Sydney Sweeney Is Full of Surprises, and It’s a Delight

Sydney Sweeney is full of surprises. Though her slew of roles as angsty, disturbed, and emotional teenage girls may seem to package her skill set into a tidy, little box, the 23-year-old star has much bigger plans for her future. Both literally and figuratively, Sweeney contains volumes—the books she’s known for developing for each of her characters and her lengthy list of passions, personal and professional, that she is pursuing to their fullest. The secret to her success, however, is not good old-fashioned hard work, luck, or genetics. (She has all of those in spades.) Rather, it’s a simple piece of advice given to her by her mom at a young age: fall in love with as many things as possible.

We caught up with Sweeney early in the morning after a long night on the set of Euphoria, which recently began filming for season two. Clad in a sage-green ribbed henley and wearing a slicked-back bun and no makeup—aside from the remnants of her character’s press-on nail art—Sweeney looks serene in her light-filled Los Angeles apartment, which she shares with her dog, Tank.

Buzz about her latest project, HBO’s The White Lotus, is high, with the show premiering on July 11 to rave reviews. Written and directed by satirical auteur Mike White, the six-episode summer miniseries follows Sweeney’s character, college sophomore Olivia Mossbacher, her family, and a handful of other guests during a weeklong vacation in paradise. After filming in isolation at the Four Seasons Resort in Maui, Hawaii, during COVID, Sweeney recalls the experience as being like a tropical version of the horror film The Shining—a strange circumstance that undoubtedly contributed to the quixotic undertones of the show. “It was definitely one of those experiences that I’ll forever be so grateful for and thankful for because it was during a time when we couldn’t be with family. We couldn’t be with friends. We were isolated, but I was given an opportunity to be able to be surrounded by people in a very safe setting,” she says. “At the same time, we’re all hanging out [and] having our dinners together, but we were all stuck in this bubble, and we weren’t allowed to leave the resort, and no one was allowed to visit.” Think “Hotel California,” but weirdly hilarious.

With an ensemble cast, including fan favorites Connie Britton and Jennifer Coolidge, filming The White Lotus was equal parts paradise lost and paradise found. The mind-boggling entitlement of elitist vacationers coupled with the physical and emotional servitude of the resort’s workers is magnified twofold when you consider the circumstances under which the series was shot.

And yet, this bubble within a bubble proved to be conducive to the group’s chemistry and creativity. Working with Britton, who plays Sweeney’s on-screen mom, Nicole Mossbacher, was a particular treat. “I was a huge fan of Nashville; my mom and I would binge that show together,” Sweeney divulges. “So when I first saw [Connie], I turned around, and she’s standing there in all her glory. Her hair looks beautiful. She’s wearing this big hat with a big brim, and she’s in this beautiful Hawaiian outfit for her character. I was like, ‘Oh my god, I have to call my mom.’ And we just hit it off from there.” We laugh, agreeing that any time Connie Britton is signed on to play a maternal figure, you say yes.

Similarly, Sweeney and the entire cast synced with White’s frequent muse, Coolidge, who, in typical fashion, nailed her role as an emotionally stunted woman of a certain age. “Jennifer is the queen of improvising,” gushes Sweeney. “She is hilarious—every single word, murmur, anything that comes out of her mouth. Everyone has to try so hard not to laugh [on set]. I hope one day I can be as good at comedy as she is.” When we ask if a rom-com could be in Sweeney’s future, she plays coy, offering only that her Euphoria co-star and close friend Maude Apatow is a really good writer and that she would love to work on a project with her one day.

To say Sweeney’s character Olivia Mossbacher is unlikable isn’t much of a descriptor. Almost everyone—and certainly every guest at The White Lotus—is deeply flawed. However, Sweeney is confident that there’s much more to it than that. In fact, as with all of her roles, she’s written the book on it. “I have 100-page journals on each of my characters… I literally build from the hospital, from the day they’re born, and the daycare that they go to. Olivia, for instance, had a nanny that took her on when she was 4 years old,” she shares. Sweeney is both detailed and thoughtful in her approach to every role, creating life-guiding events that may not even be alluded to in the script. “The reason we sit a certain way or we look at a person a certain way, it all comes from some memory from our past that we may not be able to put our finger on. But it’s what made us who we are today,” she explains. “I build all of these things in this character, and it makes it so that I don’t even have to truly think about how Olivia is going to react. How is Olivia going to speak? It allows me to become this character without having to think about the scene, and I can just live in it.” Through this repeated exercise, Sweeney all but guarantees no surprises for herself but sets the stage for calculated, emotional performances on-screen.
Despite the limitations presented by a six-episode series, Sweeney fully commits, finding authenticity not only in her fashion choices (a graphic tee reading “Jam Out With Your Clam Out” was a winner, as were bucket hats—a personal favorite) but also in her psyche. Perhaps she was reading Freud by the pool after all…

Now that the series is out there (the finale airs on August 15), Sweeney is happy to be back on the mainland pursuing her own version of paradise. In addition to filming the second season of Euphoria, she has been keeping busy, casually rebuilding a 1969 Ford Bronco, optioning books with strong female leads for her production company Fifty-Fifty Films, and working on the script for her first project, The Players Table. If that sounds like a lot to unpack in a 60-minute Zoom call, it was. 

