‘The White Lotus’ Star Natasha Rothwell Says Mike White’s Script “Spoke to the Invisibility That We Often Feel as People of Color”

‘The White Lotus’ Star Natasha Rothwell Says Mike White’s Script “Spoke to the Invisibility That We Often Feel as People of Color”

Natasha Rothwell has long been known as a brilliant comedy writer and performer, having been employed as a writer for Saturday Night Live and Insecure, the latter of which also saw her acting (in the scene-stealing role of Kelli) and executive producing (which earned her an Emmy nomination in 2020 for outstanding comedy series). But it’s her role in Mike White’s HBO anthology series The White Lotus that has earned Rothwell her first Emmy nomination for acting. As Belinda, a nurturing spa manager and aspiring business owner, Rothwell delivers a subtle, interior performance that stands out in a sea of tour-de-force characterizations, sparring and holding her own opposite fellow Emmy nominees like Murray Bartlett and Jennifer Coolidge.

Rothwell is one of just a few actors of color in The White Lotus‘ ensemble cast (the series is set at an upscale, largely white-populated resort), and she emphasizes how writer-director White enthusiastically engaged in conversations about making Belinda sound and feel as authentic as possible. In an interview with THR, she emphasizes the delicate tightrope walk White pulled off in telling a realistic story about class and privilege that includes — but does not center — people of color’s point of view, and why she’s grateful for his commitment to getting the story right and incorporating her feedback to achieve that goal.

What was your first impression of the character of Belinda when you read the script, and how did you become involved with the show?

There were no sort of racial identifying characteristics [in the draft I first read]. Obviously, my lens is that of a woman of color, a plus-size woman of color. I infused that into my read, and was really taken by how much of what Mike wrote really spoke to the invisibility that we often feel as people of color. I responded to the script incredibly, but I also knew that the practical application of any writing to the performer’s identifying characteristics changes it, and there’s an opportunity there. I had a Zoom call with Mike and talked about the character. He was so open, and so thrilled to be having the conversation.

Was there a lot of collaboration in rewriting the character to fit it more to you? Or was it more interpreting what was already on the page?

When I was boots-on-the-ground in Hawaii, we met again, and talked through each scene page by page, and he let me pitch on some lines. I was so grateful that he was allowing me to put it in my own mouth, if that makes sense — just having it feel organic. There was really no huge rewrite, or throwing something out the window. It was just teasing out what was on the page, based on who’s saying it, and funny things that you wouldn’t know unless you’re Black. Like, when I had the conversation with my son [in the show] on the phone, I told Mike, “We talk different when we’re not around y’all. This is an opportunity to show code switching, and how she can be more comfortable around her son than she is around Tanya [Jennifer Coolidge].” As any actor, you want to be able to offer something more than just your performance on the page. What else can I do to support the bigger idea at play?

Some of your most exciting scenes are with Murray Bartlett and Jennifer Coolidge — the boat scene when she’s trying to scatter her mother’s ashes, for example.

The boat scene was incredible for myriad reasons. One, it was shooting on the Pacific, open water, having takes interrupted by whales. I’m trying to be in the scene, but there’s a whale breaching. And it was just magical, it was unreal. But in between these magical moments of nature, we were having an incredible time playing the scene, and watching Jennifer vacillate between levity and gravity — it was a sight to behold. Working with Murray has been such a joy. He’s such a decent human being, and there’s no pretense. He’s a good, caring, empathetic, lovely human. It was amazing to see him perform, because his character is so antithetical to who he is.

Belinda doesn’t have the big onscreen catharsis that many of the other characters do. She has all of these small reactions. People are constantly disappointing her, and she’s just absorbing that, and you can see the pain …

Belinda not having her emotional catharsis onscreen is very indicative of what it’s like in real life: We don’t have the luxury to break down at work, we don’t have the luxury to indulge every feeling when we have it without consequence. It really spoke to the authenticity of what it’s like to have so much emotional labor, as a person of color at work, and having to take blow after blow of microaggression after microaggression, and yet still have a smile on your face because it’s attached to a paycheck that you need to pay your bills. There’s the sacrifice of self that we see Belinda go through, where she’s denying what she needs in the moment, which is: asking for what she needs.

We see that moment when Tanya comes in and says she’s not going to go through with her promise, and she leaves, and we see Belinda give in to the weight of the pain that she’s feeling, and then Tanya comes in forgetting her sunglasses; she totally doesn’t read the room, which tracks in a lot of ways of what a lot of white, homogenous folks who are on vacation — they don’t necessarily see the people that work and keep their resort alive. We see Belinda waving on the shore at the very end. It speaks to the fact that she’s going to have to do it again next week. [As for the] audiences that craved that catharsis for her … I am appreciative of the frustration of that emotion, because it allows them to feel what we feel sometimes.

Emmy nominees Natasha Rothwell (left) and Jennifer Coolidge, as spa manager Belinda and flighty hotel guest Tanya, in HBO’s The White Lotus.

Courtesy of Mario Perez/HBO

Do you feel like you walk away from this project having learned things about writing from Mike that surprised you? And were there things that you felt like you shared with him about your writing process that might have not occurred to him?

He is such an auteur. Certain scenes, if you listen to them out of context, don’t make sense. You have to hear the whole thing. So for me, it really was a lesson in trusting the whole, and not being bogged down and overcomplicating the journey because you don’t trust that people will be patient enough to learn about people over time. At the same time, communicating to us as actors what we needed to do in the moment. Sometimes we would try a specific line 10 different ways. I’m often like, “OK, so that was wrong.” But he was just like, “No, I just want the options.” I was like, “That’s genius.” He’s writing and directing and editing at the same time.

As far as what I contributed … I hope other actors of color feel empowered to have conversations with directors who may not look like them about their needs, and about their character’s needs. I am so grateful that Mike was not only receptive, but enthusiastic about those conversations. I hope that other directors can take a page out of his book and know that we are there to help the ultimate goal of the project, and to do right by our characters in those projects. What makes this such a unique experience is that it’s a story about class and privilege, but the story is not centered around [the people of color]. How do you continue to do right by that POC POV, and also tell the story that you’re intending to tell, even if they aren’t the center of that story? I really think Mike walked that line so well, and I was so happy to help him do that.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in the Aug. 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.