Murray Bartlett on ‘The White Lotus’ and His Long Road to Overnight Stardom

Photographs by Dan Doperalski

Murray Bartlett has been acting for 35 years, but it wasn’t until his turn as smiling and spiraling hotel manager Armond in HBO’s “The White Lotus” that Hollywood started buzzing about its new “breakout star.”

“In the last year since ‘White Lotus,’ I’ve had more choice and more work than I’ve ever had,” the Australian actor tells Variety.

Murray Bartlett Variety Emmy Extra Edition Cover

The role earned him an Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts prize and Critics’ Choice Award, but Bartlett’s career hasn’t always been a smooth journey. “There have been times where I haven’t worked much — sometimes long periods,” he says. “There were times when people told me, ‘You’re getting too old, you’re obviously not going to be super successful.’ And I did second guess myself.”

In fact, he’s endured “existential crises” every four or five years: “I would say, ‘Is this really what I should be doing?’ And there were a few times along the way where I thought, ‘Maybe not.’”

Growing up in Western Australia, Bartlett began auditioning while completing his final exams in high school. In what sounds like a cliché from a movie, he recalls pondering life’s big questions while walking down to the beach one day.

“I remember making that decision. My exams were suffering because I wanted to be an actor and go to acting school. I wanted to give it a shot,” he says.

Bartlett moved to the United States in 2000 and made waves a few years later playing a memorable Australian shoe importer in an episode of “Sex and the City.” In the years since, he made his mark as Dom on HBO’s “Looking” and Mouse on Netflix’s “Tales of the City” reboot, all while securing guest spots on such series as “White Collar,” “The Good Wife,” “Damages” and “Nashville.”

Murray Bartlett Variety Emmy Extra Edition

As the pandemic hit and Bartlett, like the rest of the world, prepared for an industry-wide shutdown, a script for “The White Lotus” landed in his lap like a “gift from God,” he says. “Or a gift from Mike White, who is kind of godlike.”

Describing his first impressions of the script, Bartlett recalls, “There was just so much to play with, and it was very joyful and funny. But what struck me is that I didn’t want to play Armond as some sort of caricature of a guy on the edge, or some stereotype of a campy, gay man. He has all these big aspects to him that I didn’t want to shy away from. I wanted to anchor him in something that felt real, even though he’s quite a larger-than-life character. It turns out that tone was what Mike was going for as well.”

He immediately began formulating ideas about how to approach Armond and what his backstory might look like. But having only read the pilot, Bartlett was completely unaware that his character is the dead body teased throughout the series — a twist he found out on the plane to Hawaii to film.

“I really took the bait about it being Rachel,” he says, referring to Alexandra Daddario’s character. “I was really shocked when it was Armond — shocked because I wasn’t expecting it and shocked because it’s very intense and tragic.”

On some level, “The White Lotus” revolves around Armond’s struggle to keep a mask over his nervous breakdown and sobriety slip. His primary conflict is with spoiled man-child Shane (Jake Lacy), whose ridiculously expensive Pineapple Suite has been double-booked and given to a German couple. Armond’s unwillingness to own up to this mistake — and Shane’s unwillingness to let it go — launches a series-long conflict that begins as simple skepticism but soon escalates to all-out war.

A pivotal scene in this rivalry comes at the end of Episode 4, when Shane barges into Armond’s office as his face is lodged between the butt cheeks of his employee Dillon [Lukas Gage]. The scene, which is quite startling even by HBO standards, lit the internet on fire. And the best part? It wasn’t even scripted.

“It was written that something sexual was happening between us, and it was shocking to Shane and Belinda [played by Natasha Rothwell],” Bartlett says. “Mike didn’t want us to do anything that we weren’t comfortable with, but we were sort of left open as to what the scene would actually be. Lukas and I came up with some different ideas and we both really liked that one because it’s unusual and very shocking.”

Bartlett continues: “When we suggested it to Mike, he looked at us with terror and glee at the same time and said, ‘Can we do that?’ And then we did it!”

Bolstered by Bartlett’s cunning charm and relatability, Armond is a fascinating character study in that he both takes advantage of others and is taken advantage of. We watch him take pride in lying directly to Shane’s face. We watch him spoil his sobriety with drugs stolen from hotel guests. We watch him sexually coerce a much younger employee by offering flexible shifts. And yet we root for him, perhaps because of all the torture these privileged vacationers put him through.

“Armond is confusing in the way that humans are confusing,” Bartlett says. “We’re complex creatures and we can have aspects of ourselves that totally contradict each other.”

Because his obsessive feud with Shane results in Armond’s death, the character is often described as “tragic.” To Bartlett, Armond is something of a cautionary tale.

“It’s very easy to feel overwhelmed in the world we’re in at the moment. Armond came to represent, for me, that part of us that is like, ‘I can’t take this anymore. This is insane,’” he says. “There was something about him crashing and burning that felt like a really powerful metaphor… hopefully that’s not the fate of the human race.”

Bartlett adds: “Sometimes it feels like we’re just hurtling toward things that we could prevent, but we’re just choosing not to. Let’s not be Armond.”

Murray Bartlett Variety Emmy Extra Edition

That fact that Armond is gay — like Bartlett himself and many of the other notable characters he’s played — adds a layer to his complexity. “He’s a bit of an outsider. He puts on a front as the hotel manager, but he’s also hiding a lot of things. There is a sense, to me, that he was probably picked on at school for being gay, and probably by guys like Shane. And that plays into their relationship.”

Bartlett came out early in his career, during an era of Hollywood where few actors were openly queer. “Of course, there was a thought in my mind of like, ‘I want to have a really great career, and I don’t want to be pigeonholed in a certain way,’” he recalls. “But not being able to be myself was never something that I felt interested in. I just didn’t want to hide.”

Now at 51, Bartlett is not hiding at all. He’s grateful for his recent spike in success and believes his long career has afforded him the right amount of perspective to appreciate it.

While White is currently wrapping up Season 2 of “The White Lotus,” Bartlett is onto other things — namely, Season 2 of Apple TV+’s “Physical,” HBO’s series adaptation of hit zombie video game “The Last of Us” and Hulu’s “Immigrant,” a limited series about the founding of the Chippendales male dance revue.

“I’m really enjoying it, with less stress,” he says of acting in multiple projects. “And that comes from being a little older and having a more mature perspective on life and work, and just feeling fortunate — being able to live in the moment and love it.”