‘White Lotus’ Star Haley Lu Richardson Thinks You’re Being Too Hard on Portia: ‘She’s Trying Her Best!’

SPOILER ALERT: This interview contains spoilers for Season 2 of “The White Lotus,” now streaming on HBO Max.

At the onset of “The White Lotus,” series finale, Portia technically is in the midst of getting everything she always wanted. She’s gallivanting around Palermo with an off-the-grid hunk with a British accent, she’s able to make use of that ’80s-style matching set that she most likely bought off off a TikTok ad and she’s living so in the moment that she doesn’t realize until it’s too late that she has no idea where her phone is. Just like she tells Albie in one of the first episodes of the series, she’s sick of screens and dating apps and binging Netflix. “I just want to live,” she says.

Well, if being kidnapped in Sicily while a bunch of gays attempt to kill her boss on a yacht (and most importantly, survives to tell the tale) isn’t living, I don’t what is. “She got an adventure but it was just the most kind of twisted, deeply fucked up version of that,” Haley Lu Richardson, who plays Portia, tells Variety the morning after the finale of the Mike White-created series.

After all this trauma, we do see signs of growth for Portia, who finally gives Albie (Adam DiMarco) a chance, and asks for his number after thinking he was too much of a “nice guy” for her. And who knows? Maybe she’ll fall for him now that Albie seems to be following in the steps of his womanizing bloodline.

Here, Richardson unpacks Portia’s final moments, including what the future has in store for her and Albie, that horrendous airport outfit and improvising scenes with Jennifer Coolidge.

Do you think Portia will tell the authorities everything she knows to prevent Greg from getting the money? 

I would like to think so, yes. I felt as an actor, through scenes and glimpses, a real kind of empathy and care as Portia for Tanya, even if it was just in a fleeting moment. So I do feel like she does care about this woman. I don’t think she just totally hates her and would not want to avenge her in any way after she died. This woman died! And Greg was a part of it! 

At some point she will have to process that. And I don’t think it’s like, “Oh, thank God, my boss is dead.” I do see more good in Portia than that. 

What do you think the future has in store for Portia and Albie? 

I think they try to keep in touch. Maybe they go on a couple dates. In a perfect world, they’ve both been on these separate journeys over the last couple of days since they stopped seeing each other and Albie went off with a hooker and Portia went off and got kidnapped, they both have the potential with what they just experienced to really grow and level up as humans from these experiences. In a really optimistic future world, they grow in a positive way from these experiences and it connects them. But in the spirit of “The White Lotus,” I don’t know if optimism is the underlying tone. It’s a bit more deranged. 

Why did Portia wait until getting into the car with Jack to call him out about his uncle? 

People have been so critical about Portia from every angle this whole show. And in that moment, it’s like, what do you expect of this girl who’s literally in a moment of impending doom and she thinks she’s gonna die? She’s stuck — you expect her to make the best calls about when to do what? I don’t know, I just feel like she was a part of getting herself into this mess. But also, it’s not entirely her fault. She’s just trying her best. She’s stuck and desperate, and this is where she’s ended up. And it’s kind of a worst- case scenario outcome for her or anyone.

I was proud of her, honestly, for even calling him out at all. Because that would be terrifying to do to be like, “Hey, this guy could literally have a gun and shoot me dead, but I’m gonna call him out for fucking his uncle.” I feel like that’s the kind of closest to a hero that Portia really gets. 

What are your thoughts on the audience’s reactions to Portia? Did you anticipate she would be such a polarizing character? 

It is alarming how critical the internet has been to her, because this show is filled with fucked up personalities, they have very problematic views on the world and say things that are just ridiculous, and make choices that are just so deeply concerning for humanity. And the fact that Portia is the character that’s really getting picked apart, from her clothes to her whole being, it’s been kind of fun, honestly, for me to read about it and kind of be part of the whole conversation and know that this person that I was part of bringing to life, sparked so many opinions.

But it does feel weird because it’s, like, really? Portia, of all these people, is the one that you’re labeling the villain of the season? She’s the only one of all of them that doesn’t have money and is also kind of redeemable at the end of the day because it’s still not really solidified who she is as a person. So there’s hope for her to turn things around and be good and get her shit together. It doesn’t fully make sense to me that she’s the one that people dislike so much. 

