‘White Lotus’ Star on That Poop, Gay Roles, and Being Out in Hollywood
The finale’s poop scene shocked Murray Bartlett, too. He talks Armond’s fate and maybe future, facing past soap opera demons, turning 50, his gay screen roles, and being out.
Murray Bartlett and I spoke moments after I saw him take surely the most beatific crap ever taken on television. In both blatancy and lyricism it sets a new on-screen turd standard. Moments later, his White Lotus character, the highly strung hotel manager Armond, apparently died in a bathtub after being stabbed by rich-boy guest Shane (Jake Lacy), into whose suitcase Armond had squatted down in a gleeful act of righteous vengeance against the kind of obnoxious white privilege that Mike White’s comedy drama has been skewering and satirizing these last six weeks.
“Are you traumatized?” Bartlett asks, roaring with laughter. First, the poop. “When I got the script, I thought, ‘Oh this isn’t going to be that bad.’ And then when I saw it I was like, ‘Oh my god.’ I had no idea it was going to be that explicit. But at the same time when I saw it on the page and more so when I saw it on screen it was the perfect moment in the story, because it’s got the kind of shock value that really works in the moment. When I watched it, I wasn’t expecting it to be so one-shot. I got to feel what it is to experience that moment in shock. I love that Mike White will go there.”
What was the turd made of?
“I can’t break the magic,” Bartlett says, laughing.
It was a “method poo”?
“I don’t know if I would go that far,” Bartlett says. “Let’s just say when I watched it, I was shocked. I didn’t know it would look that realistic.”
After Armond seemed to lose consciousness, we saw Shane emerge the next morning from a police car, apparently waved on to freedom by detectives, and then, observing from the airport windows the box marked “human remains” we saw in episode one.
Six weeks ago we assumed it was his new, understandably miserable wife Rachel (Alexandra Daddario) he had killed. But has Shane killed anyone? Why would he be allowed to go free so soon if he had killed or injured someone else, even if he had maybe excused or lied about his actions as self-defense? Perhaps Shane’s freedom is White’s dark coda—that white privilege can even get you easy-breezily acquitted of murder. Whatever the case, the end of The White Lotus raised even more questions.
One thing was clear: Armond was not in line as the hotel staff prepared to welcome the next set of visitors. Perhaps desperately, perhaps delusionally because this reporter loves Armond, I ask Bartlett if the hotel manager really is dead. Is there still a chance, somehow, that Armond could run the hotel, fall apart, drink, snort, rim, and revenge-poop again?
Bartlett, whose break in America came via a Sex and the City episode, playing a handsome gay shoe importer who dazzles Carrie in the episode “All That Glitters,” has had other major roles in HBO drama Looking and the most recent screen iteration of Tales of the City. He began his career on long-running Australian soap opera Neighbours, and later appeared in Guiding Light (R.I.P.). He knows better than anyone the maxim that no TV or film character can ever be truly known to be dead until we see a body, or a corpse in a bodybag. “And even then in soapland, there’s always the evil twin,” roars Bartlett.
A second season of The White Lotus has been commissioned. It will be set at another White Lotus property, and not feature the characters from season one—kind of. White told TVLine, “I don’t think you can credibly have [all the Season 1 guests] on the same vacation again,” he said. “But maybe it could be a Marvel Universe type thing, where some of them would come back. We only made one-year deals with the actors, so we’d have to find out who is even available.”
So, is there any way back for Armond? “I don’t know,” says Bartlett from his home near Provincetown, Massachusetts, before the announcement of the second season had been made. “I had such a ball doing this I would love to do more. It will be interesting. Mike White created this. Who knows what will come out of this? I would be excited to see what kind of second season he comes up with.”
In the last frame, alive or most likely dead, Armond is smiling—and at peace. Did knowing Armond would die, or at least appear to, affect Bartlett’s performance? “I think so. Towards the I think he’s hurtling towards that moment of joy. In that last moment, he’s finally released from the hell he’s been living. It’s a relief.
“It’s tragic that it has to end that way, but what’s brilliant about it is that it shows how Armond is a casualty of the societal system we have, where we treat people better at the top, and as you go down you treat people worse and worse. And when you do that you drive those people crazy because it’s so unfair and fucked up. I feel like Armond is an expression of that frustration. He’s like, ‘I’m going to fly towards that moment.’ He obviously doesn’t know what will ultimately happen, but he has this cavalier sense of ‘Fuck it.’ Knowing that he was heading there helped me.”
