SPOILER ALERT: This interview contains spoilers for Season 2 of “The White Lotus,” now streaming on HBO Max.
Ethan’s calm exterior finally bubbled over in the Season 2 finale of “The White Lotus.” After a tense brunch, the tech entrepreneur, played by Will Sharpe, confronts wife Harper (Aubrey Plaza), questioning whether she had sex with Cameron (Theo James).
Harper admits to kissing him, which prompts Ethan to physically fight his college roommate in the ocean. The scuffle gets intense before being broken up by another tourist.
A visibly upset Ethan finds Daphne on the beach and tells her his suspicions about their spouses, before she invites him to visit a nearby island with him. After the group shares one final dinner together that evening, Harper and Ethan finally have sex again (smashing the Testa di Moro statue in the process).
In the airport, they finally seem closer than ever. So what’s next for them? The morning following the finale, Sharpe sat down with Variety to reflect on the season of the Mike White-created show.
At the season’s beginning, Ethan and Harper couldn’t seem more different from Cameron and Daphne. Harper, in particular, has a sense of superiority over them. What’s your take on how the couple evolved over the course of the season?
It felt like they had both arrived on this vacation having been very busy, and both in kind of cruise control in their relationship. And then suddenly, they’re in a really beautiful place on a holiday that they wouldn’t normally go on with two people that are very different from them. And I guess initially, Harper is the one who, as you say, is kind of a little bit judgmental of them. But it feels like it’s almost because she’s starting to sense maybe cracks in their own relationship. And even when you first see them on the boat, they’re already bickering about something. Soon after, I think Ethan starts to become aware, too, that maybe something has gone awry in their relationship. That is exacerbated by the company of Daphne and Cameron, and all the different ways in which that matrix kind of interacts with itself.
Talking with Mike early earlier on, it felt like he didn’t want there to be some specific issue that Ethan and Harper could just kind of look at, and then it would fix everything. He wanted it to be about two people who loved each other, who had simply been together for a very long time. And so I feel like through this series in different ways, they’re trying to work out: Why is this not as easy as it used to be? How do we get back to that place? In the end, it’s almost like they’ve taken a piece of what Daphne and Cameron have, maybe, for better or worse, and it gets them back in a place where they kind of are more able to connect again, because for a lot of this series, that communication is not great — even if they tell themselves that they’re super honest with each other and that they’re good together. I sort of feel like this series is asking the audience questions about that. It’s not necessarily saying that it’s right to be a Cameron and Daphne couple or an Ethan and Harper couple. It’s kind of asking you, “What kind of relationship do you think you’re in? And how do you think it should work?” And it’s morally very gray.
Speaking of morally gray, what happened between Ethan and Daphne when they went to the island?
That is open to interpretation. But I feel like whatever happened, in a literal sense, that moment between them is definitely a moment of connection. It’s a moment of intimacy. I think there’s something about Daphne’s sense of self, and the accommodation she has found with who she is, and how she’s living. Something about that, I think, affects Ethan. Often, Meghann and I were in scenes together, but that was one of very few actual interactions we had. I really felt like Meghann did such an amazing job in that scene. It was such a pleasure to be a part of that.
Ethan seemed to be bubbling up all season, and finally snapped in the finale. How did you approach that big fight with Cameron in the ocean, and how far would it have gone if that tourist didn’t intervene?
Thankfully, we never needed to find out about that. Ethan is definitely slightly out of control. For a lot of the series, Ethan was written with a lot of restraint. I know that Mike wanted him to be a bit of an enigma, and for you to be able to kind of guess one way or another about who he might end up being. It’s almost like he hasn’t wanted to play this game of fighting for one another’s factions or fighting for status. But that has had pretty dire consequences. In this final episode it’s kind of like, “If this is the game that we’ve got to play, then let’s play it.” And the through line always, for me, was to do with the marriage. I think he realizes that he wants to fight for the marriage, and that he has to fight for the marriage. All of that emotion and fear and anxiety and anger that he’s been holding in has to come out at some point. Part of it is anger himself — I think he’s aware that he could have handled things differently. He could have communicated better, to say the least, along the way.
It was a really fun scene to shoot. We choreographed it a day or two before with the stunt coordinators, and had a lot of fun trying to work out what’s the best sort of level of trying to make this feel real, and exciting, but also, kind of like two people who don’t really know how to fight going at each other. It’s like the animal in Ethan is released. I don’t know at what point they would have stopped, if it weren’t for the tourist there remind them that, by the way, this is kind of insane what you’re doing.
Could Ethan have killed Cameron in that moment?
I guess I didn’t need to think about that. One thing I will say is that, right at the beginning, Mike was very upfront with me. He said to me that people’s suspicions are going to move around as they watch this series, but that he did want people to be able to imagine that Ethan might end up killing someone. And so I was mindful of that, in the playing of him through the series, always having an eye on the endgame, which for me was that ultimately, all of his actions, whether they’re kind of questionable or laudable, are kind of motivated by love and wanting to get back to a place with Harper that he thinks they should be in. So who knows? How far do people go for something like that?
