where they are.
This “bro code” idea invokes a male connection. How do you see Ethan’s relationship to masculinity?
He doesn’t want to engage in what he sees as stereotypical male interactions. If he gets status, he wants it to be because he deserves it and has worked for it, not because he demands it. And he still fails in a traditionally masculine way across the series.
What do you mean?
He does not show up at his wedding. He internalizes problems and does not communicate well. Harper probably isn’t either, but Ethan certainly isn’t. He doesn’t tell her about the incident with Cameron, and then, when he does tell her, the way he tells her is uncomfortable. It was uncomfortable to play too, in that deliciously Mike White way.
The elephant in the room with Ethan’s masculinity is that he doesn’t want to have sex with his wife.
Not wanting or not being able to have sex with your wife would conventionally be considered emasculating. Does this factor play into his character?
If you think about times when sex could happen: the first time he was just caught jerking off and he’s a bit on his back, so I can understand why it’s not the best time. There’s also the moment when Harper tries to seduce him. I remember talking to Mike about it, and he wanted to play like Ethan hadn’t noticed. He went for a run and he spends his day. It’s heartbreaking for Harper.
The deepest fear is, Are we falling in love? But alongside that, there’s this question of, Are we still physically attracted to each other? At first Aubrey, Mike and I had some relationship conversations and decided they had probably been together for at least seven or eight years. Mike always said he didn’t want the issue in marriage to be too specific. He didn’t want it to be their newfound wealth or an incident from their past; he wanted them to be together for a long time. This is the most difficult thing for them to face.
I don’t know how that relates to the issue of his masculinity. It relates to his role as husband, and it’s traditionally a male role.
At one point, Ethan has a vision of Harper and Cameron entering the room ready to boner. Is he afraid Harper is cheating or Cameron is winning with another girl?
It’s ultimately more about the former, but it’s both. Maybe he’s not ready to be mad at Harper about it yet. It’s easier to be mad at Cameron.
You mentioned that, this season, the scale seemed bigger partly because you were in Sicily. Is that a fair paraphrase on your part?
It’s something about the emotional scale. It’s a tonal thing. It’s darker and Mediterranean. It felt like opera or a Roman tragedy unfolding with volcanic energy. The grandeur of the places in this environment, its context and the sense of history had this mythical feeling.
I’m interested in your invoking Roman tragedy. Do you consider Ethan to be a tragic character?
It’s hard to talk about it at this point.
There’s something theatrical about the way things go wrong for Ethan: in that moment, Harper is staring at him just as he’s talking to Lucia. Or the fact that her lying about what Cameron did that night got her into more trouble than Cameron.
Part of that is his fault and part of it isn’t. Maybe there’s a part of him that can’t believe the misfortune and thinks, How did it go so fast? It takes him a minute to realize the things he puts in his way. He certainly has the potential to be a tragic figure. The question is whether he will do something about it.
The White Lotus has only had a few non-American visitors. Is the show uniquely American in its focus?
The confusion of privilege is quite universal. I know people in the UK find it funny and uncomfortable. Privilege adds a layer of absurdity to all their problems, but they are human beings with problems, which makes it accessible.
Sometimes I felt like this dynamic between Cameron and Ethan was pretty American. Status is important all over the world, but there is a uniquely American way of giving status.
What is this particular way?
How important it is. There can be a quiet competition inherent in any type of interaction, even if it is not well discussed. Of course, this is something that exists in England and Japan, and it manifests itself in different ways. But it’s a little stronger.
If this relationship as a quartet is about status –
I don’t think it’s all about that; I think that’s part of it.
Is that what your relationship with Cameron is all about?
On time. Sometimes it’s one thing.
How does the change in status, with Ethan now having money, affect the relationship?
They both have a different status. Ethan is comfortable, or tells himself he is comfortable, with Cameron having his version of status because he thinks, I don’t want that status anyway. But Cameron doesn’t want Ethan to have status. Subconsciously it’s like, I don’t like that you’re good at just one thing.