‘I kind of become possessed when my cat Darbin is around’: Haley Lu Richardson on The White Lotus, narcissism and her precious pet
Between ecstatic, breath-sucking squeezes of her cat, the 27-year-old talks to Ellie Harrison
Haley Lu Richardson is issuing me with a warning. “I’m looking rough!” cries the actor, as she turns her camera on. What appears on the screen is actually very sweet: a rosy-cheeked 27-year-old covered in stickers. There’s a purple star stuck to the right of her nose, and a green one on her forehead. She’s nestled in the centre of a white fluffy beanbag and surrounded by houseplants – standing, hanging, trailing – in various wicker containers. Her screen name reads “h poopie”.
When I ask about the stars, Richardson is dumbfounded. “You don’t know zit stickers?!” she squeals. “Oh my gosh, they’re honestly the coolest thing since sliced bread. You can also get flowers with little rhinestones, Hello Kitty ones, SpongeBob ones, rainbow ones… it’s just amazing because it makes having acne fun!!!” It’s half past eight in the morning for Richardson, who’s in her apartment in California, and she is in a very good mood indeed. She laughs a lot, and every time she does her eyes fill with tears. “I had a lot of wine last night – ha!” she erupts. “I didn’t even go out; I went to see one of my friends and he made me this amazing dinner but it was so garlicky, like, my pores reek of garlic. I washed my face last night and this morning. Twice this morning. And brushed my teeth, already. And I still reek of garlic!”
Richardson has been on our screens, sans stickers, for 10 years. When she was 16, after a childhood in Arizona spent dancing for five hours a night and competing every weekend, she suddenly decided she wanted to live in LA and be an actor. Her mother made a sacrifice, moving away from Richardson’s father to the west coast so that her daughter could pursue her dream. The day after Richardson turned 18, her mother moved back to Arizona because she missed Hayley Lu’s father. But those years of absence from home paid off. In that time, Richardson cut her teeth in the Disney Channel sitcom Shake It Up and the supernatural children’s drama Ravenswood. She then went on to star as the sunny best friend of Hailee Steinfeld’s catastrophising teen in coming-of-age movie Edge of Seventeen and as a prisoner kidnapped by James McAvoy in the psychological horror Split.
Her first lead role, as an architecture enthusiast in the 2017 indie Columbus, was a revelation – The New Yorker’s Richard Brody wrote, “Richardson vaults to the forefront of her generation’s actors with this performance, which virtually sings with emotional and intellectual acuity.” An infectious turn as a teenager travelling across US states to get an abortion, in Unpregnant (2020), followed. We’ll come back to the film later, but right now – while she does still dance, and gives weekly lessons to octogenarians – she’s starring in The White Lotus, HBO’s smash-hit wealth satire that has returned (on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV) for a second season set in Sicily.
In it, Richardson is enjoyably frazzled and lost as Portia, the long-suffering assistant to Jennifer Coolidge’s deranged millionaire Tanya. When we first meet Portia, she’s perched in the luggage hold of a boat, half crushed by 17 designer suitcases owned by her boss, who’s sunning herself on the top deck. I’ve got lots of questions about Portia, but Richardson is a hard interviewee to tame. She is a little delirious, and keeps asking me about my life, but eventually she is wrestled into talking about her new show. The whole time, she looks like a child trying to do a serious face, who’s just been caught behind the sofa, cutting her fringe. We start with what it was like working with Coolidge. “Honestly, just really hard to not laugh,” says Richardson, “because she’s such a funny woman. She’s doing things that are so absurd and strange and socially unacceptable but somehow getting away with it. My first few days working with her I had a really hard time acting being annoyed and miserable around her, because she was just making me and everyone on the crew laugh. I’ve heard that like, on Anchorman and s***, people just laughing during takes. But I’d never experienced that until this.”
As she’s talking, a humungous white and brown floofball of a cat saunters across the screen. It’s Darbin, Richardson’s pride and joy. “Hello Darbin!” she coos. She scoops him up, stuffs her face into his fur. Squeezes him so tightly I worry for his health. “I love him. I kind of become possessed when he’s around.” Darbin travelled to Italy with Richardson when she was filming The White Lotus. “He did so well on the planes with me, all the different apartments and hotels,” she says. “He’s a very good cat. A very good boy.” Addressing the pet, she murmurs, “Anyway, I have to focus, OK?” Darbin wanders off.
