No More Mr. Nice Guy: A Q&A with Jake Lacy, Star of HBO’s ‘The White Lotus’

Jake Lacy has that kind of face that will have you wondering if he’s the guy who sat behind you in chemistry class back in high school, or maybe the guy who lived across the street from your childhood home? Nope, the cashier at your local grocery store? None of the above, in fact, though he’s played just about every one of them on screen. His resumé is a lengthy and impressive one, including The Office, Carol, Obvious Child, Girls, Fosse/Verdon, Mrs. America, High Fidelity (R.I.P.), the list truly goes on and on. The point is, you’ve seen him somewhere in something, and he was probably playing the nice guy. Well, no more.

At least not in HBO’s The White Lotus, which airs on Sunday nights at 9 p.m. on Crave. The show was written and directed by the great Mike White (who brought us the similarly singular Enlightened back in 2011 and Beatriz at Dinner in 2017) and centres on a group of guests holed up at a tropical resort in Hawaii. They unwittingly torment the hotel’s staff as a haunting, threatening score signals looming dread. Lacy plays Shane, a very rich, very entitled newlywed who thinks he’s more of a nice guy than he actually is, and gets to pluck the menace always lingering just underneath the surface and gave it a full-on show. Make no mistake: this is a side of Lacy we like to see. And, as things tend to go, we’ll be able to watch him again soon after in Aaron Sorkin’s Being the Ricardos, which stars Nicole Kidman as Lucille Ball and Javier Bardem as Desi Arnaz. Good thing Lacy has a penchant for starring alongside a few heavy hitters or two.

Before we dig into The White Lotus, I have to tell you, you have a habit of popping up in just about everything. What is that jump between genre, and TV and film like on your end?

I would like to say that all of this is planned or I seek out these projects, but I really think it’s a mix of good fortune to have these projects come up when they do and to be available for them and be a part of them. It’s also about not biting sometimes when there’s something that seems like an opportunity and might be a good payday, but I don’t know that I could do that for however long or if I want to be a part of that. When I was younger, I would look at people who had varied careers that I really wanted and think, ‘Man, they really planned that out.’ And now, being some years into this, I’m realizing that, no, they were just cutting a path as best they could and trying to stay within the lines of ‘don’t go too far this way and too far that way.’ Someone like Sam Rockwell, for all of high school, college and my early career, I thought was what I wanted, you know, him going from big movies to little movies and this role in that drama to that comedy and always keeping it interesting.

I love that comparison for you, but you also strike me as a bit of an early Jason Bateman on his way to current Jason Bateman, from playing the straight man to White Lotus’s resident pest, always with the side-eye.

Okay, I love that! I am a huge Arrested Development fan and I have seen it many, many, many times. The other thing with Jason that is so wonderful is that his acerbic wit or gentle undercut is so sharp and also very gently laid in, which makes it that much more fun. So, man, I will take that, that is very appreciated.

You both nail playing the straight man, but also playing the nice guy, and there’s always a bit of something else that’s lurking underneath that I feel gets to live and breathe in The White Lotus. And you often play that role alongside strong female characters while giving them their space. Is that a conscious choice, how do you approach that role differently having played it so often?

Until the last few years, a lot of what I was doing is a role that is there to complete the female lead’s story in a way. And 20 years ago, that’s the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, you have this male lead, and a girl comes in who, like, rejuvenates his life. Thankfully, we’ve made it past that moment into better conversations around film and television, but then the flip side of that is if you give the Manic Pixie Dream Girl the lead, then the conclusion to that story is the nice, stable boyfriend with a boring job, which is a guy that doesn’t really exist. That’s a disservice both to me, selfishly, but also to the story. To not just reverse roles and instead tell a nuanced story. Working on High Fidelity was really the first time where that role was initially written closer to ‘He’s a good dude,’ and that was it. Through the writing and then through Zoe [Kravitz, the lead] and through me, we tried to create a character trying to be a nice guy because he had made bad decisions in the past, which gives a little more depth to an otherwise vanilla person. It’s ‘how did you arrive here’ as opposed to ‘I’ve always been this way.’ And then in The White Lotus, that’s just a guy who’s insisting…[throws on a Jack Nicholson tone]…’I’m the nice guy.’ But you’re not that nice if you’re having to yell that at people. If you’re always having to explain that you’re not a dick, then you’re probably a dick.

Jake Lacy, star of HBO's The White Lotus.
Photo courtesy of JuanKR.

Speaking of High Fidelity, what a great accomplishment that series was. Please tell me there’s even the slightest chance it might get a pick-up anywhere other than Hulu.

Thanks, man. I know! I’ve been on stuff that didn’t continue or changed or whatever and, in retrospect, I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, that makes sense.’ But High Fidelity is one that I’m like, ‘For real? We’re not gonna do this again? Come on!’ I always think I’m gonna get some like low-key email that’s like ‘nothing final yet, but…’ I’ll keep you posted!

It’s clearly comedy that you tend to gravitate toward, though you’ve been all over the map when it comes to drama, too. Where do you want to be?

I like both, I just want to do more of both. I do feel, whether it’s out of instinct or self-sabotage, when I’m cast in what would otherwise be a comedy, I’m always trying to be like, ‘What’s the emotional root of this thing? What’s that about, what’s this narrative, what’s that relationship’s terms?’ And then when I get cast in a drama, I’m just, like, ‘Ehhhh, let’s just fuck around.’ I don’t know if that’s because I’m scared to give over to the thing, or because comedy is better if you play it earnestly and drama is done better with a light touch, and I’m just trying to get there in my own ham-fisted way. Again, like Jason Bateman in Ozark, or [former Sharp cover star] Sam Rockwell in Gentlemen Broncos or Three Billboards, I’m like, oh man, you guys are able to dip into these worlds in your own way and then go and do Horrible Bosses. It’s so great that there’s this little window to slip in and out of.

