'White Lotus' Breakout Brittany O'Grady Has Thoughts on That Finale

'White Lotus' Breakout Brittany O'Grady Has Thoughts on That Finale

by Evan Ross Katz

Happy White Lotus Monday to all who celebrate. It was a gripping finale to the six-part Mike White miniseries, full of tears, piña coladas, vomit, ketamine and pooping in suitcases. The good guys did not prevail, for there were no "good" guys, only Belinda (Natasha Rothwell), who was left at the business altar by Tonya (Jennifer Coolidge), a woman who cannot pronounce "chaise" to save her life. And then there's Paula, played by the transfixing Brittany O'Grady, tasked with cleaning up a mess she never intended to find herself in. She went from reading Sigmund Freud poolside to being an accessory in a crime committed against the family that brought her there in the first place. She might've even ended up in jail had her bestie, Olivia (Sydney Sweeney) ratted her out. She still might! We'll never know though. Such is how things go in the world so colorfully created by Mike White.

Much can, has and will be said about The White Lotus, and its commentary on class, race, gender and privilege, but for now most fans are just beginning to grasp the finality of our brief, but memorable stay. "Nothing changed," many are saying online in response to seeing a finale that concluded much like it started. To quote Camille Grammar on Season 3 of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills: "That's the point, Yolanda."

Below, actress Brittany O'Grady reflects on her time on the show, working with Mike White, where she thinks the series netted out and the ways in which she's similar and diverges from Paula. As for her thoughts on White Lotus Season 2 casting? She votes Salma Hayek.

Turtleneck: Akris Punto, Coat: OTKUTYR

First off, we're speaking 12 hours to the minute since the finale concluded. How are you feeling?

You know, it's so weird. I feel like I've done lots of projects that involved a lot of time and energy, and had a story that impacted people deeply, but maybe not as widespread as White Lotus. And I think that that all has to do with Mike White. To be trusted to play this one particular role in this really great story, I just feel honored to be a part of it. We're visiting my dad's side of the family right now and we all watched the finale together and they loved it and the crude humor. My mom's side, less so [laughs]. We were just in shock at the end. I didn't watch the second half of the final episode. I waited and when that scene hit I was like, "Oh my God!" It was great.

They definitely do go there, in very Mike White fashion. Have you been surprised overall by the unique fervor that this show has generated — and so quickly?

I didn't even think about it, honestly. I think that's the trick, you just can't think about it. Now I'll get texts from people almost every day, like, "Oh, my friend's friend just mentioned it out of the blue," or I have friends that are nurses and they'll say another nurse suggested to watch the show. It was the first job I had filming during COVID and we filmed everything out of order, so I think a lot of us just wanted to get through and make sure it was good. I almost forgot we were filming something. We all had dinner together. We were living in this hotel. We were all adjusting. And so now it's like, "Oh my gosh, I forgot that an audience is going to see this. I forgot that people are going to interpret things a certain way." Now, looking back, I'm not surprised, but I wasn't expecting it, so this is really cool. And I'm excited for everyone who is a part of this. And I'm excited that people love it so much too.

Let's start with the end. Talk to me about your thoughts on that final scene between Paula and Olivia? Where do you think things netted out?

It's so complicated because I feel like the way that Paula and I operate as people is completely different. That said, I could identify with Paula and how she feels, especially with everything that she's seeing around her. I took a lot of my own personal experiences of sitting at a table where I felt like people were out of touch or lacked a sense of awareness of how their life is completely different than someone else's. I think that their paths will diverge, and not even in a way of being vindictive or even personal, it's just that they do see the world differently. I mean, Paula did something that could have really hurt Olivia's family. But it's so complicated and so human and that's why I love it so much. You have those friendships where you keep it at the surface, but you know there's something beneath and you don't want to go there. I think they really went there. When Mike was telling us about the airport scene, I didn't know where they stood. I didn't know if it was a comical moment where it was like, "Haha, nothing ever happened," and he was like, "No, this has definitely impacted your friendship. And that's why Paula's face is a little more somber by the end, because I don't think she will continue a friendship.

Many of us felt there was deep sexual tension between the two, or at the very least Olivia having feelings that went beyond friendship for you. What was your take on this?

When we first arrived in Hawaii and got out of quarantine, Sydney, Mike and I all had a conversation about their dynamic and we joked that there could have been a little bit of obsessiveness or possessiveness from Olivia towards Paula, almost like an infatuation. I think that it was kind of teased with the ASMR scene. We definitely did talk about a dynamic that was more than just friendship; that there was this underlying need for each other. I think that Paula had a different way of looking at things, so that gravitated Olivia closer to her. It totally makes sense that people would think that, and I saw that a lot on social media and I would have thought the same thing. I love it. That can be a real thing with friendships, dynamics that are underlying and feelings that we can't even really describe. I feel like it's this interesting dynamic that doesn't really have a label.

How familiar were you with Mike White's oeuvre prior to filming?

Well, Beatriz at Dinner is one of my favorite movies.

Had you or have you since seen his season of Survivor?