Armond’s sexuality is not the reason for his death, so if he is no more, it is not a homophobic murder. But he does join the pantheon of LGBTQ screen characters winding up dead.
“I think there’s tragedy in the way all the characters end, even if on the surface it looks like those who are alive get away with it,” says Bartlett. “Jake and Rachel go off to live their illusion. That family (the Mossbachers) are completely fucked up. I hear what you’re saying about gay characters historically getting a raw deal, but for me Armond being gay has nothing to do with him dying. It feels like whatever happened to him would have been tragic, because of his role in the hierarchy and the nature of the circumstances. It made sense to me as a character. It didn’t feel like it was any kid of derogatory diss on queer people or a gay man.”
Armond’s sexuality was central to how Bartlett imagined him. “There is definitely something in him of not being able to be authentically himself, and having to put on ‘a face.’ In my mind, his backstory was someone forced to be an outsider who didn’t fit in. What is frustrating for Armond coming up against Shane is that Shane is the epitome of everything that is seen as socially acceptable, and he’s a dick.
“Armond has had to deal with being ostracized and teased and being an outsider, whereas Shane is rich, arrogant, and automatically gets all the social privilege. There’s something revealing about that. With Mike White, no one is going to end up the hero. He likes to explore the darker sides of all people’s stories, and Armond is no exception. He reveals wonderful things built into people’s characters—in Armond’s case about running away from who you are, and what creating a public face to hide who you are does to you.”
Bartlett enjoyed playing the full panoply of Armond: smiling, efficient manager and then sybaritic nihilist and social avenger—“a sort of functioning addict until he gets to the point where he is not functioning. There’s a brittleness that is not obvious to anyone when they see him. He’s on the edge, not only because of the frustrations of what he wanted to do with his life but also staying sober in this insane world. He’s just not coping.”
His name is also shared with the lead character of The Birdcage, and is an “odd name for an Australian, which I love,” says Bartlett. “I think he’s half-French and grew up in the western suburbs of Sydney. Mike has baked all these idiosyncrasies into the characters.”
“They called ‘Action,’ and we were two bulls with our horns locked”
Bartlett, 50, didn’t know about Armond’s extremes when he signed up to play him, “but obviously I would have been an idiot to have any hesitation. I always wanted to work with Mike. The show in some ways seemed a slow-burn. You get to meet the characters, but don’t know where they are going to end up. When I did see the other scripts, I was incredibly excited.
“Armond goes on such a rollercoaster ride, with a job that requires a public face and a rich, complicated inner life bubbling underneath. That was just so cool to play, and to be able to have scenes where that inner life is fully expressed in amazing ways—just like the suitcase scene, where Armond follows through in a way we hopefully would not, but playing a character who goes through with it was both shocking and therapeutic.”
He and Lacy didn’t over-prepare for their scenes of mutual seething. “They called ‘Action,’ and we were two bulls with our horns locked. We were both surprised in a great way. Jake was someone pushing me as much as I pushed him. It felt like we were fencing in those scenes.”
From the outset, says Bartlett, Armond is “a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown.” The cracks don’t initially appear as super-sized as they become, but Bartlett relished playing his subsequent “unraveling.” At one stage in the show’s conception, Armond made a speech about wanting to be an actor, which Bartlett naturally related to.
“I asked myself, ‘What if I couldn’t have been an actor? What if it hadn’t worked out? What if I had gone into hospitality as a servant of these privileged, obnoxious people, and ended up on this trajectory of unfulfilled dreams while still trying to somehow follow through? His addiction issues add to this. Armond is weirdly larger than life, frustrated at not being who he wanted to be, but hanging on to the showman aspects of what he does as a hotel manager because he always wanted to be a performer.”
This we see in one of Armond’s most beautiful scenes, his hotel swansong in the final episode, where he works all the tables at supper as if a perfectly choreographed piece of ballet.
“It’s a dance,” says Bartlett. “Those scenes where he’s just flying, in his element, were great to play. They played the music you hear for me as I did it. I was in a dance with the camera operator. It was very dreamy to film. Armond finally has got nothing to lose. In those moments he is releasing all his anxieties. He’s really good at this. That’s the most tragic part of his story, and why he takes it so hard when he messes up Shane and Rachel’s booking at the beginning and starts to lose his grip. This is the only thing he’s good at, and if he loses that, what does he have?”