Speaking of which, let’s jump back into The White Lotus, which is incredible, and I think a lot of that is due to Mike White. What is it like getting to be a character in his story and be directed by him?

It takes a very special brain and set of skills to be the single vision from start to finish. To have an idea, to write it, to direct it, to be in the editing room. A lot of the time, that causes something to fall short unless you’re Mike or David Fincher or Martin Scorsese, you know, someone working at that level and capacity. If you speak to any of the cast, they’re effusive in the way they speak about Mike, because it’s true and because he doesn’t speak for himself in that way. He’s more like, ‘Yeah, I had an idea and it seemed okay so we made it.’ And we’re all like, ‘Yeah, but you also have an eye and an ear for something very unique.’ I could ramble about Mike all day, but what I love most is the way he has written this story and these characters. Which is that everybody genuinely needs something that you can understand why they need it, and it comes right up against somebody else’s needs and wants. There’s no one that’s just the villain and there’s no one that’s just the hero. Everyone has their own reasons, wants and needs that are directly opposed to something else and that’s what creates the discomfort, comedy and drama.

Jake Lacy, star of HBO's The White Lotus.
Photo courtesy of JuanKr.

The White Lotus also features an incredibly stacked cast; you’ve got Jennifer Coolidge, Molly Shannon, Murray Bartlett, Natasha Rothwell, Connie Britton, Steve Zahn. In a lot of your projects, actually, you tend to be wedged in the middle of massive, impressive ensembles. What is it like walking into that and being a part of that team?

It was like a little camp at the hotel where we were shooting, because we were the only ones staying there during COVID. There was also very limited staff there, the spa was not open, there was one restaurant that was half open, and we couldn’t leave the property. So, by default, we all ate dinner together most nights and then would walk to set in the morning. The thing that I keep being struck by in working with these casts is that it’s just a little surreal to be like, ‘Oh, and this person is doing this? Oh, that person and this person? Okay sure, yeah.’ And then also that I have yet to be in the presence of someone who’s a real douchebag, which makes it that much more apparent when you meet a person at that level who is kind of a douche and you think about how unnecessary that is, because I know you can be in this business without being that way.

For this cast specifically, there’s a scene where we’re on a boat, and Jennifer Coolidge… Again, Mike has written this fantastic dialogue and this great scene, and because Jennifer’s incredible, he also said you can do whatever you want, just start here and hit some of these notes. Then, for multiple takes, it’s like five or six minutes of her talking about how cruel her mother is, and it’s the funniest. They’ve edited it so no one’s laughing, but there was a handful of times where I had to, like, look out to sea so as not to ruin what she’s doing. It was a delight to be a part of that.

Tell me about your character, Shane, who is highly amusing to me, but very difficult to The White Lotus staff and, increasingly, his new wife, Rachel (Alexandra Daddario). What was the most delicious part of him to sink into for you?

There are extremes, and so many takes, because we just didn’t know what the tone would be, and so Mike would just let me go for it. There’s one where I just chew out Murray, and that was a lot of fun, to light somebody up for a few takes. But then the other side of it is the stuff that I ultimately like more as a viewer and a performer, which is couching the hideousness in a nonchalance. That’s what Mike would lead me toward. You know, the best of us don’t know when we’re being cruel or inappropriate, and that’s Shane, he thinks he’s just talking or telling you the truth. There’s a scene where Rachel’s talking about how inappropriate it is that my mother has shown up and says, ‘What if my mother showed up?’ And I’m like, ‘That would never happen.’ She says, ‘Why?’ And I’m like, ‘Because she couldn’t afford the plane ticket.’ I’m not even looking at her, I’m just on my phone. When someone’s pointed about it, you’re like, ‘You’re being mean.’ But when someone’s not, you’re like, ‘No, you just are mean.’ To find those things was the real treat. Like, low-key cruelty.

Jake Lacy, star of HBO's The White Lotus.
Photo courtesy of John Jay.

Now, I have to ask you about your next film, Being the Ricardos. What can you share?

The setup is one week in the production of I Love Lucy, when she was publicly accused by the Tucker Carlson of the day of being a communist. Meanwhile, Desi was in the tabloids for supposedly sleeping with call girls, and Lucy was pregnant with their second child and had to tell CBS they were planning to put a pregnant woman on television, which was new at the time. And this was all within 48 hours. They didn’t know if they would a be doing a show on Friday night, or if they would ever work again, or even still be married to one another. And I play Bob Carroll, Jr., who is one of the three writers of every episode of I Love Lucy, and it’s Javier Bardem, Nicole Kidman, JK Simmons and Tony Hale; it’s insane. It feels so nuts, just before I get there each day. And then you get there, you get to a table read, and everyone’s like, ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ It’s lovely, we’re all just trying to work together to create a thing, and that is unbelievable. I mean just that people at this level that even I, as a person in this business assume, ‘Oh, they must be this other thing,’ and then you work with them and they’re warm and collaborative and funny and generous, and you’re just like, ‘Oh, this is the best, actually.’

Lead photo courtesy of JuanKr.