The Breakout Star Of The White Lotus Is Just Getting Started

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The Breakout Star Of The White Lotus Is Just Getting Started

Words by Ms Iana Murray | Photography by Mr Ben Weller | Styling by Ms Rose Forde

28 February 2023

Three days before we meet in an east London bakery, Mr Will Sharpe was in Paris. Specifically in the front row of LOEWE’s menswear show, sandwiched between Mr Troye Sivan and Mr Kit Connor. His recent excursions around Europe (he also went to Milan Fashion Week for Armani) have proven to be an overwhelming learning experience for someone who claims to have no relationship with fashion whatsoever.

“That whole thing is quite new to me,” says Sharpe. “If you’re just looking at photos, it’s quite hard to understand exactly what it is, but I found that [when] sitting in the room, it’s easier to appreciate how it works. The closest frame of reference for me is an art installation or a piece of theatre.”

In between the perfunctory small talk made under the blinding light of flashing cameras, Sharpe bumped into Mr Murray Bartlett. It was a “pleasant surprise” to meet someone who had some kind of understanding of what he was going through – both having exploded since their roles in their respective seasons of HBO’s The White Lotus. “We compared notes on the series,” he says, unable to recall more than the warm introduction in the “flurry of activity” of fashion week. “He’s a really good guy.”

The “series”, as Sharpe puts it, is a humble reference to one of the most talked-about television shows of the past year. Mr Mike White’s second season of the vacation-set musing on sex, wealth and desire featured the British actor as Ethan, a newly wealthy tech bro coming out of the shadow of his privileged former college roommate Cameron, while on vacation in Sicily. In a toxic quartet with their wives, the couples’ relationships are tested by infidelity and secrecy, ignited by Ethan’s growing concern that his partner, Harper (played by Ms Aubrey Plaza), is cheating on him with Cameron.

Harper’s potential transgressions reflect the shaky foundations of their marriage and Ethan’s part in it. He’s conceited and paranoid. He deflects accusations from Harper that they’re no longer attracted to each other and that he’d rather jerk off to porn than have sex with his own wife. “Ethan’s behaving in a way that, as the actor, I need to separate myself from the ethics of it,” says Sharpe, but he nonetheless found it fascinating to explore Ethan’s mode of toxic masculinity as an Asian man.

“Historically, there has been a tendency in the West of emasculating Asian men on screen, and Ethan is quite emasculated for the majority of the series,” he adds. “I remember thinking that, were it not for the fact that this is subverted in the final episode, and you get to see a different side to him, that would potentially be problematic. But I guess that’s part of the tension.”

In a series finale that wraps most of its disparate threads in a neat bow, The White Lotus left us with one tantalising question. Cameron’s wife, Daphne, hiding her devastation upon learning of her husband’s infidelity from Ethan, takes him along to an island away from the resort. He follows her, uneasy and confused, and they disappear into the horizon. We never find out what happened between them. Did they cheat? Or was it all platonic? Sharpe isn’t here to provide any answers.

“I think the important thing is some kind of connection was made that creates a shift in Ethan’s attitude,” he says. “It helps him to unburden himself, because even after that fight with Cameron, it hasn’t solved the problem.”

In reality, that scene was silly to film. What looked “ethereal” on camera was them walking to a dead end on the beach, which is even more fitting for a foursome heading into uncertainty.

Sharpe could not be further from the aggressive “gaslighter” he plays on screen. When he first walks up to shake my hand, dressed in a purple Champion crew neck and a colour-coordinated corduroy cap that hides his mop of dark curls, he asks if we can move to the other side of the room and away from the leering eyes of others sitting idly behind their laptops. “There’s a dog in a purple jumpsuit,” he says, laughing as he points outside, and we sit in silence for a moment to watch a wrapped-up dachshund circling its owner. It should be awkward, but he seems to be one of those introverts who, like me, doesn’t feel uncomfortable by gaps in the conversation.

