SPOILER ALERT: This interview contains spoilers up through Episode 6 of “The White Lotus,” airing Sundays on HBO and streaming on HBO Max.
Sabrina Impacciatore’s Valentina finally lets loose in this week’s installment of “The White Lotus,” which follows the last episode’s shocking sex scene — seemingly between an uncle and his nephew — with a more tender moment of intimacy between the uptight hotel manager and Mia (Beatrice Grannò), the free-spirited aspiring singer.
After seducing and accidentally drugging Giuseppe (Federico Scribani), sending him to the hospital, Mia takes over as the hotel’s substitute piano player by appealing to Valentina’s deepest fears and desires. “You’re gay, right? I’m a little bit gay too,” she tells her. “Give me this job, and I promise you and I can have some fun.” It’s a bold proposal, but instead of offending Valentina, it strikes a deep, emotional chord.
In Episode 6 of the Mike White-created series, after Valentina’s heart is shattered upon learning Isabella (Eleonora Romandini) is engaged to Rocco (Federico Ferrante), the hotel manager cashes in on Mia’s promise and takes her to an empty suite. Whereas most of the sex this season has been riddled with taboo and danger, Valentina and Mia’s moment is rather sweet and innocent, despite the underlying sense of transaction.
For Impacciatore, the sex scene was the first in her 25-year acting career. And while she’d lost sleep stressing about it, she said that working with an intimacy coordinator was “really helpful and effective and safe.”
Impacciatore’s standout moment of the series, however, comes before that — when Valentina tells Mia she’s never been with a woman before. After shooting the scene, stolen by Impacciatore’s brilliantly subdued devastation, the Rome-born actor “cried for half an hour, and jumped in Mike’s arms.”
“I remember what I felt. I was not acting, I was living the conflict of this character in a very deep way,” Impacciatore said. “It made me understand, how do people that don’t accept themselves live their lives?”
Impacciatore is touched by all the positive messages she’s received from fans around the world who resonate with her character. That includes co-star Meghann Fahy, who, after watching the Episode 6 screener, sent Impacciatore a “beautiful message” that made her cry. In fact, at one point in her Variety interview, when describing Valentina’s journey, Impacciatore burst into tears: “She is finally free.”
Known for most of her career as a comedian, Impacciatore made a name for herself in Italian movies such as “Napoloeon and Me” and “Miss F,” both of which earned her nominations for David di Donatello awards (the Italian film industry’s equivalent to the Oscars). But the 54-year-old actor says her turn on “The White Lotus” has changed her life, and sparked numerous offers for projects in both Italy and the U.S.
“I’m so grateful,” Impacciatore said. “It’s one of the happiest moments in my entire career.”
Ahead of the Episode 6 premiere, Impacciatore sat down to discuss Valentina’s big moment, scenes that were left on the cutting room floor and what “The White Lotus” means for her future.
Valentina is an interesting character. We feel sympathy for her because she is lonely and unfulfilled, but at the same time she is constantly harassing her employee, and harbors a lot of resentment. How do you balance that?
This character is very complex. She is very implosive and, at first, she doesn’t show anything about her inner life. She doesn’t know herself, and I explored this process with the character. I understood her reasons. For example, the attitude she has regarding Mia and Lucia [Simona Tabasco] is connected to her job, but it’s also connected to something inside her. These two girls represent freedom. Valentina is repressed and compressed, and she isn’t connected with her feelings.
To me, Valentina is trying to have power. She has power in her job, which is the opposite of what happens in her emotional life. In a sense she’s like a child, she’s very naive. She has a crush on her employee just because the employee made her feel seen, and paid attention to her. When she gets attention from men, she gets very aggressive, but when she gets attention from Isabella, her heart starts to melt. She has a huge conflict inside — she doesn’t know herself, until something happens and she cannot escape anymore.
Her attitude toward the men in the series seems to be hinting at a past experience she might have had with a man. How do you envision Valentina’s backstory?
Mike White and I didn’t talk much about this character — maybe for 10 minutes before shooting started. I arrived on set, but I still didn’t have an idea of what would happen with this character. Seriously! It was a real exploration. In the first days, I was just following Mike’s indications without really understanding where he wanted to bring me. But he wanted to explore with me, and some scenes we shot ended up being cut, including one about Valentina’s past where she says she was married once, to a man, but she wasn’t happy. So I invented a backstory about a husband who was abusive to her. I created everything I could to get close to her process. That day, when I shot the scene where I say, “I’ve never been with a woman before,” I remember what I felt. I was not acting, I was living the conflict of this character in a very deep way. It made me understand, “How do people that don’t accept themselves live their lives?” After that scene, I cried for half an hour. I jumped into Mike’s arms and told him, “I love you! Thank you!” And he said, “Sabrina? Why do you say that? It’s you who is doing these things.” And I told him, “I’m doing these things because of you. And I’m understanding more about life because of you.”
In Italy, to be gay is still a big issue. They don’t have rights in Italy. They cannot get married, they cannot have kids. And sometimes they get attacked in the streets just because they love someone of their own sex. So I started to understand the responsibility as an actress. We should accept and respect every different nature. So this scene was a deep experience for me.
