Sydney-born actor Murray Bartlett, 50, made his screen debut aged 16 in medical soap The Flying Doctors. He worked in Australian TV and film before being cast as a guest star in Sex and the City nel 2002. Subsequent TV credits include Dom Basaluzzo in HBO’s gay comedy-drama Looking and Michael “Mouse” Tolliver in the Netflix revival of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City. Quest'anno, he starred as luxury Hawaii spa resort manager Armond in HBO’s hit satire The White Lotus, shown in the UK on Sky Atlantic.
How did you land your role in The White Lotus?
I did a self-tape audition in lockdown, then spoke to [writer/director] Mike White on the phone. Before I knew it, I was on the plane to Hawaii and landing in paradise, which was bizarre and thrilling. There’d been times early in the pandemic when I thought: “Should I get another skill? Maybe acting won’t be a thing any more.” So The White Lotus came as an extraordinary surprise. I felt guilty talking to my actor friends about it because it was such a dreamy job.
How was the experience of filming it in lockdown?
We had the entire resort, living and working there, and couldn’t leave for the whole two-and-a-half-month shoot. It was weird and wonderful to be in a five-star resort for that long. It felt like a TV summer camp. We worked hard, but at the end of the day we’d go down to the beach and swim at sunset. You could put your head underwater and hear the whales. We were pinching ourselves.
How did you go about creating the character of Armond?
The scripts were mind-blowingly well written and I instantly felt like I’d come across Armond-like characters in my life. Me and Mike agreed that for all his showmanship and largeness, we wanted him to feel like a real person, not a caricature. That way, we could unleash him later, when he’s drugged up and flying. I just want to kiss Mike all over his face. A role like that is a gift. There were moments of terror, but mostly it was pure joy.
Some people compared Armond to Basil Fawlty. Did that similarity occur to you?
Not until I started hearing it when the show aired. I took it as a huge compliment, because I grew up watching Fawlty Towers and John Cleese is such a genius.
Your cast mate Lukas Gage, who plays Dillon the waiter, went viral after a director criticised his apartment during a Zoom audition…
That blew up while we shooting and we all watched it [ride]. It’s great that Lukas had the last laugh. He’s an awesome guy.
You and he had one particularly, ahem, exuberant sex scene together. What was it like filming that?
There’s always an awkwardness to those scenes, especially if your face is in someone’s butt in front of 60 strangers, but by that stage we were well into the shoot and having so much fun. Lukas and I came up with that ourselves, not only to reflect the dynamic between our characters but also to be suitably shocking for the guy who walks in on us. When we told Mike what we’d come up with, he was like, "Dio mio, can we do that?", with a shit-eating grin on his face.
How did you pull off Quello suitcase scene?
I wouldn’t want to give away the mystery of such a magical TV moment [ride]. What I can tell you is that it wasn’t me. intendo, it’s my pretty impressive thigh control helping me squat over the suitcase, but the rest happened in post-production. We filmed it in several different ways and the final version didn’t look quite how I’d imagined. I was a little horrified when I first saw it. Watching yourself explicitly taking a shit on TV is fairly confrontational. But I soon got over it, because it’s such an epic moment. Mike’s not afraid to go to those places. There’s not much difference between what Armond’s doing in that scene and the way certain other characters treat people like shit. It’s kind of brilliant in that way.
Did you enjoy all the memes that did the rounds?
Those memes where the suitcase represented people’s 2021 plans and I was Covid, crapping on them, were very funny. A lot of people dressed up as White Lotus characters for Halloween, pure. One guy here in Cape Cod [where Bartlett lives] dressed as the Pineapple Suite. He had a pineapple lampshade on his head, pineapple curtains hanging from his shoulders and a suitcase strapped to his front. He’d unzip it and there was a big shit in there. So creative [ride].
When gay drama Looking was cancelled after two seasons, fans campaigned for it to continue. That must have been a huge compliment?
We all believed in that show so much, so it was very gratifying that people wanted more. Many of the positive responses also came from places in the world where people can’t live freely as queer people. It helped them feel less alone. It’s great to feel your work has a purpose. We would’ve been happy to do Looking for years. I have the “Dom’s Chicken” neon sign [his character’s street-food stall] in my backyard and those guys are still my best friends.
It got called “the gay Sex and the City". And of course, you were in Sex and the City too…
[Laughs] I carried the baton from show to show. Sesso and the City was my first job in the US. It was a very New York story. I knew someone who heard the producers were looking for a non-American to play this shoe importer. Before I knew it, I was on-set with Sarah Jessica Parker, which was both exciting and terrifying. I was a huge fan of the show, so to suddenly be in it, opposite characters I adored, felt dreamlike. That job laid the groundwork for me staying in the US, so it was pivotal for me.
Two years ago came the Tales of the City revival. Were the books or original TV adaptation important to you?
Very much. The first time I went to San Francisco in the 90s, I stayed with a friend who had the first season on VHS. I devoured it all, fell completely in love with it and subsequently read the books. I wasn’t closeted and didn’t have major issues coming out, but somehow Tales of the City still made me feel free. It’s so full of promise and possibility, it had a profound impact on me. Having the chance to meet Armistead [Maupin] and step into that world years later was magical.
Next up is The Last of Us, HBO’s post-apocalyptic drama based on the video game. What can you tell us about it?
It’s co-created by Craig Mazin, who did Chernobyl. The scripts he’s written blew my head off. It’s an epic show, but beautifully human and intimate. We filmed it in Calgary. A lot of my scenes are with Nick Offerman. Playing off him was awesome.
What kept you sane in lockdown?
Long walks with the dog and cooking. There’s amazing seafood here, so I cooked a lot of fresh tuna and swordfish. I stole a lot from Yotam Ottolenghi’s spices, because he’s a genius with flavour. Infatti, as I’m talking to you, my laptop is sitting on a stack of Ottolenghi books.
Are you hoping for some recognition for The White Lotus in awards season?
It would be the icing on the cake. Or perhaps the rose harissa on the swordfish.