The actress shares her secrets for tackling Mike White’s biting satire, filming emotional sequences, and working with the great Jennifer Coolidge.
Last summer, Alexandra Daddario delivered an entirely unexpected performance in HBO’s The White Lotus.
When you first meet her Rachel, she’s on the arm of her new husband Shane (Jake Lacy) as they arrive at the fictional White Lotus resort on Maui. Viewers immediately assume she’s mindless eye candy. A hot trophy bride for the ridiculously wealthy, privileged, and good-looking Shane. Yet, what Daddario does extraordinarily well throughout the show is mask behind those unforgettably ice blue eyes the anxiety and confusion inherent within Rachel.
Her performance soars in what has to be considered the best ensemble work of the 2022 Emmy season.
But how did she settle on an interpretation of the Rachel created in Mike White’s brilliant screenplay?
“She is a very confused person in a lot of ways, but aren’t we all? I wanted her to be really, really genuine. I didn’t want her to be any kind of cliche, even though there are cliches within her,” Daddario explained. “I found her to be someone who kind of likes [Shane], but she also can’t stand him. She likes that she has money now, but she can’t stand that as well. She likes the fancy clothes, the expensive bag, and the big ring and all that. But she also hates it because she’s not where she wants to be in her career and doesn’t feel she really deserves it. So she’s a lot of contradictions. That was a real jumping off point for me.”
Daddario signed onto The White Lotus without having read a full script. In fact, she wasn’t given a full set of scripts until the flight to Maui where she and the cast would film during the COVID-19 pandemic. She loved White’s penchant for blending humor with very dark subject matter. She loved his way of reflecting back onto the audience their own hypocrisies.
As an actress, Daddario wanted to avoid an overanalyzed approach to depicting Rachel. Instead, she became Rachel in the moment and let the scene come to her as she performed it. White would provide some context for the scene based on his writing thought process.
And sometimes, he provided his own lived experience to convey the intent of the scene.
“Sometimes he would tell stories. For the Connie Britton scene where I go up to her to tell her how amazing she is, and it is revealed that Rachel had written a terrible article about [Connie’s character] Nicole. He said that someone approached him at a party who was like, ‘Oh, my God. You’re so amazing.’ Then he realized, ‘Oh, aren’t you the guy that wrote that negative thing about me?’ ” Daddario recalled. “So he was actually [Nicole] in that situation. That really gives you context. In his mind, having that interaction was too funny to him, considering the hypocrisy of it. Sometimes, he’d give notes that way, to give you a real life example that would show the humor and the satire of it.”
The scene resonates as one of the greatest in the series because it flips the conversation from one of flattery to one of attack. And you completely didn’t see it coming.
Another Rachel scene that refutes expectations involves a catty conversation with Olivia (Sydney Sweeney) and Paula (Brittany O’Grady). The two college sophomores grill Daddario’s Rachel about her life choices in a surface-level polite but really incredibly catty way. They think they have the upper hand until Rachel steps out of her cover-up, revealing her incredible physique, and strolls confidently into nearby pool.
Instead of falling prey to catty comments, she turns the moment back on the girls with a simple step into the pool. Classic Mike White.
“People can be mean and bullies, and adults are sometimes worse than kids. Again, I do think Rachel’s very genuine. She comes into every situation wanting to be friends,” Daddario explained. “Yes, she has insecurities. You see that because she ends up devolving into just taking her clothes off and showing off her body to these girls. She didn’t have to do that. She wants these girls to be nice to her and be her friends. Instead, they’re being condescending and not taking the bait, so she feels weird and uncomfortable and confused in her own environment. I feel like a lot of the time she’s just very not at ease with anyone around her. I’m not even sure she’s at ease with her own family. She’s not really at ease with anyone. She can’t figure out why she’s coming into these genuine situations and people are mean to her.”
Reacting to a Seasick Coolidge
Another key sequence for Daddario involves very little dialogue on her own. Instead, she’s called on to react, or rather not react, to the force of nature that is Jennifer Coolidge.
Much of the season involves the eternal battle of wits between Shane and hotel manager Armond (the great Murray Bartlett). Armond sets up Shane and Rachel for a romantic dinner cruise only to have deliberately booked the same boat for Jennifer Coolidge’s grieving Tanya McQuoid to spread her mother’s ashes. Naturally, the scene devolves into anything but a romantic dinner for two.
Daddario and Lacy’s main purpose within the scene was not to laugh at Coolidge’s monologue. That proved a difficult task.
“The things that come out of her mouth are so astounding, and that scene was incredibly fun. She has horrible seasickness. So, she was doing everything she could not to be seasick. She’s also, I think, one of the only people who could deviate from Mike’s script,” Deddario recalled. “So every single take was different, and you’re trying not to laugh. I mean, that’s that’s really it. You try not to be a viewer when you’re in the scene, but it’s hard not to be especially when you have someone whose every take is different. Every take is funny. Every take is interesting.”
The moment added another sequence where Rachel doesn’t know how to react to her surroundings, and it increases the intense unhappiness she feels.
That unhappiness culminates in a challenging scene near the end of the series. Rachel confronts Shane in their room and tells him she’s made a mistake with their marriage. It’s a tearful Mike White monologue that Daddario delivers beautifully.
It highlights what Daddario feels is the ultimate contradiction at the heart of Rachel: her unflagging despair.
“She’s not in that bad of a situation, and yet she’s in complete despair. She’s hiding that. So I think it was a moment for her to feel that despair. The only way to get out of it was to try to empower herself, and this is her way of doing it,” Daddario shared. “Mike really guided me, and coupled with my instincts, I just sort of jumped off from there. I try not to think too much. I think thinking is the death knell for an actor.”
But despite succumbing to the despair and seemingly ending things with Shane, Rachel reconnects with him at the airport. While it surprised audiences, Daddario never faltered on her belief that Rachel would never actually leave Shane at this stage of her life. Perhaps due to a lack of self-confidence or lack of money or lack of status, she stays with Shane despite clearly being unhappy in the relationship already.
While Daddario does believe Rachel will eventually leave Shane, she does not believe, as many have speculated, that she returned to Shane out of fear. As a reminder, at the end of the series, Shane accidentally stabs and kills Armond, but Daddario strongly believes Rachel doesn’t consider Shane to be capable of that kind of deliberate violence.
At the end of the day, all she needs out of the world — a world in which she routinely has negative interactions with people — is a little safety and security.
“She has all these people being mean to her. Everyone she interacts with in the hotel, it’s a negative interaction. That’s probably the same in the real world for some reason. She goes out there, and she’s just not getting the responses from people that she wants. [Shane] helps her get positive responses from people. She just needs to find a safe bubble where she at least knows to expect. At least with Shane, she knows what it’s going to be.”
The White Lotus streams exclusively on HBO Max.