“It is one of the most, if not the most, distinctive characters I’ve ever played,” says actress Haley Lu Richardson of her character Portia in season two of Mike White’s multiple Emmy-awarded series, The White Lotus. Following its impressive season one award circuit, garnering ten Emmy wins and twenty nominations, the second season marks a change for the series as it moves from competition in the Limited Series category to Drama Series.
Enter Haley Lu Richardson, the rising talent tasked with bringing the frazzled and polarizing Portia to life. The character of an overworked and emotionally manipulated assistant is much like the life of an auditioning actor early in their career, sans the added torture of Jennifer Coolidge’s brilliantly out-of-touch Tanya McQuoid.
Having gained attention for her nuanced work as a young architect enthusiast in Columbus, Richardson was cast as the assistant to near billionaire Tanya McQuoid. It was a delight for audiences to see Tanya as one of only two recurring characters this season, but Portia’s stylistic assortments and questionable decision-making quickly became a highlight in the series and on social media.
“Everything is working against her, which is very different than all the other characters,” shares Richardson. “There are things that she can take control of, and she has agency in, but is so stuck that she can’t even see her part in her own life.”
The series has been renewed for a third season set to take place in Thailand. It has also already picked up numerous awards for its juggernaut second season, including the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Ensemble in a Drama Series. Richardson, who has also starred in Indie films like Support the Girls and Montana Story, continues to feature prominently in the Emmy conversation and credits series creator Mike White for helping her tap into Portia’s plight in unexpected ways.
“There’s definitely some genius about [Mike White],” explains Richardson. “I felt very vulnerable around him because I felt like he could see all of those things in me, and he would pull that out of me and the other actors, the things that were very much like our characters… I felt this desperation come out of me.”
Richardson spoke with Awards Focus about being recognized on the street as Portia, living in close quarters with the cast for five months in Sicily, sparring with Emmy winner Jennifer Coolidge, and discusses whether Portia will appear in future seasons.
Awards Focus: You’ve been working in the industry for over a decade, but have you found that people recognize you on the street as Portia?
Haley Lu Richardson: It is one of the most, if not the most, distinctive characters I’ve ever played. From the way she dresses and her personality, the person that she is within this particular world, and the specific place that she represents in a young person’s life, she’s very unique. That specific time in her life feels so distinct. People were confusing me with Portia, and it still happens now. Like on the streets of New York, a middle-aged man will be like, “Portia!” And grab me.
AF: You’ve played a wide range of characters and personalities in your career, from an architect enthusiast in a difficult home environment in Columbus to a bubbly, optimistic Waitress in Support the Girls…
Richardson: You saw Support the Girls?
AF: I’ve seen a lot of your work.
Richardson: [Laughs] You supported the girls!
AF: It’s a great movie, and I also love Regina Hall. I watched it after seeing Columbus and was struck by how sincere and grounded your performances are, even though the characters are so different. What are you looking for when taking on a new character and working on a new project?
Richardson: I want to connect. I want to read a script and immediately, like within the first ten pages, see the world and the person that I would play connect. So it’s always a good sign for me if I start subconsciously reading the words differently and hear that person’s voice or see how they look. It doesn’t matter what genre or kind of character or even what the story is. It’s just something that sparks in me, and most of the time, it doesn’t.
AF: Was there anything that changed in The White Lotus scripts from when you first read the script and auditioned to what was ultimately seen on the screen?
Richardson: A lot changed and was added by it being me. Then Mike [White] and I talked about collaborating with costume and makeup, being in the moment, and interacting with other characters. Sometimes things you don’t expect come up, and you’re like, wow, that makes sense for her. Mike has this kind of like, did you ever watch his season of Survivor?
AF: I did, but back then, I knew him as that guy from School of Rock.
Richardson: There’s some genius about him, and I don’t know what the word is, like maniacal? Evil or sneaky, that sixth sense of just really understanding someone’s buttons and insecurities and someone’s hangups. I felt very vulnerable around him because I felt like he could see all of those things in me, and he would pull that out of me and the other actors, the things that were very much like our characters. I felt this desperation come out of me. Portia has such a desperation, and I just felt it come out even more, so much that I needed to go to therapy.
AF: Was it because it was so visceral being in that position as an assistant at the mercy of someone else’s needs and wants?
Richardson: It was less the assistant aspect and more about where she’s at in her life. She’s so stuck, but she wants so much, and she’s in this place where she’s putting all of the responsibility on the external. Like the world is against her, and nothing’s going right. Life is boring. Life sucks. There’s nothing here for me, which a lot is validated because it is hard being a person, a young person, especially in this time of constant change and life being in the palm of our hands in these devices.
I can have a lot of empathy for that and everything that’s working against her, which is very different than all the other characters. She wasn’t brought up with money, and she has that struggle. But she is also in her own way. There are things that she can take control of, and she has agency in, but she is so stuck that she kind of can’t even see her part in her own life.
AF: I related to Portia because, having been an assistant in this industry, I thought I understood my agency, and then getting into a situation where you’re at the mercy of someone else’s needs and wants, often in aggressive ways, I found what I knew about myself stripped away.
Richardson: That is such an amazing perspective, and I’d like to say that I was super aware of that during filming, but you’ve unlocked something for me. Maybe Portia couldn’t see it at the moment.
AF: Watching Portia’s struggle triggered that understanding for me.
Richardson: I’m sorry it was triggering; I’m glad it led to some sort of clarity or growth.
AF: [Laughs] Thank you. You were in Italy filming for months on end. Was it a difficult transition?
Richardson: The cast and crew could all lean on each other in many ways, and it was a fun group. But we were there for almost five months, and most of our time was in Taormina, a small town in Sicily. It was during the off-season, so only a handful of restaurants were open. They didn’t have a grocery store, and most everyone stayed in the hotel, so it was a good thing we liked each other.
But I get the gist of it now. I’ve been doing it for 12 years now since I moved to LA when I was 16. I filmed one independent film in LA when I was 17, but everything else has been on location elsewhere. I still communicate with the people I love and try to connect my life, my actual life, as much as possible. But when I go somewhere, I’m just totally sucked into this world of the show or movie. It’s amazing to have that because it’s your sole focus, but when you return, you must also remember who you are. I love my actual life and routine, so I was ready to go home.
AF: What was it like working with Jennifer Coolidge, and did you pick up any improv techniques?
Richardson: It was honestly a blast. She is so fascinating. I think she’s the most fascinating human being I’ve ever met. She’s so charming and smart. But her sharpness is this sneaky thing because her whole energy and comedy comes from, like, does she know what’s going on? But then she pulls through and says the wittiest or most incredible delivery of something or goes on an improv tangent, and it is just everything. So every scene I had with her was me sitting there and her going off, and it was a blast.
AF: Do you think Portia could return to The White Lotus in a future season?
Richardson: I mean, you could put in a good word to Mike. I try to be hopeful in my answers because I hope that after the finale, Portia gets unstuck and avenges Tanya’s death or tells the cops, and they find the answers. I guess most of the bad guys were killed, except for Greg.
That’s my happy ending, hopeful optimist vision, but I know that’s not how Mike’s brain works, and that’s not what this show is. So if you asked Mike, it would probably be something pretty, ironically dark.