Sweeney’s passion for her work is palpable, even across 3000 miles and through a screen. “I can’t wait for everyone to see [season 2 of Euphoria],” she says, smiling. “I felt like I was back in my other skin almost. I felt like I was going home to this really fucked-up home.” Since Euphoria is Sweeney’s first multi-season project, this is also her first opportunity to revisit a character. “I’m really enjoying and learning more about Cassie and seeing her grow. It’s been a lot of fun,” she muses. Although she was understandably tight-lipped about what takes place in season two, she did reveal that it’s a very challenging story arc not only for Cassie but also for herself as an actor. 

Conversely, Sweeney was eager to wax poetic about her life off set, which includes hours spent in the garage under the hood (she changed the car from manual to automatic and is installing the transmission soon), going on adventures with her dog, Tank, and rolling up her sleeves on the business side of Hollywood. “I always knew that I wanted to do something in the business space. Behind the camera, I thoroughly enjoy building these books for my characters, and I always have wanted to take it to the next step of building the entire world,” she says. 

As an avid reader, plowing through three books a week, Sweeney was eager to flex her creative skills and hone her production chops and began optioning books last summer. She was sent the unpublished manuscript of They Wish They Were Us by Jessica Goodman, former Op-Ed editor at Cosmopolitan, and immediately realized its potential for the screen. “As I was reading it, I automatically saw the entire thing in my head. And when I can visually see it in my head, I knew that I could do this. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but I knew that I could do it,” she recalls excitedly. According to Sweeney, she “begged” her agents to set up a meeting in New York City with Goodman and presented her pitch—her first as a producer—and the rest is history, or rather, it’s history in the making.

After getting Big Little Lies director Jean-Marc Vallée and filmmaker Annabelle Attanasio to sign on, the package was almost complete. But true to her process, Sweeney wanted to build a backstory that would allow her to blow audiences—and networks—away. “When you take a project out, you want it to be as solid as it can be. You want to go into that room, and everyone goes, ‘What the fuck this is? How can we turn this down?’” she explains. “We already had an amazing filmmaker, a great team, and hopefully me. So I was like, ‘What about Halsey? She could be absolutely amazing in this.’” Sweeney sent the singer, a close friend, a copy of the book and asked for her thoughts: “[Halsey] read it within like two days… and she loved it. She saw the vision that I did and added even more incredible depth and layers to it.” Together, this troupe of visionaries presented their idea, a series renamed The Players Table, to HBO Max and sold it. 

Since then, Sweeney has acquired the rights to more books and has fallen in love with the adaptation process. While, predictably, she is drawn to stories with strong female leads, so far, that’s the only through line in her projects. “I’m all over the place with genres, but I love a fantasy,” she says.

Could producing be a way for her to finally play a character that’s not in high school? Looking back, Sweeney recalls one of Cassie Howard’s lines from Euphoria’s first season, where her character wonders if high school really is the best time in one’s life. “Everyone idolizes this high school experience, and then you automatically go into your 20s thinking, ‘Oh, my god, my life is over,’” she reflects. Sweeney attributes this ageist thinking to tropes regularly played out on-screen, remarking that there are not any movies that celebrate women in their 20s and 30s the same way the teenage years are depicted as beautiful, carefree, and open to possibility. 

Fortunately, fans of Sweeney’s won’t have to wait too long to find out. Her next project, The Voyeurs, is an “erotic thriller” premiering next month on Amazon. Director Michael Mohan, who gave Sweeney her first big break on Netflix’s Everything Sucks!, helms this project, which pushes Sweeney into her first role as an adult. Her character Pippa is actually most like Sweeney: a 20-something professional and a bit of a self-described dork. Not wanting to spoil any elements about her first foray into adulthood, Sweeney is cautious not to divulge any details. However, she’s more than willing to hype up the surprise factor. “It’s going to be one of those movies that you think you’ve figured it out. Then, all of a sudden, you get slapped in the face,” she teases. “You’re like, ‘Oh my god, this is not what I was expecting at all.’” 

If we’ve learned one thing from speaking with Sydney Sweeney, it’s to delight in the surprise and always expect the unexpected.

Photographer: Benjo Arwas for Who What Wear. Stylist: Lauren Eggertsen. Hairstylist: Bobby Eliot. Makeup Artist: Melissa Hernandez. Manicurist: Zola Ganzorigt. Creative Director: Alexa Wiley. Special Thanks: Posse LA 

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