Sydney Sweeney in Euphoria
Sydney Sweeney, Alexa Demie and Barbie Ferreira in Euphoria
Brittany O'Grady, Sydney Sweeney and Murray Bartlett in The White Lotus
Sydney Sweeney and Brittany O'Grady in The White Lotus
Sydney Sweeney is euphoric. She's also a little distracted — but for good reason. At the time of her interview with Emmys.com, the actress was preparing for her first Met Gala. "I'm legit in the process of getting ready," said Sweeney, who also filmed a behind-the-scenes video for Vogue.com of her day leading up to the carpet.
It's been a landmark year for the Spokane, Washington, native, who turned in not one, but two buzzed-about performances. In HBO's Euphoria — the series about high school students navigating drug addiction, sex, identity and trauma — she plays Cassie, a sweet, popular student who, in season two, falls in love with her best friend's ex-boyfriend and then lies to everyone around her in an attempt to keep it a secret. The second season saw Cassie's storyline expand and made her the impetus for several dramatic plot points, including the moment her character storms the stage during her sister Lexi's (Maude Apatow) performance of a play based on their lives.
In the six-part limited series The White Lotus, also for HBO, she plays Olivia, a role that allowed Sweeney to flex her comedic muscles. Set in an exclusive Hawaiian resort, Sweeney's performance as snarky and privileged hotel guest Olivia proved to be as menacing as it was satiric. The New York Times even dubbed Sweeney and her costar Brittany O'Grady (who played her friend Paula) as "the scariest girls on TV."
Sweeney's one-two hits this year won her the "Breakthrough Award" at the ATX TV Festival, garnered her an MTV Movie & TV Awards nomination for her work on Euphoria, landed her on the cover of several magazines and made her the subject of a meme or two. Not to mention nearly 13 million Instagram followers watching her every move.
It's no wonder Vogue included her on its star-studded Gala guest list. When asked what the most surprising thing was to come out of the last year, Sweeney gave a lengthy pause before answering, "Honestly, I have to say, going to the Met."
When did you first become interested in acting? And did you do school plays when you were growing up?
I did not do school plays. I had — and still have — terrible stage fright.
I just, I always knew that I wanted to play in as many imaginary worlds and characters as possible. I had fun, imaginary friends that I would play with and things I would create. And once I realized movies and TV shows were basically imaginary worlds brought to life and that could be a job, I was like, oh my god, I want to do this.
I would always put on little performances for my parents and grandparents. And I think that's how it all began.
Did you ever formally study acting?
No, I did not.
What scene did you audition with for Cassie?
It was actually not a scene that was in the show. A lot of times projects do that so that it doesn't give away a character's storyline or the show's storyline. So they'll either write a separate scene for the character or they'll just pull from other projects and have you audition.
The makeup and fashion on Euphoria are incredible. Each character has such a distinct look. Do you have any favorite looks for Cassie?
One of my favorites had to be the Oklahoma! outfit. I think that was just the craziest, besides [dressing up] like Maddy. But I really enjoyed that look.
What's the line that gets repeated back to you the most?
"I have never, ever been happier!" [from Euphoria]. And maybe, "He's a power bottom," [from The White Lotus].
One of my favorite scenes from this past season was the one in the hot tub during Maddy's birthday party. You did such a great job in that scene; it was heartbreaking and comedic at the same time. Was that daunting for you to play drunk? That's a famously difficult thing for actors to do.
I think I enjoyed it more than anything because I don't drink. So it was kind of fun to get to play a side of myself that I would not be doing. I felt more free than anything, diving into sides of myself where I wouldn't actually go.
Is there a particular scene from this past season that you're most proud of?
I thoroughly enjoyed every up and down that Cassie went through; all of her roller coasters and journeys. I'd like to say I'm proud of all of it.
The nude scenes on the show have been discussed at length. And I know that you've lamented the fact that people seem to be more concerned with those scenes than your overall performance. Have your feelings about those scenes in general changed over the course of this public conversation? Or do you still feel the same way about them?