I'm a jerk [laughs]. My family and I would all watch Survivor when we were growing up. We would joke around with french fries as kids and dip them in ketchup and say "the tribe has spoken" and bite off the french fry. When I heard Mike was on Survivor, while we were in quarantine I tried to watch some of the episodes, but I got so stressed out. I texted Mike, and I was like "I'm sorry, I only watched one and a half episodes." I was like, I can't do this. I would feel so frustrated. I'd be the one crying. I'd be the one spilling the rice. That said, I did see memes of Mike drinking red wine, but sadly I did not go through the season itself.

How would you describe Mike White as a creative?

He kind of made me question how I view things. In my choices as a Black woman and my choices of finding justice, I was always taught to take a certain road, or to operate a certain way to make long lasting change. It's the dynamic of feeling like you have to be held to a higher standard. So it was hard for me in ways with Paula's choice, because she just put another person who is experiencing oppression on a deeper level in a bad situation. In those scenes with Olivia in the final episode, my instinct was to just start crying because I, Brittany, am always about making peace. And that's what I was taught: Finding peace, finding connection, finding a common ground. And Mike was like, "No, that's not what this character is doing. She accepts Olivia for who she is and does not fuck with her." It just made me really question and think about how I operate in my life and then how Paula operates. And she spoke her mind in a really powerful manner. I'm usually very soft and try to communicate to change someone's perspective. And Paula has a sense of acceptance that Mike wrote that I'm learning to have in my life as a young woman. I felt like for the first time as an actor, I questioned how I viewed things compared to the character I was portraying. I had a long think about it. I still do actually.

Let's talk about Paula, a fascinating character in her proximity both to the Mossbachers and to the privilege they represent. She is a Black woman at a resort comprised of mostly white people, but with access — an access she tries to wield, ultimately unsuccessfully, in the hope of bringing about some kind of reparations to the native people of the island. How did you approach the character?

I love that dynamic within Paula, because I do think that she exercises her privilege and I think her intention in the beginning was to go to a resort and have this nice experience with her friend that's wealthy and pick at her mom. They go to this liberal arts college, we decided as a backstory, and they're both feeling like they see the world differently and kind of have the superiority over people who don't have that. And I do think that because of circumstances, Paula is exercising the privilege. She does have a seat at the table, but she's realizing… I don't think she ever thought that she was going to be a Mosbacher in that sense, but I do think that sitting within her being and hearing these conversations, she's realized that she will never be on that level of ignorance and privilege and wealth. I'm sitting here, but I'm just in this bubble of "other."

Shirt: G-Star RAW, Jeans: RE/DONE

Is that something you could relate to at all in your own personal experiences?

For sure. I felt like I could identify with that because I'm biracial. When I was a kid, I never was allowed to play my own race because I didn't look my own race. And some people could see that as a privilege. And I think that a lot of times people do skate by over anti-Blackness because people are like, "Oh, you're exotic looking, what are you?" And I have to be like, "I'm a Black woman. And the things you were saying are anti-Black, and it disgusts me." I remember my first time when I decided to graduate early and get serious into film and television. I was 16 and from the DC area and did a lot of theater. And when I went to an agent, she was like, "You're not skinny enough to model, your teeth are too small and you look Hispanic, but you're not, so I don't know what to do with you." It was just ignorant. And I don't feel broken by it because I think that people experience a lot worse, but actually not being able to get in the room and prove myself. I think everybody has these varying degrees of discrimination within this business and in the world. So I do feel like I have my privileges, and I do sit at tables, but we'll never be in a world where ignorance and power and money isn't something. I do still feel like an object at times, I guess. So I did feel like it was my responsibility to be aware of that while playing Paula, because I think that in ways, just because of where we're at and how we're born, we have those privileges in society.

How do you see the character of Olivia? She's at once this outrageously privileged young adult who, to quote Jeremy O. Harris "perverts the language of the oppressed as a form of rebellion," and yet in that finale it's made clear both in her protecting your secret and then holding you at the end, that she feels genuinely for Paula.

It was interesting because watching the finale in real time yesterday, my feelings started to change. Deep down, I actually do have a little bit more sympathy for Olivia than Paula does, because I think that she could have exercised her privilege in a way and gotten Paula in huge trouble because of what Paula decided to do. Maybe it's the Montessori child in me, but I do believe in the spirit of somebody. And I do think if someone has a good intention, we can allow that to grow. There's things that can be absolutely unacceptable, but if we don't leave room for growth for people, they will never change. The way I was raised and the way that my family has gotten through things generationally was giving hope and believing in the good and knowing that people can change. My mom always says "Leave room for growth." I do think that a really great place for healing is allowing people to grow, but also not letting someone cross your boundaries. And I think Olivia is far from perfect. I think that Jeremy O. Harris said it perfectly.

I'm curious for your thoughts on Belinda. She seems to be the only character that feels conclusively like a good human being on this show. She got done real dirty by Tonya in that finale, which felt quite inevitable.

