Mike White‘s White Lotus could have been a gift from the pandemic gods – a social satire that got the audience off their couches to a luxury resort in Hawaii. But the show’s hectic production pace – plus strict pandemic precautions – did not allow much free time when it came to casting.
Shortly after Labor Day 2020, when Hawaii was approved by HBO as the filming location for the new series, the veteran was casting director Meredith Tucker (The wonderful Mrs. Maisel) began its casting search. White had written a few parts with actors in mind – including Tanya McQuoid, an emotionally needy heir to be played by Jennifer Coolidge– but Tucker only had about a month to complete the rest of the extensive ensemble in time for the October recordings.
While Tucker had previously worked with White at 2017’s Beatriz for dinner, another project examining class polarization, this time the casting director was looking for actors during deep shutdown. This meant she had to rely on homemade audition tapes rather than personal meetings or group auditions, where actors could read together and establish the kind of relationships on screen that could create or ruin a show.
“We did not do chemistry readings,” says Tucker, a conspicuous admission given the ensemble’s huge success. In addition to being named one of the best TV series of the year, White Lotus earned another season and some heavy prizes. Tucker adds, “We were really lucky.”
She looks at the Mossbacher family as an example. White sat down Connie Britton (which he has also previously worked with Beatriz for dinner) to play Nicole, the Sheryl Sandberg– as a career woman and matriarch. For the character’s husband, Mark, White Lotus needed an actor who would presumably be paired with Britton’s alpha female, but who was also sympathetic enough that the audience would still like him, even after he confessed to an affair. Steve Zahn, who played iconic gracious 90s slackers in movies like Reality bites and You have mail, was their choice.
“With a lot of actors, if you found out, you’d think: What a fool!” says Tucker. “And with Steve, you do not tolerate what he did, but it’s a little more understandable because of their dynamics and what he brought to the character.”
For the younger members of the ensemble, Tucker is a contributor Fred Hechinger, which she has previously thrown in Eighth grade, as the family’s socially awkward son, Quinn; Sydney Sweeney as daughter Olivia in college age; and Brittany O’Grady as Olivia’s friend, Paula.
“As for Paula and Olivia, we had to imagine that these people would be friends,” Tucker says, explaining that White thought of a different way to gel the actors. ‘He got the women listening to a podcast called Red fright-because the actress who is hosting has a very specific cadence so the women were able to mimic it a bit. You do that sometimes when you have friends. ”
The rapid pandemic casting process, with all its limitations, seemed such a gamble that White seemed legally surprised to arrive in Hawaii and see that the actors were actually compelling as a family.
“He was a little shocked at how well it turned out,” Tucker says with a laugh.
The series’ most crucial role to cast was without a doubt Armond, White Lotus resort manager, who is eventually crushed by the legitimate guests he serves and plunges into a flame of drug-induced glory. The role required an actor who could telegraph depth and emotion from behind a hospitable-smile veneer, but who could also flexibly communicate with most of the ensemble’s characters, guest and staff.
“When it’s so far open, it can be even harder than when you’re looking for something very specific,” Tucker says, revealing that White had not written details about Armond’s age or background. What White knew was that Armond would be good for his job and would be a reality-based character on the show.