The White Lotus’s Simona Tabasco on fame, sex scenes and being buried alive for her new film: ‘I was so scared’

The Italian actor stole scenes as one half of a pair of sneaky, scheming sex workers in the blockbuster drama series ‘The White Lotus’. Now she’s playing a terrified nun opposite Sydney Sweeney in ‘Immaculate’. She speaks to Adam White

Wednesday 20 March 2024 06:00 GMT
‘The most important thing for me in my career was to have arrived playing someone like that – a free woman’
‘The most important thing for me in my career was to have arrived playing someone like that – a free woman’ (Sarah Krick)

Few characters in HBO’s luxurious drama series The White Lotus could be described as heroic. The titular holiday resort – think a swanky Butlins for the absolute worst people you’ve ever met – seems to exclusively house sociopaths and sex fiends, dopes and delinquents. But then there were Lucia and Mia, season two’s sneaky, scheming besties and the most aspirational sex workers in popular culture since Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. Together, the pair spread-eagled their way to gilded glory, manipulating entire dynasties of male halfwits and strutting off into the Italian sunset €50,000 richer.

But where does a fast-rising, Naples-born actor go from there? If you’re 29-year-old Simona Tabasco, the woman behind Lucia, you get pursued by evil nuns and buried alive for Sydney Sweeney’s new horror movie Immaculate. On paper, it’s the perfect career move. You’re in a big American movie, led by a fledgling young movie star – nothing could go wrong. That is until you get to the set and realise you can’t scream.

“At a certain point, my character breaks her leg,” Tabasco says, “and I just could not scream at all. I told our director, and he was so kind and gave me the bravery I needed to do it.” Tabasco and filmmaker Michael Mohan, who last directed the Prime Video erotic thriller The Voyeurs – also starring Euphoria and Anyone But You’s Sweeney – ended up screaming out at the night sky together in the Italian countryside. Then, once Mohan called “action”, Tabasco felt comfortable projecting vocal chord-shredding hysteria.

Tabasco, all jet-black hair, red lipstick, pronounced eyebrows and an accent so Italian that Dolmio would probably kill to bottle it, is video-calling from Texas. She’s about to attend the world premiere of Immaculate, in which she plays a terrified young nun at a remote convent in Rome. A newcomer from America, Sister Cecilia (Sweeney), is the first of the convent’s young women to be spooked by strange goings-on, which includes a raft of nightmarish visions and a series of mysterious deaths. As the film’s title suggests, it all gets a bit childbirthy.

For Tabasco, her part in the movie involves not only that broken leg but also that aforementioned moment of forced burial, the actor shoved inside a tiny, three-sided coffin during production. “I was so scared,” she says, shuddering. “That was the scene I will remember forever.”

Both Tabasco and Sweeney stole scenes in different seasons of The White Lotus – the latter played a deadpan mean teen in season one – but didn’t discuss the show during Immaculate’s production. Instead, Tabasco just watched on with awe as Sweeney, 26, worked the set as a producer on the film, offering expertise and suggestions even for scenes she wasn’t acting in. “She was so present and following everything,” she remembers. “She really cared.”

Immaculate is Tabasco’s most high-profile international role since The White Lotus in 2022, but her career goes back far further in her native country. She was discovered while on holiday with her family, when a director encouraged her to audition for film and television. Intrigued by the prospect, she urged her parents to help her find an agent. Later, she enrolled in film school in Rome; acting work came gradually. She appeared in the 2014 neo-noir Perez, played a detective in the cop series The Bastards of Pizzofalcone, and was a doctor in the medical drama Doc – Nelle tue mani.

Back in the habit: Tabasco as a scared nun in the horror movie ‘Immaculate’ (Neon)

The White Lotus wasn’t just an opportunity for her to step into a project with a global reach, but also to play a radically different kind of person. Lucia was a maverick, a hustler, and a woman with complete sexual abandon. “I was scared because I had never played as sexy a character as Lucia before,” she remembers. “When I first read the script, I was like… OK!” She widens her eyes, then breaks into laughter. A point of comfort, though, was creator Mike White, who made sure on set that Tabasco was in total control of Lucia’s sex scenes and always aware of how much nudity would be shown on-screen. “We had a kind of choreography,” she says. “When you shoot sex scenes, it’s very important to know what to do and to be prepared, to know where the camera is, and how you can be covered in certain ways.”

I ask her to name her acting hero. “Can I be greedy?” she laughs. “Meryl Streep is one of my favourite icons. Rachel Weisz… Emma Stone!” We’re speaking in the week Stone won her second Oscar, and Tabasco is overjoyed at the result. “She did such a great job in Poor Things, I loved that film.” Then there’s the late Clueless star Brittany Murphy, who died in 2009 and who I notice Tabasco celebrated on her Instagram a few days before we chat. “She had such musicality, and I feel like she could play such different emotions – drama, comedy. She is one of my most inspirational actresses.”

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As for the future, Tabasco is open about her English being a slight stumbling block for the time being, particularly when it comes to comedy. “It takes time to do it in another language, for you to be able to improvise, but hopefully one day I will,” she says. “And I’m definitely considering moving to the US. Right now I am going back and forth [from Italy], but I want to improve my English and improve my American accent and then I will see what happens.”

Double trouble: Tabasco and Beatrice Grannò as Lucia and Mia in the second season of ‘The White Lotus’ (Sky)

She is happy that it was Lucia who helped open doors for her – since The White Lotus, she has modelled for Kim Kardashian’s shapewear brand Skims, and was named one of Forbes magazine’s European 30 Under 30 “changemakers and innovators”.

“Lucia was such a powerful character,” she beams. “The most important thing for me in my career was to have arrived playing someone like that – a free woman.” I’m curious where she thinks Lucia ended up. Would she hit the road? Marry a prince? Rule the world? “I can never decide!” Tabasco says. “But I know she’s somewhere being very successful.”

‘Immaculate’ is in cinemas from 22 March

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