Bartlett says he tried to “play with the levels” of Armond, balancing moments of vulnerability and feeling lost with the other technicolor moments of him not holding back, of being manic, letting himself slip, of being larger than life, yet remaining “honest and anchored in something that feels real so he doesn’t become a caricature. You want him to be fun at times, but like all characters you have to feel for them at other times. That makes him real. I’m really proud of how we navigated and steered through those moments of Armond’s vulnerability and his moments of total showman.”
The cast and extras were all sequestered in a COVID-sensitive bubble, in the hotel we see on screen, staying in the same kinds of rooms we see. There was, of course, a hotel manager, “who was nothing like Armond,” laughs Bartlett.
“It was an intense schedule, but it was also like theater camp,” Bartlett says, describing a lovely sleepover that lasted more than one night, where you didn’t need to worry if your hair was messy at the dinner table—“a group of people you wanted to spend time with.” The cast swam together, ate together, and spent time together far more than is usual. Bartlett says White had started writing the show in August last year, with filming beginning in October. “How the fuck does someone do that? It’s really phenomenal,” says Bartlett. When filming was shut down “for COVID a couple of times, false positives” the team returned in February to finish the shoot.
Steve Zahn, who played opposite Bartlett as Mark Mossbacher (the two sharing a beautifully written, weird near-seduction scene), is “such a relaxed, funny, sweet man to be around.” As for working with the transfixing Jennifer Coolidge, Bartlett says: “What is there left to say? She’s someone I admire so much. It’s tricky working with her, because you just want to watch her. She’s just so fascinating and spontaneous in the moment. It’s really hard not to laugh. She’s just so funny. It’s interesting—she’s a lot more self-aware in her life than some of her characters are. She’s very kind. It’s a challenge to stay in the moment with her, because I was awestruck by how amazing she is.”
“I do think there are still lingering stigmas, and some ceilings to break through”
In his standout roles—as Armond in The White Lotus, as Dom in Looking, and as Michael Tolliver in the most recent screen iteration of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City for Netflix—Bartlett is unique; an out gay actor playing an assortment of varied, deeply written gay men progressing through middle age on mainstream TV.
“I feel like I have been incredibly lucky in that way, and also in having the opportunity to try and show nuance, vulnerability and complexity and hopefully something that feels authentic. Armond is different from the other characters. I mean he definitely exists inside me, I think he exists inside all of us which is frightening to think. As an actor you want to play a range of roles, and I’ve had the opportunity to play gay and straight roles, but I often get to play gay roles which I absolutely love because we are in a time where we are still trying to have more representation in under-represented communities, including the queer community.
“There’s a responsibility that comes with that to try to do justice to whatever representations we do have. I have really loved the opportunity to try and do that. Sometimes you feel like you succeeded, sometimes you feel like you may have fallen short a bit. But just to have done it feels really satisfying for me, and makes me feel very lucky because I feel like it’s something that needs to be done, and I wanted to do what I could to make these characters sensitive and three-dimensional.”
Bartlett doesn’t know if he was offered the roles on the strength of his previous gay roles—which can be sometimes how producers and casting directors can see you. “I don’t know if people think, ‘He can only play gay roles,’ or is that the only way they have seen me and so think, ‘He’s right for this’? I do know we still have a long way to go in so many areas. There’s hardly any female cinematographers that work a lot and get offered big jobs. We’re not seeing equality for men and women, or seeing as many opportunities for queer people, or people of color, or people of diverse gender identities. There are so many places for us to grow. I do think there are still lingering stigmas, and some ceilings to break through.”
But Bartlett feels “super-lucky” with the opportunities he has personally received, and the range of roles he has played. “If these are great roles in queer-focused stories that’s awesome. But I do look forward to a time where our gender, race, and sexuality doesn’t necessarily play into what we get cast as, and that we are on an equal playing field. We’re not there yet, but we’re moving towards it, which is awesome.”
Bartlett doesn’t know if being out “played against me. It may have, or maybe I just wasn’t right for those other roles.” He laughs. “I was super-fortunate as a young person who had an incredible mother who loved me no matter what, and didn’t have any issue with me being gay. I still had to come out to some people in my life, but I didn’t struggle with that in my life as a lot of people do. I feel like I carried that into my work life to a certain extent.