It’s interesting to hear about the scenes that got cut. When I interviewed Murray Bartlett for Season 1, he told me that there was a scene in which Armond talks to Belinda (Natasha Rothwell) about always wanting to be an actor, and that realization really guided how Murray played the hotel manager. But the audience never knew that.
Exactly! There was another scene that got cut where I finally go up to the sex workers and tell them, “I understand what you’re doing, and I stand for you girls.” But Mike White is a genius — with just a little touch, he can make you understand something deep about a character and about life itself.
What was your reaction when you first learned that Valentina was going to sleep with Mia?
I WAS SO HAPPY! I was so excited. I thought, “Oh my god… really!?” I fell in love with Valentina. I was so surprised by the switch. She’s finally free. She’s finally free to accept herself. That was so exciting to me. I love Mike White so much. He took me to places that I couldn’t imagine. He had so much fun with me because he wanted to go in three different directions sometimes. It was like, “Let’s rock and roll!” But I’m fascinated by the fact we explore these characters together in a very pure way.
What was it like filming the sex scene and working with an intimacy coordinator?
I’ve been an actress for 25 years, and I have never before done a sexual scene. That was my first time. Working with the intimacy coordinator was really helpful and effective and safe. I’m so grateful that in the states, you use intimacy coordinators. In Italy, we don’t have that.
The funny thing is that I was supposed to shoot the scene two months later. I was shopping in Taormina and [executive producer] David Bernad called me and said, “I need to talk to you. Come to the hotel.” I was so scared. He was waiting for me in the courtyard, and he told me, “Sabrina, I’m sorry, we have some production issues. Is it OK if we shoot the sex scene tomorrow?” At that moment, I almost fainted. I had been thinking about the sex scene so much, but I thought, “It’s OK, it’s in two months!” Because I wanted them to be happy, I said, “Yes, of course, no problem.” Then I regretted that and thought, “WHY DID YOU SAY THAT?!” That night, I couldn’t sleep. When we shot the scene, it was only two takes. I didn’t even know what I was doing. I was just exploring. After the first take, I begged Mike, “Please can we do one more take?” I wanted to add something emotional. Can you imagine the pressure? I don’t know what take is in the series.
Have you told any friends or family that you have this big scene coming up, and are you nervous for them to see it?
The only person I would have been really nervous about was my dad. There is no other person on the planet I would have been more worried about. But unfortunately, I lost my dad one year ago. I keep thinking about him, and I know that he’s so proud of me because of this show and everything. But nobody knows about this scene, not even my mom. I’m very excited about this. In Italy, this is going to be a big deal for my career because they are going to see me for the first time in a totally different way. For 15 years, I was just a comedian, and people got to know me as someone who made them laugh. I’ve done many dramatic roles, but this is something very new to me. I can’t wait to see what happens with my friends and family. I’m excited like a child.
What was it like auditioning for the series? When it was announced that “The White Lotus” was coming to Sicily, was there a lot of competition among Italian actors vying for these huge roles?
When I got the call from my agent that she needed a self-tape for this series, I had no idea what it was. I hadn’t seen “The White Lotus,” and I didn’t know Mike White. I was shooting a movie in the north of Italy and I was so focused on my character that I told my agent, “I’m sorry, I can’t do the self-tape, I’m too busy.” Then my agent told me, “You better watch this series and understand what I’m talking about.” So that night, I didn’t sleep and I watched the entire thing. I was shocked — it was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen in my life. After watching Season 1, I understood why every single Italian actress wanted to do the self-tape. It was a big, big deal. Italian actresses wanted to get these roles so badly. When I got the role, I got some very bad reactions from people.
Jealousy. People were jealous in a bad way, and it hurt me a lot. I’ve been suffering a lot. Some people were very happy — even actresses who are friends of mine that made a self-tape. But I also faced terrible jealousy, and that’s really upsetting. It’s hard. I’ve never felt jealousy for any actress in the world because I believe in destiny. I believe that everybody has their own story, and things happen to each person for mysterious reasons that are written in the stars. I don’t compete with anybody. I compete with myself. I want to grow as an artist. When “The White Lotus” fell in line, I thought, “This is well-deserved.” Because all my life I had been preparing for that. I don’t understand jealousy.
Have you already started to see the impact of “White Lotus” on your career since Season 2 started airing?
It’s already happening in Italy and in America. A few minutes ago, I got a very beautiful proposal. It’s incredible because only a few episodes aired, and things already started happening. I’m so grateful. It’s one of the happiest moments in my entire career. I went to an international ceremony last week in new York and I met people from all over the world. I was surprised — important producers from England and South Africa came up and introduced themselves to me. I have a gypsy heart. I never felt that I totally belonged to Italy. And my dream now is to be able to work in different places in the world, and I hope that will happen. I’ve been disappointed so many times in life. To be a woman and to be an actress — it’s a big deal. I don’t want to have expectations because I don’t want to put myself in a position where I’m hoping for something that won’t happen. But there’s a little voice inside telling me, “Sabrina, get ready for the roller coaster.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.