Murray Bartlett started to worry whether he would ever work as an actor again in the midst of the epidemic. “I wondered to myself, ‘What do I do?’ Is it true that I teach drama?’ He and his girlfriend had just moved from New York to Provincetown, Massachusetts, wondering whether the decision would jeopardize his future jobs. The infection contributed to the sense of unease.
In the midst of his professional crisis, he received a call that led to the most riveting part he has ever played. Bartlett, as frazzled luxury hotel manager Armond, pooping in the luggage of an obscenely wealthy, arrogant visitor, encapsulates the spirit of our times more than any other television moment. Armond starts The White Lotus, a six-part series, determined to perform his job properly and satisfy all of the required individuals. But, as the disaster unfolds, his eyes sparkle, his attitude shifts, and it’s obvious that decorum is going to be thrown out the window. His transformation from a confident, competent, and sober hotelier to a rogue manager high on narcotics taken from two young visitors and intent on ruining a particularly nasty honeymooner is breathtaking – and perhaps the TV moment of the year.
It’s not often that a 50-year-old actor gets a breakthrough role, but given his outstanding performance, Bartlett seems to have been underutilized throughout the most of his career. He rose to prominence after a cameo appearance in Sex and the City (as a shoe importer whom Carrie meets at a gay bar) in 2002, and he went on to have long-term parts in the US soaps All My Children and Guiding Light. He was one of three leads in HBO’s Looking, which was named one of the 100 greatest programs of the twenty-first century by this newspaper, and he played Michael “Mouse” Tolliver in Netflix’s remake of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City in 2019.
Bartlett was ecstatic to play the hotel manager. “Armond represents the part of us all that thinks, ‘What the fuck?’ What exactly are we doing? ‘What the hell is going on?’ He’s waking up to the craziness of his nightmare and can’t keep his public face up any longer.” “It’s a dreamy thing for an actor to look at – for me, anyway – because I guess I haven’t had many opportunities to do that,” he adds of the character’s “incredible trajectory.”
Armond begins the series dressed slickly in a pink jacket and flowery shirts, serene, competent, and moustachioed. The visitors, particularly the obnoxious Shane (played by Jake Lacy), a wealthy youngster who can’t get over the fact that the room he wanted was double booked and he no longer has his own plunge pool, begin to wear him down.
Armond relapses after five years of sobriety as the passive-aggressive dispute intensifies. He approaches the father of the adolescent visitors, as well as Dillon, a porter, about his ketamine and prescription drug combination. He resorts to sabotage Shane and his wife’s stay as the turmoil escalates.
Would Bartlett have behaved the same way if he had been in Armond’s shoes? He adds, “I don’t think I would have internalized it all.” “I’m too much of a people pleaser, and it would have eaten me alive on the inside. I would have quit that job a long time ago; I doubt I would have lasted as long as Armond.”
Despite the fact that Armond isn’t a true hero – he has some shady inclinations – it’s difficult not to sympathize with his situation. I inquire about his feelings about shooting the feces scene, in which his character says goodbye to all societal norms. “There’s something very satisfying as an actor about being given the freedom to fully embody what this character is thinking or feeling,” Bartlett adds. When he first read the screenplay, he was unconcerned about executing the sequence. “It’s the moments after that make you think, ‘Oh, wait, that means I have to be in a room with 100 people, shitting in a suitcase.’ That’s going to be strange.’
To understand Armond, Bartlett drew on his own experiences with addiction. He explains, “I have people in my life who have addiction issues, and as a porous person, I tend to absorb other people’s emotional states.” “And so, while I don’t know what it’s like from the inside, I feel like I’ve gained a lot of insight from people in my life and my own addiction experience.”
According to Bartlett, he suffers from an emotional addiction that appears as a need to be in relationships. “There have been times in my life when I felt that way more strongly. “I don’t struggle with addiction in the traditional sense, but I am acutely aware of those tendencies in myself at various points in my life,” he adds. “Because that’s my drug, when I’ve broken up from relationships, I’ve completely fallen apart at times. It’s difficult to completely comprehend what it is if you don’t have substance-addiction problems, but I think I can get a feeling of it emotionally.”
Bartlett relied on his experience working in the service sector to help him prepare for the job. “I worked as a bartender and a waiter. He adds, “I had good experiences; not everyone was bad.” “However, there were always those instances where you just noticed people in positions of minor power, or who felt entitled to something, and they treated you like shit.”
Since working on the program, has he become kinder to the service staff? He adds, “I’m pretty sure I’m not the dick person; I think I’m more self-aware than that.” “However, one of the wonderful aspects of this show is that we all have characters, or aspects of characters, in us that we must be aware of. There are parts of us that are simply there, and choosing to favor the better portions of our nature is a continuous thing.”
When Bartlett was a kid, his elder brother knocked out two of his front teeth, he realized he liked acting. In Perth, Australia, where he grew up, a group of youngsters gathered around a spider on a rock. To crush it, his brother swung back a hammer, and… well, you can figure out the rest. Soon later, he lost two more front teeth while “spinning around in our basement in a blanket to music.”