Her performance, especially last night watching it, I watched it with my family and all of us just felt this heaviness in our hearts. I didn't get to spend as much time with her because she was literally so busy. It's like when she wasn't filming, she was producing and doing voiceover work and doing all these things. But the time that I did get to speak to her, which was such a privilege, I had questions about my character and I wanted to have a perspective from another Black woman of how to portray this character and what do these things mean? And she gave me a lot of guidance. And her performance was just so strong and subtle. And then when the tears came, it all got wrapped in a bow. And I think that this is what a lot of Black women do, and it's portrayed in the character, is that we always are seen as the ones to be taking care of other people and their emotions and the ones always being responsible, but then not being valued at the end of the day of the day for our humanity. "Here's money, but all the emotional investment and time and value that I gave you, that's so intrinsic, and all you can do is give me money?" And I think in a certain section of our society that's how people are used to operating. Natasha did such an incredible job, so beautiful and sensitive and you just feel for her so deeply. And it's great to see that side of her because you usually see the comedic side, but she's like an iceberg. Like you see this beautiful performance at the top, and then everything she does behind the scenes is just… she's a force to be reckoned with.

Is it weird for you knowing that Paula's story is done? There's so much more I want to explore.

I feel at peace with it because I knew that it was happening. They talked about it being an anthology, so I didn't expect her story to continue. And I think I'm now starting to see her in a different way. As an actor I have my perception, I sit in the emotion of the character, I don't really methodically plan, I go off my gut as an actor and then I love to see how the audience analyzes the character. It's kind of like how you live your life, you're going through these emotions, and then you look back like, "Oh, I was a depressed mess in college" or, "I was really happy during that time." I think it's harder for me if something is unexpected or felt like there's no closure, which I've experienced before. So I actually feel a lot of peace compared to a lot of jobs I've done that have gotten canceled. I mean, everything has to come to an end.

Favorite experience filming the show?

I think my favorite was just grabbing dinner or drinks with people at the end of the night. Everyone was just so good… so good-hearted. It's hard to find that in this business — I don't think it's hard to find that in this business, actually, but I think people can operate in ways of insecurity and take it out in really nasty ways. And I just felt like all of us are working with true artists in their own power, in their own right. Oh, and another highlight was when my fiancé Ben and I went camping after the show ended. And we got to spend a little time in Hawaii and hang out with Jennifer and Mike and meet up at different places and really experience a Hawaii that we didn't get to during filming because we had to stay in the bubble.

Speaking of Jennifer Coolidge. What can you tell us about getting to work with such a legendary talent? I mean, it doesn't get more iconic.

There's something magnetic. Like you can see in her eyes, like when she talks, she's sharp, she's perceptive, she sees everything. Maybe I'm biased because she's a Gemini, but I'm in awe of her. I felt nervous, like I feel even now that I didn't really let my guard down because I just felt like she was an icon as well. I think that a lot of times she plays these characters where people perceive her to be a little aloof, but she sees through everything and is so smart. My favorites scene that I fee describes her for me is the scene in the finale where she's just throwing the ashes. I don't know why that made me so emotional watching it, but there's something ethereal about her and also grounded, and to play those characters, I think you have to be all of that.

I'm so glad you mention that scene versus some of her more bawdy, obvious moments on the show. What was your favorite memory of filming in Hawaii?

I'm going to be honest when I was there I felt a lot of guilt just because of the pandemic. If I was going to be there at that time and during COVID, I wanted to be almost like a fly on the wall or not contribute to any sort of chaos during that time. I consider myself to be a very spiritual and sensitive and emotional person, and I felt a really generous spirit. Like we had a Hawaiian blessing in the beginning and I felt like I got this download almost that there's just this overwhelming flow of giving from the Hawaiian culture. Something very powerful is there that should be respected. I love to travel, and I love being able to respect the spirit of where some place is and that was something that I loved learning about and want to, at some point when I feel like it's appropriate to go back, learn even more.

You've really blown up on social media over the last few weeks thanks to this show. What has that been like for you?

I feel like it's been changing. I would say at times I was very politically active and expressing my opinions politically and expressing my personal life, and I think that I've taken more time to live in the present and in my own life. I love being present with my family and my friends and my community and sharing a few things here and there. I have been kind of taking a step back cause people do say negative things. I have gotten some weird racist things sent to me, or just comments about my personal life or my relationship or my family. I don't need that. But I'm grateful for all the love that I do receive, and it's an overwhelmingly positive experience. That said, I'm working on creating a sense of power within myself, outside of validation on the internet, which I think is going to be helpful for me and my emotional wellbeing moving forward.

Jacket: All-Saints, Bra: Calvin Klein

Are there any projects on your horizon or upcoming roles you're most excited about?

No, the door is actually wide open at this moment, so we'll see what unfolds. I was working on projects that didn't go through, but that's okay, that's the nature of the business. I have this belief that when one door closes, so many open, and that has proven to be true time and time again, which has been such a blessing, especially in this line of work. So I feel open and excited to tell the next story I'm meant to tell.

Welcome to "Wear Me Out,"a column by pop culture fiend Evan Ross Katz that takes a look at the week in celebrity dressing. From award shows and movie premieres to grocery store runs, he'll keep you up to date on what your favorite celebs have recently worn to the biggest and most inconsequential events.

Photography: Matt Monath
Styling: Shay Dixon
Makeup: Tim MacKay