“I learnt pretty quickly that it doesn’t pay to be shy about your stuff”, says White Lotus actor Will Sharpe
Prior to meeting Will Sharpe one weekday lunchtime in east London, I ask his team whether it would be possible to see the final two episodes of The White Lotus. Just for professional reasons, you understand. Not at all because I am, just like you and lots of others, dying to know how the second season of this extraordinarily brilliant show, in which lots of quite awful people implode together in a luxury Sicilian hotel, plays out.
Case in point: when he arrives for our photo shoot, it takes just a few minutes on the streets before a cabbie pulls over, gets out of his car, points and says, ‘White Lotus!’ Then, on entering our pie & mash-serving destination for the afternoon, the owner asks if he can have a photo taken with Sharpe to send to the wife who, he beams, ‘won’t believe it’.
Basically, obviously, everyone wants to know what happens. So I’m told there is no chance, and that those climactic two hours are firmly under lock and key.
Sharpe laughs when I tell him this: a laugh that says, quite conclusively, that there will be no spoilers here, either. He will hint we should expect the unexpected from his character, Ethan. But that’s it. So instead we get into discussing said character’s most memorable scenes thus far: from an MDMA bender that ends with Theo James’s Cameron saying he’d ‘like to be inside you’, to getting busted by his wife, Aubrey Plaza’s Harper, masturbating to porn on his laptop.
‘My memory of that scene is that it read very funny, so the temptation was to play it for laughs,’ he says. ‘But it felt like the more we did it, the straighter we did it, the more it felt like it left space to think about what the scene is actually about. And how it’s about this strange, paradoxical closeness that Ethan and Harper have with each other, where they’re almost so close that they started to grow apart.’
This is a fairly decent illustration of the unique mood of the show: blackly funny and sad and toe-curling all at once. Sharpe is full of praise for its creator and writer, Mike White. ‘I was very in awe of how he spins all these different plates,’ he says.
The statement is quite funny coming from Sharpe. Because at just 36 years old, he has — deep breath — written and directed three feature films (one, The Electrical Life Of Louis Wain, starring Benedict Cumberbatch); created a TV series (Flowers, starring Olivia Colman, which Paul Thomas Anderson described as ‘perfect’); directed Landscapers, an HBO miniseries also featuring Colman; oh, and won a Bafta for his role in Giri/Haji, in which he portrayed Rodney Yamaguchi: a kind of gay sex worker Super Hans from Peep Show who, like Super Hans from Peep Show, steals literally every single scene he is in, who could not be any more different from the nervy, awkward Ethan.
‘It’s all part of storytelling,’ he says, when I ask him whether he considers himself primarily an actor, a director or a writer. ‘I often use the analogy of music: where sometimes you write a song for somebody else to sing and sometimes you write a song and feel like you could sing it. And if some - body asks you to come and play guitar in their band and you like their music, you’re like, “Yeah, that’ll be fun.”’
Sharpe was born in London — ‘Borough of Camden, so my passport says’ — but moved to Tokyo before he was one year old. ‘So that’s where my childhood memories are,’ he says. ‘In terms of television, I loved Japanese sketch shows, Japanese comedies. I loved the feeling of laughing: I just remember loving the feeling of uncontrollably finding something funny. After we moved back to England when I was eight, my mum’s mum and sister-in-law would occasionally tape Japanese TV onto VHS and send it over so I could watch.’
As you might expect, relocating at eight to Surrey was something of a culture shock. ‘I remember little things: like the first time I played cricket, I held the cricket bat like a baseball bat. Even the teacher was in tears, laughing his head off. I was like, What?’
‘I looked different from most of the kids,’ he continues. ‘In Japan, I went to an international school, so there was a mix but there were lots of Japanese kids. Whereas moving to England… you’re slightly aware that you look different. The humour is different. The way people interact is different. So just learning all of that. But I remember feeling quietly confident in creative writing at eight: just, this is the way to fit in. I can do this. Even if I don’t know how to hold a cricket bat, I know how to answer this assignment and not be like a complete alien.’
