Brittany O'Grady On 'White Lotus,' Memes & Working With Sydney Sweeney
The actress tells NYLON about her character Paula and the paradoxes she faces.
The first scene Brittany O’Grady read before auditioning for Mike White’s The White Lotus was one of the HBO miniseries’ most notorious. In the pilot, O’Grady’s character, Paula, a liberal arts college sophomore, sits at a pool next to her classmate and best friend, Olivia (Euphoria’s Sydney Sweeney), as they do everything in their power to intimidate one of the fellow guests, Rachel (Alexandra Daddario), staying at the wildly luxe Hawaiian resort that gives the show its name.
“I thought it was super comical,” the actress tells me over a recent phone call. Though she didn’t immediately recognize the show creator’s name, she was pleasantly surprised to find that White was behind the Spirit Award-nominated screenplay for the beloved 2017 indie film Beatriz At Dinner. “That was a film that really touched me,” she explains. “The words, the characters, where they come from, it was all just something that I could deeply relate to.”
Naturally, that realization only heightened her excitement to get involved with The White Lotus, where she plays one of the show’s more complex characters. While most people in this scathing satire about wealth, power, and imperialism easily fall on one side of the privilege line — ridiculously wealthy white people visiting the titular resort vs. working-class people of color employed to cater to their every need — Paula exists in a gray space. She herself is not wealthy, but as the plus-one of Olivia (who is here along with the rest of her family, including her mom, the CEO of a Google-like search engine), she still benefits from the experience nonetheless.
The former lead in Apple TV+’s unjustly cancelled musical rom-com Little Voice and a lead in ABC’s forthcoming fairytale anthology series Epic, O’Grady was excited to tap into this delicate nuance, particularly in the back half of the season, when Paula starts taking a more proactive role in dismantling what she deems grave injustices. In last night’s episode, Paula encourages her vacation lover, Kai (Kekoa Kekumano), a native Hawaiian and White Lotus employee, to rob the family she’s been staying with. Unfortunately, the plan crumbles, landing both parties in a precarious position.
Ahead of this week’s penultimate episode, NYLON hopped on the phone with Brittany O’Grady to talk about what pushed Paula towards that decision, what the show is trying to say by having her plan implode, bonding with her castmate Natasha Rothwell, whether or not Paula is really as medically “sensitive” as she claims, and what book was most fun for her character to read on set.
I think the character of Paula is one of the show's most interesting, because she’s not wealthy herself but, ultimately, is still a visitor at the hotel and is thus still benefiting from its luxury. What did you make of this dichotomy?
There's a lot of those dynamics in real life where you have a seat at the table, but you'll never become one of the people that benefit from it. I think it's interesting for Paula because, in some ways, she does exercise her privilege of being able to exist in this world with her best friend, but she also has this deep internal conflict that she experiences and handles in her own way.
Paula is also one of very few people of color in this space. She and Belinda (Natasha Rothwell) are the only Black women, and Belinda is obviously an employee. How do you think that aspect informed the way you portrayed this character and her journey?
I wish my character had more scenes with Belinda. Natasha and I had a lot of really awesome conversations outside of filming and she really helped me develop dynamics with my storyline. I also really appreciated Jolene Purdy’s performance as Lani — her representation as an actress for the Asian-American community was also really important to me.
But I think Paula’s understanding of feeling “other,” of feeling like there was injustice with these socioeconomic differences, and realizing the awful reality of people's power dynamics with money and experiencing tourism, and having this amazing place to vacation while it impacts people's livelihoods — that connection came mostly through Kai.
It’s clear that Paula is very immediately drawn to Kai. But as you talk about this feeling of otherness, do you think her decision to pursue him was coming from some deeper place? Was she, on some level, looking for some kind of escape from the Mossbachers?
Yeah. I think she was. I think Paula, at first, was trying to find this fun experience where she was just going to live in this world of “Paula and Olivia.” But then she finds this attractive gentleman as she's starting to realize she doesn't feel comfortable and doesn’t respect the Mossbacher’s perspectives. I think that deepens [Paula and Kai’s] relationship in a way I don't think Paula expected. It's like when you’re destined to have some sort of intervention in order to go on your life path, just this spiritual aspect. I think she eventually did start going there, and seeing how she was experiencing this connection that she wasn't receiving from her best friend, who she thought was going to give her this deep sense of safety and fulfillment in this really wealthy, homogeneous space.
