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'White Lotus' star steals the show with acerbic wit and Sapphic allure

Italian actor Sabrina Impacciatore plays the fan-favorite hotel manager, Valentina, whose sexual awakening is the closest season two gets to a life-affirming storyline.
Sabrina Impacciatore in "The White Lotus."
Sabrina Impacciatore in "The White Lotus." / HBO

Editor’s note: This article includes spoilers for “The White Lotus” season 2. 

In season two of Mike White’s Emmy-winning dark-comedy series, “The White Lotus,” it seems no one is safe from Sicily’s seductive effects, including Valentina, the acerbically witted brunette beauty running the eponymous hotel’s Italian outpost.

After nearly a week of watching guests and locals alike roam the luxurious resort’s halls in search of various bedmates, the typically restrained resort manager trades protocol for passion in the penultimate episode and is rewarded with her first taste of a woman’s touch. The Sapphic tryst — set in one of the hotel’s suites, no less — proves to be another scene-stealing moment for the Valentina, played by the Italian actor and comedian Sabrina Impacciatore, whose hilarious one-liners and endless supply of buttoned-up ensembles have made her a lasting fan favorite of the series’ triumphant second season.

“All my life, comedy has been my specialty, but the Italian sense of comedy is very different from the American one,” Impacciatore said. “Mike wanted me to be bitchy, but I was scared. I thought: ‘Oh, my God, this is my first project in America. They are going to hate me.’”

But White wouldn’t let up, she said. “He kept saying, ‘Sabrina, the more bitchy you are, the more it’s going to work.’ And I really trusted him.”

Sabrina Impacciatore in "The White Lotus."
Sabrina Impacciatore in "The White Lotus." Fabio Lovino / HBO

Impacciatore pulled it off, with Valentina going toe to toe with the season’s privileged hotel guests, played by a mostly new ensemble of actors that includes Michael Imperioli, F. Murray Abraham, Aubrey Plaza, Theo James and Meghann Fahy. 

Upping the ante from season one’s single mysterious death, the Sicilian chapter starts off with the discovery of what seems to be a few White Lotus guests floating facedown off the shore of the hotel’s beach club. Then, smash cut to one week prior and a perfectly composed Valentina — last seen looking harried as one of the guests is pulled from the sea — is lining up the hotel staff to welcome the new arrivals for seven days of fun in the Italian sun.

“I mean, I’m impressed that you’re even here. … It’s a long trip from Los Angeles, and you’re quite old, no?” a straight-faced Valentina says as the first guest, played by Abraham, disembarks from the water taxi. 

As the rest of the unsuspecting wealthy American tourists file onto the dock, the hotel manager lands blow after blow at their expense. It’s a take-no-prisoners approach to hospitality that, according to Impacciatore, was inspired by a particularly unforgettable vacation White took to Europe, when his hosts also had a somewhat indelicate approach to service. 

“They treated him so bad! He was kind of shocked,” Impacciatore said between laughs. “But he also said, ‘I mean, they were saying what they thought, and there was no politeness.’ Americans are so polite — everything is always so ‘cool,’ ‘great,’ ‘fantastic,’ ‘nice.’”

Impacciatore used White’s travel experiences as inspiration for improvising some of her character’s most memorable lines. One of the funniest examples occurred during the filming of a scene in episode two, when White Lotus regular Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge) tries to channel Italian screen legend Monica Vitti in head-to-toe pink, dramatically smoking a cigarette for effect, and insists the hotel manager guess who she is. In return, a completely serious Valentina answers: “Peppa Pig.” 

“Jennifer couldn’t stop laughing when I said that, and she didn’t know who Peppa Pig was,” Impacciatore said, doing an affectionate impression of Coolidge’s signature squinting laugh. 

Image: Jennifer Coolidge
Jennifer Coolidge accepts the Emmy for her performance in season 1 of "The White Lotus."Phil McCarten / Invision/AP

Impacciatore said she was nervous about acting opposite Coolidge at first, calling Coolidge — who won an Emmy for her season one performance — a “goddess” and a “genius.”

“During the second day of shooting, I had scenes with her, and I was so intimidated I could barely talk,” Impacciatore said. “Mike really gave me permission. He told me: ‘Sabrina, you have to go for it. Be wild.’”

