The first season of HBO’s anthology series The White Lotus earned an impressive 20 Emmy nominations, including seven individual bids for its ensemble cast, which boasts multiple standouts — from Emmy newcomers Murray Bartlett, Alexandra Daddario, and Sydney Sweeney to industry veterans such as Connie Britton, Steve Zahn, and Jennifer Coolidge — whose work together makes for a truly rewarding and deeply entertaining viewing experience.
Below the Line recently had the chance to speak with Casting Director Meredith Tucker about being approached during the pandemic by creator Mike White to assemble the perfect cast in a very short timeframe. While certain roles were written with specific actors in mind, the rest were open and required a fast-moving operation in order to start production on schedule.
Tucker spoke about each of the show’s main cast members and what they brought to the table, as well as some of the smaller recurring roles that were still important to the show’s overall narrative. She also previewed what’s to come in Season 2 as well as some other interesting projects that she has coming up.
Below the Line: I think you got to be part of one of the most fun and interesting and peculiar shows that I saw this past season.
Meredith Tucker: That’s nice to hear. I’m glad you liked it as much as you did.
BTL: How did you originally get involved with The White Lotus?
Tucker: I had worked with Michael a bunch before. We go way back. He called me at the beginning of August, and I wasn’t working because everything had been shut down. He was like, I might be doing something for HBO. I’ll be in touch. And so then, he called me, like, a week and a half later and said, ‘okay, this is what I’m thinking,’ and he gave me a broad outline of the parts, but I hadn’t read anything yet. And then I read it and started working on lists, but couldn’t do anything formal until they greenlit it. And they would only greenlight it once they knew where they were shooting it.
They had to do a very quick scout to figure out where they were going to do it. I didn’t officially start until after Labor Day. It was very fast and furious. We did it in about three and a half more weeks, because they had to start. They wanted everyone there by October 15th to start shooting October 20th. We were pretty much done by the first week of October.
Everyone got there in time, it was all [just] a little bit of a blur because I hadn’t been working and everyone self-taped. We tried to do some Zoom-type auditions, but I hadn’t been working, so it’s [like] going from 0 to 60 in a second. Doing everything from home was new. With Michael’s stuff, he knows what he needs even if I’m not completely sure, so I feel like if he was seeing what he needed in these particular people then I was like, ‘okay, my work here is done.’ He always can shape a particular part for particular people. Obviously, he had written for a couple [of actors], like Jennifer Coolidge and Molly Shannon. But everything else was pretty open and that’s how it all went down.
BTL: Aside from those two roles, was there somewhere you figured you had to start, like a key piece of the cast, or was it just everything all at once?
Tucker: It was everything all at once just because we didn’t really have the time to spare. We honed in on Connie’s role earliest, just because she was a woman of some sort of professional power, the character. There were a finite number of women who fit that character a little bit more specifically than I think the others did. That helped, obviously, shape the rest of the family — who was going to play the husband and the kids. Having her anchored the rest of the family.
We did look at the couples at the same time. I guess I worked on the family people first, especially the kids, because it was younger people, [so] you just have to read more, you know. We saw more people audition for Olivia (Sweeney), Paula (Brittany O’Grady), and Quinn (Fred Hechinger). When the four of the family were all together, Michael texted me and he was like, ‘oh my god, they really look like a family.’ We had sort of been playing with that, but I think when he saw them in person, he was slightly taken aback [by] how they matched up so well.
For the couples, for Rachel (Daddario) and Shane (Jake Lacy), a lot of people said, ‘oh, did you have chemistry reads?’ and we didn’t, which people were shocked by. But it ended up working out very well, luckily, because of the dynamic between the two of them. We were looking for very specific types for each of those roles. And then Armand was very open, and that actually threw me for a little bit of a loop at first, but then when Michael explained what he was looking for there, we were able to hone in on Murray.
BTL: Was there a nationality for the character?
Tucker: No, there really wasn’t. But then when he heard Murray doing it with his natural Australian accent, he was like, ‘oh, I really like that.’ And then he was like, ‘maybe he should be British or from New Zealand,’ and so I asked the agents, ‘do you have anyone else who could be right?’ Because the time was so short, we didn’t have time to get visas, so that limited it to certain people who could actually work, and Murray could.
For Belinda (Natasha Rothwell), you needed someone instantly sympathetic. He said she was going to be the soul, and things were not going to go well for her, and she had to be incredibly likable. That was one thing that we needed to hone in on for that role, funny yet super empathetic.
BTL: I was pretty wowed by just how many members of this cast got nominated for Emmys.