I was tenacious. I learnt pretty quickly that it doesn’t pay to be shy about your stuff
Acting came later, as an early teenager, by which time he had started school at Winchester. ‘I remember one conversation with mum,’ he laughs, ‘and me saying, “I don’t really get the big deal with acting, it just seems like people pretending to be someone else.” I remember her saying quite shortly, “Well, do it then, if you’re so clever.” So I started to try it out.’
By the time he was studying classics at Cambridge, Sharpe’s proactive, creative streak was starting to show. ‘This is a slightly embarrassing kind of Rushmore story,’ he says, ‘but I found that sometimes it was difficult to be cast at school because of what I looked like. I was getting into Beckett and decided I wanted to put on my own play. The only slot that was available was in the middle of exams, so me and a handful of friends who were up for it just put on the show, in the middle of our exams.’
The production, he tells me after some mild prodding, was called Hang On, Mr Baxton — ‘I can’t even remember why it was called that!’ — and it featured characters who were trapped in a play. He chuckles, face obscured by his hands, at the memory. ‘But people responded to it. I realised that I wanted to carry on, so I would try and write.
Sharpe got signed as an actor off the back of an Edinburgh fringe comedy show and started getting work. He was in Casualty, on the set of which he met his partner, Sophia Di Martino, also an actor. ‘I was a junior doctor and she was playing a paramedic in Bristol,’ he says. ‘We’ve been together for 13 years and have two children: three and one.’
All the time he was acting Sharpe was also writing scripts, which he would pass to his agent. Not much happened, so he took matters into his own hands. ‘I definitely was fairly tenacious. I learnt pretty quickly that it doesn’t pay to be shy about your stuff, and that you have to send it to people and get eyes on it. It felt like something that I was really burning to do and still does. It’s a mixture of make your own luck and you have to put the time and work in, regardless. Then there is also good luck and bad luck.’
He made a short film with his friend Tom Kingsley, who was working as a runner at a production company that makes commercials and music videos. Kingsley’s boss saw what they had done, and liked it. He offered up £50,000 for the pair to make a feature, ‘and then he came back from a sabbatical and had changed his mind’.
We worked out that the whole film cost the same as one second of Transformers
Still, ‘the fact that he’d sort of given us permission was enough to push us. It gave us a kind of confidence. So even when that confidence was removed, it was like, well, we’ve built our own confidence now, we’ve got this far down the line, we feel ready to try and push it. That was very formative in the sense that we obviously had to play so many different roles: we were transport, the casting director, catering, everything.’
The pair pressed on. ‘Bit by bit, we managed to raise just under 20 grand. We worked out the whole film cost the same as one second of Transformers. Lots of things I borrowed from Casualty. I borrowed a prop wheelchair to use as a dolly. We downloaded free grading software. By the end of the edit, my laptop was struggling so much it would routinely crash and would take about half an hour to reboot, so we’d just be getting somewhere and it would crash. It would be, “Okay, guess we should go and get some lunch.”’
The film, 2011’s Black Pond, premiered at Raindance. It was nominated for a Bafta for Outstanding British debut and won Sharpe Most Promising Newcomer at the Evening Standard British Film Awards. A second low-budget feature, The Darkest Universe — in which Sharpe also starred — followed in 2016, by which time he had his ‘first proper, grown-up commission’ from Channel 4 in the shape of the surreal and brilliant Flowers. First on the list to star in the show was Olivia Colman. She read it and loved it. ‘I think she shot The Favourite between the two seasons, then it came out after the second series. I don’t know if we would get her now!’
Having worked again with Sharpe on Landscapers, Colman would probably disagree. Cumberbatch, too, sought him out to direct his Louis Wain project. And you suspect he is not short of other big-name potential collaborators for the future. Right now, he says, he has a new TV show and a feature film he is working on. The acting offers, post The White Lotus, will doubtless keep coming in. I just prey that Will Sharpe doesn’t decide that he’d also like to have a go at writing for magazines, or else I might be in trouble.
‘The White Lotus’ airs Mondays on Sky Atlantic and is on streaming service NOW