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'I'm a weirdo'

MIKE White, the multihyphenate writer, actor, producer director, reality-show contestant and creator of HBO’s hit TV comedy drama White Lotus, knows what it’s like to be invited to the party. As a minister’s son who grew up on the fringes of affluent Pasadena, he also knows what it’s like not to be invited, to be the person “behind the curtain looking out” at the beautiful, cool people sitting around the swimming pool.

“As a creative person, I draw on that,” he told the enraptured audience at yesterday’s Ogilvy seminar, When Creativity Drives Culture. “When I started writing White Lotus, I thought, oh good, I’ll just make it about attractive people by the swimming pool and throw in a dead body. You realise that audiences show up for sex and violence, so I sprinkled a little of that in there. But ultimately, it’s about ideas I want to talk about and characters that excite me.”

White Lotus, which follows the exploits of the guests and employees of a fictional resort chain, was commissioned by HBO at the start of the pandemic and released in July 2021 — an absurdly short lead time for such an ambitious show. “But HBO needed content quickly and they knew I was a fast writer,” White told Liz Taylor, Ogilvy’s chief creative officer and self-confessed White Lotus fangirl. “But because it was such a race and so rushed, there was no oversight, which was great. TV people are always trying to protect me from myself because I’m a weirdo, but HBO left me alone.”

White talked hilariously but movingly about his professional burnout, which prompted him to move to Hawaii and rewrite the script to his own life. “I was in my thirties doing a show for Fox called Cracking Up, which was ironic because I basically had a nervous breakdown. I was trying to do this cool show with these cool people but Fox hated what I was doing. I started having panic attacks and crying but not knowing why, so I went to a shrink, who asked if I ever had suicide ideation. I said I sometimes thought about throwing myself under a bus — and the next thing I know I’m in a mental hospital... But they say the thing you’re most afraid of its exactly what you need. And that changed the whole way I live my life.”

When asked by Taylor if he had any advice for an audience of creatives, he said: “Protect yourself from burnout. Whatever keeps you excited, go towards that, even if it seems like a risky proposition. If you’re alive and stimulated by what you do, it will translate into your work.”

Meanwhile, Taylor wanted to know if there was anything White still wanted to achieve. “Part of me thinks I’d like to play tennis in the morning and eat healthy food,” he replied. “The other part of me just wants to sneak out the back door…”


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