[Warning: The following contains spoilers for the finale of The White Lotus. Read at your own risk!]
Over the course of six delicious episodes, The White Lotus upends most of its characters' lives. Marriages and friendships splinter, dreams are dashed, and one person winds up dead. Then there's Quinn, the shaggy-haired 16-year-old played by Fred Hechinger who arrives at the titular Hawaiian resort as a gadget-addicted slacker and leaves as an awestruck wa'a rower with a fresh sense of purpose. Except he doesn't actually leave. Quinn, having fled the airport and joined his new cohort of Hawaiian locals on the ocean, gets the series' golden-hued final shot -- a dose of optimism in an otherwise jaded vista.
Among a cast that includes career-best performances from Jennifer Coolidge, Murray Bartlett, and Natasha Rothwell, Hechinger is a standout. He's having a fantastic year overall. In May, he was the MVP of The Woman in the Window, outshining veterans like Amy Adams and Julianne Moore, and a highlight of The Underground Railroad. Last month, he played a cocky charmer in Netflix's buzzy Fear Street trilogy. And he just finished shooting a Hulu series about Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee's infamous sex tape. The 21-year-old Hechinger, who previously appeared in the movies Eighth Grade and News of the World, is building a dignified career full of acclaimed hits.
Ahead of the White Lotus finale, TV Guide talked to Hechinger via Zoom about Quinn's arc and his big Hollywood introduction. Still new to interviews, he tends to answer questions by earnestly philosophizing. Recently, a stranger approached him for the first time to praise his work -- something he'll have to grow accustomed to as more and more people learn his name. "You can get to know someone you wouldn't normally know," Hechinger says of the interaction. "I love the show so much that it's very special that you share the love of a thing."
You've had a handful of breakout roles this year, but it must be special to have at least one of them be something so universally beloved.
Hechinger: I'm a huge fan of [creator, writer, and director] Mike White and what Mike had written beforehand. As an audience member, the stuff I like is the stuff where I feel less alone. I always felt I was made happier by watching Mike's earlier stuff. It is really exciting that I'm part of this thing I felt was truthful, which is an enormous joy and privilege.
[The show] breaks down social interactions and, with an unflinching eye, says, "Here are these very cringey things that are probably a part of our lives, and additionally here are these hopeful things that are also a part of our lives." It mixes in a lot of these very intense but very grounded observations. It's exhilarating in that way because it seems like, at least while we're watching it, it hopefully cuts through some of the bullshit. There's a lot of cruelty that everyone is aware of and yet puts their blinders up on. I think it's meaningful for us to say, "We see this, we feel this. What are we going to do about it?" There's also a lot of tenderness that we put our blinders up to that we privately share.
Quinn is arguably the only character who ends the show in a definitively better place than when it began. How did you feel when you found out that Quinn's arc would result in him fleeing the airport and joining with his new rowing crew?
Hechinger: I was deeply inspired. I felt similarly to how I felt watching Mike's work beforehand. He gave me some hope. I had to step up to the plate of that. Characters are aspirational to me in that way sometimes. I just felt really honored and in awe of the way Mike sees people. It's exciting and pushes me to see people with increased tenderness and openness and curiosity.
It's pretty incredible that you're the last character we see before the show fades to black. When you and Mike were first talking about the part, did he tell you the show would end with Quinn?
Hechinger: I read the first script, auditioned, and then I got to meet with Mike on Zoom. He explained the arc to me. And even when he explained it, I had this rush. It's like a physical rush, where you're like, "Oh yes, that is great." And when I got to read all the scripts and see the way that was built, I was even more thrilled. I always thought great storytelling should seem spontaneous but also inevitable, like you would never expect it, but once it happens, it couldn't happen any other way.
At the top of the show, we wouldn't have pegged Quinn as the heart of the show. But that's what he becomes by the time we're finishing the final moments.
Hechinger: That's a testament to Mike and the way he sees people. He gives everyone the chance to surprise him. I think that's true of every character on the show, but I felt especially honored that he gave Quinn a chance to be a person, which in my limited experience of life is not true of everyone I know. That's the worst feeling in movies to me, when you feel it's this rote character that's just abiding like a computer to what the proper response would be from the previous scene. That's why we need stories: How do we grow? How do decisions happen? How does a life build step-by-step? It's not a mathematical process; it's a very mysterious process that has rhythm but not clarity.
One does have to wonder what's next for Quinn. At some point, his parents are going to realize he is not on that flight and did not make it home, and they will not be pleased. In your mind, how long does Quinn actually get to stay in Hawaii? What's the immediate next chapter for him?
Hechinger: I love to think about it, and I hope others will think about it, but I can't answer it. I just trust Mike on those decisions.
Does that mean you and Mike have discussed what's next for Quinn?
Hechinger: No discussion. I just mean that it's so personal. Hopefully others will have personal ideas, too.
So you don't want your perceptions of what might happen to Quinn to dictate others' perceptions.
Hechinger: Yeah, and maybe I could just say something and it wouldn't dictate, but it's just hard for me to say. I think about it the same way I think about other future stuff in my life. I don't know! Every day I have different thoughts about what I'm going to do the next day, and I don't know what's going to happen.
