How ‘The White Lotus’ Uses Props—including Dairy-Based Drugs—to Tell a Story

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Photo Source: Mario Perez/HBO

No spoilers, but on Mike White’s upcoming “The White Lotus,” HBO’s new dramedy starring Connie Britton, Jake Lacy, and Sydney Sweeney, there is quite a lot of drug use—which means there were quite a lot of prop drugs on set. That’s where Greg Gonzalez, the miniseries’ props master, came in. Here, Gonzalez reveals what’s actually in those powders and pills you see actors (safely!) ingesting onscreen—plus, how every prop tells a story all on its own. 

When you get a script, where do you start as far as figuring out what props will be needed? 
What I typically do is go through each scene [and] write down all the notes I possibly can about each scene. From that point, I do spreadsheets and put every single thing I can think of as far as what an actor would handle and what’s on the set, too. At that point, I’ll have a conversation with the director and go through the script with them and get their vision and see what their ideas are as far as a singular prop [goes], and get the look from them. The process after that is typically to go to the production designer, see their lookbook as far as the look for the entire show, get a feel for that. The next step is the costume designer, [to] get an idea of what they’re imagining for their characters. My vision is put into place [in terms of how] I feel a single backpack or ring or watch may look for that actor. That’s the process for each individual piece.

There must be a fine line, sometimes, between props and both the costume and production design departments. 
Exactly, and that’s typically how it is. The designer is my boss, because it’s the art department. They are the entire look of the entire show. We basically come up with their look first, then that’s when the costume designer plays their role, and then I mingle with all those groups together, as well as set dressing. Because I could be thinking of something completely different that is done in the ’80s but they might be doing something more in the ’90s.

“I think that’s why actors like playing with props, because there’s a lot of character to what we do.”

Going back, how did you get into the world of props? 
I started off as a P.A. on “The X-Files” way back. I actually talked to the prop department and was curious as far as how to get into the prop industry. They told me about the prop houses—the biggest prop house in L.A., which is Independent Studios Services—and I started off there. I became one of their salespeople, one of their sales managers. I left that and started becoming the assistant props master for several prop masters and learned from every one of them, took a little bit of the good and the bad from all of it and made it into what I am now.

Speaking of your vast experience, what was unique about working props on “The White Lotus”?
What was unique was the time of COVID. It was [asking], How am I going to be able to shop this entire show to begin with, being isolated in Hawaii and not being able to go out [and get stuff]? I’m a person who likes to put my hands on things. I like to see it, I like to feel it, I like to go through that process, because pictures can go in so many different ways. It can make [the item] look like it’s a lot smaller, it could make it look a lot bigger, the color could come out differently, so I like to be an old-school guy and be hands-on. That was the hard part about doing this entire show: I had to trust the fact that what I was going to be purchasing online and renting from other prop houses was going to be exactly what it looked like on the computer. 

One element I wanted to ask you about that is prevalent in this show but also so many shows and movies is prop drugs. Obviously, actors need to ingest them safely. What are they actually made of? 
Most of the stuff is just sugar or milk-related products. We usually purchase them from a medical company in L.A. that makes all this stuff for ingesting and snorting. We didn’t have to come up with this; they’ve been doing this stuff time and time again on movies and TV shows, so we’ve trusted that that is the right way of doing it. Usually, I give the actors all the ingredients of everything that’s in it and show them exactly what they’re going to be ingesting or snorting up their nose. I give them everything, a whole data sheet of all the ingredients to make sure they’re comfortable with it. All the stuff is totally natural, so it’s all good.

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Staying in the actor realm, what is your working relationship to actors generally? 
Actors come in with ideas like everyone else. I tend to lean more toward what the director wants, because, obviously, it’s their vision, but with the actor, if they come in and think of an idea they want to do before we are ready to shoot, I try to facilitate that as much as possible. It’s usually fun because we can come up with some good ideas—and some tough ideas that come up in the moment, which makes it a little harder for us—but more than anything, we are trying to accomplish what they want. What is great is we have that standing relationship; we’re always close with the actors because we are handing them everything from watches to drinks to, at times, guns. They have to trust we know what we are doing and they have to put a lot of trust in the prop department. It’s really nice to have that relationship with the actors and have that trust, because then they don’t have to worry about the props and can concentrate on the acting. 

How do you think props can deepen an actor’s performance or reveal new things about the character they’re playing? 
There are some identifiable props, at times, that really tell the story of the character. For a classic watch that we pick out, the story may be that it’s something that has been handed down from their father. It may have been memorabilia from their father in a war, and that tells the story of how it’s scripted. It plays a big role and becomes its own character, as well. And I think that’s why actors like playing with props, because there’s a lot of character to what we do, and it helps them act out what they need to act out.

What advice would you offer someone who wants to pursue props? 
The best way is just [to] try to do every facet of our job. There’s obviously commercial and there’s TV, there’s features. There’s also tons of work where you’re just doing still photos, so just try to learn as much of the craft as possible. It’s so easy to work with people who know every aspect of the craft. If you can get yourself into a prop house, you’ll get to know a lot of people really quickly. It helps to know and understand how props are made and manufactured and where they come from. Do your research on it; know your history.

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Casey Mink
Casey Mink is the senior staff writer at Backstage. When she's not writing about television, film, or theater, she is definitely somewhere watching it.
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