Finding Will Sharpe

After his latest hit role as a conflicted tech bro holidaying in Sicily in The White Lotus, the world has woken up to Will Sharpe’s singular talent and creative vision.

Will Sharpe’s turn in season two of The White Lotus, the critically acclaimed HBO show set in Sicily that captivated audiences last year, made him a global star. It didn’t, however, come close to revealing the extent of his talents, not only as an actor but also as a scriptwriter, director and all-round cultural force.

The 36-year-old, who was born in London but spent his early years in Tokyo, read classics at Cambridge before joining the prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company in 2008. He released his first feature-length film, Black Pond, in 2011, and his BBC black-comedy Flowers, which starred Olivia Colman and Julian Barratt and tackled mental illness, was nominated for a BAFTA in 2017.

While Sharpe’s on-screen characters have been riddled with internal conflicts – a newly rich tech bro with insecurities about his wife’s fidelity and his own masculinity in The White Lotus, a charming but drug-addicted sex worker in Giri/Haji, an illustrator attempting to hold others together while falling apart himself in Flowers, in real life, he comes across as a considered and self-assured polymath who’s been quietly coming up the inside lane.

Will Sharpe photographed by Jen Carey

JESSICA BERESFORD How do you think growing up between London and Tokyo has influenced your career as a storyteller?

WILL SHARPE Like a lot of people who are mixed race or have grown up in different countries, it’s like you don’t feel completely at home anywhere in the world. In England, I feel like a Japanese version of an English person, and in Japan, I definitely feel like a Western version of a Japanese guy. I remember moving to England from Japan as a kid and trying to assimilate and learn the slight differences in culture – the way people communicate and the social rules. It does give you a different perspective on where you are and maybe a slightly alien view. When I go back to Japan, there’s a layer of nostalgia that is unlocked, and that’s not available to me in the U.K.

J.B. How do you think comedy differs between the U.K. and Japan?

W.S. A lot of the comedy in Japan, I remember, was very surreal, and the performance style was very heightened, or even the premise of a sketch can just
be very heightened. Whereas in the U.K., apart from something like Vic and Bob or The Mighty Boosh, the comedy is straighter or more deadpan – although somebody said to me recently that there are similarities between Japan and England because of the shared island mentality. Neither culture is famous for being that emotionally open, and so the way people communicate is through gestures and actions, rather than verbally. Maybe there’s some overlap in that way as well.

J.B. Do you consciously highlight those similarities and differences in your work?

W.S. When I’m writing something or trying to conceive of a world, it just feels like those are influences I have. It would be a dishonest expression, or shutting a part of myself out, not to acknowledge it. The show Flowers was set in a version of Britain, but I wanted to fold in the influence of Japanese comedy, and the easiest way to do that was to create the character of Shun, who I played. So, sometimes it’s more of a direct influence like that.

Like a lot of people who are mixed race or have grown up in different countries, you don’t feel completely at home anywhere in the world Will Sharpe

J.B. How do you think American humor fits into that conversation?

W.S. If you compare the American Office with the British Office, for example, the British version is still very funny but more overtly bleak in places. It’s slightly drier and colder, even though there is some warmth within it. Whereas the American Office is more of an obviously inviting world. It’s slightly warmer and more obviously a comedy, maybe.

J.B. Is there a certain genre you prefer to work in, or one that you feel most comfortable with?

W.S. I like sitting somewhere between drama and comedy. I like comedy where you can invest in the character, and they feel three-dimensional, and there is space for emotional storytelling, and I like drama that has a sense of humor. Initially I started in a more comedic world but then quite quickly worked in a dramatic context.

J.B. What was it like being thrust into The White Lotus, which is a big American juggernaut with millions of viewers for each
episode, and the fame that came with that?

