Yes, Haley Lu Richardson loves that ‘White Lotus’ bucket hat too
After the first few minutes of the second installment of “The White Lotus,” one thing is crystal clear to the HBO series’ many viewers: By the end of the season, someone significant was going to die. Haley Lu Richardson, who plays Portia, the 24-year-old assistant to Jennifer Coolidge’s mega-wealthy Tanya, says she read through each script, braced for the worst, though not really dreading it.
“I wouldn’t have minded because shooting a character’s arc to their demise is kind of fun,” Richardson says. “But it would be sad, because she’s one of the characters where there’s something redeemable about [her], even though there’s these kind of annoying or frustrating things about her. She’s young and she’s trying, and you feel like maybe she’s on the brink of breaking through or something humbling her, whereas a lot of the characters on the show are just so awful, and they’re just going to be like that forever.”
Richardson’s take on Portia was initially limited to what she could glean from scripts for the first two episodes and the vague character description she received when she auditioned for the show. Richardson admits she was actually “bummed” to think that Portia might be the only good and likable character in the season. But the not-so-positive aspects of her “started coming out in the other episodes that just made her less likable, more complex, selfish, stuck, depressed.”
Over its two seasons, “The White Lotus,” created by Mike White, has balanced social commentary with comedy and a dash of deadly surprise. While the fate of Tanya on a boat full of seemingly friendly gay men was arguably the tensest moment of the season, a scene where Portia confronts vacation flame Jack (Leo Woodall), whom Tanya has witnessed having sex with the man Jack claims is his uncle, was a close second.
“So you f— your uncle,” Portia says bluntly before viewers begin to wonder whether her life is in danger as well. “I was proud of Portia at that moment,” Richardson says. “She was trying to save the day.”
Once the season began running, Richardson was inundated with links to memes, videos of friends dancing to the theme song and images of people wearing bucket hats. Sigh, that bucket hat. One of Richardson’s own contributions that, for better or worse, came to define Portia in the cultural zeitgeist.
“Here’s the thing. I made that hat. I crochet,” Richardson says. “I have a crochet side hustle, and I crocheted that hat and I really pushed for it to be Portia’s little vacation hat. And so, you all can thank me for that one.”
Conceived by costume designer Alex Bovaird, Portia’s wardrobe was a blend of thrift store and Instagram and TikTok trends that didn’t always seem to mesh well. It also became something of a poster child for Gen Z fashion. Richardson, who is slightly older than Portia and considers herself maybe 80% Gen Z and 20% millennial, wasn’t expecting to be at the center of a nationwide discourse regarding her character’s outfits. Vogue even asked its readers, “The White Lotus: Are Portia’s Outfits Good or Bad?”
“I wasn’t thinking I need to represent this stereotype of Gen Z,” Richardson says. “But I was definitely thinking of myself, things I felt, what’s on the page, younger people that I know, just empathizing and imagining and pulling from what it’s like growing up, being in your young 20s in 2022. It’s a weird world. She’s definitely a child of that.”
What Richardson took away the most from her experience as part of the HBO phenomenon was the chance to finally work with White. A longtime fan, she’d written White a letter years before the first season of “White Lotus,” hoping to find a way to collaborate with him. Her patience was worth the wait.
“He’s goofy, but in this internal way. He’s very observant, which is why he is such a great writer,” Richardson says. “He cares a lot about what he works on in this show. On the day we wrapped, we had Champagne and cake, and he cried giving a speech to the whole crew saying just how much it means to him. And I felt that the whole way through. He came up with this, wrote all the episodes, directs every episode. You just feel the care and the passion from him.”