As a BAFTA award-winning English-Japanese actor, writer and director, Will Sharpe is a polymath when it comes to the world of cinema. From his movies Black Pond, The Darkest Universe and Flowers, Sharpe has a knack for not only creating vivid worlds, but living inside them. His recent directing work includes The Electrical Life of Louis Wain starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Landscapers starring Olivia Colman and David Thewlis, while his BAFTA winning role as an eccentric sex-worker in Giri / Haji was praised by The Independent as “one of the most riotously funny turns since Richard E Grant stepped out as Withnail”. Appearing in this year’s second season of White Lotus, Sharpe delighted millions of UK viewers as enigmatic Ethan—the tech genius millionaire who spirals into fury as his marriage to Harper (Aubrey Plaza) begins to fall apart.
Talking to him fresh off the finale of the show, Will appears polite and poised, sitting over his sofa in a blue jumper. His tone is soft-speaking—shy then suddenly alert, choice words giving away his prior experience as a seasoned writer. By the close of the conversation, you can sense there’s a genuine passion for Mike White’s biting satire of the one percent. And, like the writer’s eponymous lotus, Sharpe’s career seems ready to blossom in any direction.
As ex-roomates [in White Lotus] Cameron and Ethan seem so uncomfortable with each other throughout the trip, and their personalities seem to be polar opposites. Is there anything they have in common?
It’s a good question—maybe there’s sort of an innate underlying competitiveness even if that’s expressed in different ways. Also they’re both men. Both of them behave—for better and often for worse—like men.
Is there a commentary in the show around masculinity?
Undoubtedly yes, the show in part is exploring toxic masculinity and how it can manifest in different ways. Cameron I think presents as more obviously problematic more quickly, but as things unfold Ethan also starts to behave in ways that are pretty questionable too.
That was one of the things that was interesting about him to me was how morally grey he is. At first, you think he’s just a nice, slightly awkward guy but by the end of the series Mike wanted the audience to wonder if he might actually end up killing someone. So there was a range of colours to explore and it was fun trying to build a sense of that simmering darkness before finally letting it out in the final episode.
It was also interesting as an Asian man to take part in a story that explores masculinity. Obviously historically Asian men in the West have been pretty emasculated on screen and there’s a degree of that with Ethan through the early episodes, but what was exciting to me was how that’s kind of flipped on its head in the final episode. I also felt that, in a funny way, playing toxic in this very insidious and nuanced way was more progressive somehow than playing an out and out nice guy. Ethan is neither the sickly sweet nerdy best friend, nor the cartoonish villain. He’s somewhere in-between and that was fun to try to pin down.
So what do you think is healthier – being more status driven like Ethan, or more materialistic like Cameron?
To be honest, I don’t think Ethan is that interested in status in and of itself. If anything, Cameron seems more concerned with being top dog in their relationship. I think Ethan only wants to have status when he’s earned it. Mike would talk about how he saw Ethan as someone who came from relatively humble beginnings: he got into college because he was smart and he’s made his money as a brilliant coder by working hard, whereas Cameron was someone who had come from money and grown up with it.
There’s a degree to which, over much of the vacation, Ethan isn’t really wanting to play this game of demanding or taking status, but obviously that ultimately has dire consequences. So by the end, it’s almost like he’s saying ‘okay if this is the game we have to play, then let’s fucking play it.’ And he engages, but even then I think the status is on a subconscious level in those moments, it’s much more for him about his marriage. He’s starting to come to terms with the fact that something is not right in his relationship with Harper and he feels like he needs to act on that.
Why does Ethan avoid being sexual for so long with Harper?
Mike and Aubrey and I talked about this early on. We would ask ‘is there some specific thing that has gone awry in their relationship? Is there something they can look at that would fix everything?’ His take was always that it was just two people who love each other but have been together for a very long time and what’s come with that is a kind of atrophy. Which they haven’t really noticed until they arrive on holiday. He would often say he felt that this was a problem that was more common than many would care to admit, which is why he didn’t want to pin it on any single thing.
So I don’t think Ethan’s avoiding it exactly. It’s more just that the right moment never seems to arise between them and the impulse doesn’t seem to be there as it once might have been. And that’s symptomatic of the deeper problem which is their relationship as a whole. They tell themselves they are honest with each other, but actually their communication is really bad and they aren’t honest about the biggest issues. Partly it’s that all of that tension and toxicity, which is obviously further complicated by the company of Cameron and Daphne, is getting in the way. A lot of the stories in the show play out as sort of fantasies almost, even if they are dark fantasies, but Ethan and Harper are trapped in a harsh, often quite agonising reality.
But when Ethan and Harper formed this passionate relationship at the close of the show, do you think Ethan slept with Daphne off-screen?
That’s open to interpretation. I always felt that whatever happened in a literal sense on the island, one thing that’s clear is that there is a moment of connection, even before they walk off to the Isola Bella. There’s a moment of intimacy and Daphne is very open with Ethan in that moment. They’re vulnerable with each other.
Even after he’s confronted Harper about the truth—and may or may not have got it from her—and even after he’s charged in the ocean and had his fight with Cameron, he still doesn’t feel satisfied, he still doesn’t feel like he’s worked out what is up with himself or his relationship and how to fix it. There’s something about that encounter with Daphne and how self-aware she is—she seems to have reached a kind of accommodation with who she is and how she’s living her life.
That’s something that affects Ethan. The show is, as you say, a satire of the hyper-privileged and it explores gender politics, sexual politics, gender roles but also—and I don’t know if it’s just because I just know the cast—but sometimes when I was watching it I would see just a bunch of interestingly drawn characters trying to find a connection in their own ways. But yeah, that’s deliberately left a mystery.