“There’s people who don’t realise that there’s two or three different versions of me floating around”

As much as Sharpe disappears as an actor (take the shocking revelation that he is, in fact, not American, for example), he’s more of the writerly type and more reserved than the exuberant characters he often plays. It seems like his mind is elsewhere – not in an impolite way – but as he fiddles with the teabag string dangling from his cup and stares out the window on the lookout for more wandering pets, you can imagine he’s so self-effacing he would prefer not to earnestly promote himself.

It’s not until we discover that we used to live a couple streets away from each other that his shoulders relax, as if the dynamic has changed to former neighbours having a friendly catch-up. Speaking with me in his soft, lilting London accent, he is worlds away from the man who won a Bafta for playing a boisterous sex worker in the yakuza crime drama, Giri/Haji.

At home in the UK, Sharpe may be more recognisable for his work as a writer-director. He’s the mind behind Flowers, the acclaimed dark comedy about an eccentric family’s struggles with mental illness, and The Electrical Life Of Louis Wain, a whimsical biopic about the revolutionary artist and his infectious love for felines. One earnest fan on Twitter called him a “male Phoebe Waller-Bridge”, such is his virtuosity on both sides of the camera. “I think there’s probably people who don’t realise that there’s two or three different versions of me floating around,” Sharpe jokes.

His stories are connected by the ways that explore, as he puts it, “people who think and live in a way that is slightly other”. It’s a perennial theme that harkens back to his childhood experience assimilating in Britain. Though he was born in London, Sharpe spent a fairly idyllic number of years in Tokyo, where he learned how to ride a bike through the cherry blossom trees in Yoyogi Park and clandestinely play catch in his flat. He feels nostalgic about the comedy shows his mum taped on VHS, hauling snacks back from the local 7-Eleven, and how he winded himself from attempting a striker move from a football manga series called Captain Tsubasa.

When he moved back to England at eight years old, the little things that were once normal suddenly made him an outsider: the way he’d hold a cricket bat like he’s playing baseball, or the slightly Americanised accent he picked up from international school.

That reckoning with his own otherness has filtered its way into his writing, but he’s still unravelling its deeper meaning. In Flowers, he portrayed a Japanese illustrator attempting to assimilate with the British family who has taken him in. “It took me ages to realise this,” he says. “In playing him, I would think a lot about my mum and how it felt for her to be in England, and how hard that must have been.”

It wasn’t until halfway through the second season that he had an aha moment about the source of inspiration. “It seems so obvious in retrospect, but it maybe comes from the feeling of moving here as a kid,” he says.

That lack of belonging has permeated his future projects, details of which he’s especially coy about. What Sharpe can say is that he’s about to start pitching a story about “a period of American history that is underexplored”, one that taps into a feeling he’s all too familiar with, of “not knowing exactly where your home is”. I press for specifics, but he’s intent on maintaining some mystery in fear of tempting fate.

Of course, keeping secrets is nothing new for Sharpe, who had to fend off prodding questions while The White Lotus lit the internet ablaze with elaborate theories and conspiracies. Decidedly social media agnostic, he was mostly unaware of the conversations bubbling online. But even then, the show was the icebreaker to every meeting and every friendly catch-up for a good few weeks. “It felt like you had to talk about it in riddles,” he says.

I ask if he feels like his life has changed since being on the show. “I mean, not fundamentally,” he says. “Occasionally you stop to take a selfie, but it doesn’t change your life.” It’s true in a sense. He’s in the same home with his wife and two kids. (They’re hopefully flying to Tokyo soon to introduce his 96-year-old grandmother to her great-grandchildren.) He’s avoiding the bustle by “cracking on” and writing, as he always has.

In other ways, though, there has been a shift. Not seismic, but noticeable. Flowers opened doors for Sharpe in the British film industry, but with The White Lotus garnering more eyeballs on him than ever, the opportunities are sprawling in front of him.

“It feels like a new beginning,” he says, optimistic. “I do feel like I’m just getting started.”