When Sydney Sweeney was 12 years old, she convinced her parents to let her pursue a career in acting by writing out a five-year career plan. A few months after her 18th birthday (and just a little bit later than anticipated), she booked “Sharp Objects.” Soon after that, she landed a role on “Everything Sucks!”
Over the past six years, Sweeney has been on the rise. This TV season, she reprised her role as Cassie Howard for Season 2 of HBO’s “Euphoria” and starred in “The White Lotus.”
“I think that little Syd would be very proud of me,” she told TheWrap.
Her two most recent roles, while both on HBO, couldn’t be more different. On “Euphoria,” she plays a teenager who has endured more than her fair share of trauma, and suffers because of it. In Season 2, Cassie is on a downward spiral that culminates in more than one mental breakdown.
Meanwhile, her turn as Olivia Mossbacher in “The White Lotus” is much more calculated. Olivia is confident, witty and a little intimidating (even to Sweeney). Playing characters on such opposite ends of the spectrum is a dream come true for the actress, who makes a point to look for roles that are unlike anything she’s done before.
“I’m an actor because I want to play so many different roles,” she said. “So anything that’s different and new and I haven’t done before is what I’m searching for.”
Below, Sweeney breaks down her performances in “Euphoria” and “The White Lotus” and gives some insight to how she approaches her work — including setting boundaries on set and developing a narrative for each character she plays.
I was recently rewatching Season 1 of “Euphoria,” and I rediscovered how unreliable Rue is as a narrator. Does that impact how you figure out who Cassie is, since we only know her through Rue’s lens?
I always find Cassie’s own truth within a scene. I think that there’s a lot of underlying emotions and thoughts that someone else, unless they were experiencing it, wouldn’t know. So I have multiple different versions that I play out for Cassie.
Cassie is so loyal, which I think we lose sight of in Season 2 when she is going off the rails. In Season 1, she literally swallows a goldfish for McKay.
Cassie will do anything for love. I think she has loyalty for McKay and Maddy in Season 1, and then all of her loyalty goes to Nate [in Season 2].
What is your favorite quality of Cassie’s?
I love that she loves so strong and so hard and her entire happiness and everything she wants is love. I wish that she would find it within herself first before she needed it from others. I think that she has it on an unhealthy level, but I think there is a beauty to loving so much and wanting to give so much to somebody else. She just does it to an extreme level.
I always noticed how emotional Cassie is, though I think it’s a lot more subtle in Season 1. How was it to explore more of an emotional catharsis with Cassie?
I discovered a lot more within Cassie and about Cassie through all of her crazy breakdowns. A lot of people forget that she went through such a traumatic and life changing event with the abortion and she hasn’t had time to properly digest or work through that within herself. So there’s a lot of pent up emotions between that with her father, with her friends, with love… that’s just bubbling inside her. It was just a lot of feelings and emotions and thoughts and craziness. but I wanted everything to come through for Cassie because she is such a thoughtful person. And she’s finally letting it all out. Sometimes just not in the correct ways.
There’s been some debate about whether Nate and Cassie hooking up was always the plan. Do you know?
It was always the plan from the beginning. I found that out like a month or two after we finished filming Season 1.
What was your reaction?
I was at a baseball game and Sam called me. I hid under the bleachers and said, “What’s going on Sam?” And he read me the scene of when Nate takes Cassie to the bathroom. I didn’t know what to do. It was a shock and excitement at the same time.
You’ve been pretty vocal about how proud you are of your work in “Euphoria,” but that you feel like you weren’t taken as seriously until “The White Lotus” because Cassie is a very sexual character by nature. How, if at all, do you think/hope that speaking out about that will shift future narratives about these characters and performances?
There’s so much more to these characters. I think with Cassie, one of the things [about her is] that she knows how to communicate mostly through her body. There’s multiple sad and beautiful layers to unpack beneath that. I hope that will change the future for characters like that.
I think you previously said that you were terrified of your “White Lotus” character Olivia. Why?
Yeah, I think she has a very forceful nature. Girls like that have always kind of intimidated me, because I’ve never really been as outspoken as Olivia is. She is very sure of herself. I don’t think she knows everything she’s talking about, but she will never let her mom know that. I think her own confidence is what kind of intimidated me.
What goes into choosing a role for you? How are you considering whether it’s a good role?
I have a couple of different factors. One, does the character feel different than anything I’ve done before? Two is, do I feel challenged? Is this going to challenge me mentally, creatively? And then three is an exciting filmmaker, cast or crew. I’m always really intrigued by that.
So, with Cassie in Season 2 of “Euphoria” and Olivia in “The White Lotus,” what were those challenges that drew you to the characters?
I think for Olivia, it was my first time really diving into more of a comedic role and I was so worried that I wasn’t funny. I wanted to make sure that I created someone who was authentic, but also hit every brilliant line Mike White writes. For Cassie, it was keeping track of her crazy roller coaster meltdown, because we filmed so out of order. I wanted to make sure that she had this crazy progression of what she was becoming and how she was feeling and what she was thinking and how she was breaking down. So I wanted to make sure that all tracks.
I do think the comedy in “The White Lotus” is subtle from the perspective that those lines really wouldn’t hit if the dynamic between the cast wasn’t right. How did you curate that?
I think that was truly all Mike [White, the creator of the show]. Mike created such fleshed out incredible characters and then just cast the best fellow classmates I could have ever worked with for this. And we all kind of found it together. There were no rehearsals or really timing anything out. We kind of just sat in our characters and kind of just sat in our characters and let it flow, and it worked out perfectly.
Do you have a favorite scene from the season? I really love the scene where Olivia is sussing people out by the pool.
I was so nervous doing that, because that was actually my audition. Whenever I have to do my audition scenes, I always get nervous. I don’t know why.
I also read that for some of your roles, you develop these character books? Can you tell me more about them and how they elevate your performances?
Each one is different and unique to the specific character. It builds a person — every memory, anything [about them]. It helps me create somebody.
When did you start doing that?
I’ve always done it. I did it more on a smaller scale in the beginning, because I didn’t really have that big of roles, and I was still kind of figuring it out. And then my first major ones were “Sharp Objects” and “Everything Sucks!”
When you’re on set, do you prefer to stay in character or do you slip in and out of your roles easily?
Oh no, I definitely jump in and out of my characters. That’s why I create the books, so that I can create a fleshed out human being that I can kind of jump in and out of their own skin and their shoes and become somebody else the moment “action” or “cut” is called. I think that if I had to stay in my characters I wouldn’t be a healthy person.
You’ve had such a range of roles, and I know you said that’s important to you when choosing future projects. Do you worry about being typecast?
No, it’s a personal preference. I became an actress because I want to be able to be as many people as possible. What’s the fun of acting if I’m just going to be one thing?
How do you set boundaries on set, and do they change depending on the role you’re playing?
If it’s important to the storyline of the character, and I’m playing this person and that’s what they’re going through, then I’ll go through it too. That’s how I’ve always approached it.
When you’ve finished a project, do you prefer to leave it behind? Or do you watch them when they’re completed?
I do [watch them]. Whenever something airs, I’ll watch it, because I separate myself so much from my characters that I’m able to watch it and not see myself or judge myself. I just see my character.
Does anything ever surprise you or strike you in a new light when you’re watching something back?
I usually only focus on my character’s storyline, and only the facts that my character knows. So it’s kind of fun watching the show as a whole because I’m not really as informed as the audience [while I’m filming]. Watching as an audience member, I’m getting to watch everything else going on with everybody else.