Television hasn’t been kind to Mike White. His first writing and producing gig, on the seminal teen saga Dawson’s Creek, wasn’t exactly what he “wanted to be doing.” His next show, NBC’s critically-acclaimed Freaks and Geeks, was unceremoniously canceled. Even his stint as a reality TV star on the 14th season of The Amazing Race had him sleeping on train station floors next to his 71-year-old father, Mel, before getting eliminated early in the competition. But with his newest project, Enlightened, luck finally seems to be on his side.
“The more HBO sees it, the easier it is for them to get behind it,” he says of the series, which was delayed when the 41-year-old writer, producer, actor, and director repacked his knapsack for The Amazing Race: Unfinished Business. “When we turned in the pilot, HBO was like, ‘We love it! It’s beautiful! It’s artistic! But it’s not very funny, is it?’”
Enlightened, which White writes and directs, follows Laura Dern’s Amy, a beauty executive who, in the aftermath of a very public nervous breakdown, goes to rehab and tries to piece together the shards of her broken life. As one might expect from White, the writer of deliciously twisted films like Chuck & Buck and The Good Girl, Amy’s every attempt at reconciliation is thwarted. “She reminds me of my friends who’ve gone to AA, and have since seen the light,” he says. “It’s like, Well, you still owe me money, and you crashed my car. Let’s hold off on the advice for another day or two.” Laughing, he adds, “Laura isn’t Amy, exactly, but she does share her indefatigable optimism. The sad-sack part of her character is me. A theme throughout my work deals with people trying to find meaning in their humdrum lives.”
An aversion to routine partly explains White’s decision to compete on The Amazing Race, as well as his hotel obsession. “When I was growing up, my mom would always say, ‘I just want to live in a hotel!’ I guess I got my hotel fetish from her. I was in Barcelona recently—I’d been spending some time in Spain, where my mom happened to visit me while I was deathly ill, so we just camped out at the Hotel Arts. For four days we literally didn’t leave the room, and I’ve never seen her happier,” says White, who’s been a vegan for the past six years. “One of my favorite places in London is the Charlotte Street Hotel . They have great vegan menu options, which is a unique thing—especially in Europe. It’s easy to find in Third World countries, but places like Spain have pigs hanging in the bars for atmosphere. They even put bacon on their salads.”