Warning: The following contains spoilers from the Season 2 finale of “The White Lotus.”
Across the nation Sunday night, millions of people watching the Season 2 finale of “The White Lotus” could be heard screaming, in unison: “Portia, for the love of God, what are you doing? Do not get in that car!”
Few TV characters in recent memory have been as wonderfully vexing as the frazzled 20-something assistant and agent of chaos played by Haley Lu Richardson in the second installment of HBO’s hit mystery. Wearing divisive outfits that look like they came straight out of the spring 1999 Delia’s catalog — and which have inspired much social media snark — Portia tags along to Sicily with her boss, the flighty heiress Tanya McQuoid (Jennifer Coolidge), in hopes of an adventure, but she winds up with far more than she bargained for.
Over the course of one particularly eventful week in Italy, she strikes up a flirtation with nice guy Albie (Adam DiMarco) and ghosts him for Jack (Leo Woodall), who seems like a cute, fun-loving “Love Island” reject but turns out to be a key player in a nefarious plot to send Tanya to sleep with the fishes. By the end of Sunday’s finale, Portia had narrowly escaped a kidnapping and made her way to the airport, where she learned that others were not quite so lucky.
As the name Portia was trending on Twitter Monday afternoon, The Times caught up with Richardson, who previously starred as a pregnant teenager in the abortion road trip movie “Unpregnant.” “Portia is trending? Oh, no, I don’t even want to know what people are saying anymore. I’m terrified,” she said. “I’ve never been in something that I think so many people watch.”
When you were playing Portia, particularly in Sunday’s episode, how did you rationalize her decisions? She makes some very bad choices, like getting in the car with Jack, and clearly seems to be ignoring her accurate intuition that something is very wrong.
Portia isn’t connected to her intuition and her gut. She doesn’t really know herself. She’s at the most stuck and disconnected place that a young woman can be in. So within the confines of that and this worst-case-scenario situation, I really think that she is doing the best that she can. I think that she’s slow to realize things and see clues that are severe red flags. But I think that she’s not doing a terrible job. I had so much empathy for Portia while I was playing her, because that’s what you have to do as an actor, but when we were doing the scene where she gets in the car and she confronts Jack, I actually felt proud of her. She’s doing something. She’s trying here.
Right. And she does confront him about his relationship with his “uncle” Quentin (Tom Hollander) by saying one of the episode’s great lines, “Yeah, so you f— your uncle?”
[Series creator] Mike [White] and I are both really hoping that, like, that becomes a big meme.
That’s funny. So are you conscious on some level of how your performance might be received on social media?
I wasn’t really conscious of that, because you don’t really have room for that as an actor. I had to just think about Portia and her fear and how scary that is for her. After we hit that scene a couple of times, Mike gave me some notes. He was like, “Can you do a version where it’s like more of a dig at him?” He knew what that moment and what that line needed to be — the perfect balance of grounded but also ridiculous and funny.
What were you trying to play in that final scene at the airport, where Portia runs into Albie and learns that Tanya is probably dead?
Portia is just so overwhelmed. Just try to imagine being in her position. She is literally on her own, she was just kidnapped, she was completely abandoned. The anxiety that she is feeling must be so severe. Then she sees Albie, who is like this one glimmer of safety for her, so she gravitates to him, and then he tells her that someone drowned.
There’s a couple seconds where she starts to process that it’s most likely Tanya, but she just can’t. There’s only so much that a 24-year-old woman can handle in a given moment. The second she starts realizing that and processing it, she has to disassociate and shut it down and then resorts to asking him for his phone number. I think it is so objectively funny and ridiculous, the casualness of how things end with them.
We don’t know much about Portia or her backstory, or really anyone else in the show. Did Mike White help you fill in the blanks at all?
Even though all you really know about Portia is what you see over the course of this week, you fully get the core of who she is. And that’s really all that matters in playing a character. I could — and I did — sit there and think about what her family life was like and how long she’s been working for Tanya, but that’s almost like fluff if you understand the core of the person you’re playing. I understood her deepest desires. I understood her deepest insecurities, and that’s all I really needed to bring her to life.
What did you make of the scene where Tanya tells Portia she’s a younger version of herself?
I definitely saw their parallels. And I think that was really intentional. Even when I was talking to Mike, before we started filming, we did a Zoom, talking about the character. And he was like, “I want you to dye your hair blond.” And he was like, “Well, I think Portia is a mini Tanya in a lot of ways.” And I think Portia saw glimpses of that, too, even if it was the last thing she wanted to admit to herself. It also gave me more freedom. My original view of Portia was well-meaning and grounded and earnest. But then I saw there were these parallels between Portia and Tanya, it gave me some more freedom to just be chaotic.
Speaking of chaotic, people have a lot to say about Portia’s fashion choices. What do you think her outfits say about the character?
Something that’s such a helpful part of the process for me as an actor is creating what this person looks like — the hair, makeup and costume. Making it something that feels specific, so that when I put these clothes on, it makes me feel not like myself. All I want is to put stuff together that makes me more connected to the person I’m playing. And the costumes were a huge part of that for Portia, figuring out this eclectic … chaotic, messy, lost-but-cute [style]. She’s aware of the trends and is going out on a limb, but it just doesn’t work.
Did you have a favorite look, or one that you think said the most about her in the moment?
Her first look and her last look were big ones for me. How she shows up at the resort is such a contrast from all the other guests. They’re all in beautiful designer clothes, and Portia is wearing jean cutoffs and a swan sweater vest and is frantic and already exhausted. And then as totally unhinged as the final outfit at the airport is, with her disguise with the hat and the big sunglasses, it just makes so much sense for me. It’s perfectly Portia in that moment.
Portia is one of the only people still alive who can help trace the crime back to Tanya’s husband, Greg (Jon Gries). Do you think Portia will ever come forward and help bring him to justice? Maybe in Season 3?
I would really hope, but hope isn’t really one of the themes of the show. It could go so many different directions. This experience could really humble her and help her truly grow in a positive way. Or it could make her even more f— up. I’d like to think that she helps avenge Tanya, but also if Greg came to her with hush money, I don’t know what she would do, unfortunately.
On Instagram, you posted that you wrote a letter to manifest your hopes of working with Mike White, and it came true. Can you tell me more about this?
It’s a thing called a scripting letter. I literally watched a YouTube tutorial about how to write a scripting letter. This girl gives step-by-step [instructions]. It’s a really cool form of manifesting where you write a letter as your future self that already has all of the things that you want, and you’re thankful for them. One of the things [in the letter] was working with Mike White. And then a couple months later, I got the audition for Season 2, and then I got the job. So honestly, manifesting’s legit.
Was this because of Season 1?
Yes, I watched Season 1 with the rest of the world, but even before that, I’d been a fan. Mike is so unique. “Brad’s Status” is one of my favorite movies. He’s so good at capturing how life really is and how people are but in this funny, sarcastic, almost spiritual way.
What did you learn by working with your co-stars, especially Jennifer Coolidge?
Honestly, just how free she is, as an actor, it was really, genuinely inspiring to sit across from her at the breakfast table in scenes and just watch her do her thing. I was like, “Oh, wow, I hope to experience that kind of freedom in my career at some point because it looks just like a blast.”
Well, I don’t know what will happen with Season 3, but I’m rooting for a Portia comeback.
That should be our next scripting letter — manifesting that Portia comes back for Season 3.
‘The White Lotus’
Streaming: HBO Max, anytime
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)