How do you think Paula even becomes close to Olivia in the first place? I know liberal arts colleges are known for bringing different perspectives together to converge, but with Olivia being so wealthy and Paula being so quick to scoff at that wealth, I’m curious what backstory you made for your character’s unlikely friendship with this girl.
I believe that Paula was aware that Olivia's family is very wealthy and potentially out-of-touch with where Paula is coming from. But I think Olivia and Paula have this certain [connection] from living in college together, taking the same classes, and being taught the same things.
What do you think initially pushes Paula to tell Kai to rob the Mossbachers?
I think Paula just believes that the stakes are so high at this point. There’s been so much damage done to Kai's life from people who can afford multiple $75,000 bracelets because someone cheated. So it's like, well, if that's what they feel is a necessity to repair a relationship, then obviously, the value of material possessions is more important than someone's life. So Paula’s like, “Just take it. You can have your whole life back. Screw this hotel. Bring back what is properly yours and where your family has come from, because these people just take and take and take.”
When she presents the idea to him, Kai initially pushes back, asking “Aren’t those your friends?” Paula basically says they aren’t and makes the point that they’re all the same. Are we supposed to think that this resentment has been gradually building up?
When Paula sees how Olivia reacts to her relationship with Kai, I think she starts to realize that Olivia is just like her family. I think Paula finds Olivia's motives to be performative and not coming from a genuine place of understanding. Paula feels like Olivia constantly takes from her. She takes guys from her, and it's something that has such intrinsic value that Olivia does not have and probably doesn't understand. That's where I think Paula's perspective is coming from.
Also, Kai is not the first guy this has happened with. There’s a moment in episode four where Paula alludes to a past event when something similar happened. Why do you think Paula has stayed in this friendship? She must be aware of how unhealthy and toxic their dynamic is — especially since she seems so clear-eyed when she tells Kai, “She’s my friend, as long as she has more of everything than I do.”
I think it's so interesting when you create friendships and stay in them, even though you know the dynamic can be toxic. It's such a human trait, especially when you're developing who you are, and I think that's where Paula is at. In the world of the vacation, I think she was just excited to go to a really nice place with her friend and benefit from it, but now she’s starting to realize it's not worth it. It's not worth the nice pool or the free food or the luxurious hotel. It just doesn't align with her purpose and how she views the world. I think that's where their relationship actually starts to crumble. The reality starts to come to the surface, and unfolds in such a dynamic way.
The robbery plan does not go accordingly, to say the least. It’s upsetting because Paula was obviously trying to do the right thing for Kai, but in theory, his life might be in a worse place now than it was before. How do you think Paula is reckoning with that?
Oh my gosh, she’s just so distraught, just feeling doomed. There's two dynamics to it because she definitely put Kai in a horrible position, but I think she’s also realizing that money and power always win. That's what she's being shown. From my personal perspective, as an actress, when I was reading that, I was like, "Oh my God, Paula. That's not a good idea. You're using him as a scapegoat for your revenge against the Mossbachers, and that's not cool!"
So she walks away heartbroken, guilty, and distraught. Sometimes, when the truth gets revealed and you see things for what they are in life, it's just so gut-wrenching. And on top of that, you're responsible for someone with a good soul doing something really damaging to themselves. Paula felt absolutely justified and had the best of intentions. It just ended poorly.
I think the fact that this plan doesn’t work — a plan that, for all intents and purposes, could have worked brilliantly if not for this domino effect of other things happening — may be hinting at a bigger idea of how some injustices are simply unrectifiable. That no matter how hard you try, things will always work out so the rich and powerful can prevail.
It's interesting because, if you look at imperialism and the atrocities of it — the lives and livelihoods being taken, the [loss of] culture — it doesn't compare to two $75,000 bracelets being stolen from a wealthy family. So, yeah, finding justice is an uphill battle. It’s a really hard one, especially when people use money and power to not have morality, or be blind to other people's reality and take from them and deprive them of their livelihood because you feel entitled to it. I don't want to be a doomsday person and say that there is no justice being served, but I just think it's ten times harder to create justice in a society where money and power exists.
Throughout the show, Paula and Olivia frequently talk about all these ailments Paula suffers from (she’s a “Highly Sensitive Person,” she’s allergic to ibuprofen, etc.). Are these diagnoses real or is it just one of the ways Olivia and Paula wanted to fuck around with Nicole?
