Making a Splash: Jennifer Coolidge and Mike White Discuss the ‘White Lotus’ Finale

Mike White always knew how it would end.

Months before the shoot began for the second season of HBO’s “The White Lotus,” which ended in a murderous finale on Sunday night (and if you have not yet seen that finale, now would be a fine time to stop reading), he called the actress Jennifer Coolidge, his friend and a longtime collaborator. Coolidge’s Tanya, a lip-plumped heiress with a tenuous connection to observable reality, was one of only two characters to carry over from the first season, set at a five-star hotel in Hawaii, to this one, set at a sister property in Sicily.

“Jennifer,” he told her. “I’m sorry. You’re dying.”

He meant that in the finale, as not even the most obsessive fan had predicted, Coolidge’s Tanya, having shot her way through a yacht full of “high-class gays” intent on assassinating her, misjudges the distance from the deck to a dinghy and plunges, ineptly, to her death. In a filmed post-episode interview, White described the death as purposefully “derpy.”

In a season focused on desire and its consequences, the finale also saw a rekindling of the romance between the unhappily married Ethan (Will Sharpe) and Harper (Aubrey Plaza); a new understanding among the three generations of Di Grasso men (F. Murray Abraham, Michael Imperioli, Adam DiMarco); and triumph for the local young women Mia and Lucia (Beatrice Grannò and Simona Tabasco). Mostly unchanged: Tanya’s assistant Portia (Haley Lu Richardson), still making questionable fashion choices, and Cameron (Theo James) and Daphne (Meghann Fahy), the happily entitled young marrieds.

On Sunday night, at Coolidge’s home, she and White watched the finale together. And on Monday morning, each logged on to discuss Tanya’s gauche, tragic demise and where the series, already renewed for a third season, might go from here. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

If the first season centered on wealth and privilege, why did this one fixate on sex and desire?

WHITE Originally, I had a different concept. And then when I went to Sicily, those testa di moro sculptures [figurines inspired by a folk legend about sexual infidelity] are everywhere. It felt like a place where some classic male-female stories could be told with contemporary characters.

Did you know from the start how Season 2 would end?

MIKE WHITE In the first season, Tanya’s last line is, like, “I’ve had so many treatments in my life. Death is the last immersive experience I haven’t tried.” I was like, maybe that’s where to take her story. In Italian opera, the women are supposed to cry and die, and I just imagined that that could be an appropriate story for the site of Sicily and this battle of the sexes, and Tanya is a victim of that.

During this season, fans on and off social media became obsessed with discovering who would die and how. Did you pay attention to the theories?

Welcoming You Back to ‘The White Lotus’

The second season of “The White Lotus,” Mike White’s incisive satire of privilege set in a luxury resort, is currently streaming on HBO.

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JENNIFER COOLIDGE I thought they were hilarious. There were crazy things people said. Like, Tanya’s husband, Greg [probably in on the murder plot and played by Jon Gries], needs to come back and save her from those gays. But I loved it. Every possibility was exhausted.

WHITE It’s funny, because 95 percent of the theories would have been really shocking but as a writer; there’s no way I could have pulled that off. Like, Daphne kills everyone! But I do think this ending is a little more wild. I usually work in a more modulated reality. This was a bigger, operatic conclusion. Because I felt like that’s what the vibe was there. And also, the idea of Jennifer on the boat with those guys just seemed so funny.

The second season of “The White Lotus,” set in Sicily, unfolded within breathtaking landscapes, twisty streets and opulent interiors.Credit…Fabio Lovino/HBO

Jennifer, did you ever try to talk Mike out of this ending?

COOLIDGE You can’t talk Mike White out of anything, really. But whenever Mike was in a really good mood, and laughing about something, I’d go, like, “I don’t have to die, right?”

WHITE Even when we were shooting the scene in the ocean where Daphne finds her body. She was like, “Should we just do one take where I pull myself up on the shore? Just one?”

COOLIDGE That’s an actress fighting for another season! I wanted to be practical in case Mike had a change of heart. I just wanted to leave the possibilities open.

Why did you want a “derpy” death for Tanya?

WHITE It reminds me a little of Jennifer, because Jennifer, like, she’ll come and do this incredible performance and then lock herself in a bathroom. I can see Jennifer in this situation actually killing all the bad guys, surviving this assassination attempt, and then tripping on her way out the door. Part of Jennifer is: She’s not going to go down without a fight. She wants to live. But at the same time, she’s maybe a little klutzy.

Did you do any of the final stunt, Jennifer?

COOLIDGE I begged to do it! But Mike already had the stunt double there at the shoot. And she had been waiting for hours. There was just no way Mike was going to tell her, waiting out on the cold boat, that she wasn’t going to have her moment. So Mike wouldn’t let me do it.

WHITE She really did want to jump off the boat. Into freezing water. There was no way.

So will any of the Season 2 characters make their way to Season 3?

WHITE The truth is, I don’t really know. I just don’t know.

Well, you’ve teased a season about Eastern spirituality and death, so allow me to suggest Ghost Tanya.

COOLIDGE Thank you for trying to get me in there.

WHITE I mean, especially if we’re doing something about the spiritual realm.

White and Coolidge on the set. “I’ll forever be sad about this,” she said about leaving the show.Credit…HBO

During the first season, you shot in a Covid-19 bubble. This time, the actors and characters could leave the hotel. Did this shoot feel different?

COOLIDGE Obviously, we had such a fun time on the first one. With the second one, I was like, Oh my God, we’ll never have that camaraderie. It’s impossible. Because with Covid it was so intense.

Actually, I thought it was just as good. I loved Hawaii, swimming in the ocean and hanging out with all the castmates at the end of the day and possibly getting eaten by sharks, the drama of that. But Sicily is so beautiful, and then the people ended up being really funny and interesting. I said to Mike, “Not only do you give acting jobs to people, you give them an experience.” It was so unpredictable and extraordinary.

Do you have any regrets about the season? Are you sorry you killed off Tanya?

WHITE I really love this story. I really thought it was a funny way to go. And right. I don’t have regrets about that.

But yesterday, I went over and watched the show alone with Jennifer. At one point, I was kind of laughing and I looked over at her, and she was so sad for Tanya. In that moment, I was like, Oh, this is the end for me and Jennifer. And Jennifer’s the reason I did “White Lotus” in the first place. Because I just wanted to write something for her and I just adore her. So it’s sad. I didn’t realize it until yesterday, but now I am sad. It’s going to be hard to do it without her. There’s definitely going to be something missing.

COOLIDGE I didn’t expect, last night, to be as moved as I was.

Have you forgiven him for killing you off?

COOLIDGE No, not at all. I’ll forever be sad about this.

The show has already been renewed for Season 3. So let’s just get this out of the way: Who dies next time?

WHITE Maybe it’s like Kenny on “South Park”: Every season Tanya has to come in and just die all over again.

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