‘I’m fully in the moment’: Murray Bartlett opens up about his incredible year
By Michael Idato
Murray Bartlett as choreographer Nick De Noia in Welcome to Chippendales.Credit:Erin Simkin/Hulu
The year 2022 is one Australian actor Murray Bartlett will not soon forget. He scooped up the cream of the awards crop for his work on Mike White’s acclaimed vacation drama The White Lotus, and got his groove back in Apple TV+’s aerobics comedy-drama Physical. Now a third series, Welcome to Chippendales, has landed on Disney+.
“I’m at an age where I have a perspective on the industry, of how it ebbs and flows and all of that [but] I am fully in the moment, loving it, knowing that hopefully it’ll last for a long time,” the 51-year-old Sydney-born actor says.
His latest series, Welcome to Chippendales, is the story of the iconic American male burlesque show, exploring the rise of its founder Somen “Steve” Banerjee, and his arrest in 1993 on charges of conspiracy to murder his business partner, racketeering and arson. (Banerjee took his own life a year later.)
To Bartlett, the story of the Chippendales was principally an immigrant story.
Bartlett celebrates after winning the Emmy for outstanding supporting actor in a limited anthology series or movie for The White Lotus.Credit:AP
“It’s a story about the American dream, and how that can get hijacked by the darker side of capitalism,” he says. “It’s about unbridled ambition, and all things that we’re seeing, and that are sort of hurtling us towards. So, that was the first thing. I really resonated with a lot of the themes in the show.”
His character, choreographer Nick De Noia, is “an extraordinary man with this incredible creative vision that just couldn’t be contained in his body”.
“He’s a frustrated artist, which any artist – I call myself an artist for the sake of this – knows what that feels like. So, I related to him, and I was excited to step into the body of a creative visionary, in the context of this really fascinating story.”
Aiding him was a stunning visual palette, courtesy of production designer Richard Bloom, art director Rahma Farahat and costume designer Peggy A. Schnitzer. “It’s the ’70s and ’80s, I was in these awesome clothes from the period, my hair was done a certain way, and I was clean-shaven, which is sort of unusual for me these days,” Bartlett says.
At this point, I feel much freer as an actor, and it’s a very exciting place to be. I’m grateful for all the things that have shaped me.
He also watched footage of the real De Noia regularly. “Even though our show is inspired by these people, and inspired by real events, I kept going back to the real guy as a sort of reference point,” Bartlett says. “I wasn’t trying to mimic him, necessarily, but I wanted to capture the essence of him, or try and capture the essence of him, and honour the essence of him. I think he was an incredible man.”
The book on which the series is based, Deadly Dance: The Chippendales Murders by K. Scot Macdonald and Patrick MontesDeOca, was a “reference, but we had an incredible writing team, headed by Rob Siegel, who’s just an amazingly talented man,” Bartlett says.
Bartlett’s fame rose to another level after his performance as resort manager Armond in The White Lotus.Credit:HBO
Though some of Bartlett’s early credits are Australian – he guest starred in The Flying Doctors, Home and Away, Neighbours and A Country Practice, all staples of a young Australian actor’s journey – he did not achieve wider recognition as an actor until he moved to New York, securing small roles in Sex and the City and Damages.
“I was lucky enough to go to acting school, but I had quite a rough time there; I sort of lost [my] confidence,” Bartlett says. “When I came out of acting school, I felt like I was trying to get through my fears. I felt a real sense of my potential as an actor, but I didn’t feel like I was able to access it at that point.
“Later, when I made the move to New York, I felt like I left that person behind, and I was able to start again in a new place, as a person and as an actor,” Bartlett adds. “That was a really important step for me. I wish I could have done it in Australia. As time went on, I felt much more in my skin and I started to understand more about who I was as a person, and who I was as an actor.”
Once you open the door on a type of role, people can [suddenly] see you in that way. There’s a wildness to playing those roles.
It was an unusual trajectory which eventually took Bartlett through a number of outstanding performances – as Dom Basaluzzo in Looking, Dr Paul Edmonds in Iron Fist and Michael Tolliver in Tales of the City – but it was not until the critically acclaimed HBO series The White Lotus that Bartlett’s fame reached the next level.
“My trajectory has been my trajectory, [and] I guess for me, it couldn’t have been any other way; that was just the way that it rolled out,” he says. “At this point, I feel really much freer as an actor, and it’s a very exciting place to be. I’m grateful for all the things that have shaped me.”
Bartlett (right) with Frankie J. Alvarez and Jonathan Groff in the HBO series Looking.
For Bartlett, the role of hotel manager Armond in the first season of The White Lotus, filmed during the pandemic as the world (and television productions) grappled with rolling lockdowns, seemed to represent a kind of real-world insanity that was not sustainable.
“We were going through that crazy election cycle in the US, we’ve got this climate emergency that we don’t seem to be facing, and so Armond was that part of us that is like, this cannot go on, that sense of being overwhelmed. And I feel there is a lesson in that, it’s too much, and you will crash and burn [as Armond did].
Bartlett in 2013 and, right, one of his early publicity shots.
“Armond is also a [type of] character that I’d never been given the opportunity to play before,” Bartlett adds. “And there’s something about that, that once you open the door on a type of role, people can [suddenly] see you in that way. There’s a wildness to playing those roles, they have a real dynamism to them.”
It would be somewhat true to say that The White Lotus led Bartlett to 1980s-era aerobics comedy/drama Physical, and that Physical in turn led him to Welcome to Chippendales. Though some of those roles were offered to Bartlett before the next had been broadcast, they do feel naturally linear.
“I love hearing that,” Bartlett says. “The reality is I actually had a couple of other jobs in between those jobs, they just haven’t come out yet, and they’re very different roles. But those roles have come to me since Armond because people have seen me in that sort of light. They’re all very distinct, but they are very dynamic characters.
Barlett attends the 2022 GQ Men of the Year Awards in Sydney in November.Credit:Getty Images
“These three characters in The White Lotus, Physical, and then Chippendales, to me are just so rich and amazing, and not for nothing,” Bartlett adds. “There’s a sort of cautionary tale, maybe, in all of them. And an exuberance and enthusiasm in all of them.”
They also led Bartlett though his amazing, brilliant, not bad, very good 2022, which began with AACTA award and Critics Choice award wins in January and March, a nomination from the Screen Actor’s Guild, and finally an Emmy Award for outstanding supporting actor in a limited series in September. (GQ Australia also pinned their Man of the Year ribbon on his lapel last week.)
“It’s thrilling, and you want to be there, and I was excited to be there; it’s also surreal and bizarre,” Bartlett adds of his wild ride through 2022.
“I do feel a little bit like a fish out of water at those things, but it’s a wonderful thing, it’s like a celebration of all these people, including you, and that’s awesome.”
Welcome to Chippendales is on Disney+.
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