‘The White Lotus’ and ‘House of the Dragon’ Stars Admit It Was ‘a Challenge’ to ‘Find Empathy’ for Their Characters (Video)

Power Women Summit 2022: Haley Lu Richardson and Olivia Cooke are fully aware their characters are “insufferable” and “an evil hag”

Haley Lu Richardson and Olivia Cooke are well aware of how you feel about their characters. They know the women aren’t exactly the most likable of the bunch. In fact, it was even a challenge for them to find some empathy for the characters — but it was a fun challenge.

Speaking as part of TheWrap’s Power Women Summit on Dec. 13, Cooke and Richardson appeared alongside fellow actresses Aimee Lou Wood of “Sex Education” and “Living,” Xochitl Gomez of “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” and Tommy Dorfman, who is set to make her directorial debut on “I Wish You All the Best” after acting on shows including “13 Reasons Why.” And really, all five women have experienced a disconnect between how fans view them, versus their characters.

It’s not that audiences see them as two different things, but rather, one and the same. Cooke joked that she’s been dubbed “an evil hag” online by “House of the Dragon” fans, while Richardson discovered via Twitter that her character Portia in “The White Lotus” is “insufferable.”

“That’s the thing: No one has anything nice to say,” Cooke said. “No one who goes and has, like, the gumption to commit thoughts to a tweet have anything nice to say. And so I was a bit depressed and didn’t want to leave the house for a little bit. But you have to, don’t you? It’s like this weird – you have to pick the scab.”

That being said, the women really enjoyed challenging themselves to find something they could connect to with the character. In Richardson’s case, the challenge was a bit unexpected, considering what Portia was like when she first read the character.

“I just was prepared in the audition and I was like, if I get this part, it’s going to be like a bunch of the other things I’ve played where she’s just — which I’ve liked! — anyways, grounded and earnest and likable, all these things,” Richardson explained.

“But she ended up being really kind of obnoxious. And that was fun for me because I had this new challenge, which I’ve never really had before with a character, where I had to find empathy for someone who was so frustrating. Like, I could see all of her problems and how she could fix them all so clearly, and I just wanted to shake her.”

Cooke had a fairly similar experience, saying that, on paper, Alicent was a bit ambiguous at the start. It was only after “months and months” of talking her out that Cooke and the “House of the Dragon” team were able to find who she was.

“Yeah, on the moral scale, she’s definitely very wonky, but it’s like what Haley was saying, you have to come from a place of empathy in order to imbue truth,” Cooke said. “Otherwise it just comes across as so disingenuous, and you just want the audience to have a really good time watching these characters, and you don’t want anything to feel fake or feel off.”

At the height of “13 Reasons Why,” Dorfman revealed she also had fans coming up to her and being angry because “you killed Hannah Baker.” But that’s what makes her feel prepared and “uniquely qualified” to handle the fandom of “I Wish You All the Best.”

“What I will say is I feel like a deep responsibility because there aren’t any coming-of-age, like, nonbinary-centered films out there in the world at this level, with this kind of cast,” Dorfman said. “The book was incredibly popular, but still niche in comparison to, like, ‘Game of Thrones,’ for example. But it’s just a lot of, like, queer kids who I look up to and respect and admire being like, ‘Don’t f— this up.’”

Meanwhile, Wood has experienced almost the opposite of Richardson, Dorfman and Cooke, admitting that she feels pressure to be similar to her “Sex Education” character, even on her worst days.

“When you’ve been playing a part for that long, this sounds really wonky, but the lines do really start to get blurred, like, especially when you’ve got the same name and you’re walking down the street and everyone comes over and says, ‘Aimee!’” Wood explained.

She continued, “And you’re like, ‘Hey,’ and then you think, ‘Ah, they’re talking to the different Aimee.’ Which I’ve actually had, like, the opposite thing that you were talking about, Olivia, because my character is so sweet and so friendly, and so that’s what everyone expects when they say hi. So [there’s] pressure to be like, I need to give them the best friend experience that Aimee Gibbs would give in this moment.”

Of all franchises, it was the Marvel Cinematic Universe that proved least stressful to handle, in terms of doing the character justice for the fans. According to Gomez, she was able to tune out expectations and just perform.

“I feel like there wasn’t much pressure just because it wasn’t that hard, because it’s not about me, Xochitl,” Gomez said. “It’s about the role I play as America Chavez, and obviously what she represents to whole communities and young people that get to see positive Latin representation. And I’m just kind of the vehicle to bring it to life. Honestly, for that, I’m incredibly honored.”

You can watch the entire discussion between Gomez, Cooke, Wood, Richardson and Dorfman in the video above.

The Power Women Summit (PWS) is the largest annual gathering of the most influential women in entertainment, media and technology. The event aims to inspire and empower women across the landscape of their professional careers and personal lives. This year’s PWS provides two days of education, mentorship, workshops and networking around the globe – to promote this year’s theme, “A Time to Unite.” Learn more here: thewrap.com/pws.