I think it's funny how much people seem to focus on the nudity when that's just a fragment of her storyline. You see the parallels of what Cassie's world does to her — how they sexualize her — and it's supposed to be a lesson to the world of how that can happen to a girl. And then I see the press and people doing that to me. So it's kind of ironic and funny.
That's fair. Switching over to The White Lotus, you got to do more comedic work as Olivia. That series straddled comedy and drama. Are you interested in doing more of an outright comedy?
I would love to. I really enjoyed finding the comedy with Olivia. And I think I was able to kind of bring a little bit to Cassie as well. So I would love to do some more projects that dive into the more comedic side of my acting.
What about Olivia and Cassie do you relate to the most?
I think they're both just trying to find who they are in the world. They're from very different upbringings and come from very different circumstances, but both of them are searching for something. And I think we're all searching for something as well.
What is it that you're searching for?
All the things — happiness, love, success, knowledge, creativity — all of it.
Well, speaking of knowledge, the books that Olivia reads aren't exactly beach reads, even though she's poolside in Hawaii. [The characters are seen reading The Portable Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams, to name just two examples.] Did you read those books during your character prep? Or did you read them during your down time between takes?
You know, I was so disappointed. Because I thought I was going to be able to read those books while I was filming with them, but they were fake books! I was reading them, and then every five pages I was like, "I swear I just read that sentence." Then I realized, it was a fake book.
What do you do in preparation to play your characters? What's that process like?
I build character books, and that allows me to truly build out and flesh out who this person is so that I'm not having to think or plan anything. I'm truly just letting her live through me because I know her memories, I know her thought process, I know everything about her. It's basically a journal of her entire life until the first page of the script. So an entire timeline: her journey in life, her world, her relationships, her friendships, school, anything and everything about a person that makes them tick.
Do you have a dream role? Or are there specific types of roles you'd like to play in the future?
I love Helena Bonham Carter and all of the characters that she plays. I don't think anyone would look at me and expect that I would want to play characters like that or be able to play characters like that. But that is a dream of mine, to just play really cool, insane characters like [Mrs. Lovett in] Sweeney Todd.
That's in line with other things I've read about you, like how you have other "surprising" interests, whether it's rebuilding a Ford Bronco or practicing MMA fighting. I think when people are surprised by me doing something that's unexpected, I just find it irritating. But you seem to relish it.
[Laughs] It's so funny because if everyone knew me growing up, it wouldn't be a surprise. Like I'm very much a tomboy. So everyone who knows me, they're like, "Oh yeah, it's just Syd." I think that once you are an actress and they see you on carpets or in these roles, they expect that you're just one thing. And they forget that there's an entire life and being behind that.
I want to talk about your production company, Fifty-Fifty Films. What's the meaning behind the name?
I believe that everything is a collaborative experience, that the more minds and the more hands on something, the better the project turns out. So I always like to be fifty-fifty with all my partners.
Last I read you have seven different book adaptations in the works...
I'm a huge reader. So I try to read as many books as I can and I try to snatch them up.
The Players Table [based on the book They Wish They Were Us by Jessica Goodman] for HBO is first up in the queue, right? What is it about that book that made you want to produce it?
I loved the social hierarchy and the dynamics between the characters and the play on privilege and just the deep darkness of unreliable storytelling.
What's been the most gratifying part about launching this company?
People taking me seriously.
This has been a big year for you with these two shows. What's been the most unexpected thing to come out of this time?
The most unexpected? Hmm... Honestly, I have to say, going to the Met. I didn't think I was gonna be able to go, so I'm really excited.
This is your first one, right?
Yeah, this is my first one!
How do you feel about the theme [In America: An Anthology of Fashion], are you excited about it?
Oh yeah. I'm always just kind of along for the ride and excited for anything, yeah.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
The executive producers for Euphoria are Sam Levinson, Kevin Turen, Ravi Nandan, Drake, Adel "Future" Nur, Zendaya, Will Greenfield, Ashley Levinson, Ron Leshem, Daphna Levin, and Hadas Mozes Lichtenstein. The executive producers for The White Lotus are Mike White, David Bernad and Nick Hall. Catchup viewing of Euphoria and The White Lotus is available on HBO Max. Both series have been renewed for additional seasons.