I typically heard two reactions from people who watched The White Lotus this summer: one, that they were obsessed with the HBO show, a breakout hit about a cursed week at a Hawaiian resort. Two, that they were terrified of Olivia, the perpetually unimpressed, bucket hat-wearing dispenser of razor-sharp Gen Z judgment, played with deadpan cruelty by Sydney Sweeney. In a few short years, the actor, who turns 24 on 12 September, has earned a reputation for portraying young adult characters masking deep wells of emotion with cool detachment, from The White Lotus, to Amy Adams’ roommate at a psychiatric facility in HBO’s Sharp Objects, to another breakout HBO show, Euphoria.
I’m pleased to report that Sweeney, in an interview, is nothing like Olivia (“I was absolutely terrified of Olivia as well,” she says), nor Cassie, the sensitive but dispassionate high schooler she plays on Euphoria. Over the phone, she’s quick to laugh, breezy on the details of her new erotic thriller, Amazon’s The Voyeurs, and quick to emphasize the gulf between herself and her characters. “It’s so strange, I watch my projects, and I don’t remember filming – that’s how separate I am from what I’m doing,” she told the Guardian.
Unlike the numerous young stars who came up through the Disney or Nickelodeon pipelines, Sweeney has not had to renegotiate her public image with difficult, adult material. Euphoria, which premiered in 2019 and whose much-anticipated second season is due early next year, drew headlines, and viewers, for its gritty and often graphic portrayal of modern teenage life – drugs and alcohol, sex, sexting and the titillations and violations therein. As Cassie, Sweeney appeared topless in the first episode; a major plot point was the leak of Cassie’s nude photos and subsequent judgment by her peers.
In The Voyeurs, written and directed by Michael Mohan (with whom she worked with on the Netflix series Everything Sucks!), Sweeney plays Pippa, a twentysomething who moves with her boyfriend, Thomas (Justice Smith) into a Montreal apartment with an expansive view of the young, attractive couple across the street. Glances of the couple’s sex life slip into watching and, for Pippa, into obsession; though the film takes a hairpin turn in its final half-hour, it’s not a spoiler to say that, as an erotic thriller in the mostly erstwhile lane of Basic Instinct and Fatal Attraction, The Voyeurs requires a certain level of nudity, and extended sex scenes, from Sweeney.
The prospect of nudity on-screen is not in itself daunting — “I always look at a script and make sure that it’s not just getting thrown in there to be in there,” she said. “What I loved particularly about this scene is that it was more for the female’s pleasure instead of for the male pleasure.” Thanks to an intimacy coordinator on set, a position that has flourished in the #MeToo movement, Sweeney “never felt bad in any sense” during filming of tightly choreographed romantic scenes. “It was all very thought out and considerate.”
Sweeney, whose first main role was in Everything Sucks! in 2018, evinces the shift in industry standards around intimacy in the few years since the 2017 Weinstein reports, which cast a harsh light on Hollywood’s disregard for female performers and crew. She’s worked with an intimacy coordinator on every project, “so I have been very lucky to not have experience anything bad,” she said. “Hopefully we can start getting more intimacy coordinators on every set so that every actor can feel comfortable and safe telling these stories.”
The more intimidating aspect is potential for screengrabs and memes to blast across social media – a violation that already occurred with nude images of Cassie on Euphoria. “To be honest, after Euphoria, I had to stop caring or thinking about [screengrabs], because the tiny little pictures that were on one of the character’s phones blew up everywhere,” she said. After that experience, Sweeney says she significantly altered her boundaries with social media and practiced disassociation from the images of her characters. “I am very different from my characters, and so when I see those kind of pictures or I get tagged in those kind of pictures – which I think is crazy that they can have nudity on social media that is me and I don’t approve it, but that’s another story – I just separate myself from it,” she said. “It’s like ‘Oh, that’s Cassie. Cassie’s having a good day.’”
Social media “used to be a place where I felt very comfortable to be able to kinda just pop on and off whenever I wanted,” where she’d communicate with friends and family, who remain in North Idaho, where she grew up. But Sweeney, who once posted a tearful Instagram live – from her couch, with her dog, watching her preferred channel, HGTV – as evidence of the effect of cruel comments, especially about her looks, says she now approaches it sparingly. Still, “everyone will always say ‘don’t read anything,’ and we’ll say we don’t read anything, but to be honest, of course I do,” she said. “It’s hard not to. I wish that I didn’t, but I’m a person, I’m a human being, I have thoughts and feelings and emotions, and I’m curious to know what people think.”
“When they’re talking about characters, they’re truly talking about Pippa or Cassie or Olivia, but it’s hard when they turn it to Syd,” she added. “I never actually put Syd out there; no one really knows Syd.”
The real Syd is “quite a homebody,” she says, and a voracious reader. Following in the footsteps of such stars-turned-producers of literary IP such as Reese Witherspoon, Margot Robbie and Elizabeth Banks, Sweeney has started a production company, Fifty-Fifty Films, focused on adapting female-led stories in “as many different types of projects possible.” The company is currently filming an HBO Max series, The Player’s Table, based on Jessica Goodman’s novel They Wish They Were Us, starring Sweeney and pop singer Halsey as two best friends who unravel the mystery of a classmate’s murder in an affluent Long Island town.
Securing the deal required round after round of pitch meetings – and convincing veterans of the industry to take her and her vision for the project seriously. “I’m always prepared, I know what I’m talking about, and I’ve worked really hard,” she said, and because The Player’s Table ended up at HBO Max, a place where she had existing professional relationships, “I definitely felt like people took me seriously and they listened to me and they respected me. But I’ve definitely been in meetings [in the past] where I’m sitting there and they look at me like I’m a little girl.””
Asked if she received any particular advice on navigating the business from an A-list slate of older co-stars – White Lotus actors Connie Britton, Jennifer Coolidge, Molly Shannon, for example – Sweeney deferred to observing their acting processes. “I don’t think there’s one particular word of advice that has been spoken to me, but it’s more just like watching them all and learning from them.”
“Every word of Jennifer Coolidge or Molly Shannon’s mouth is just pure comedy gold,” she added. “I’m like, where is this coming from? How did this come out of your brain so quickly?”
Sweeney is two years deep on a bachelor’s degree in business (“with Euphoria schedule, it definitely makes it very difficult to finish classes,” she noted), a decision she described in a 2019 MTV interview as a protective measure so that “when I get a contract for $20m I can read that contract myself and not get fucked over.”
These days, on the contract front, “I will say life definitely prepares you a lot more for the world, and experience prepares you,” she said. But “school, I think, makes you feel more confident in what you’re doing.”
That confidence may emerge in future roles, but for the time being, the “real Syd” remains at a distance to the public. “I’m pretty happy keeping it private for myself,” she said. “It’s a little something that my family gets to hold on to, or my best friends, and it’s a good separation for what I do.”
As for Olivia, the aforementioned Zoomer terror of the summer, Sweeney is coy on whether she hopes to appear on a recently announced second season, which will take place at a different White Lotus resort. “I don’t think she would’ve progressed too much,” she said, but “she’s always down for another vacation.”