Years passed before his adult teeth grew in their place. When they did, he still had trouble pronouncing the letter “S” correctly (“I said: ‘Eth'”), so he went to a speech therapist. “She was this incredible woman who had me doing monologues and poetry, and I loved it,” Bartlett recalls. Through theatrical camps, acting schools, and auditions, a route to his future profession opened up.
He’s on the phone from his house in Provincetown, equipped with a smoothie to help him wake up. He’s been having difficulty sleeping since he’s been experiencing anxiety nightmares about producers criticizing his piano abilities. He’s kind and polite, saying that having his teeth extracted “feels fated now, because I love being an actor.”
Bartlett grew up in Sydney before moving to Perth when he was four years old. He was “extremely fortunate and loved,” especially by his mother, who “made me feel like I could be whoever I wanted to be.” Coming out as homosexual was never a problem for her since his mother had many gay friends and he had many gay role models.
“When I went to acting school and became an adult, my problems began. ‘Oh fuck, why doesn’t everyone adore me as my mother does?’ I thought. He flashes a wide smile.
Coming out to his mother was “very easy,” while coming out to his father was “a little more complicated,” since he has religious views that oppose homosexual people. As a result, it was a challenge.” Is his father coming to terms with the fact that his kid is gay? “I know he cares about me. And I adore him,” Bartlett adds. “I think it’s a difficult thing to achieve peace and acceptance of other people’s differing worldviews or belief systems without compromising my own beliefs.
“I’m going to try my hardest not to… For many years, I found it excruciating…” he pauses and looks away. For approximately 30 seconds, he is deafeningly quiet. Tears stream down his cheeks as he returns his gaze to the television. “I guess I didn’t realize it was still painful.”
I say we can go on if it’s too painful. He composes himself and replies, “No, it’s all right, I actually want to finish.” “It’s also loaded with a lot of other things, such as being in this country, which is extremely divided. And how do you handle it without making the other person your adversary? How can you set aside your own issues and just choose to love someone? That’s the problem I’m having with my father.
“I want to be in a relationship where I am loved unconditionally in that way.” And I’m sure he thinks he loves me unconditionally. But it’s a bit more complicated than that for me. He adds, “But I know he’s very proud of me.”
Bartlett started his acting career in the early 1990s, with recurrent parts in shows including Home and Away and Neighbours, before moving to New York in 2000 and landing the role in Sex and the City. Bartlett wasn’t out and proud about his sexuality, but he didn’t conceal it either. Some may have considered a homosexual actor portraying a gay character to be career-ending at the time, but it never occurred to Bartlett.
“I really enjoy that show. “I was just ecstatic,” he adds. “Perhaps that is something I should have thought about. But I don’t believe so. I suppose that wasn’t a problem for me.”
He worked mostly on All My Children and then Guiding Light after Sex and the City. He had a good time, and the large number of episodes — more than 250 in the case of Guiding Light – helped him forget about his previous performances. Nonetheless, he was concerned about the public perception of his work. “I guess you always want to be seen as doing something wonderful by your peers, and I was curious how some people would react to it,” he adds.
Did he become frustrated by the absence of additional high-profile roles? “Unquestionably, at times. But it is the road you have chosen. When you’re an actor, you get a lot of experience from getting rejected a lot. The majority of the time, you will not get hired.
“There are times when you think to yourself, ‘Oh well, maybe this is it – maybe I’ve gone as far as I can go,’ or, ‘Is this practical any longer?’” he adds. “There were times when I didn’t have those opportunities [like The White Lotus], and I was thinking to myself, ‘I feel like I can do a lot more, and I want to be able to show it.’ So there were moments when I thought to myself, ‘Maybe that’s just not my route.’
Bartlett has found meaning in “trying to show intimacy, especially between men, in a way that feels authentic and feels loving and feels connected, in a way that I feel we don’t see enough” in roles such as Dom in Looking, which explored the nuances of gay life for three men in San Francisco, and the gay protagonist Mouse in Tales of the City. In The White Lotus, Armond is shown rimming Dillon over his desk.
“I hope that, as a result of Queer as Folk, Tales of the City, and The L Word – and all the shows that have come before them – we are seeing more freedom of expression in that way, so that we don’t have to pretend that those things don’t happen or hide them away.”
Bartlett’s next project is a role in HBO’s The Last of Us. Given the excitement around the film (which is based on the critically acclaimed and massively popular video game of the same name), Bartlett’s star will most likely shine even brighter. It’s taken a while, but it seems that he’s finally gotten his big break.
He adds, “It’s definitely a surprise.” “It’s not like I was expecting it to happen. But now that it’s occurred, it seems like it came at the perfect time… I’ve gained some experience. I’m firmly planted in my own skin.”
Bartlett says he’s loving growing older – “I mean, I get a few more aches than I used to” – but a time of “inner turmoil” occurred the week before his 50th birthday.
“It’s in the nature – at least for me – to reach those milestones where you reflect and wonder, ‘Am I where I want to be in my life?’ He adds, “And I am.” “We made the decision to leave the city; I’m back in nature, which I consider to be my natural habitat. I’m in a great relationship right now. This was an incredible chance for me to perform this work. In retrospect, I simply feel very fortunate and grateful to be where I am.”