The friendship he has with Cameron is so interesting and fraught. Why did it feel like Ethan still wanted to impress him, and how did you approach that relationship?
I don’t know if it’s that Ethan wants to impress him necessarily. It always felt like they were never soulmates. They shared a room in college, they kind of made friends in that way, where you sort of stay in touch in the years after, and you’re inviting each other to your weddings and birthday parties, emailing every now and again. Probably a part of him, always felt like, “Well, that was Cameron then. Now he’s an adult. Now it’s probably different.” But I think he’s quite quickly realizing that this is actually quite a fraught relationship, as you say. And even in that first episode, where Harper brings up that moment where he changes into swimming trunks in front of her, she’s like, “Don’t you think that’s weird?” And Ethan’s trying to shrug it off. But the next thing he does is he looks at the Testa di Moro, which we’ve just been told is a symbol of adultery and the consequence of that. So I do think all of that is playing on his mind. I think there is a sort of innate competitiveness in Ethan, and he probably tells himself that he’s someone wants to have status because he’s earned it, and not to sort of go around demanding it. But it sort of feels like the vacation is playing out on different terms. So I think that’s why he comes out to fight for it. And probably some of that, he’s not even aware of exactly why he’s doing what he’s doing.
That moment when the Testa di Moro shatters while Ethan and Harper are intimate is poignant. How did you interpret it?
It’s a cathartic moment. This fear of infidelity and the consequences have sort of hung over this — particularly Ethan and Harper, but all four of them — in different ways across the series. It’s also maybe a kind of wink about how the red herring of one of our heads being chopped off is over: You don’t have to worry about that anymore. But more than anything, I just felt like it was a symbol of sort of overall catharsis, that these two people who have been longing to find a connection and pushing each other further and further away, have somehow managed to find it again in that moment.
Do you think Harper was being truthful when she said she and Cameron only kissed and nothing more?
As an actor, I didn’t need to know the truth, because Ethan doesn’t know the truth. In that scene, where he’s pushing Harper to know exactly what happened, he has, rightly or wrongly, decided that that’s what needs he needs to do for them to move on and to move past this. I think that’s what I like about the way those stories play out. There is still an element of mystery. What exactly did happen between Harper and Cameron? What exactly did happen between Ethan and Daphne? I think that’s what Daphne is saying to Ethan: Do we need to know everything to love one another and to coexist?
Daphne and Cameron mention going to the Maldives in the future. Do you think there’s another group trip in store for these two couples?
That’s for Mike to decide. I do find that so funny that after the day that they’ve had, they just come over and sit down with Ethan and Harper. I feel like that’s part of Ethan and Harper feeling united in that moment of kind of, “Are you fucking kidding me? Just go and sit over there! Like, what are you doing?” It’s funny to sort of try and work out how sincere that is, from Daphne. Does she mean it, or is it just a performance?
If you were asked to come back for a third season, would you be interested?
Again, that’s for Mike to think about and decide. But yeah, I loved doing the season. And I think he’s a really interesting character. He’s morally complex. He doesn’t always do the right thing, but I think is ultimately his heart is in the right place. And I love working with Mike. I felt like I learned a lot from him. I would love working with Aubrey and Meghann and Theo. So yeah, whether it’s in that context or some other contexts, I’d work with any of them again, in a heartbeat.
I imagine you’ll get a lot of scripts sent your way after this performance. You’re also known for directing, though. What would be your ideal balance of acting and directing moving forward?
I’ve never had a plan. I’ve always just gone on instinct. I have been writing since we wrapped. I’ve written a film script, which is a love story set against a period of American history that I think is slightly underexplored and that I wanted to write about for a while. I’ve also been developing a TV show. I’ve written the first episode of a TV sort of comedy-drama that is set in a post Chekhovian sci-fi world. I’ll start pitching both of those soon. I’m also reading scripts as they come in. I sometimes use the analogy of music. You might write a song and feel like it’s written for someone else to sing. Or you might feel like you could sing it. And if somebody else wants you to play session guitar in their band, and you love their music, what’s not to like about that?
The internet went crazy with fan theories this season. Did you read any of them, and do you have any favorites?
I’m not on any social media. Friends or reps would sometimes send me stuff if they thought it was funny. And it was fun! Sometimes people in passing and conversation would kind of broach their theories. And it would be fun when it was wildly off. And it would also be nice when it was quite close. It’s kind of a relief in a way, now that it’s all out to be able to talk about it more freely. We had all seven scripts before we started shooting. So we all knew what was going to happen. We’ve been sitting on these secrets for a while, talking in riddles.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
For more coverage of “The White Lotus,” read our interviews with Jennifer Coolidge (Tanya), Adam DiMarco (Albie), Haley Lu Richardson (Portia), Meghann Fahy (Daphne) and Simona Tabasco (Lucia). Read a recap of the season finale here, and its series-high ratings here!