I think it's a mix of both, for sure. I think it is them trying to fuck with Nicole and make her life difficult. I think they try to poke at her a lot. I think that was the intention of coming on vacation, to poke at all of these wealthy people who Paula and Olivia feel are the enemy.
But I’ve also been a bit of a hypochondriac since I was a child. So for character development, I thought about making fun of myself with certain things. Paula is a very strong person, so I liked that her vulnerability was being a hypochondriac, and having all of these pills, and saying, "I can't use this. This is for my panic attacks." I do believe that's kind of her weakness, is health anxiety. I found it comical on a personal level.
I love all the drama that Mike White is able to squeeze from these girls getting into a k-hole on the beach and losing their big bag of drugs (which is already a miracle they were able to get through TSA). Was that a fun aspect to play on?
Oh yeah, absolutely. That's what they came to do! They came to Hawaii to trip and to have a good time. That was their connection. Actually, maybe the drugs being lost was the start of their relationship being ruined because they didn't have drugs to enjoy each other.
Now they have to deal with each other sober.
Right. Have you ever bonded while you’re drinking with someone and then, when you’re sober, you’re like, "I don't like this person. Why do I even do this?"
We’re having this conversation after the fourth episode has aired, so hopefully you’ve had a chance to see how much the show has been capturing the internet’s attention.
It's exciting. I'm just happy to be a part of it. I think Mike and the cast are incredible. I'm loving the memes about Olivia and Paula. My sister sends me all the memes. I love portraying a terrifying teenager. I didn't think they would be looked at that way, but I feel like that means Sydney and I did our job well.
Out of curiosity, how did you think that your characters would be looked at?
I did not think of the response, weirdly enough. When you expect a response, it usually doesn't go the way you think it will. But then, when you don't think about it, it's really nice to see that people enjoy it and find some sort of thing to escape to. I haven't been on a show that’s had such a widespread audience. Usually, I've had niche audiences. So to see a wide range of people enjoying the show and enjoying the satire, I think that's all Mike White, really. But to be a part of it and be trusted to play this character and add to a piece of the story is really amazing.
You mentioned that your past projects have had niche audiences, which I think is particularly true for Little Voice, one of my favorite shows of last year. The character you play in that show, Bess, is so different from Paula. How did it feel to go from that project to this one?
I love doing it. I love challenging myself. I love playing different characters. I feel like it's a part of growing as an actor. I kind of consider myself a character actor, where I love to transform into different people, with different perspectives, and different ways of delivering things. That is something that I strive for as an actor, so I was very excited to play this character and try to grasp the satire and the tone of the show. I definitely tried to take notes and gauge chemistry between the different people that I work with and figure out what the creator wants.
You’ve also been cast in Epic, the upcoming ABC anthology series that’s set in a Disney fairytale universe. You’re playing a “cynical princess.” Can you tell me more?
It's so fun. I've seen pieces of the pilot. It was wonderful working with the creators of that show and it's such a sweet, relatable, beautiful story. It's uplifting, which I really enjoyed. And I loved the fairytale costumes — being able to be in a princess dress is a lot of fun. Also, it’s an interesting take on love, compared to how Disney usually [portrays] it. Of course, you get the Disney fairytale princess, but with a modern twist of her maybe being a little jaded, because I think a lot of us are jaded in our experiences with love. I was so excited to be a part of that and bring that story to life as an actor. It was a lot of fun — and Ireland is gorgeous! I've been really lucky to go to a lot of really beautiful and mystical places this past year.
Final question. You talked about The White Lotus memes earlier, so I’m curious: Of all the books that Paula reads throughout the show, what was the most fun for you to act like you were reading while sitting by the pool or laying in bed in the hotel room?
Well, what was interesting is that the outside of the books they were reading was actually a different book inside. So I can't even really remember the titles of the books we were actually looking at.
There was some Freud and Nietzsche, and some Fanon. Also, there was Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae.
I love the difference between what Shane's character is reading at the pool, the book Blink, which is kind of like this douchebag pamphlet. He's reading that and we're reading all of these explorative [theorists]. I think the Freud and Nietzsche one was the funniest one for me, because it makes so clear the dynamic between Olivia and Paula compared to the other guests at the hotel, especially Shane's character. My sister called me when she saw that and was like, "Oh my God. I love that." So, I think that would be my favorite.
The season finale of The White Lotus premieres next Sunday on HBO.