Back to the show. After Portia and Tanya arrive at the White Lotus resort, Portia is immediately sent to her room so as not to intrude on Tanya’s romantic getaway with her husband. Portia manages to sneak out of her suite – “I have to eat!” – and before long we see her crying on a sun lounger. “I wanted to be thrown around by some hot Italian guy,” she tells a friend on the phone. “But the menu’s all pasta; I’m gonna be so bloated. It sucks.” “Pretty relatable line, that one,” Richardson says now. “That’s honestly how I felt in Sicily. I rarely felt hot, because I was eating so much and there weren’t any vegetables there apart from eggplant.”
Because of last night’s wine, when Richardson starts getting into the nitty-gritty of the drama’s themes, she goes literally cross-eyed with the effort. “Portia feels like she’s over the typical masculine-feminine dynamic,” she says. “She’s this Gen Z kind of person who feels she’s moved past that, but she still has this deep need for external fulfilment in the shape of a hot guy.” At one point, Portia tells Adam DiMarco’s Albie, a Stanford grad she’s been flirting with at the hotel, “I just wanna have fun. I just wanna feel, like, fulfilled and have an adventure. And I’m, like, sick of f***ing TikTok and Bumble and screens and apps and sitting there and bingeing Netflix. And I just wanna, like, live. I just wanna live my life so badly. I wanna meet someone who’s totally ignorant of the discourse, you know?” It’s a sublime example of writer Mike White’s acute social observation, showing how earnest and pretentious, yet hopeful, young people can be. “Yeah,” says Richardson, “she’s a lot more f***ed up and narcissistic than she thinks she is.”
Last summer, months before Richardson and Darbin rocked up in Sicily, Richardson had been up for one of the most coveted roles in the superhero genre: Batgirl. The part eventually went to Leslie Grace but, this August – just as production was finishing up and to the total shock of the film world and its own directors – it was canned. Michael Keaton was set to reprise the role of Batman for the film, for the first time in 30 years, and more than $100m (£88.7m) had already been poured into it, but Warner Bros said it had been shelved due to a “strategic shift” by leadership. Richardson was taken aback when she saw the news. “I felt really bad for all those people that made that movie,” she says. “I know what it’s like to put your heart into something, and something that’s that big and that much money and that much energy and that big of a crew, like, that’s so crazy that you can just scrap that. That’s so extreme,” she says, emphasising that last syllable, hands in the air.
There were reports that test screenings had not gone well. Richardson has been up for other big franchise roles before, and she laments the fact that the actor is shown so little of the script beforehand. “With those movies, you’re for sure taking a risk that you may be compromising creatively and artistically. That feels so scary and aggravating because, most of the time, my priority with taking jobs is connecting to the character, the material, the filmmaker. But I’ve heard of friends who’ve been auditioning for things and they don’t even tell them who the character is. They’re just like, ‘It’s Marvel!’ So you’re really holding on to the hope that it’s gonna be good.”
A film that she did get cast in and did get made, and that she is very proud of, is Unpregnant, co-starring Euphoria’s Barbie Ferreira. It was like a modern Thelma & Louise but with an abortion storyline. “Doing that movie, and having all those conversations publicly about abortion, really was part of my growth and letting go,” she says. She had worried, before it was released, that people would “hate” her because of the film’s pro-choice message. “I don’t feel that way now. I did that movie, it came out, I talked about it, and I don’t feel scared that people would hate me for something like that. It’s beautiful.”
It’s upsetting to hear that a young woman was afraid to speak up in a liberal society. But Richardson is proud of the film’s legacy. “I don’t want anyone to hate me, obviously, and the main goal for all of us in that movie was we wanted as many people to see it as possible so that it could start conversations within families, between moms and kids. It’s such a personal decision and topic, getting an abortion, so if people see it from a personal, intimate point, like in our film, it will be a change from just hearing about it from the government.”
As our conversation wraps up, Richardson tells me, “I’m pretty impressed I was able to do that in my state.” Friday morning is just getting started for her, and my Friday night is about to begin. If it goes well, I’ll be feeling an approximation of what she is tomorrow. She laughs. Her eyes water a little. “Have a great niiiiiight!!!” she yells.