How Murray Bartlett avoids camp with his ‘White Lotus’ hotel manager

Jolene Purdy and Murray Bartlett in “The White Lotus.”
“I didn’t want him to be a campy caricature of a gay man,” Murray Bartlett says of playing a resort manager in “The White Lotus.” “Which I think is tricky for that character because he’s larger than life, he’s a showman,” adds Bartlett, here with costar Jolene Purdy.
(Mario Perez / HBO)

Award-winning auteur Mike White was hurtling toward a casting crisis. With production imminent on 2021’s “The White Lotus” — his darkly comedic HBO drama pitting the privileged guests of a posh Hawaiian resort against its dedicated if beleaguered staffers — the writer-director hadn’t yet found the perfect actor to portray dashing middle-aged hotel manager Armond. Then Murray Bartlett’s self-tape arose out of the blue.

“It really was a brilliant, brilliant audition,” says “Lotus” casting director Meredith Tucker, a three-time Emmy winner who’s worked on such projects as “Eighth Grade,” “Veep” and “Boardwalk Empire.” “Murray did it in his natural [Australian] accent. He captured the obsequiousness of the character, but there was also something else going on underneath that yielded a really interesting performance. He just got the tone so perfectly.”

Murray Bartlett in "The White Lotus."
(Mario Perez/HBO)

“I didn’t want him to be a campy caricature of a gay man,” says Bartlett — who’s been out his entire career — by phone from Los Angeles when asked about his Armond approach. “Which I think is tricky for that character because he’s larger than life, he’s a showman in his role as the manager. It was brilliantly written. It was very funny. But I wanted him to feel real and anchored in something that felt truthful.”

Not only did Bartlett’s stellar take on the role delight White, audiences and critics — it’s netted the actor nominations at the Screen Actors Guild, Critics Choice, Film Independent Spirit and Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards.

This newfound, sweeping acclaim is a particularly lovely, later-in-life reward for the 50-year-old, who began his career on TV in his native Sydney at 16. A move to New York in 2000 when he was 29 — coupled with a flashy 2002 guest spot on an episode of “Sex and the City” — should have paved a gilded pathway to major Hollywood success. It didn’t. So when “Guiding Light” came calling in 2007, Bartlett jumped on the offer, as much for the steady paycheck as to right what he perceived as a previous wrong.

Murray Bartlett starred as Cyrus Foley on the daytime drama "Guiding Light."
(Robert Voets/CBS via Getty Images)

“When I first got out of acting school at 20 in Australia, I was offered long contracts on soaps and turned them down because I had all these lofty ideas of what I wanted to do,” he remembers. “I think that was misguided, actually. … It would’ve been really good experience for me at that age. I could’ve bought a house and learned a lot about working on camera.”

Over three years and 257 episodes on “Guiding Light,” Bartlett sharpened his craft and made lifelong friends. Upon the show’s cancellation in 2009, he was filled with gratitude but ready to move on to other things. And other things did follow, yet none of them as substantial as a co-starring role on HBO’s 2014 comedy-drama “Looking” (canceled after two seasons while spawning a 2016 TV movie) or Netflix’s 2019, 10-episode reimagining of Armistead Maupin’s classic “Tales of the City,” in which Bartlett played lead character Michael “Mouse” Tolliver. He agrees those shows being aimed at the narrower queer community may have had a hand in his still not breaking out.

After “Tales,” Bartlett, his partner of nearly seven years and their rescue dog Bo relocated to Provincetown, Mass., but not because the actor was stepping back from his career goals. “I’d always thought that by the time I turned 50, I’d want to be living back amongst nature,” he says. “That’s where I’m happiest.” The couple was especially grateful to be out of New York when the pandemic hit. It was also in the midst of the COVID crisis that “The White Lotus” magically materialized, a twist of fate — and a happy ending — Bartlett finds fitting.

Frankie Alvarez, Jonathan Groff and Murray Bartlett in the HBO series "Looking."
(David Moir/HBO)

“The way things often happen, you decide to go in a different direction and suddenly your ideal scenario is dropped in your lap,” he says. “I don’t think it’s insignificant that I made a life choice to be in nature and then this job came. It was the first time in many years where I had this really strong sense of home that felt like an anchor. I was at a point in my life — and in my life as an actor — where I felt free enough to let myself dive into that character without feeling self-conscious. Like, let’s go for it, let it rip! I could fly with these incredible scripts and this incredible character Mike created. He took a real risk on me. I’m not famous. I’m not someone he knew, as far as I know. I just fall at his feet in thanks.”

While Bartlett may not have been a household name when he was cast as Armond, millions around the world have finally come to admire his considerable gifts, and he’s about to gain an entirely new flock of fans thanks to forthcoming parts in HBO’s “The Last of Us,” starring Pedro Pascal, Bella Ramsey and Nick Offerman; Season 2 of Apple TV+ original “Physical,” alongside fellow Aussie Rose Byrne; and Hulu’s Chippendales limited series “Immigrant,” with Kumail Nanjiani.

Murray Bartlett, Jolene Purdy, Natasha Rothwell, and Lukas Gage in "The White Lotus."
(Mario Perez/HBO)

“I feel totally ready for a long acting career if that’s the way it goes,” says Bartlett. “If not, I’ll happily go back to living in the woods on Cape Cod.”

It’s likely the sun, sand and sea will have to wait.