‘The White Lotus’: Will Sharpe Explains Ethan’s Toxic Relationships

SPOILER ALERT: This interview contains spoilers up to Episode 4 of “The White Lotus,” airing Sundays on HBO and streaming on HBO Max.

Think you know Ethan? Think again.

On Season 2 of “The White Lotus,” Will Sharpe plays the reserved, if not slightly awkward, tech guy who recently came into wealth and embarks on a couples getaway that turns out to be more than he bargained for.

Paired with Aubrey Plaza’s pugnacious Harper, Theo James’ haughty Cameron and Meghann Fahy’s cheery Daphne, Ethan is a bit of a straight man. But Sharpe says that’s all about to change, and audiences shouldn’t be so quick to root for him.

“Some of the characters present with immediacy, and you have a relatively full sense of them early on. But Ethan is supposed to be hard to pin down, so they leave space for you to guess,” he says as a warning.

On the Nov. 13 episode before tonight’s installment, Ethan is swindled into a guys’ night out fantasy when Cameron invites sex workers Lucia (Simona Tabasco) and Mia (Beatrice Grannò) to party while the wives are away in Noto. Despite Cameron assuring him that “everyone cheats,” Ethan remains (mostly) faithful to Harper, but the discovery of a condom wrapper lodged under the couch cushion sends her into a silent spiral. On multiple occasions Harper gives Ethan the chance to come clean about last night, but sworn to the “bro code,” he spins a web of lies to protect his friend.

Now that viewers are more than halfway through the seven-episode season of the Mike White series, Sharpe sat down with News Brig to discuss his character’s toxic relationships with Cameron and Harper, teasing a heel turn to come in the series’ final episodes.

Shape, who created the black comedy sitcom “Flowers” and directed and co-wrote HBO’s 2021 miniseries “Landscapers,” also touched on the cultural differences between American and British friendships, and why James’ character can’t seem to stop kissing his on the cheek.

How do you interpret Ethan and Harper’s relationship?

I think the fact that they’re not having sex is basically emblematic of the overall problem — they are both extremely connected, but also not connected at all. They’ve been together for so long that it’s almost like they’re on autopilot. They tell themselves that they’re really close and good together, and in many ways they are. But there’s also a weird paradox where they are so codependent and share everything with each other, that they’ve become kind of lonely. It’s interesting how the sort of possibility of sex with other people creates tension within their relationship and sort of exposes the cracks in them. There’s that like, amazing scene in Noto where Harper is feeling the gaze of all the men, and then there’s the moment where Cameron has essentially thrust the sex workers onto Ethan. It’s like, you could take part in this if you wanted to. For both of them, how they’re interacting with Cameron and Daphne is making them realize things about where they’re at. Toward the end of Episode 3, what’s really going on with Ethan is more than like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe there’s this crazy party happening in my hotel room while my wife’s away.” It’s more to do with a dawning realization that, actually, maybe him and Harper are not OK. And she’s kind of on a similar journey, I guess. But they’re not on that journey together.

You and Theo James play former college roommates, and there’s this air of competition between you. What was it like getting into that mindset together, and as two British actors playing American frenemies, were there any cultural differences you became aware of?

I remember having a conversation with one of our producers, who said, “Sometimes Americans end up being friends with people they hate.” It’s not like Ethan and Cameron were soulmates. They were roommates, and now they happen to both be successful. They’ve stayed in touch, and they’ve been through some shit together, for sure. But it never felt like they were especially close — almost like they were geographical friends. In terms of going on this holiday, I feel like Ethan said yes to it without really thinking about it. It ends up being way more toxic and complicated than he had ever foreseen. At the beginning, he sort of defends Cameron and Daphne to Harper, but as time goes on he starts to question it, particularly with Cameron. Harper’s prediction that Cameron just wants to do some business with Ethan turns out to be true.

There are a few awkward moments between Cameron and Harper. In Episode 1, he strips naked in front of her while changing, and throughout the series he shoots her some subtle, flirtatious glimpses. Is Cameron sexually interested in Harper, or do you think this is just another way to try to get one up on Ethan?

I think it’s a sort of compulsion on his part. In later episodes, you get a sense of how this has always been Cameron’s way of trying to get one up on Ethan. Speculatively, it may have been because Ethan is smarter than him, so this is something that Cameron can do to win. Perhaps more interestingly, why is Harper engaging in this activity? Where does that come from? As the series goes on, you get a sense of how there’s only one person who can truly hurt Ethan. He’s able to suffer quite a lot, but there are certain things that he will ultimately have to fight for. Whether you like him for that or not, or how exactly he does it remains to be seen.

Cameron kisses Ethan on the cheek quite a bit. What do you think that means, if anything?

He loved doing that. I think it’s his way of being playful and sexually voracious and showing who’s boss in this weird way. It’s like a micro powerplay. But yeah, I noticed that too and would just react to it as I thought Ethan would.

So that wasn’t in the script? Theo just started doing it?

Yeah, those party scenes were actually very loosely scripted. It was really improvisatory and they would cut it in the edit and use the most helpful bits.

Between Ethan and Cameron, who has the higher status now? Or are they both threatened by each other?

Ethan thinks he’s never felt the need to fight for any status. But on some level, there is definitely a resentment toward the way Cameron treats him. There is a power struggle. Financially, Ethan is now wealthier than him, but I don’t think it’s as simple as that. There’s a quiet contest going on. But I think it’s as much about Ethan trying to work out who he is than it is about the relationship between him and Cameron.

Do you think people will root for Ethan?

I hope that it’s complicated, because I think that’s the idea. Your opinion on him and your suspicions about him will shift from episode to episode and scene to scene. Once you get to the end, it will be clearer who he is, and why it was such an exciting part for me. Some of the characters present with immediacy, and you have a relatively full sense of them early on. But Ethan is supposed to be hard to pin down, so they leave space for you to guess. In a way, he’s the straight man to three very funny personalities around him. At some point, that flips and you start to get a deeper sense of everything that he’s been running from or carrying in earlier episodes. My hope is that audiences enjoy watching him, whether he’s a good person or a bad person. All of that moral gray area stuff is really fertile and fun to play in. We’re all human beings — none of us are perfect.

What do you hope people take away from the show?

It’s a dark series, and it’s very dysfunctional and at times — it goes to quite fucked-up places — but I do think it’s also quite a romantic series. In his own way, Mike is tenderly exploring the subject of love. And he does that by confronting all of the messiest, gnarliest aspects of it. My hope is that there’s something for people to relate to in all the different characters. “The White Lotus” is really funny, and it’s really acerbic and witty and is sort of political, too. But I hope that it moves people a little bit as well.

This interview has been edited and condensed.