How ‘The White Lotus’ Star Connie Britton Played a ‘Cringeworthy’ Character ‘Totally Blind to Her Own Entitlement’

·4-min read

This story about Connie Britton and “The White Lotus” first appeared in the Limited Series / Movies issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

There is an encounter in the second episode of HBO’s “The White Lotus” that backfires so spectacularly for one of the characters that it could serve as a warning against meeting your heroes.

Rachel, a newlywed on her honeymoon (played by Alexandra Daddario) is asking Nicole, the powerful CFO of a tech company whom she reveres, for career advice. Nicole, played by Connie Britton, offers the young woman encouragement (“Good things happen to good people”), and the exchange almost ends as benignly as it began until Rachel mentions with bashful pride that she once wrote a profile on Nicole. It turns out that Nicole loathed that piece, offended by its suggestion that she “rode the #MeToo wave” to corporate prominence and not through hard work and talent. “That was a f–ed-up piece,” Nicole says, all sisterly camaraderie vanishing. “That was a hatchet job.” More words spill from Nicole, including “bad journalism,” “Machiavellian gorgon” and an accusation that the article “hurts the cause” of women in the workplace. Exit Rachel, smacked down and stunned.

That is just one of the many moments of intense, cringe-inducing awkwardness that ripple through “The White Lotus,” a biting satire created by Mike White about entitled, rich white people vacationing at a luxurious resort in Maui. Britton’s Nicole is a workaholic who’s devoted to her family and proudly considers herself a liberal, all while arguing that straight white guys like her teenage son are now the underdogs in society. There’s plenty about Nicole’s blinkered, white-privilege world view to make you wince, but Britton imbues her with a three-dimensional personality that adds up to much more than the sum of her flaws. It’s another complex, critically hailed performance from the four-time Emmy nominee best known for bringing to life one of the most beloved characters in recent television history, Tami Taylor from “Friday Night Lights.”

“The White Lotus” role appealed immediately to Britton. For one, it reconnected her with White, who wrote and directed all six episodes and with whom she’d worked on the 2017 indie that he penned, “Beatriz at Dinner.” “When you’re in the hands of someone who has such a clear vision, I feel like we were just cogs in the wheel of his creation,” she said during a recent interview. “He’s so smart and such an amazing observer of the human condition. And our job was to make damn sure that we weren’t playing caricatures. Because then you defeat the whole purpose of social satire.”

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The part also allowed Britton to continue exploring a certain type of privileged woman that she longed to better understand after learning that 52% of white women voted for Trump in 2016. (In 2020’s “Promising Young Woman,” for instance, she plays a college dean who dismisses a rape victim’s accusations.) “I think it’s important for us to understand the perspective, especially when you see what’s happening in the world,” Britton said. “We all are products of our own histories and experiences and traumas and all the rest. In the case of Nicole, she was defying a lot of odds in terms of becoming a very successful woman in a man’s world. And she’s drunk the Kool-Aid in terms of (telling herself), ‘I’m politically progressive.’ Yet at the same time, she can’t see she’s totally blind to her own limitations, her own entitlement.”

Britton relished leaning into the cringe, even when scenes like Nicole’s interaction with Rachel required some extra decoding to fully understand her character’s headspace because Britton herself has never experienced any dustups with the press. “Listen, I count myself very fortunate that that hasn’t happened,” she said. “I had a whole conversation with Mike about that and I was actually feeling challenged, like, ‘OK, I’ve gotta find my connecting point there. What’s she experiencing?’ It’s so funny, because that has ended up being a scene that people have really responded to.”

Even more surprising for Britton is the public’s overall reaction to Nicole since the show premiered last summer. “The number of women that reached out to me — and some men too, by the way — who said that they related to that character,” she said, still in disbelief. “I thought that people would be too embarrassed to admit that because she’s so cringeworthy.” A deeply ironic lack of self-awareness could be to blame, but Britton has a more optimistic interpretation. “This is a strange moment in time, this realization of the brutality of white entitlements,” she said. “And while the show reflects that in a very specific way, I think it allows people who have been on the oblivious, white-entitled side of things to see themselves and say, ‘Oh, I guess that’s me. And I have some work to do.'”

Read more from the Limited Series / Movies issue here.

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