Tucker: It’s thrilling, it’s wonderful. I haven’t worked on that many limited series, so it’s a new category for me to be involved in. It’s wonderful. I’m glad people responded so positively to so many of the actors.
BTL: I keep coming back to the fact that Brittany O’Grady and Fred Hechinger are the only two who were not nominated from the main cast. I also think that they happened to be the least well-known among them. I know that I had just seen Brittany in Little Voice right before this, which was really great and hadn’t been canceled yet, and I know Fred has done some horror and other stuff, but did they feel like discoveries to you, or am I just missing some of their early hits?
Tucker: Fear Street, now, I think for a certain demographic, is quite known. Fred is young, he’s only 22. I had first gotten to know him when we had cast him in Eighth Grade. It’s hard to say who’s recognizable and how that plays into people getting nominated. They both had such interesting arcs. That’s what’s so great about all the characters. Everyone really did have some sort of growth. Well, growth is not the right word, but they certainly had some moments of reckoning. Even though they didn’t get nominated, they’re part of a wonderful ensemble, more importantly.
BTL: In addition to Molly, I was also thinking about Jon Gries, who played Greg, Lukas Gage, who played Dillon, and Kekoa Kekumano, who played Kai. Those are also roles that are much smaller but still pretty significant. Was it a challenge to find those actors?
Tucker: For Jon, it was interesting, because we had a real debate on who Greg was going to be. There’s a certain way you could have gone with a guy and been like, ‘oh, this is never going to end up well and she’s disregarding Belinda and we all know that this is just going to end poorly.’ And with Jon, there was something so sweet about him and so endearing about his read, that you’re kind of like, ‘this could end up working out really well for her.’
As loony as that character is, it grounds it more in reality. She’s taking a chance on someone who actually seems like he could be a viable option for her. And there were other guys who just seemed like not that. That gave her storyline a little bit more of an interesting wrinkle at the end.
Kekoka was actually from Katie Doyle, who did the local casting. He just did a really nice read, and there was such a reality to what he was doing. [As for] Lukas, Michael had actually worked with [him] before. He had been in Entourage — I’m sorry — Enlightened.
BTL: I was going to say, I want to see Mike White’s version of Entourage. Let’s get that reboot going!
Tucker: Oh my gosh, that was a horrible slip of the tongue. So they knew each other. We knew that there was going to be some sort of same-sex element. Michael trusted that Lukas would be game for anything. He was just so funny, him just popping up and being like, ‘Lani’s having a baby.’ He did a really wonderful job. And [so did] Jolene Purdy, who played Lani. I had known her a little bit from Orange Is the New Black. She was supposed to come back in the last episode, but it got cut because it was just running too long. But I just thought she was just wonderful and so funny and, again, grounded. I think that as outrageous as some of this behavior is, what makes Michael’s writing so good is that it all makes sense, it’s all legitimate within the characters. As crazy as it might be, he validates the choices that the characters are making in a really truthful way.
BTL: It felt like Season 1 was put together a little under the radar, and now you guys have this big spotlight on you for Season 2. Did the show’s newfound popularity and increased attention make your casting process for Season 2 any easier?
Tucker: Well, we did everything so quickly [on] Season 1. It was one of the few shows that [were] going to be shooting in that fall slot that was new. Most of the other stuff that was coming back had been shut down in the spring. Not that it was under the radar, but I think people in the industry kind of knew [about it] and I think Michael has a reputation within the actor community, [so] people were enthusiastic.
My sister is funny, she’s an academic, but she lives in Los Angeles. She said that she was doing a job search [at] the same time that we were doing casting. [She pointed out] how every single thing [I did] in my job, the person getting hired [got] a big announcement, and hers — who’s getting into the English department at UC Irvine — didn’t get as much news.
Again, it’s such a blessing to be part of a show that did capture the zeitgeist in such an incredible way. I have not really been part of something like this, with the exception of The Sopranos, but they were huge before I even started working on it, [so] it’s a real honor. It’s just a testament to Mike’s writing and directing that it did capture it so beautifully and it was so popular.
BTL: Is there anything else that you’re working on that’s either coming out soon or that you’re just getting started on?
Tucker: I’m just wrapping up working for Terence Winter, who I worked with on The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire. [He has] this new show called Tulsa King starring Sylvester Stallone. That’s been really fun. Very different from The White Lotus. That’s coming out later this year [on] Paramount+. I also do Godfather of Harlem. It seems like we just started, but we’re about midway through our season. Those are the two things I’m focused on, and a lot of indies, [but] I’m not sure if they’re going to happen or not.
Season 1 of The White Lotus is now streaming on HBO Max, while Season 2 is expected to premiere in October.