Valentina’s approach to the guests is certainly uninhibited, especially in contrast to that of her season one predecessor, Armond (Murray Bartlett), whose kabuki-like approach to service ends up driving him to drink (and then some). But it seems that delivering zingers and barking orders at the staff is about all she knows how to do. For most of the season, the closest she gets to forming a connection with someone is when she develops a crush on one the more junior staff members, Isabella (Eleonora Romandini). After the younger woman pays her a compliment about her managerial style, Valentina becomes instantly and obviously infatuated, even rushing out to a jewelry store to buy her a symbolic starfish brooch.

“Valentina is this character that looks very self-confident in her professional life,” Impacciatore said. “But she doesn’t have a life outside the hotel. She uses irony to push people away, to keep a distance.

“But then, as soon as someone pays attention to her, she feels like she’s seen. And this, to me, is very moving,” she added. “She breaks her guard in one second — even too easily. She doesn’t protect herself. She doesn’t have a strategy.”

As one might expect, Valentina isn’t rewarded for this level of vulnerability. Instead, she faces the all-too-familiar disappointment of falling for a straight girl. Luckily, she doesn’t have long to lick her wounds before a more willing suitor comes along and ushers in the martini-drunk manager’s Sapphic awakening. The brief, moan-filled love scene that follows gets about as close to a life-affirming event as an overnight stay at the White Lotus can.

‘Exactly the kind of cinema that I long for’

Impacciatore, who has studied acting in both Italy and the U.S., was in the middle of filming her latest feature when she got the call from her agent about doing a self-taped audition for “The White Lotus.” Initially, she declined, saying she was too wrapped up in the film project. But then, at her agent’s insistence, she watched season one of the hit series for the first time.

“I saw it in one night; I couldn’t stop watching. I not only decided to do the self-tape, but I told myself, ‘I have to get this role,’” Impacciatore said. “It’s exactly the kind of cinema that I long for. It’s deep and intelligent, but it’s funny. It contains different genres. It doesn’t look like anything else.”

But getting involved in the project took a fair amount of maneuvering. When it was time to meet White, she had to threaten to walk off her current project to pause filming. And even then, it wasn’t a sure thing, she said, because “all of the Italian actresses” were gunning for the role.

“I can’t even tell you how much I didn’t sleep. I was so anxious. I was inventing magic rituals — literally, inventing rituals to get the role, to have Mike White in my life. I was looking at his picture, like, ‘Mike, I want to be in your life,’” Impacciatore said, laughing at the thought.

When Impacciatore finally got the call telling her she’d landed the role — something she said she’ll never forget — she was elated. But then, she said, the fear set in. The idea of following Bartlett’s memorable performance in season one, and with a totally different type of character, was daunting.

“He eats life up, and he expresses his sexuality in a very free way. He’s very in touch with what he wants, and he just goes for it,” Impacciatore said of Bartlett’s season one character, Armond, who manages the White Lotus’ Hawaiian outpost. “Valentina is exactly the opposite. She’s self-enclosed, compressed, repressed. She doesn’t know what she wants. She doesn’t know herself enough. She’s not in touch with her feelings.”

Impacciatore pointed to a scene in episode four, when Valentina dotes over a few stray kittens during her lunch break, as a particularly revealing one. 

“Many times when people love animals so much, they have problems with human beings,” she said. “They have issues in relationships, because they don’t feel totally at ease [with people]. An animal loves you for who you are; it’s unconditional.” 

Sabrina Impacciatore
Sabrina Impacciatore.Marilla Sicilia / Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images file

Although Valentina may be a far cry from the charismatic and decadent Armond, the two certainly know how to spice things up at work and drive home a theme — all while working a tailored suit. In the debut season, Armond hosts a drug-fueled night of debauchery in his office before his festering resentment at an entitled guest spells his demise. And Valentina has certainly made good use of hotel accommodations with just the sex-themed season’s finale left to air. What will happen when she wakes up no longer a stranger to a woman’s caress is anyone’s guess. Given that there’s still the matter of a few bodies to account for, chances are it won’t be a morning of leisurely basking in post-coital glow.

For Impacciatore, the fact that the series leans into the chaotic qualities of its characters and lets their flaws drive the storytelling is exactly what makes it so successful. While many creators are too afraid to revel in the darker side of things, she said, White isn’t afraid to have fun while playing up the sinister aspects of his characters.

“This is a very brave show. It’s so complex and has many different layers. The darkness is sad in such a light way. The misery of human beings is so acceptable,” Impacciatore said.

“We all have a dark side and a light. The freedom to put the darkness out there is not only epiphanic; it’s refreshing and cathartic,” she added. “We have to be able to live with our shades, because life is this weird game in which we have to be brave enough to embrace everything. I think that we can feel less lonely after this show, and we can laugh about our misery.”