“As a young actor, people talk to you about it and ask you if it’s going to be a problem or should you hide it. I never felt comfortable hiding it, so I didn’t. Probably early on, I didn’t go out of my way to talk about it, but I never had a coming out process. I just never hid it. I do love not knowing much about the personal lives of actors, because it allows me to lose myself in their characters, but I also know there has been and continues to be an important place for people to be openly who they are.
“For me, I was never interested in hiding it. Fortunately, that worked out really well for me because the opportunities I got have been wonderful, but it may have guided my trajectory in that I have played more gay roles than I would have if I hadn’t been open. It’s hard to know. But I feel very lucky with how my life has gone. It hasn’t affected me negatively, even if it altered my trajectory in some ways.”
He is a heartthrob too, even if Armond has more smoothed-down hair and less outward silver-fox ruggedness than Dom in Looking and Michael in Tales. It’s not the first time Bartlett has heard it (“You know…social media”), and he laughs heartily. “I mean sure I’ll take it. I don’t know what you say to that. It’s a hard thing to respond to, but I take it as a great compliment.”
“I could go on a wilderness walk in New Zealand, or come to New York and do classes. I chose New York”
Bartlett grew up in Sydney. All he ever wanted to do from a young age was act. “I was always that kid off in the far end of the yard dressed in some weird costume or whatever thing I had found, talking to myself in a complete fantasy world. I had an incredibly rich imagination.” He put on little shows, inhabited a multitude of characters.
“And then, fatefully, my brother and his friends from the neighborhood all gathered around a rock to kill a spider, and my brother was trying to kill it, and I was standing behind him and he threw the hammer back to come back down and kill the spider and knocked my baby teeth out.”
So, Bartlett had to wait for his adult teeth grew through. Not long after that he was spinning around in his basement listening to music, again in his own world, when he tripped over and knocked his two bottom teeth on the concrete floor.
“There was a big hole where my teeth were supposed to be for a few years,” Bartlett recalled. “When my teeth grew through, I said ‘s’ like an ‘f.’ I had a lisp.” His mother sent him to a speech therapist to master the ‘s,’ “an amazing woman who had me reading monologs and reading poems. I worked with her for years.” Then came acting in high school and drama school, “where I realized not everyone thought I was great. That’s a whole other story.” Bartlett laughs. “It was like, ‘Why don’t you all unconditionally love me like my mom?’ Ugh.” He laughs again, and intones: “Weellll, years of therapy later…”
Bartlett emerged from drama school “a little shattered by the experience, and with lofty ideas about how I wanted to be as an actor. My perspective was a little all over the place.” Like many good-looking young Australian actors, he did stints in Neighbours and Home and Away. “I wish I had done a little longer on those shows now, because I feel like you learn a lot on them.
“I was a little resistant to them at the time. There was a stigma that existed around them, and I felt pressured by that. My perspective was warped. I wish I hadn’t felt that. If I had been more open to it, there may have been an opportunity to work longer on those shows. When you work on soaps, you learn what it is to work fast and with cameras. It was such a cool experience, and I’m glad and very proud now to have done them. It was good for me as a person and as an actor.”
Many actors from those shows have made it big in Hollywood, and Bartlett was ahead of the curve when he arrived in America in 2000.
He never intended to move to the U.S., he says, but the film industry in Australia was smaller and harder to break into. He wanted to work and learn. “I had two choices. I could go on a wilderness walk in New Zealand, or come to New York and do classes. I chose New York.”
He fell in love with the city, extended his tourist visa—and then, in a bolt of good fortune, booked his first job on Sex and the City playing Oliver, the handsome gay Aussie who first gets Carrie served in a crowded, fleshy gay bar, and then briefly displaces Stanford (Willie Garson) as her gay best friend.
Bartlett secured the gig through a friend-of-a-friend series of connections, suddenly reading and then shooting alongside Sarah Jessica Parker. “It was a fantasy New York story, this person knows this person, and it just happens. It got me thinking, ‘Oh maybe I could stay here.’ There was such a positivity in New York, people wanting to help me rise to do something. I felt like something was flowing along in my favor in New York. I got addicted to the city, and the feeling of opportunity.”