W.S. It was all a bit of a blur in the beginning because my wife and I recently had our second baby, and then all of a sudden we were on our way to Sicily, and I was working with these brilliant people like Mike White, whom I admire. For most of it, we were staying in a beautiful little town called Taormina, which had Mount Etna looming large over it, which made it feel quite surreal. Then you get into a work mindset, and you’re just doing your job as best you can, like on any other set.

Will Sharpe photographed by Jen Carey

J.B. What did you do to prepare for the role of Ethan, a sort of reluctant, reserved tech bro?

W.S. Mike, Aubrey Plaza [who plays Ethan’s wife] and I tried to get to the bottom of what had gone awry in the marriage. Mike wanted to use the dynamic of not being able to pin it on any single thing, just that they had been together for a long time and how that was something that was more common and more relatable than many care to admit. In terms of Ethan himself, I was trying to get into the mindset of what his day-to-day work might look like, and how that might affect his relationship. He had to work his way into a good college and a position of having money. So, I feel like he was a brilliant coder rather than a mover shaker businessman, and he got somewhere because he’s good at the actual craft of it. I thought about how it feels to write, to show up and crack a puzzle in a script. And how, if you do a 12- or 14-hour writing day, it can really fry you. I was imagining what it would be like to come from that tunnel vision into this much more dangerous social environment. Mike also asked me to get into shape, and my way into that was thinking about the Haruki Murakami biography What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, about how he runs marathons and tries to keep fit partly because he finds writing such a physically and mentally taxing exercise, and that he often feels the most fertile material is like a pufferfish, where the most delicious part is closest to the poison. So, he does it from a place of discipline, to try and be as good a writer as he can. I thought that was something I could bring into Ethan and his slightly obsessive sense of discipline. Then the final thing that was interesting was playing a mixed-race Asian-American. The series is an exploration of toxic masculinity, and like all the men in the show, Ethan is not exempt from that; he embodies certain kinds of problematic male behavior, even if his intentions are good for the most part. So, to be able to play a morally gray character as an Asian-American – and not be an extreme version of a sickly-sweet, pushover nerdy friend, nor a cartoonish villain – was a fun challenge.

To be able to play a morally gray character as an Asian- American – and not be an extreme version of a sickly-sweet, pushover nerdy friend, nor a cartoonish villain – was a fun challenge Will Sharpe

J.B. What has been your most challenging work yet, in either writing, directing or acting?

W.S. I think every job poses a new set of questions and a new set of challenges. With directing, you have more control but also more responsibility and a longer commitment often than an acting job. Ethan was quite a hard character to try and pin down, and then playing Rodney in Giri/Haji, the acting role I did before The White Lotus, was more about trying to tap into a self-destructive streak and using humor as a defense mechanism. With each character, because you spend so long thinking about them and how it would feel to be them, it always takes a minute to turn them off, like you’re carrying them around a little bit too long. Writing is unreasonably hard; you really have to put so much time in. You’re also at the mercy of this much more powerful being, of the characters and the script, where you just have to be available and then the answers eventually come to you. Writing can be a lonely process, whereas one of the nice things about when you head into production is that you start to share the scripts and ideas with other people.

J.B. How do you decide what work to accept and what to turn down?

W.S. I don’t really have any rules – it’s always just based on instinct. Who’s the filmmaker, how I feel about the script, and if it’s an acting job, how I feel about the character. Do I have something to offer this part, or does it feel like I could do this in an exciting way?

J.B. What are you working on now?

W.S. I’ve been writing a couple of scripts, and there’s a television show I’ve been developing, which is quite hard to succinctly summarize. There’s also a film script that I’ve written, which is a love story set against the backdrop of a period of American history that I think has been underexplored and that I’ve always wanted to write about. There are acting roles on the table as well, but I’m just trying to make the right choices.

Will Sharpe wears clothing by LORO PIANA throughout. Grooming by Matt Mulhall. Set design by Samuel Pidgen. Production by Danton Appleton Smith.

Winona Ryder photographed by Robert Rich.

Cinematic style: Winona Ryder

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