Up until the moment he tells his parents that he wants to stay in Hawaii, he often has a certain blankness to his facial expressions. And yet you're able to convey so much about who he is and the fact that he hasn't really found himself yet. Did you approach Quinn as someone who is lonely, or is he just frustrated with his family life?
Hechinger: Both, definitely. There are allusions to a single friend he had who moved away, and I think a lot of growing up is very lonely. I still feel that much of life is very lonely, even when you're surrounded by a lot of people. In my experiences, there's that stage where it's hard to know what you are. You know what feels empty or fake, and you know what leaves you feeling lost, but you don't know what's going to fill you up and make you feel like an imagined version of yourself. It's a sense of longing, I guess. I still feel that constantly, but I felt that in really immense degrees when I was in high school.
Being the youngest member of the family means that all this attention is on how he feels and what he thinks. That in itself feels so wrong. He doesn't feel he should receive that. I think there's genuine love from the family, but there's this feeling of stuckness. There's a general misconception that quiet people have less to say, which I just don't think is true at all. Quiet people are thinking as much as everyone else, and sometimes more. The family is so talky. They talk things into oblivion, and I think Quinn definitely sees the futility of language sometimes and thus finds a purpose and a sense of self in doing and experiencing.
You do a good job of making us feel Quinn's happiness when he says he wants to stay in Hawaii. We realize he's never found the sense of belonging that rowing gives him. How strategic were you in that dichotomy, where suddenly the blankness we'd seen for so long fades?
Hechinger: That makes me so honored and excited that you said that. It was all in the script, but I think what's so important about good arcs is it shows us how much change we're capable of.
Part of why that comes across is because many of your best scenes are with Steve Zahn, who I've always thought of as a very expressive performer. During the scene in the pool where Mark is attempting to talk to Quinn about sex and his father and their relationship, his emotions are here, there, and everywhere. Quinn doesn't quite know what to do with that energy.
Hechinger: In the script, it very much was that. Mike set up this hilarious twist about a father who is overwrought with angst and a son who has to parent their father. But something that often excites me in acting is that explosion of opposites. My favorite feeling in watching things, and also being part of things, is when people combine and it becomes this mysterious thing between people. It's neither me nor Steve; it's what happens in between us.
Natasha Rothwell was my very first improv teacher. There is something that came straight from Natasha in improv class, which is the inverse of that -- "peas-in-a-pod scenes," we call them. When people step up to create a scene in improv, you're either direct opposites or peas in a pod. Peas in a pod was this great thing where you say, "I'm not even going to push you; we're going to push each other by coming in with the same wild energy." And then there's the other great thing, where it's, "How can we test each other to reveal what's really there?" There are lessons that Mark is dispensing to Quinn that, in the moment, you think aren't registering at all. But if you actually follow the entire series, he does, in some ways, take his father's advice -- not in the way his father wanted him to, not in the way either of the parents would expect him to.
One little detail about Quinn is that he never takes his shirt off when he's rowing, whereas the other guys do. And it's not as if we don't see Quinn shirtless in plenty of other moments. Was that a conscious decision on your part?
Hechinger: It wasn't a big conversation. I don't have a very articulate thing about "here's why," but there was a moment when we were on set and talked about it for a second. Yes, it was conscious, but not in a way that I can explain to you. The joy of building a character is that there are these sort of half-said things. You don't fully verbalize everything, but every detail matters.
My interpretation of it is that the other guys, who are a bit older than Quinn and much more experienced rowers and more buff, have a certain freedom with their bodies. Quinn will probably soon have it, too, but he's 16 and isn't quite there yet. The other guys are a contrast of who Quinn might be in a few years. His shirt will come off, too, because that's what you do when you're out rowing.
Hechinger: I think that's beautiful and very right-on. We are works in progress. I felt this when I was younger and still feel it right now: Part of growing up for me has been looking up to other people and meeting people who you really just want to be like for a while. That's part of acting, but I also realized that, if I was younger and I liked somebody's work, I would put on their voice for a little bit. It's not actually about how they sound; it's about the sense of freedom they have or some kind of thing that you can only figure out for yourself.
There's another improv thing that Natasha taught me: When you don't know what to do in a scene, come out with a strong physical choice. If you do that, then something will come that you wouldn't expect. That's an interesting metaphor: You don't really know who you are, but here's somebody who seems like they do, so just do that.
Your character in Fear Street is the opposite of Quinn. He sort of fills a teen-movie heartthrob archetype. He's also much more energetic and engaged.
Hechinger: I rewatched a lot of classic, surefire hits of action, adventure, and horror. I watched Jurassic Park a bunch of times again because of the way Jeff Goldblum is placed in that movie. He is so free, and I feel so liberated and excited watching him. There's not a lot of character similarities, but in terms of his placement in the movie and the thing that he's doing, that was a fun calling card. There's a lot of that with '90s horror movies. As a deep lover of movies, it's a real honor to be connected in any way to this thing I love so much.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. The White Lotus is now streaming on HBO Max.