During the 2022 Emmy season, when “The White Lotus” was nominated for limited/anthology series, creator Mike White asked producer David Bernad to write the acceptance speech in case they won. Bernad, who has been working with White since the 2007 movie “Year of the Dog,” was happy to comply. But when he told White the speech would be about how great White is, the generally mild-mannered White flipped out.
“He’s like, ‘I will kill you if you mention me in your speech,’” Bernad recalls in a recent interview. “So I had to basically throw out the speech I’d been working on for weeks and rewrite it the morning of the Emmys because he didn’t want to get any attention. He didn’t want to take the spotlight from the people that he felt deserved it. That’s the crew, that’s me, the cast, other people.’”
“The White Lotus,” HBO’s wickedly funny series about reckless tourists running amok and falling on their faces at exotic five-star resorts, did, indeed, win that Emmy, as well as nine others. White led the “Lotus” crew to the stage, where he quickly apologized to those he forgot to mention in previous speeches and then handed the microphone to Bernad, who barely mentioned White as he emphasized the team effort that went into creating the first season of the series. To Bernad, the whole thing was very much in character.
“He’s someone who really isn’t threatened by other people’s success, and he’s someone who cares deeply about the people that work for him,” Bernad says. “He wants them to get paid well, he wants them to be successful, and he wants them to get the spotlight. To me, that’s a very rare person in Hollywood. It really speaks to his humanity.”
The word “humanity” comes up a lot when discussing the 53-year-old White, as does the idea of humility. Even before the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes, it was made clear that he probably wouldn’t want to talk about himself for this story. As it turned out, this wasn’t a problem. Longtime collaborators lined up to sing the praises of a man who prefers to let his work — jagged, brutally honest, uncomfortably hilarious — do the talking.
“White Lotus” casting director Meredith Tucker has known White for 34 years, since they met in a freshman acting class at Wesleyan University. (White, a deadpan performer who has appeared in many of his own projects, hasn’t yet shown up in front of the “White Lotus” cameras. “He’s a great actor,” Bernad says. “I’m going to talk to him about that”). Tucker points to White’s knack for finding sympathetic qualities in even the most potentially loathsome characters, such as Jake Lacy’s callow newlywed in Season 1, or Theo James’ lying womanizer in Season 2.
“There are enough facets and colors in these characters that you can get a whole human as opposed to a two-dimensional person, even in the smallest parts,” Tucker says. “I think that really draws in the actors, and they really want to work with him.”
Alex Bovaird, the “White Lotus” costume designer who first worked with White on the 2017 film “Brad’s Status,” recalls the traditional Hawaiian blessing ceremony that kicked off production on Season 1. “He got very emotional and cried and said that he was so grateful for this experience and wanted to thank each and every one of us,” Bovaird says. “You could feel that he is a very grateful guy. The moment isn’t lost on him. He knows we are fortunate to be able to create art in paradise.”
“White Lotus” editor John Valerio, who first worked with White on the HBO series “Enlightened” (2011-13), praises White’s collaborative spirit. “To me it feels like this creative game of tennis, where I volley it and then he has an idea, and then it just grows,” Valerio says. “And then we land somewhere that I don’t land when I’m collaborating with other people, because of that give and take, and sharing the enthusiasm that we have for the scene or the show or sequence.”
The funny thing about all of this? The casual viewer of White’s work might mistake him for a misanthrope. His characters are badly damaged and desperate for meaning. Think Amy Jellicoe, the seeker played by Laura Dern in “Enlightened,” comically self-centered and unstable yet eager to help (someone, anyone). Or Molly Shannon’s Peggy in the sublime “Year of the Dog,” a movie in which the most sympathetic characters prefer the company of canines to humans. Or Buck O’Brien, played by White himself in his breakout film “Chuck & Buck” (directed by another Wesleyan classmate, Miguel Arteta), a man-child with a frozen-in-time, stalker-like crush on his childhood best friend (Chris Weitz).
These characters are arrested-development cases. They often leave a path of human wreckage in their wake. And yet they’re powerfully redemptive, mostly through White’s unbending love for even his most screwed-up creations, which somehow makes us feel better about ourselves. White is never cringe for the sake of cringe. He’s after something bigger, something more, well, human.
“He loves people genuinely, and he loves people that are often alienated, or often othered,” Bernad says. “He loves their faults and their flaws. I think that comes through in every one of the projects we’ve done. Ultimately, Mike’s an optimist, and he believes in humanity, and he believes in the good of people. He also believes that people are complex.”
This year, “The White Lotus” is nominated for drama series, one of 23 nominations total. It will be a dark horse in a category led by the swan song of the “Succession” juggernaut. Then again, it was created by an optimist. And if it wins, you can bet he won’t have much to say.