What are your thoughts on Portia’s outfits? 

I think they’re exactly what they needed to be for this person. I’m proud to have been a part of that and collaborated with Alex [Bovaird], the costume designer and Mike, because I really think that it’s Portia. I feel like she is classically herself in the way she dresses, and how it connects to the person that she is on the inside, and the place that she’s at in her life. And I just really love the character that we created physically with hair and makeup and costume. I just think that it’s very uniquely her — for better, or for worse. 

Can you talk about her airport outfit in her last scene, specifically? How did that crazy outfit, and her wonky scarf hat, come to be? 

In the script, it said that she had a big hat, and then she put on sunglasses at the airport to be incognito. Alex found that hat and I as Portia was always drawn, if I was given an option, to the thing that was less expected and more off. Because I think that it makes sense for her — like, she is off. She’s at a really transitional, stuck, messy, chaotic, trying-her-best vulnerable place in her life. So when it came to her physical look, I was always drawn to the thing that reflected that so there was an option for this wrapped handkerchief ballcap. And then we picked the biggest pair of sunglasses because I feel like she would want to cover a lot of her face.

The people shitting on that outfit in particular — it’s like, she literally has been kidnapped. She’s been in the same outfit for two days. She literally just almost died. So what do you expect her to be, like, a fashion icon? I’m confused what people expect of this young woman. 

Did knowing what ended up happening to Portia at the end of the series influence how you portrayed her in earlier scenes? 

We got all the episodes before we started filming, but then also you don’t want what happens in the end to inform scene by scene how a character says a certain line. You want to be in the moment as that person and do whatever is authentic, or whatever, for that person in the moment. But yeah, that’s just the genius of Mike’s writing — Portia, specifically, gets exactly what she’s been asking for and this kind of wake up call of to actually be careful what you ask for because you will literally get it. She got a caveman that is not on Instagram, she got thrown around in Italy, she got an adventure. But it was just like, the most kind of twisted, deeply fucked up version of that. 

What was your reaction when you first read the scene about Jack and his uncle? 

I was so in Portia’s mindset at the point when I got to that part of the script. I just felt for Portia, and was also so worried for her. I was like, “Oh, no, Jack’s gonna come back and have sex with Portia?” But when I watched it months later as a viewer, I thought it was just so funny, honestly. And shocking and amazing. 

What was the most helpful note that Mike White gave you while shooting? 

My favorite note or time of him directing me was was in Episode 2 when I’m on the dinner date with Albie and I’m given this whole spiel from him about being a good guy and not being like his dad. I’m not on the same page as him — I’m like, “Yeah, I just want to have fun.” And then I go off about wanting guidance, not being a part of the discourse and being sick of all the [dating] apps and everything. And the first time around, I did it just kind of miserable and exhausted by it all. And then Mike came up to me, and he was like, “I want when you start talking about this, to bring out tics, like you get ticky — like it affects you so differently and so deeply that you’re buzzing with this kind of relationship and hatred for this. And it makes you like fuzzy.” And I was like, “Oh, that’s so interesting.”

And then I did it like that and it felt so much better, and all-consuming. Like it felt like my whole body felt anxiety talking about it, which was cool. 

What was the best part of working with Jennifer Coolidge? 

Just working with her in general, observing her. Because my character reacts to her more often than not, like, it’s very rare that Portia is leading a conversation or a scene. It’s Jennifer doing all the shit, and Portia just going along for the miserable ride. And it was just so fun and inspiring to watch her have so much freedom and genuinely play. That’s something I want more of in my career and creative experiences, the ability to just play and she does that really well. 

Did you and Coolidge improv any lines in the scenes you did together? 

She improvised so many times. She and Mike work so uniquely together where she’ll just go off and you don’t know if she is actually forgetting what happens next to the scene or what her line is, or if she’s like intentionally doing it. But it’s amazing, whatever it is. And then Mike will just feed her things, and she’ll just do it.

There’s definitely an energy between them that is very unique and creates this very specific energy in the scene and as the character so that so that was just fun to watch and then react to in the moment. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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