In your eyes, is there a polyamorous element to Ethan and Harper at the end? Are they building towards a similar relationship like Cameron and Daphne?
Polyamorous makes it sound pre-arranged to me, like a sort of mutual discussion or decision which it isn’t really. Although I guess they might decide they want to try something like that once they’re home. But I definitely feel like Daphne and Cameron have affected Ethan and Harper in some way—whether that’s in a good way or a bad way, again, is ambiguous.
They’ve found a way to reconnect at the end of the series and I know Mike wanted them to be happy in that scene at the airport where we leave them. They’ve always known that they love each other, but whether that means they should or can stay together is another question.
I don’t think the series is suggesting there’s any one right way to be. It’s not saying you should be in a Daphne-Cameron relationship or an Ethan-Harper relationship. It’s asking questions and showing, I guess, how fraught and complicated it can be at times. But in a funny way maybe that’s also oddly romantic, that it’s confronting the mess of it all so head on. I wonder if that frankness and honesty is what leaves a space for the more hopeful feeling at the end of the series.
I really enjoyed the ambiguity when Cameron and Harper have their tryst off-screen. I read in another interview that someone asked you ‘what happened’? And you said you don’t know because the character doesn’t: it’s just not the facts that he has to work with. Through that scene, you feel Ethan’s intelligence but also the anxiety—was there anything you drew from for those beats?
Just imagination—you try with every character to find a way in. What I like about Ethan is that he’s morally grey, he makes mistakes. He’s an unfortunate figure and things happen to him that aren’t his fault. But he also puts stuff in his own way and makes poor decisions and is bad at communicating. Even if I didn’t agree with how he was going about something, I needed to find a way to understand where it was coming from. For me, ultimately, it was always this fear that his relationship was falling apart. That’s where the stakes were.
Even when he’s kind of talking about this ‘bro-code’ and he’s keeping from Harper how there was this slightly crazy night in the hotel room, for Ethan, the code was a convenient excuse to himself, even if he didn’t realise it. Because, you know, no one wants to rat anyone out. But privately he knew that even if he didn’t engage fully he was still curious enough to let it into the room. He’s frightened of opening up that conversation.
I’d always try to understand where his actions were coming from and what his motivations are. Towards the end of the series, for example, when he begins to suspect Harper, that something might have happened because the door was unlatched – there’s a jealous anger and a sadness about the possibility that Harper might have even gone there, but there’s also a lot of anger directed towards himself because he knows he’s made mistakes and he’s asking himself—‘How did we get here? How did I allow it to get to this place?’
What is going through Ethan’s head when Daphne talks to him about not being the victim?
Ethan’s been so wound up and I think at that point it’s almost like he’s wondering if it’s over between him and Harper. So I think he’s carrying a lot of pain and confusion and anger at that point and so when Daphne calls him over to sit down, I think initially he just appreciates that somebody is genuinely empathetic and is listening. And that makes him feel ready to listen back.
But as it goes on, I think something about the way Daphne is able to bury or ignore Cameron’s terrible behaviour affects Ethan. And he starts realising that if he wants things to work out with Harper, he has to learn to learn to let things go—as I guess she does with him too. And then I think finally he starts to wonder if she is actually trying to seduce him and if there’s a proposition being made here. And her way of doing that is by speaking about mystery—how you don’t always have to know everything about each other to love each other. She’s saying that mystery can be powerful, that it can even help a relationship. And so Ethan I guess is trying to decide whether or not to surrender to the mystery in that moment.
We loved the Monica Vitti style of romance and the backdrop of Sicily for this season. How do you feel Italian culture and setting affected the way the relationships played out?
Sicily is obviously very beautiful. But there’s also this strange feeling which is quite hard to describe, like a sort of “hot melancholy” which the show does capture. There’s this strange darkness. There’s an emotional scale within the series. The backdrop of Mount Etna adds to the feeling which really does loom quite large over Taormina. I often felt that it was grand and operatic in a way even though it is also very playful and acerbically humorous like the first season.
On that topic, you grew up in Japan, you’re also a writer, and the next season is rumoured to be in Asia. Would there be a particular location you’d like to see White Lotus in and is there a new theme that would suit that location well?
That’s for Mike to think about, but what I thought worked really well is how this season relates to the first season in the sense that they’re of a piece—there’s that sort of Mike White tone that runs through them—but at the same time they also feel like their own stories, their own adventures. I’m sure, wherever it goes, Mike will make sure it works.
Just to list a few, you’ve played a reclusive coder in White Lotus, a sex-worker in Giri / Haji, an illustrator in Flowers, even a stopmotion role for The House —what particular role has challenged you most? Which one felt closest to you?
Like I say, I think with every role you find a way in. I guess Shun carried some of how it felt as a kid to arrive here in England from Japan and I thought about my mother a lot. With Rodney in Giri / Haji, he was quite a self destructive character and he used humour as a defence mechanism, both of which I could relate to. Ethan is obviously morally pretty complex but one thing I liked about him is how he tries to be pacific, but if he finds himself in a corner, he can and will fight. I think I have a bit of that about me too maybe.
To be honest I think Ethan is the most challenging role so far. I knew that Mike wanted him to be an enigma and, for most of the series, he was written with a lot of restraint, so there are parts of him that are almost sort of holographic or abstract. He also told me that he wanted the audience to think that Ethan might end up killing someone, so I somehow needed to balance that mystery and that quiet worry – that this might be somebody who is dark enough and messed up enough that he could actually do something like that—with the reality of the romantic story and him just wanting to find a way to work things out with Harper.
I think that was the key for me was to understand how everything Ethan does – whether it’s the right thing or the wrong thing—is because he wants to fix the relationship with Harper. That underneath it all there is this complex, messy love story going on.