When Bartlett appeared in Guiding Light between 2007 and 2009, as conman Cyrus Foley, it exorcised his soap demons from years before. “It was an amazing training ground. It completely cured me of my fear of not remembering my lines because you’ve got so much to learn, it’s just ridiculous. You just get over it. When I did Guiding Light, there was still a stigma or attitude around being on a soap. I had to beat that away. It was a great choice. It helped me get my green card, it was a great group of people, and made me better as an actor. And it was a chance for me to redo what I had felt I had messed up in Australia. I had made decisions early in my life based on expectations of me or what was cool, rather than what was best for me.”
So, would Bartlett say “yes” to Neighbours now, because presumably they would love a star of his stature to make an appearance?
Bartlett laughs. “It depends on what the character is. I look for any opportunity to go home. But my life is here now, and Australia is understandably really protective of actors living and working there, as they should be. It’s hard to straddle both, but I would love to have the opportunity there to go back and work.”
Bartlett and his partner of almost seven years—who he declines to name—moved to Cape Cod a couple of years ago, buying a little piece of land, an “experiment” initially after many years of New York living. “We have a piece of land in the woods. We were thinking about dropping anchor in Australia, but found some land up in Massachusetts instead.”
He still journeys to the Big Apple for work, but his Cape home is where has “struck anchor for now.” Like this reporter, he loves Provincetown especially in the winter when the crowds are gone, and it’s “peaceful, moody and romantic. It feels like you have the town to yourself.” We compare notes on walks over the “breakwater,” the heartbreakingly beautiful sunsets, and the delight of a Provincetown winter blizzard.
Bartlett turned 50 in March. “It was definitely a big moment. I don’t have an issue with age at all or getting older. I really love it, but I’m fortunate to be in good health and all that. I think those kinds of birthdays are significant, but it didn’t feel like such a major thing. I didn’t feel traumatized. If anything I embraced it. I really enjoy getting older. I feel like less of a mess, and clear about how I want to be in the world and what I want life to be. Hopefully I am making better choices.”
“For my 40th and 50th birthdays, for about a week before both, I felt incredibly unsettled. I was looking back on my life both times. I was thinking, ‘Am I where I thought I would be?’ ‘How should I live my life?’—just sort of reflective in that way. So, I found it kind of surprisingly tumultuous. The actual day of my birthday both times was really beautiful. I just had to get over the hump of reflection.”
Bartlett said that living in New York had been somewhat of a personal surprise, despite his professional success. “I’m such a nature boy. Nature is where I feel like I am in my element. It was probably why I went to New York. It was like I wanted to see what would happen to me when I’m not in my natural comfort zone or natural habitat. When I turned 50 I wanted to be in nature again. I wanted my life to feel like I was moving towards that. Being in nature creates more of an anchor in my life. Being in nature feels right, but New York remains my work home.”
Reaching his 50th birthday in March, Bartlett thought to himself, “Oh, I made this stuff happen, and I’m fortunate enough to make it happen. Here I am in a place where I had not exactly pictured myself, but it’s pretty close with all the elements that I had hoped for when I turned 50… so yeah, I felt very lucky. One of the things the pandemic revealed is you can kind of be anywhere these days, which I’m all for.”
Bartlett will next film HBO post-apocalyptic drama The Last of Us, based on the 2013 video game of the same name. Bartlett says he is sworn to secrecy about it, apart from saying he is very excited to shoot the project in Canada. (Deadline reports that he is playing a survivalist called Frank alongside Con O’Neill’s Bill.) While he is looking forward to watching the return of theater in New York, working on camera remains his focus—“the subtle intimacy” it facilitates for an actor, as well as the ability to speak and “not having to reach the last row.”
Bartlett says he loves seeing one of his shows on the screen, knowing he was part of its creation. The arc of a show like The White Lotus allows an actor to explore the breadth and depths of a character, he says, “especially via platforms where you can reach a global audience. It’s such an amazing, powerful thing. For instance, with something like Looking we reached queer people in countries where they couldn’t live openly. They were lifted up by that show in ways we will never understand. They felt connected to the world and less alone.
“We got messages from people in those sorts of parts of the world saying things like, ‘You have no idea what it’s like to see this, how liberating it is to see this, even though I can’t be liberated in my life.’ The potential for TV to reach people in that way is so powerful, I think.”
And now that goes for Armond in The White Lotus too, arguably Bartlett’s finest, career-topping role to date. How could Armond return, we wonder as we say goodbye. Bartlett laughs. “I’m not sure how he could create it. But if anyone can, Mike White can.”